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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from January 2014. 
By Hawk Norton. 

‘Tis prophecied in the Revelation, that the Whore of Babylon shall be destroyed with fire and sword and what do you know, but this is the time of her ruin, and that we are the men that must help to pull her down?’
John Rogers, 1657

‘A thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief.’
Samuel Pepys, 1661

In 1648, the bloody civil wars, which had caused the deaths of around 250,000 English men and women, seemed to have ended. In December the ‘Long Parliament’ was purged by Colonel Pride and replaced by the ‘Rump Parliament’, enabling the trial and execution of King Charles I. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church were abolished and England became a republic. After a successful campaign in Ireland and the defeats of Scottish Royalists at Dunbar and Charles II at Worcester, by 1651 power lay firmly in the hands of Oliver Cromwell and the other leaders of the 70,000 strong New Model Army.

Spurred on by these events, radical social, political and economic reforms had been proposed by fledgling left wing groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers: the people’s sacrifice in the wars surely merited some reward. In a heated debate with Cromwell at St Mary’s, Putney in 1647, the Leveller, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough had declared: ‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ But as a member of the incumbent ruling elite, Cromwell was never going to accede to their revolutionary demands. As these early radical groups were suppressed, one of their number lamented: ‘It seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom he hath no right in this kingdom.’

The period also saw a huge surge in the popularity of radical religious sects. The bible was available to all to be read, interpreted and freely debated and free from the stranglehold of the repressive machinery of the church, the presses poured forth a flood of pamphlets espousing every form of radical religious belief. Many of these sects (and two thirds of preachers in the New Model army) were millenarians, believing in the imminent arrival of the Fifth Monarchy (in succession to the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman). As foretold by the Books of Daniel and Revelation, Christ would return to inaugurate a thousand year rule of the saints over an age of peace, prosperity and see an end to priests, lawyers and landlords. This millennium would be followed by the third coming of Christ and the Day of Judgement.

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A plethora of 17C non-conformist sects.

The most radical of these sects were the Fifth Monarchy Men whose leaders’ analysis of the biblical prophecies led them to believe in an imminent final showdown between Christ and the anti-Christ (the pope). Among their most prominent spokesmen were fanatical preachers such as John Rogers, Christopher Feake and Vavasor Powell who regularly delivered lengthy and passionate sermons to capacity congregations at London churches, and pamphleteers, such as William Aspinwall and John Spittlehouse, who carried their beliefs to a wider audience. With Feake declaring that in the millennium there would be ‘no difference betwixt high and low, the greatest and the poorest beggar’, their cause was naturally most popular with the lower orders, many of whom were disappointed and angry at the suppression of the Levellers. However, unlike the Levellers, the Fifth Monarchists had no interest in extending parliamentary franchise, or in democracy at all for that matter, and espousing a dictatorship of the godly which they believed would rapidly spread to cover the whole world, were the ultimate Puritan killjoys.

Strongest in London, at the height of its popularity, supporters of the movement probably numbered around 10,000 countrywide with a far smaller hard core whose fanaticism bordered on lunacy. From the government’s point of view, the most important consideration was the level of support within the now dominant institution in the land: the New Model Army. Their supporters included several men of senior rank such as Major-General Harrison, who had delivered Charles I to Parliament to stand trial and, at Cromwell’s behest, evicted the ‘Rump’.

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Major-General Harrison.

On March 29th, 1652, ‘Mirk Monday’, a solar eclipse, resulted in the country being thrown into total darkness, an extraordinary event which added to many people’s expectations of the fulfilment of the Fifth Monarchists’ prophecies.

At first they had supported Cromwell, especially when he had dismissed the self interested Rump. It was replaced with a new assembly of 140 elders, ‘faithful, fearing God and hating covetousness’, nominated by Independent church congregations throughout the country. Though only holding a minority representation, the Fifth Monarchists welcomed this assembly, believing it able to prepare the Commonwealth for the return and rule of Christ. But the ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, named after one of its most prominent members, Praise-God Bairbon, was plagued by confrontation between the moderate majority and the tireless efforts of the radical minority, led by the Fifth Monarchists, to push for wider and faster reform. The Speaker and forty of the moderates lost their nerve and walked out, returning power to Cromwell.

He and the leaders of the army agreed on a new constitution, the ‘Instrument of Government’, creating a Protectorate under Cromwell as Lord Protector. The Fifth Monarchists were bitterly disappointed and Cromwell, now ‘king in all but name’, had completely lost their trust. Feake described him as ‘the dissemblingest perjured villain in the world’ while Rogers prayed to ‘hasten the time when all absolute power shall be devolved into the hand of Christ; when we shall have no Lord Protector but our Lord Jesus’.

Cromwell’s intelligence service, under John Thurloe, was probably the most effective in Europe and monitoring the activities of subversives included sending agents to attend Fifth Monarchist services to relay the content of their sermons back to the government. Favouring liberty of conscience in religion, Cromwell demonstrated remarkable tolerance towards the Fifth Monarchists but, amid rumours of an imminent armed uprising, he was ultimately left with no alternative but to take action. Army officers such as Major-Generals Harrison and Overton were deprived of their commissions and imprisoned, along with Feake, Rogers and various other preachers, for inciting revolt. Cromwell was prepared to release them on the promise of good behaviour, but was met with defiance so had no option but to prolong their captivity. Deprived of its most prominent leaders and effective orators, support for the sect began to dwindle.

The new Parliament was dissolved within five months, having attempted to limit the powers of the Protector, and rapidly gave way to military rule. A Royalist uprising in March, 1656, though easily quashed, resulted in Cromwell dividing the country into eleven military districts to be controlled by Major-Generals, responsible only to Cromwell and his council, enabling him to exert tighter control and keep a close watch on the, now diverse, opponents to his rule. Most alarming to the Fifth Monarchists were rumours that he was planning to take the title of king.

Feake and Rogers were eventually released from captivity in December, 1656. A manifesto entitled ‘A Standard Set Up’ was published outlining their grievances and the nature of the new form of government they proposed. All ‘civil and honest men’ were promised protection and there would be no fixed salaries for ministers of religion, no tithes, no excise and no taxes at all in peacetime. Impressment of men for the armed forces would be abolished and all soldiers who still retained their ‘simplicity and integrity’ were summoned to break away from ‘the apostate and backsliding army’ and enlist under the banner of the Lord Jesus.

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A typical pamphlet of the Fifth Monarchists.

In Swann Alley off Coleman Street, a congregation of about eighty Fifth Monarchist fanatics under the leadership of Thomas Venner, began to plan an armed insurrection. On the afternoon of April 9th, 1657, they assembled at a house in Shoreditch with the intention of rendezvousing with other Fifth Monarchist groups on Mile End Green at 9.00pm. But loose tongues had alerted Thurloe to the plot and a troop of horse was dispatched to surround the house where twenty of the conspirators were arrested. A search revealed several hampers of arms and ammunition and ten more were discovered at Swann Alley. The rebels who had evaded arrest planned another uprising for the end of the month but again tip-offs led to their capture. Surprisingly, the conspirators were never brought to trial, but Venner and two others were held in the Tower until the end of the Protectorate.

Cromwell died on September 3rd, 1658, the anniversary of his victories at Dunbar and Worcester. Such a coincidence, combined with the ferocious storm that occurred that night, led many to believe that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for absolute power. The Fifth Monarchists had already made plans to mount a coup on his death to be led by Major-Generals Harrison and Lambert. These came to nought and he was peacefully succeeded as Protector by his son, Richard. Lacking the capabilities of his father and the respect of the army, ‘Tumbledown Dick’ was swiftly nudged aside. Against the background of a political vacuum, a bad harvest, rising prices, arrears in soldiers’ pay and rioting in London, it became clear that the best means of avoiding a total breakdown of order would be the restoration of the monarchy.

To enable his restoration, Charles agreed to the ‘Declaration of Breda’, elements of which included a general pardon to all of his subjects apart from those that Parliament should see fit to exempt, religious freedom for all that didn’t threaten the peace of the kingdom, and payment of soldiers’ arrears and their acceptance into the king’s service. The declaration paved the way for the King’s triumphant return to London on May 29th, 1660, his 30th birthday. He was welcomed at Blackheath by the lord mayor and 120,000 of his subjects and escorted to Whitehall Palace.

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Charles II’s triumphant return to London.

Charles soon sought vengeance on the fifty-nine regicides who had signed his father’s death warrant. These included two Fifth Monarchists, Harrison and John Carew, who were arrested, tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on October 13th, 1660: ‘I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looked as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that had now judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again. Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded in White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the King at Charing Cross.’

John Rogers had fled to Holland before the Restoration, but Thomas Venner and his co-conspirators had been released, in an act of clemency by Richard Cromwell, in February, 1659. They had immediately resumed their Fifth Monarchist activities, still using Swann Alley as their base and now the Restoration stirred them to plan a second uprising. They produced a pamphlet entitled ‘A Door of Hope or A Call and Declaration for the gathering together of the first ripe Fruits unto the Standard of our Lord KING JESUS’. This was similar to their previous manifesto but embellished with references to the new king, describing him as ‘a profest enemy, a rebel and traytor to Christ’ and warning of the danger of England being conquered by ‘Popery’.

Warned of an imminent rebellion, the Government arrested several suspects and began conducting searches. Aware that the net was closing, on the following Sunday, January 6th, Venner assembled his supporters at the meeting-house in Swann Alley and told them that the time of the Fifth Monarchy had arrived. That evening Venner led about sixty well armed men down Cheapside shouting ‘King Jesus, and the heads upon the gate!’ (in reference to the exhibited heads of the executed regicides). They broke into St. Paul’s intending to use the cathedral as a fortress and posted sentries at the doors. When one of them demanded of a passer-by who he was for and received the reply, ‘King Charles’, the sentry declared that he was for King Jesus and shot him dead.

Receiving news of the disturbance, the City authorities sent a company of the trained bands to suppress it but the ferocity of the rebels’ resistance quickly drove them back. Venner now marched his men through the City to Bishopsgate from where they crossed Moorfields, marched along Chiswell Street, and re-entered the City at Cripplegate. Rumours of the imminent arrival of a troop of horse caused them to retreat to Beech Lane where, encountering further opposition, they marched north to Hampstead and eventually took shelter for the night in Ken Wood, Highgate, a locality that had long held support for their cause.

On Wednesday January 9th, Venner led about fifty men back to the City, unopposed. Arriving at the Compter Prison on the north side of Poultry they demanded the release of the prisoners but by now the alarm had been raised and they found themselves confronted by another detachment of trained bands. These were repulsed but the arrival of reinforcements forced a retreat along Bishopsgate Street and into Cheapside where they met up with another group of insurgents that had set out from near London Bridge ‘well-accoutred both for musquets, blunderbusses, carbines and halberds, with buff-coats and helmets, both back and brest being thus completely armed’. Turning into Wood Street a furious fight ensued with two more companies of trained bands until the arrival of a detachment of Life Guards forced the rebels to make a fighting retreat towards Cripplegate. By now, two of their leaders had been killed and Venner himself was seriously wounded and they broke up into small groups to attempt an escape. By the time 1,200 further reinforcements arrived from Whitehall they had already been overpowered.

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One of the Fifth Monarchists’ leaders, Thomas Venner.

There are several contemporary accounts of the uprising. The differences between them, particularly in the estimates of the numbers involved, clearly demonstrate the level of chaos and confusion it had caused. Pepys wrote in his diary on January 10th: ‘These Fanatiques that have routed all the train-bands that they met with, put the king’s life-guards to the run, killed about twenty men, broke through the City-gates twice; and all this in the day time, when all the City was in armes; are not in all above 31. Whereas we did believe them (because they were seen up and down in every place almost in the City, and had been in Highgate two or three days, and in several other places) to be at least 500. A thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief.’

On January 17th, Venner and another nineteen prisoners pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and high treason at Justice Hall in the Old Bailey. Four were acquitted by the jury but the others were found guilty and sentenced to death. On January 19th, Venner and Roger Hodgkin were drawn on a sledge by two companies of trained bands from Newgate Prison to Swann Alley where, having warned the crowd of the approaching time ‘when other judgement would be’, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. As with the regicides, parts of their bodies were displayed on the City gates and their heads mounted on poles on London Bridge. The other condemned men were hanged at various locations in the city and other leading Fifth Monarchists, though having taken no part in the uprising, were rounded up and imprisoned.

Despite these severe punishments and a Royal proclamation banning all unauthorised public meetings, pockets of Fifth Monarchist activity continued for some time, particularly in south east London. But the restoration of the monarchy had also brought the restoration of the Anglican church. The bishops were back, and all members of clergy were required to swear allegiance to the new state church and take an oath of non-resistance. The Five Mile Act barred dissenting ministers from living within five miles of a town. The Bishop of London, declared that ‘Those who will not be governed as men, by reason and persuasion, shall be governed as beasts, by power and force.’

The popularity of fanatical religous sects rapidly declined and though there would be sporadic rumours of further Fifth Monarchist uprisings for several years to come, beset by informers and agents provocateurs, the movement gradually disintegrated, its leaders either executed, dying in captivity, or going to ground. The best demonstration of the extent of their decline is surely the lack of any attempt to utilise the Great Fire of 1666, a year bearing the number of the Beast, as a rallying point for their cause. Yet in 1671, when a cow broke into New Palace Yard, Westminster, amidst the chaos, the cry went up that ‘the Fifth Monarchy Men were up and come to cut the throats of the lawyers’, and in 1684, 5,000 mourners attended the funeral of one of their leaders.

The Fifth Monarchists were very much a product of their time: a period of great turbulence and enormous destruction accompanied by unprecedented religious freedom in an age of superstition. Their biggest problem was that the dour fanaticism with which they pursued their cause, not only lost them the support of many who might otherwise have been attracted to their millenarian doctrine, but also left their leadership totally bereft of the political credibility necessary to achieve anything without the divine intervention which they undoubtedly expected. With the restoration of the monarchy, the general feeling in London must surely have been that if Christ wasn’t going to return at least the King had, and after years of suffering, soul searching and uncertainty, it was time to fall back in line and to lighten up and live a little.


All images used in the above article are scanned from the author’s private collection.

Hawk Norton is a collector of antiquarian and second-hand books, all of which are about London and its history. His remarkable library comprises over 4,000 titles dating back 400 years. All are now for sale at well under market prices. For a price list, email Hawk at hawk@btinternet.com

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in our time

I am a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 most Thursdays at 9am. There are various ways you can search it, but as a service to our readers, here is a list of the London-related ones.

Aphra Behn
Annie Besant
Athelstan

Thomas Becket
Bedlam
The Black Death
The Bluestockings
The Book of Common Prayer
Boudica
Robert Boyle
Brunel
Fanny Burney

Caxton and the Printing Press
Chaucer

Mrs Dalloway
The Death of Elizabeth I
Dickens
The Domesday Book

The East India Company
Englishness
The Enlightenment in Britain

Michael Faraday
The [Great] Fire of London
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The Gin Craze
The Great Exhibition of 1851

William Hazlitt
Octavia Hill
Holbein at the Tudor Court
Robert Hooke

[Samuel] Johnson

London

Marlowe
Milton

The Novel

Titus Oates and His ‘Popish Plot’

The Peasants’ Revolt
Pocahontas
[Alexander] Pope
The Putney Debates

The Restoration
The Royal Society

The Scriblerus Club
Seventeenth Century Print Culture
The  South Sea Bubble
Suffragism

The Trial of Charles I
The Tudor State

Utilitarianism

Oscar Wilde
Mary Wollstonecraft


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A guest post by John Bennett.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, this piece examines two different eras of the East End’s turbulent history which have sealed its reputation for challenging extremist right-wing ideologies: the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the 1930s and clashes with the National Front in the 1970s.

The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936 showed the political loyalties of the East End tested considerably. Despite Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists extolling a protectionist view of multiculturalism, the privations of the recession of the 1930s had made the ideology popular in the area, even counting some Jews as supporters. Nonetheless, racially motivated violence against Jews had become common, particularly in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Mosley’s decision to march through the East End was understood to be a provocative flashpoint and East Enders of all creeds set up barriers around Cable Street to stop the procession. The result was messy: the BUF were redirected away from the east, but the disorder created by the creation of barriers led to pitched battles between protestors and police. It appears no fascists were actually involved in the disturbances but the protestors had won the day and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ has since been seen as a successful of example of the people rising up against what they saw as a threat to the cohesiveness of their community.

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Battle of Cable Street memorial mural. 

The East End was at a low ebb in the 1970s. A major housing crisis in Tower Hamlets had been exacerbated in many people’s eyes by the large influx of Bengalis to the area following the civil war in Bangladesh. Accusations of housing queue-jumping and squatting only inflamed resentment of the newcomers. Far right groups such as the National Front found a willing audience in the area, bolstered by skinhead youth groups looking for an identity. Throughout the mid 1970s, violence against Asians and their property became commonplace, resulting in the racist murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel in May 1978. This more than any other incident galvanised the Bengali community to take action, forming their own ‘vigilante groups’ to nip violence in the bud and campaign for police intervention which, on the face of it, had been severely lacking up to that point. Vandalism and physical attacks by NF supporters in Brick Lane in June 1978 (‘the battle of Brick Lane’, as the local press dubbed it) created a backlash by the Asian community to stymie the attacks as they happened, resulting in a stronger police presence and the street’s own police station.

Although fascist groups would once again raise their heads briefly in the early 1990s, the events of the late 1970s would see the subsequent rapid decline of right-wing activity in the East End, thanks to a more successful cohesion of community and law-enforcement and a more established Asian population.


John Bennett’s book Mob Town, A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End was published last month by Yale.

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A guest post by Dr Wolfram Latsch.

The next time you find yourself on Leadenhall Street heading towards Aldgate, walk past Billiter Street and stay on the right side of the road. At No. 50 you will notice a narrow passageway. This is Fenchurch Buildings, and it connects Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets. On Roque’s 1746 map of London this part of the passageway is called Sugarloaf Court. In the first half of the eighteenth century, you would have a view, on your right, of African House, the headquarters of the Royal African Company of England (RAC), which traded slaves across the Atlantic between 1660 and 1752.

In 1703, a sixteen year-old boy named James Phipps was signed up at African House to become a writer — an entry-level position — in the service of the RAC. He came from a prominent family of clothiers in Wiltshire. Phipps lived on the Gold Coast for twenty years, a remarkable longevity for a European living in Africa before the age of tropical medicine. He died at Cape Coast Castle, the African headquarters of the RAC, in 1723. He had risen to the position of governor and captain-general, becoming the highest-ranking RAC official in Africa, before being removed from his post among accusations of embezzlement and abuse of power.

James Phipps left his estate to his wife Catherine and their four children. Catherine Phipps was the daughter of an African woman and a Dutch soldier from Elmina, a fort not far from Cape Coast. James and Catherine’s children — Bridget, Susan, Henrietta and Thomas — were all of mixed race – they were ‘mulattos’ in the parlance of the time. In his will, James Phipps wanted Catherine to move to England to be with their children. This was an unusual request, since most white men did not think of their African partners as legal wives. James would provide generously for Catherine if she agreed to move: his estate was worth at least 1.7 million pounds in today’s money. But she refused to leave Africa and died in 1738, a prominent and independent businesswoman (and slave-owner) known at Cape Coast simply as ‘Mrs. Phipps’.

Had Catherine Phipps agreed to leave her home, she would probably have moved to London, and anyone with an interest in black British history would today know her name. Black women were a rarity in England in the early eighteenth century and independently wealthy black women were entirely unknown. As it is, Catherine Phipps is one of a very small number of eighteenth-century African women known to us by name.

James and Catherine’s daughters Bridget and Susan had left Africa around 1715 when they were maybe ten years old, to be educated in England, initially at the boarding school of a Mrs. Smith in Battersea. In May 1730, Bridget married Chauncy Townsend of Austin Friars, a London merchant and mining adventurer (and later an MP) in the Fleet Prison, a preferred location for clandestine marriages. Chauncy and Bridget Townsend had twelve children, including James, who was born in London and baptized at St Christopher-le-Stocks in February 1737.

James Townsend was first elected to parliament in 1767. In 1769 he was elected alderman of the City of London for Bishopsgate ward and sheriff of London, becoming one of the leaders of the Whig party in London. Townsend played a key role in the intrigue surrounding the electoral campaigns of the radical journalist John Wilkes in Middlesex and the City, turning from a supporter of Wilkes to one of his fiercest opponents. Townsend was elected Lord Mayor in 1772 in spite of Wilkes’s coming first in the polls, an event that created political turmoil in the City. A mob incensed by Townsend’s coup attacked Guildhall during the ball on Lord Mayor’s Day, and Townsend’s arms were erased from the church of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

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James Townsend (center) as alderman of the City of London (1769)
Source: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19402

Today Townsend is known, if at all, for the part he played in the drama of Wilkes’s bid for the mayoralty. Local historians and visitors may also know Townsend as an owner of the estate that is now Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey. He died there in 1787 and was buried nearby at Old Church Tottenham in the mausoleum of his wife’s family, the Coleraines. Her inheritance had made him a wealthy man.

James Townsend was the descendant of a black woman from the Gold Coast, the grandson of a ‘mulatto’ and one-eighth African, the first black MP and the first black Lord Mayor of London. This part of his family’s history was either unknown, or it went unnoticed, or it was ignored. His story may prompt an interest in the unacknowledged and often forgotten black ancestry of many London families and their complicated connections to the Atlantic slave trade.


Dr. Wolfram Latsch teaches economics and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. A version of this article was published in Notes & Queries, December 2016, as ‘A Black Lord Mayor of London in the Eighteenth Century?’

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hs240We were extremely saddened earlier this week to lose a Founder Member and great supporter of London Historians, Helen Szamuely.  Following a year or so of a serious medical condition which she kept mostly to herself, Helen died peacefully early on Wednesday morning, aged 66, which is no age at all.

We had less that two days previously just published an excellent article by Helen in our Members’ newsletter for April. It was about Count Alexander Benckendorff, a Russian diplomat, who a hundred years ago became the first and only layman to be buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.

Helen was born in Moscow to Hungarian and Russian parents during the Soviet period. She spent some of her early years in Hungary where her parents’ flat in Budapest was something of a magnet for intellectual dissidents. They witnessed directly the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising. Arriving in England aged 14, she spent the rest of her life in Britain standing up for liberty, self-determination and related causes.

Helen achieved a First in History and Russian at University of Leeds, going on to obtain her DPhil at Oxford.

Dr Samuely was a writer for many magazines, blogs, newsletters, mainly on topics of history, politics and literature. Among the lucky publications of her output are included the New Statesman, History Today and, of course, ourselves – London Historians.

Helen was brave, funny, clever, argumentative, incisive, wonderful company and a true friend. Fiercely independent, she possessed a razor-sharp intellect which some found daunting while others – like me – found exhilarating. When you engaged with her – particularly in matters of politics and history – it was best to bring your A game.

Helen enjoyed cooking, loved cats and for some reason represented herself on social media as a machine-gun toting squirrel which somehow seemed wholly appropriate. She was a keen consumer of detective fiction. Unsurprisingly, Helen was an avid scholar of Russian literature, particularly poetry, much of which she translated into English. She was an active supporter of Pushkin House in London.

I recommend you look up Helen on Facebook and read the entries from the past five days more fully to appreciate the great esteem in which she was held.

Helen supported London Historians frequently with her presence at our events, unannounced if not unexpected. She wrote some wonderful articles for our Members’ newsletter, mainly about Russians in London – exiles, diplomats, artists and Tsars. We shall republish these in the coming weeks for a wider audience to enjoy.

Helen is a great loss to not only to us at London Historians, but all her friends in many, many walks of life. Most of all, though, to daughter Katharine to whom we extend our deepest condolences.

Dr Helen Szamuely. Born 25.06.1950, Moscow. Died 05.04.2017, London.

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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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A guest post by London Historians Member, Rob Smith.

November 2016 is the 200th Anniversary of the Spa Fields Riots, a series of demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform and against taxation that were held on open ground called Spa Fields in Islington, part of which is still a public park today. The Riots were another of the many steps on the way to universal suffrage, but also an example of the ideological splits and personality clashes that will be familiar among protest groups and political movements.

The Times December 3rd 1812

The Times December 3rd 1812

 

The Battle of Waterloo may have ended the Napoleonic Wars but it did not end the discontent the wars had created across Britain. The cost of the wars had been horrendous and taxation had increased to pay for them. The export market for the luxury goods produced by skilled craftsmen had dried up, while the belt tightening going on in Britain’s country houses meant that the market inside Britain was smaller too. George III, now elderly and infirm, left the Prince Regent’s extravagant spending go unchecked, making the monarchy unpopular on the streets of London. The assassination of Spencer Percival meant that the Earl of Liverpool was Prime Minister, effectively the 5th choice man for the job. A rapidly rising population, uncontrolled urbanisation, uncertainty caused by the industrial revolution and higher food prices all added to make, what should have been a time of triumph for Britain, a time of turmoil.

Opposition to war with France had started back in 1789 when the London Revolution Society were addressed by Richard Price at the Crown and Anchor on the Strand, with a call for support for the French Revolution, an end to the British monarchy and parliamentary reform. During the years of war, legislation like the Treasonable Practices Act of 1795 aimed to prevent literature critical of the war. In 1799 reform groups like The London Corresponding Society were banned, and those attempting to sell Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” were imprisoned for selling a dangerous book.

One such was Thomas Spence – one of the more radical revolutionaries in London in the Napoleonic war period. Spence demanded the end of the monarchy, aristocracy and landlords and common ownership of all land. He wanted votes for all, including women, an end to child labour and other cruelties to children, and an end to the war with France. He also called for reform of the English Language, with the introduction of phonetic spelling, which would make learning to read easier for those without access to education. When Spence died in 1814 his followers vowed to continue his work as the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.

In 1816 three Spenceans – Arthur Thistlewood, James Watson and Thomas Preston, decided the time was ripe for action. If they could gather together a large enough group of supporters, the chance to bring about the revolution they had hoped for was finally here. But how to draw the crowd? Thistlewood wrote to two of the best known speakers in the land, William Cobbett (later known for his book Rural Rides) and Henry Hunt. Cobbett refused to attend and warned Hunt not to get involved either, but eventually Hunt agreed to speak at the meeting on November 15th 1816 at Spa Fields in Clerkenwell. Hunt was certainly experienced at talking to huge rallies. Appearances in Birmingham, Blackburn, Stockport and Nottingham that year had drawn audiences of up to 80,000 – earning him the nickname Orator Hunt. The day was set for a huge rally in London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

At that time Spa Fields was much larger than the small park it is today, stretching beyond Sadler’s Wells and was one of Clerkenwell’s many places of recreation. A crowd of over 10,000 gathered, forcing Hunt to address them from the upstairs window of the Merlin’s Cave pub (now commemorated by Merlin Street). The crowd was swollen by people returning from a public hanging at Newgate prison. Hunt spoke about the poverty British workers were living in, despite being the most industrious in the world. The cause of this was taxation, taxation to pay for a standing army occupying France and an army in Britain to stop the populace demanding its rights. According to Hunt, the British worker had not wanted the war, it had been brought about by the MPs in the rotten boroughs that represented a minority of landowners. Therefore the only cure was parliamentary reform.

merlin-st_500

A petition was drawn up and signatures collected, demanding the Prince Regent provide relief for the poor and put together proposals for parliamentary reform. In the end Hunt was refused permission to deliver the petition, and a second meeting was called for December 2nd. Meanwhile Preston had been grumbling about Hunt – a country gentleman – taking the lead role in the movement. Would it not be more appropriate that a London artisan like himself took the lead?

The authorities had not been idle either. A man named John Castle had infiltrated the Spenceans. On the day of the second demonstration, Castle waylaid Hunt in Cheapside, allowing Watson to address the crowd outside the Spa Fields Cake shop, comparing the Tower of London to the Bastille. By the time Hunt, who was opposed to the use of force, arrived, Watson was leading a crowd behind the revolutionary tricolour on the way to meet with Preston and Thistlewood at the Mulberry Tree Tavern. A group split off to raid a gun shop in Snow Hill, during which raid the owner was shot and wounded.

The breakaway rioters then moved to the Royal Exchange on which they opened fire. Militia soldiers returning in kind. Rioters also broke into Fleet Street and smashed windows in Somerset House. Others made for Newgate Prison, while Thistlewood headed for the Tower of London where he made a speech to the soldiers, demanding they lay down their arms. They refused and with the protests breaking up, order was restored. Most of the people had stayed at Spa Fields listening to Hunt give a long-winded self congratulatory speech. It had not been the general uprising Thistlewood, Watson and Preston had been hoping for.

The next day arrests were made and the organisers charged with sedition. Amazingly though, after a defence by Sir Charles Wetherell, Thistlewood, Watson and Preston were all acquitted, on the basis that government spy John Castle had acted as an agent provocateur.

The movement was now firmly split into reform and revolutionary camps. Hunt continued to push for reform of Parliament, standing as an MP, and addressing the crowd at the ill-fated meeting in Manchester known as Peterloo. Thistlewood became involved in the 1920 Cato Street Conspiracy, a plot to kill the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was hanged for treason when the plot was discovered.

The Spa Fields Riots were interesting as they show that the road to parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage was a long one, with many false starts and incremental progressions along the way. The reforms the protesters were demanding did not come about until many years later, but they might not have come about at all without protest. The riots are also interesting because they show how any cause can be riven with splits, something anyone who has been involved with politics will be familiar with.

Spa Fields Today

Spa Fields Today


Islington Museum has an exhibition called Commit Outrage to commemorate the riots, and there will be two free walks led by Rob Smith and Philip Nelkon talking about them.

Saturday 26th November 2016 11am
Led by Rob Smith

Saturday 3rd December 2016 11am
Led by Philip Nelkon

Where: Meet in the foyer of The Islington Museum
14:45h, St John St, London, EC1V 4NB
Duration: 1 hour

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