This is a wonderful piece of political memorabilia - ephemera feels too insubstantial a term - from the London radicalism of 160 years ago. It's a membership card of the Land and Labour League, an organisation which is not well known and only survived a few years, but was of real importance in the development of a determinedly radical tradition within the movements for political reform and social justice.
Many thanks to Richard Gold for recognising its importance and steering it in the direction of one of small band of political anoraks who collect this sort of thing (viz the author).
The Land and Labour League consisted largely of supporters of the Chartist radical Bronterre O'Brien (died 1864), who is sometimes regarded as a proto-socialist. They had mustered in force in some of the central London branches of the Reform League.
O'Brien's followers - many of them self-educated artisans - were strong advocates of currency reform, land nationalisation, rights for women and - though it's not on the League's list of founding principles - republicanism. The paper associated with the LLL was called the Republican. It was published for two years from 1870, and so through the period of the Paris Commune, which many LLL members supported. The O'Brienites were also instinctively opposed to class collaboration and to working with Liberals.
The story of the Land and Labour League has been told by the historian Royden Harrison in Before the Socialists. As well as establishing the League, many O'Brienites were also active in the International Working Men's Association (the First International) where they worked with Karl Marx and other emigre socialists living in London.
Marx had a mixed opinion of his O'Brienite allies, writing of the followers of 'the sect of the late Bronterre O'Brien, [who] are full of follies and crotchets such as currency quackery, false emancipation of women, and the like. In spite of these follies, they constitute an often necessary counterweight to trades unionists on the Council [of the IWMA]. They are more revolutionary, firmer on the land question, less nationalistic and not susceptible to bourgeois bribery. Otherwise they would have been kicked out long ago.' Given how irascible Marx often was, this is almost an endorsement!
Later the O'Brienites devoted much of their energies to an ultimately unsuccessful venture to establish a cooperative colony in Kansas - the sort of 'crotchet' of which Marx would have disapproved. They also established the Manhood Suffrage League. And a few of O'Brien's followers were still around in the 1880s to enlist in the ranks of the Social Democratic Federation.
The early 1870s were a high water mark in what was sometimes called social republicanism - the movement demanding the abolition of the monarchy not as an end in itself but as a step towards a truly representative system of governance which would work towards achieving social justice.
A century-and-a-half later, we haven't progressed very far down that path!
It's taken more than 200 years. But there is now, at last, a monument to Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist pioneer and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Marvellously, it's on Newington Green in north London, within yards of the Unitarian meeting house which she attended (that's the building in a pastel shade of cream - still in use as a Unitarian place of worship).
The design has caused something of a rumpus. It's the work of Maggi Hambling, a distinguished sculptor. And she was, it seems, given free rein.
So we have ended up with a monument which commemorates this remarkable woman which is, well, a touch formless, apart from the fairy at the top of the Christmas tree, a full-frontal naked woman.
This is not a representation of Wollstonecraft, Hambling insists, but an 'everywoman'. And by her representation, without any form of dress, she really is everywoman and not tied to a particular era or culture.
That argument has more force when you see the monument in place rather than in the close-ups of the naked figure that have featured in the press. But it still seems an opportunity lost. This could have been something wonderful - and to be blunt about it, it's not.
The monument has only been in place a few days - the immediate response seems to be a thumbs down.
So, how do you mark such a commanding figure? There are vanishingly few statues and public monuments to non-royal women. If you have a representation that is true to the woman and her times, you end up with billowing clothes which make her seem a period piece rather than a thinker and writer of abiding relevance and importance.
The most famous likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft is the portrait by Sir John Opie in the National Portrait Gallery, which says of the painting:
'Wollstonecraft is portrayed with the utmost simplicity. She wears a high-waisted white cotton gown while her plainly-styled hair is partially covered by a soft hat. She made her views on dress clear in her published work, stating that it should neither distort nor hide the human form but rather "adorn the person and not rival it". This reflected the French Revolutionary emphasis on man's natural rights and honesty; rejecting disguise and ostentation to reveal the 'real' person.'
A point of comparison is with the monument to the suffragist Millicent Fawcett. This is the work of Gillian Wearing and was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018.
This is a more conventional representation but seeks to show her as an activist. The banner she displays has led critics (feminists among them) to suggest that it looks like she's portrayed putting out the washing.
There is no easy answer. And those behind the Mary on the Green campaign argue that the debate about the merits of Hambling's work have at least brought attention to Wollstonecraft and her legacy.
But I wonder whether this monument will have staying power - whether we will grow to love it or whether it will become something of an awkward embarrassment.
This Lockdown is an invitation to seek out new places to stroll and explore (in a compliant manner, of course). Today was my first visit to the Walthamstow Wetlands, more than 200 hectares of reservoirs on the outskirts of London - a nature reserve as well as one oft he capital's main sources of water.
The Wetlands only opened to the public three years ago. And they are wonderful
One of the most atmospheric sights was the cormorants (or are they shags?) roosting in a tree.
The site also has two wonderful old industrial buildings - the most striking, the Coppermill Tower, dates from the 1860s and is Grade 2 listed.
The Engine Room stands near the main entrance and is also a cafe, currently doing hot drinks and take-away sandwiches.
From the Wetlands you can see the new Spurs stadium in Tottenham nearby, and a little further away the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf
And as you can see, the weather was wonderful - a bright, crisp, late autumn day. A delight!
This is Holland House in Kensington - or what's left of it. It's the building at the heart of Holland Park, one of the most bewitching of London's inner city parks, complete with Japanese garden, up-market restaurant and peacocks.
Holland House is Jacobean - dating from 1605. But it was gutted during the Second World War by German fire bombs. Here you can see the before and after - the building as it was in 1896 and in 2014 (taken from Wikipedia).
One wing of the Jacobean structure survives - and what remains of the ground floor is now well kept and wonderfully renovated.
I got to Holland Park in the past week for the first time in many years - I'll make a point of getting there again before too long.
It's curious what you can sometimes find on a North London street. This is a plaster capital in Crouch End - from the 1880s, it seems. And the design. A monkey eating grapes? Or is this a lampoon of the biologist behind the theory of evolution?
It was Crouch Ender David Winskill who introduced me to this 'monkey' - but is it something more than simply a simian?
Charles Darwin was widely mocked and derided after the publication in 1871 of The Descent of Man - and quite often he was depicted as an ape by creationists and others reluctant to accept any affinity between ape and man.
Take a look at these examples (with many thanks to James Moore):
So that does at least make you wonder whether the decorative capital in question was some form of social or religious commentary.
Monkeys were not uncommon as gargoyles or grotesques in the design of churches and public buildings. They don't seem to have featured regularly in domestic architectural embellishments. These exterior decoratives were often bought by builders off-the-shelf - they weren't generally crafted individually. The usual features were flowers, leaves, fruit, perhaps birds or a stylised head or two - not monkeys.
The houses in question are one of five adjoining pairs of Victorian terrace-style semi-detached homes - none of the others has a design featuring a monkey or anything similar.
Thanks to the kindness and interest of one of the current owners, we know quite a lot about the initial construction of these houses.
They were built in about 1882. The builder was local, George Clark - according to the 1881 census, he was 34, lived very close by at 1 New Road and employed eight men (not the sort of detail you normally find in census records, which suggests that Clark was keen to have this point noted or it impressed itself on the enumerator).
Having built the properties, Clark leased them from what I take it was the land owner, Henry Thomas Marshall, a local butcher; and then Clark presumably sub-let the homes to tenants.
Here's who was living there at the time of the 1891 census:
In one house, George Bowyer, a lawyers' clerk lived with his wife and seven children; next door was a solicitor, William Calley, along with his wife and ten - yes, ten - children.
It confirms the picture of Crouch End as a white-collar suburb. It doesn't really help us to decide whether the likeness on these house fronts is of Darwin.
There are three options:
I'll be exploring this in my coming book Curious Crouch End, but do please let me know your thoughts - as emails, or comments on this blog or (and yes, it's just a bit of fun) by taking part in this online poll. We'll post the results here so do come back!
We got out of London today - for a few hours at least - to visit Godstow nunnery near the village of Wolvercote on the northern outskirts of Oxford.
The chapel is the only part of the nunnery still standing - but the location is wonderful, just fifty yards from the Thames. And in the autumn sunshine, it was divine
This is the nunnery associated with 'Fair Rosamund', memorably painted in pre-Raphaelite fashion by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The sitter, Fanny Cornforth, later became Rossetti's housekeeper.
Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of Henry II, died around 1176 when still in her twenties. Godstow Abbey was her burial place.
It was, for a while at least, a truly gorgeous autumn day - with the leaves still holding some of their rich colour, and large gaggles of geese flying overhead.
And on this vista of the Thames, you can just about make out the gable end of the nunnery chapel sticking up among the trees.
A marvellous find at my local Oxfam shop this morning - a copy of the Observer with one of its biggest scoops.
This is an issue from June 1956 - more than half of it given over to the full text, all 26,000 words of it, of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing Stalin, his 'cult of personality' and the terror he unleashed.
One of the delights of having the issue of the Observer, apart from its historical importance, is seeing the wonderful artwork of 'Abu' - the Indian cartoonist Abu Abraham who had just started working for the paper.
Khrushchev is depicting standing over the body of Stalin delivering not a eulogy but all the greatest insults that a communist could heap on a traitor to the cause.
Charles Bradlaugh was the Tony Benn of his era: a radical MP and inveterate campaigner who sometimes courted controversy; an advocate of political reform; an outspoken champion of causes such as atheism and republicanism. And much like Tony Benn, he was lionised by his supporters and detested by his detractors.
When Bradlaugh died in January 1891, hundreds of condolence letters poured in: from local branches of the National Secular Society, which he founded; from India, whose interests he had sought to represent in Parliament; from well-wishers and supporters; and from scores of radical working men's clubs. This deluge of correspondence has, rather wonderfully, been preserved among Bradlaugh's papers at the Bishopsgate Institute - which has very kindly given me permission to post a couple of the letters here.
The letter above came from the Mildmay Radical Club and Institute then at 36 Newington Green Road. It later moved to much grander premises on Newington Green and later still dropped 'Radical' from its name. The Mildmay Club still survives - and I've blogged about it before,
This blog is not so much about Bradlaugh as about the early history of the Mildmay Club - which is, shall we say, a touch opaque.
Among other letters sent to Bradlaugh's daughter at his death is this one, from exactly the same address as that given by the Mildmay Radical Club -
So the Balls Pond Secular Hall Society was also operating from 36 Newington Green Road. Secularism was then a substantial national movement, challenging the power and privilege of organised religion - and while there were competing strands within the secularist movement, Bradlaugh was their best known and best regarded leader.
The 'hall' on Newington Green Road was quite possibly simply a decent size room - perhaps rented for different purposes on different evenings. These small clubs would stage meetings, debates and entertainment - and the drink offered (some clubs were teetotal, but most made their money from alcohol) might simply be beer bought in gallon flaggons.
A web search on 36 Newington Green Road also produced some intriguing new information - from the other side of the world. Virginia Rundle in Sydney has a website devoted to her British forbears (many thanks for her permission to post the handbill below). Her great-grandmother Harriett Fuller is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington. According to her death certificate, she succumbed to typhoid on 29th April 1887 ... at 36 Newington Green Road. Her husband, John Fuller - described as a 'tenor vocalist' - was present at the death.
John Fuller was known as the 'silvery tenor' and performed with the Mohawk Minstrels - Virginia has researched in depth his performing years in London before emigrating to Australia. His children formed a family musical troupe. They not only lived at 36 Newington Green Road - they performed there.
Virginia has John Fuller's scrap book - and it contains the following notice of a performance at the Balls Ponds Radical Club at, as far as can be made out, 36 Newington Green Road. Although someone has written '1886' on the handbill, Virginia believes it dates from 1888. The performers were Fuller's and Ison's Juvenile Black Blossom Minstrels - all apparently youngsters under fourteen. The kids would almost certainly have been in "black face" - a form of entertainment which is now unacceptable but was popular at that time (and let's not forget that the Black and White Minstrel Show ran on BBC prime-time television until as recently as 1978).
This is another sliver of evidence indicating of how the roots of the Mildmay Club lay in the vibrant North London secular movement.
That's confirmed by an article in the Club and Institute Journal in 1951 - based in part on the recollections of a founder member of the Mildmay Club. It states: 'Sixty-two years ago, members of the Balls Pond Secular Club, Newington Green Road, ... saw their club "go on the rocks." While some lamented this catastrophe, others saw in it an opportunity. Sixteen of them subscribed ten shillings each towards the first month's rent, and thus it came about that the Mildmay Radical Club was formed.'
This article also reports that in 1891, the club bought 'an old mansion at 34, Newington Green comprising 12 rooms and with spacious grounds'. Most of this old pile - one imagines - was pulled down to make way for the grand premises built in 1900 which remain the home of the Mildmay Club.
The generally accepted account of the club's early history is given in the listed building entry on the Historic England website. This states:
'The Mildmay Club was founded on 18 August 1888 as the Mildmay Radical Club and was originally located at 36 Newington Green Road, Islington. The club was actively involved in radical politics and social campaigns. In 1894 it moved to new premises at 34 Newington Green, gifted in the will of two local sisters. ... The Mildmay Club was recognised as one of the largest and most politically active of the capital’s working men’s clubs.
On 27 October 1900 the foundation stone was laid for a new clubhouse designed by a member of the club, the architect Alfred Allen. The new building, which may have incorporated fabric from the existing houses on the site, included two halls, a reading room, meeting rooms and a billiard hall. ...'
Quite how the story of the sisters' will fits with the account of the club buying the existing building is not at all clear. Anyone know?
There's another intriguing element to the story, gleaned from the pages of Club Life, a weekly journal 'written by Clubmen for Clubmen'. It started in 1899 but the British Library's copies for that year, and for 1901, are too fragile for consultation. The issues for 1900 are available, and they make clear how prominent and successful the Mildmay Radical Club had become. The journal gives information about the Mildmay's political activities and more so about the entertainment offered there - and it also chronicles the step-by-step rebuilding of the club house.
Another prominent club whose activities are listed is the Bradlaugh Club and Institute at - you've guessed it! - 36 Newington Green Road. So all those years after the Mildmay Club had moved from Newington Green Road, their old premises were still the home of a working men's club, and to judge from the name, in the radical and secular tradition.
This blog started with Charles Bradlaugh - and it ends with the club that took his name. There's more to be discovered. All leads, information and help welcome.
The magical Unitarian meeting house on Newington Green describes itself as 'London's non-religious church'. The building dates back more than 300 years - though the frontage is Victorian - and has just been renovated with help from the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
There are no services at the moment - for obvious reasons - but today I had the privilege of a peek inside, indeed a tour of the building, courtesy of Amy Todd, the historian who is now the community and learning manager at New Unity (as the Newington Green gathering is now known).
Unitarians were dissenters - Christians, but non-conformists who rejected the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) and encouraged intellectual freethinking which attracted the radical and heterodox. As Unitarianism has developed, not all adherents now see themselves as Christians - indeed not all believe in God. Services are fairly traditional and include a sermon and hymns - but the hymns sung would not normally refer to God. The minister at New Unity, I was told, is an atheist.
This is what the Unitarians' website says:
We welcome anyone with an open mind who shares our tolerant and inclusive views, who embraces the freedom of being in a faith community that doesn’t impose creeds or specific beliefs, and who bases their approach not on dogma but on reason.
... Among Unitarians you will find people who have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist perspectives – as reflected in our varied and diverse congregations.
So it's about faith not religion - values rather than dogma.
Prior to the pandemic, the Newington Green meeting house would attract eighty or more people to its Sunday gatherings. It's one of seven Unitarian congregations in London, and there are more than a hundred across the country. About half of congregants are from Unitarian families, one of the regular attenders said, and half have come to the movement themselves.
Mary Wollstonecraft is the most renowned former member of the congregation, and her box pew survives - indeed it's something of a place of pilgrimage for feminists and others who revere Wollstonecraft's memory.
There are also plaques to two other famous writers and radical intellectuals who attended services here, Richard Price and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.
Lottery funding will enable displays about the history of the meeting house and the development of the space for the community and for meetings and performances. The church's archives, held at Hackney Archives, will also be posted online. That's going to be quite something!
The glorious Mildmay Club on Newington Green was part of 'Open House London' last weekend, and I took the chance to make another visit. It was also an opporunity to look again at the terrific collection of letters from club members serving in the First World War thanking the club for food and 'baccy parcels.
These were on display in what was the club library - and is now a room off the bar. And I noticed for the first time a board commemorating the Mildmay Chums - a roll of honour of sixty names. Six of those listed had 'Gone West' - soldiers' slang from the First World War for death (perhaps because that's the direction of the setting sun).
The WW1 'pals' were groups of volunteers who enlisted in the army as a group and served together often constituting a full battalion (which consists of somewhere between 300 and 1,000 soldiers). The Grimsby Chums were the only pals battalion to used the word 'chums'. The Mildmay Chums may have been a smaller and more modest version of these pals battalions - but it had a history which pre-dates the war.
There's little online about the Chums, but a post on the excellent Spitalfields Life site about Ken Sequin's badge collection includes this item. The Mildmay Chums also get a mention in the London Gazette in October 1910 - four years before war broke out. Perhaps this was a self-help society which became a group of friends who enlisted.
The sixty 'chums' listed on the roll of honour are certainly not the only members of what was then the Mildmay Radical Club who served in the forces during the First World War. Elsewhere in the club there's a huge board commemorating hundreds of members who died during the conflict.
What was the purpose behind the Chums? Anyone recognise any of the names on the roll of honour? And why are they not listed in alphabetical order?
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