David Rosenberg’s Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History was written for us to discover the hidden, radical history of London. But what inspired the author to write the book? We find out…
‘As you open my book, Rebel Footprints, take a moment to read the dedication at the beginning. “But that’s just the author’s family. I don’t even know them,” you are probably thinking to yourself. Please indulge me and read on. Apart from my family (who are nice and interesting people) it says, “…and to a ground-breaking social historian, Bill Fishman.” Those who knew Bill will understand immediately why I used the term “ground-breaking”. Bill was the pioneer of radical history walks in London’s East End.
In 1984 I had the privilege of attending one of Bill’s unforgettable and truly inspirational walks. Needless to say, I was blown away. Without that experience I would not have written this book. As well as providing shed-loads knowledge he showed me how important it was to put yourself in the shoes of the people who made our history. I wrote my dedication to him when I submitted the final manuscript of Rebel Footprints at the end of last November. Sadly Bill died just before Christmas, at the age of 93, but he lives on in the work of many people he inspired, including myself.
Since 2008, I too have been walking the streets of London telling the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things to change life for the many, not the few. Yet each year, as I tramp the streets, it is a bit different. When I reach the Lord Morpeth pub on Old Ford Road, instead of saying: “Notice that pub sign with a suffragette selling a newspaper”, I find myself saying: “until last year there was a sign on that pub…” On Donegal Street in Islington, I now point to where there used to be a wall, “and on the wall there was a plaque for a leading Chartist, James Bronterre O’Brien.”
London is changing rapidly and not for the better. The inner-London sites of so many struggles for social justice are starting to be obscured and erased. As houses, shops, municipal buildings and other older structures disappear, often the artworks or plaques that had been placed on them come down too. New monuments are taking their place; the luxury flats and financial houses are monuments to the triumph of casino capitalism. We can occasionally win a small victory to temporarily halt a “development”, but we don’t seem powerful enough to stop this process of recolonisation of significant parts of our city and its spaces by massive wealth. Once an important landmark is gone, it is difficult to put back anything meaningful to show what once was there.
We have to continue to resist these changes, but there are other ways to restore to our collective memory the names and deeds of the campaigners who won the vote, the right to protest, free education, a national health service and a host of other achievements, which are now threatened with being undermined and dismantled. One way is through mediums of express like art, film, theatre and writing – as I have attempted to demonstrate with my book, Rebel Footprints.
Struggle didn’t happen only in London – they were national and international – but we should be proud of Londoners’ contributions to them: Londoners born here, Londoners who settled from other parts of Britain, and Londoners who came as migrants. They spoke many mother tongues but found a common language of protest and struggle.
Rebel Footprints grew out of my walks and the responses to them. Carlotta Fontana, a professor of Architecture at Milan University who joined me on one of the first, emailed me afterwards to say, “Your walk was interesting, instructive, moving and funny! Every lover of London and every lover of freedom should take it.” I was overjoyed to receive that email; as long as I can remember I have been a lover of freedom, and a lover of London.
This love was enhanced in the early 1980s when I temporarily had possibly the best job in the world as the van driver for Central Books – the Communist Party’s book distributor. I spent my days delivering radical literature around London to political and community bookshops and even got paid for it! I quickly got to know many parts of London I was less familiar with and I started to understand much better how different places in London connected with each other and how they were changing.
One way to record how inner-London changed is to look back at these van runs from the early 1980s. For example, I used to have three stops on Upper Street, Islington: one Trotskyist bookshop, one radical feminist bookshop, and one independent shop that carried a lot of radical literature. These days, while it is easy to buy a beautiful piece of non-functional décor or a tiny overpriced gift on Upper Street, it is hard to buy a toothbrush there, let alone a Marxist classic.
In the days before I embarked on writing Rebel Footprints I was in serious danger of starting to fall out of love with London, a city where more and more places are becoming exclusive and excluding. Writing this book turned my increasing ambivalence about London into a growing anger, and a mission to help reclaim our city and restore its true heroes and heroines to their rightful place in our history.
The book celebrates movements and individuals. The individuals are not saints; they have both their great moments and their lesser ones. One of the people I feature in the book is a typically contradictory character, Annie Besant, who played a significant part in supporting the Matchwomen’s struggles in 1888. At various times she was a faithful Christian, an atheist, a proponent of women’s rights, a socialist, a champion of the poor, a resident of St john’s Wood with a servant, an anti-imperialist, an advocate of Indian independence and freedom, and a theosophist.
In the book I focus especially on Annie Besant the socialist of the 1880s. I quote her describing London, “with its unjustly rich and its unjustly poor, with its palaces and its slums, its millionaires and its paupers”:
“Be it ours to proclaim that there is a higher ideal in life than that of being first in the race for wealth… Be it ours to declare that health, comfort, leisure, culture, plenty for every individual are far more desirable than the breathless struggle for existence, furious trampling down of the weak by the strong, huge fortunes accumulated out of the toil of others, to be handed down to those who had done nothing to earn them.”
It is a very moving and inspiring quote, but in the context of what has been happening in London, especially to its poorest communities in the last few years, I also find it haunting. Not long after she wrote this, powerful movements arose to challenge the status quo she described.
Socialist and anarchist political groups were consolidating. They developed newspapers and workers’ clubs, and established a regular presence on outdoor free-speech pitches. They fought for the right to protest in their localities and also in more central public spaces, such as Trafalgar Square. A new and militant trade unionism of the low-skilled and unskilled arose and won important gains through strike action, backed by community support trough rent strikes, soup kitchens and benefit events.
Rebel Footprints questions orthodox narratives. It tries to bring to the surface stories hidden within the cracks of official histories. And it tells these stories of campaigns for social justice, as a “history from below” – focusing on ordinary people and the grassroots movements they were part of. It attempts to shed light on the background and inspirations that acted on certain individuals who were either thrown up by these movements or were themselves the instigators of campaigns. But most of these individuals, in order to persuade me to include them in the book, had to demonstrate their commitment to collective action and collective solutions.
One of the running themes throughout the book is the impact of migrants or those of migrant heritage on movements for change in London. I talk about William Cuffay, leader of the London Chartists at the height of their activity in 1842. Cuffay’s father had been born into slavery on St Kitts. I refer to the number of Irish and Irish-heritage workers forming such a significant part of the matchwomen and dockers – whose strike action in 1888 and 1889 gave birth to the new unionism of the low-skilled and unskilled. I write about the Jewish anarchists and socialist movements that flourished among the East European Jewish immigrants and the role played by the newspaper they created – the Arbeter Fraynd – in mobilising and inspiring Jewish immigrants to fight for better lives for all. I also talk about two key people in Battersea’s radical history and the connections between them. John Archer who became London’s first Black mayor in 1913 and Shapurji Saklatvala, who with Archer’s support became the London’s first communist MP in the 1920s.
The book attempts to understand the common threads between movements and the individuals prominent within them and what they learned from each other. It attempts to put our past in a conversation with the present, and hopefully arm us with ideas and inspiration as we prepare to fight some of these same battles all over again.’
David Rosenberg is an educator, writer and tour guide, and author of Battle for the East End. Since 2008, he has led tours of key sites in London’s social and political history, especially in London’s East End, and he teaches London’s radical history through City Lit and the Bishopsgate Institute. David owes his geographical knowledge of London to three years work as a van driver in the early 1980s delivering books to radical and community bookshops.
Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History is available to buy from Pluto Press here.