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?
Queen's Park has a real charm about it - one of London's nicest small parks. It's a compact thirty acres in the west of London.
This is the novelist's Zadie Smith's home ground. And talking of home grounds ... Queens Park Rangers, founded in 1886, take their name from this area, though they had no enduring home until moving to their present stadium, Loftus Road in White City, in 1917.
The park is run by the City of London - the desperately undemocratic Corporation which runs the Square Mile at the heart of London's business district. They also manage Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest and Highgate Wood. Why the devil gets all the best parks, I just don't know!
Happily, they do have a sense of history - and a board at the entrance to the park sets out the Queen's Park story.
The surrounding area is London border land - not on the margins of London, but where rival bailiwicks meet. The northern part was Willesden and is now part of Brent - the southern part was Paddington and now is in Westminster. Some who live round here would say they are in North Kensington or Kilburn or Kensal Green or Brondesbury.
The stand-out highlight of Queen's Park is its cast iron bandstand, completed in 1887, gaudily repainted and now Grade II listed.
Close to Queen's Park on Chevening Road is an Islamic Centre which has been described as Britain's premier Shia Muslim mosque.
Here's a view you don't often get to see. This is the top of Maiden Lane reservoir, the covered reservoir on Dartmouth Park Hill (as this stretch of what was Maiden Lane is now called).
The crown of the reservoir is strictly off-limits - I've lived here more than twenty years and never got more than a glimpse of the turf on the top. The slopes are a local park, however: Dartmouth Park. This is not how the Dartmouth Park locality got its name but rather seems to have been a case of grasping a name that was appropriate and unused. Until this space surrounding the reservoir was christened Dartmouth Park (perhaps when the area was opened to public use in the early 1970s) there was no park in Dartmouth Park.
The photo is taken from the top floor of our friends' house on Dartmouth Park Hill and shows the view east over the reservoir. It also shows a feature that you can't otherwise see - what looks like an inspection pit or access point adjoining the top of the reservoir.
To help you get your bearings, here's another photo from the same vantage point.
And once upon a time, I did a panorama video of the vista from the far bank of the reservoir - one of the most marvellous views of the city. And since you ask (you did ask, didn't you?) - here's that video!
But back to the reservoir ... it was built in the 1850s when the surrounding area was largely green fields. The reservoir is still in use and was renovated back in 2012. The company that did that work - and if you believe their website, they completed the project five months before they started - said this:
'Maiden Lane Reservoir is situated on Dartmouth Park Hill in the London Borough of Islington in Central London. The reservoir is a brick-built covered service reservoir which was completed in 1855. It is composed of two separate structures, known as the north (Cell A) and south (Cell B) compartments, which together have a capacity of 68,200 m³. The depth when full is about 6.7m.'
But let's take a look at the history of the reservoir and surrounding area through maps - some of which I have been introduced to on the warmly recommended 'Archway Revisited' Facebook page, and by people I have been in touch with through that group or as a result of earlier blogs.
This map was surveyed in the mid-1860s. Dartmouth Park is largely undeveloped - St Mary's Brookfield had not been built (it opened in 1875) - nor had Dartmouth Park Road nor Laurier Road nor York Rise.
The grounds of the reservoir extended as far as Junction Road. here's a blow-up:
This map below is thirty years later - an Ordnance Survey map of 1895. The area has become much more extensively developed ... though much of Cathcart Hill had still to be built and there are a few gaps in the housing along Dartmouth Park Avenue.
As you can see, the reservoir had relinquished a lot of surrounding land for a tram depot and I imagine stabling for the horses. And on Dartmouth Park Hill, diagonally opposite St Mary's, there's a building - Reservoir Cottage. I hope to return to that in a future blog.
And then a leap of another sixty years or so to the Second World War - and a map of local war damage prepared by London County Council
You can see from the colour code of the map that the reservoir suffered a narrow miss - the brunt of a V1 attack being borne by buildings on the other side of Dartmouth Park Hill where blocks of post-war flats now stand.
The tram depot is still there - but disused. And the reservoir cottage is still shown.
And this is what the area looks like today, courtesy of Google Maps
It's often described as the best ever anarchist journal - in English, at least. Colin Ward's monthly Anarchy - published by the Freedom Press - got going with this issue in March 1961. It survived until the close of that tumultuous decade. A second series under new editorship, nothing like as good, survived into the '80s.
The first issue had a lead article on Galbraith's The Affluent Society - anonymous and so I guess by Ward himself. Other contributors included Ward's close intellectual allies, Alex Comfort and Nicolas Walter (whom I knew and admired). There's nothing in this issue to explain the journal's purpose - no political rally-cry - no partisan rhetoric. The contents spoke for themselves.
The cover of this debut issue was by Michael Foreman, The next issue had a cover designed by Rufus Segar - a fairly tame design by his standards; he and the journal later became renowned for the magazine's innovative and striking front covers.
Next year will see the sixtieth anniversary of the inception of Anarchy. I do hope the moment is marked!
I visited Hay-on-Wye in the past week, the celebrated town of books on the England-Wales border, and came away with a few modest purchases. I picked up a first edition of Rumer Godden's 1946 novel The River - which I have already devoured, what a good book! ... not particularly rare but nice to have. And a few political pamphlets. And this copy of the Partisan Review which I got because the excellent, effervescent Colin MacInnes is among the contributors.
MacInnes is celebrated above all as a novelist and the author of Absolute Beginners, such a glorious read and one of my favourite novels. He was also an incisive essayist - Bernard Kops, I know, regards him as a more talented essayist than novelist.
This issue includes MacInnes on 'English Queerdom' - he devised the word 'Queerdom', and this may well be an early instance of a gay writer re-appropriating the term 'queer' in an article intended for a readership beyond the gay/queer community.
The Partisan Review was a curious journal - established in the 1930s as a loosely Communist-aligned publication, it changed its line and in the 1950s and '60s received covert funding from the CIA. This issue acknowledges a link with the American Committee for Cultural Freedom - an organisation which, it later transpired, was in part established and funded by the CIA. There is a rich irony in America's cold war establishment funding the publication of a piece by MacInnes, an anarchist and rebel.
The Review finally succumbed as recently as 2003. Here's MacInnes's sparkling article from 1961 -
It's back! Difficult to believe, but after years of barren, shuttered decay, the Archway Tavern got back in business this weekend.
It's five years at least since anyone popped in here for a pint. Great to have you back!
The building dates from 1888. An imposing edifice in what became the blighted island in the middle of the Archway gyratory system. Now, you don't have to cross the road to get from Archway tube to the Tavern. The area is slowly, slowly on the up. There's even an M&S food store nearby!
The Tavern used to be a big Guinness pub. This was a very Irish corner of North London. It still is - you can buy all the Irish county weeklies at the newsagents nearby. And that Guinness legacy is evident both in the tiles at the entrance (the toucan featured for decades in Guinness ads and promotions) and in the rather decrepit clock on the outside ... it would be so nice if they could restore the clock to its original splendour.
The Tavern has a great location, but it needs a touch more character and charm. And perhaps a few pence off the price of a pint.
For a pub of such size and vintage it would be nice to say a little more about its history, But to be honest I'm not quite sure what there is to say.
The Tavern's main claim to fame is featuring on the cover of the Kinks' album "Muswell Hillbillies" - even though the Kinks' stamping ground of Muswell Hill is a mile or two further out.
All the same, it's good to have one of North London's grand old drinking spots back - not many arise Lazarus-like from the dead in the way that the Archway Tavern has done. Now it's a matter of ... Stayin' Alive!
It's not quite what you expect in the Regent's Canal as you wend your way past disused wharfs and spruced up warehouses. But as you head through Haggerston, across from the tow path there's a shiver (yes, that really is the collective noun!) of sharks. Fibreglass and polystyrene sharks.
I chanced on this curious scene when strolling from Hackney Broadway towards The Angel. A web search reveals that this is an art installation. There will eventually be five sharks, capable of blowing bubbles, singing and making expositions on contemporary architecture.
It's all a little jaw-dropping I know ... it seems the artist, Jaimie Shorten, won a £25,000 prize for an installation to liven up this rather barren stretch of the canal.
The canal's long-term residents - coots, swans and the like - seem to be taking the new arrivals in their, er, paddle.
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