The walk started at the British Library. Not the Thatcher-ite edifice some imagine – she cut the budget so it was never completed to the original design. The British Library was built on land which was once the railway yards of St Pancras station. Those yards were created by demolishing densely packed slums. An estimated 10,000 people were displaced without compensation. There are few books about life in the slums, but Sarah Wise’s The Blackest Streets is well worth reading. It is based on the Old Nichol in Shoreditch which is now the Boundary Estate. An important point that Wise makes is that substantial profits were made by slum landlords. And when slums were demolished they were generally compensated. This continues today. Slum landlords continue to make profits from poor housing.
There have been different waves of building in this area. In the eighteenth century the land was outside ‘London’. Housing was build which quickly became slums. The area was then developed again. Linda Clarke argues in her book Building Capitalism that this area was one of the first where capitalist relations of production in the building industry became most fully developed. She presents a detailed and fascinating case study of Somers Town. She also points out that histories of capitalism tend to focus on manufacturing; but that construction is just as much a central part of capital accumulation but gets less attention.
On the other side of Midland Road is St Pancras station. It was built for the London Midland Scottish railway and opened in 1868. It was built in a deliberately lavish style in completion to the London North Eastern Railway’s terminal at King’s Cross. That was opened in 1852. The original name of the area was Battlebridge. Kings Cross was called after a statue of George VI which was put up in 1836. However, he was generally loathed and the statue was pulled down by the authorities in 1842. The base became a beer shop before being closed in 1845.
Just about opposite the British Library is Camden Town Hall, formerly St Pancras Town Hall, built in 1937. The leader of the council in 1959 was the socialist John Lawrence. He was one of the councillors who supported a paid May Day bank holiday for council workers. He raised the Red Flag on the town hall to the fury of the Tories and the local jingoists and reactionaries. Lawrence was also involved in the Rent Strike of 1960. This led to two days of rioting which was eventually suppressed by a curfew and the intervention of large numbers of mounted police.
Levita House was designed by George Topham Forrest and completed in 1927. Forrest had visited Vienna and was greatly impressed by the housing programme of the socialist council. Over 64,000 homes were built and supported by kindergartens, community halls, mother and baby clinics, schools, parks. The housing was paid for by a tax on landlords, luxury goods and a city wide housing tax. This was deliberately done to prevent future residents being burdened by huge debt payments. Compare and contrast with PFI. Even today the housing built almost 100 years ago forms the core of working class housing in Vienna. A city which is regularly voted one of the most pleasant to live in.
This socialist ethos of building housing which provides ‘light, air and sun’ (licht, luft und sonne) is evident in many of the blocks in Somers Town. It’s also worth looking out for the decorative motifs; sculpture on the edge of balconies, a mother and child statue, figures and images from fairy tales and children’s story. This was all deliberate, to create a sense of place, particularly for children. Community facilities were often build into the blocks – including in Chalton Street – a pub. And why not?
Oakshott Court in Werrington Street continues the radical housing tradition. Nothing would get built like this now in central London for working class people. Imagine it! Low rise, low cost with loads of space. This was among the last of good quality council housing to be built. In 1979 Thatcher was elected and then introduced the right to buy of council housing. Public housing has been in a ever increasing mess ever since. Flats on Oakshott Court are being bought by private companies, hidden by tax evasion schemes and shell companies based in off shore tax havens. Tenants rights and rents are under constant attack. Over £20bn of housing ‘benefit’ was handed over to private landlords last year in Britain.
This is also the site of where Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin lived in an experimental housing block of the eighteenth century called the Polygon. Mary died there as a result of the birth of her daughter Mary. She wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women – partly as a response to Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. But both of course were responses to the French Revolution and the great changes which were happening as a result of the industrial revolution and the accelerating rate of capitalist development. Both remain books which any serious radical or revolutionary should read.
St Mary’s Church in Eversholt Street is a working, functioning Catholic Church. It continues to provide food, clothing and shelter to the poor. Many of whom are of course working. There are 14 million people in Britain living in poverty. Around 4.5 million of those are described as living in ‘deep poverty’. It was built as a Catholic church. The roots of the Irish community in the area are the navvies who built the canal in 1820 and then the railways throughout the nineteenth century.
In the summer of 1914 there were huge anti-war demonstrations around the world. Unfortunately once war was declared patriotism and nationalism were aggressively promoted. By 1916 however the mood was very different. Many working class families lost their main bread winners; as husbands and sons were called up women found themselves at home, unable to work because of younger children, but without any income. An oppressive means testing was operated. Following the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 the anti-war movement began to grow in strength again. There were constant street meetings and demonstrations in St Pancras. When people complained of food shortages they were told by the authorities to ‘eat less bread’. Soldiers in uniform often attended these meetings and protests. This tradition of politically active soldiers continued in the unemployment protests after the war ended. The Unemployed Movement involved ex-soldiers who organised themselves into platoons with a sergeant they elected from their ranks.
George Padmore lived in Cranleigh Street from 1941 to 1957. Padmore was influenced by Lenin’s theory of imperialism which included support for national liberation movements. He was the main organiser of the Fifth Pan African Congress in 1945 which campaigned for independence for ‘the colonies’.
The Working Men’s College was created in 1854 by Christian Socialists (including John Ruskin) to offset the revolutionary influence of Chartism and perhaps the Revolutions of 1848. The current building dates from 1904.
Goldington House was also completed in 1904. Built as good quality low cost housing for the working classes. George Bernard Shaw was one of the councillors who supported the project. The St Pancras Vestry Hall was in this vicinity (although the exact location eludes me). A radical socialist council in 1919 – 1921 created a relief scheme for the unemployed (many ex-soldiers who were battle hardened and disciplined and often influenced by socialist ideas). The created a maternity and child welfare service and appointed a full time TB officer.
The former St Pancras Workhouse and then infirmary. Workhouses had terrible reputations as miserable oppressive institutions. Families were split up as were married couples of many years standing. ‘Inmates’ could be forgiven to leave. The food was atrocious and everything governed by petty rules and tyrannical overseers. In the early years of the 20th century hundreds would queue outside for a space for the night. The space was in the basement.
An older St Pancras was the site of small pox hospitals in the 18th century. Some of the first inoculations were carried out in these hospitals, and then vaccinations from 1799 onwards. However there were still small pox outbreaks into the 20th century. During one of these epidemics in 1901 medical officers discovered more than 100 families living in cellars.
The arches were well known as a place for street meetings and the starting point of demonstrations. Anarchist-Communists debated with members of the Social Democratic Federation. Suffragettes met here before demonstrations. The Independent Labour Party (who had 30,000 members in Britain before the First World War) met here and sold newspapers.
St Pancras Cemetery was the original burial place of Mary Wollstonecraft (described as a founder of feminism) and William Godwin (described as the founder of anarchism). Across their tomb in 1814, Mary Shelley (their daughter) and Percy Byshe Shelley declared their love for each other. Mary was the author of Frankenstein. One of Shelley’s most famous poems is the Mask of Anarchy which ends with some of the most powerful political verses in the English language
And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration
A volcano heard afar
And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again – again – again
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many, they are few.
The fraud, corruption and lying which Shelley describes in 1819 as a response to the Peterloo massacre can still be recognised today.
The railways bought coal to London and Kings Cross and St Pancras gas works were large industrial areas. Here we should make a point about local history, and how its written and what history is really all about. One of the local history books describes the gas works at the end of the 19th century as ‘held to be the largest and finest in the world’. But what does this mean? I’ve been unable to find a history of these gas works, but histories have been written about the gas works in Beckton and south London. Here we discover that the life span of the gas workers was 40 years or less. That they often worked 12, 16 or 18 hours a day in immense heat. That it was widely believed that such workers could not be organised. But in 1889, the gas workers did organise, helped with the intervention of socialists such as Eleanor Marx. So effective was she as an educator, organiser and agitator that she became an honorary member of their union. When she got up to speak, the gas workers would cheer and shout ‘Come on stoker!’ In 1889 the dockers also organised, again a group of workers seen as ‘impossible to organise’. And the year before this in 1888 women match workers had organised in the Bryant and May factory in Bow.
The area north of Kings Cross is now having large amounts of capital poured into it. From this, capital accumulation and a certain type of development, in the interests of a certain class of people. All of London and many other cities in Britain and around the world are being shaped in a particular way, not in the interests of the mass of people but in the interests of a very small minority.
Google (or rather its parent company Alphabet Inc) is one of the Big Five technology firms – the others are Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Each has a market capitalisation of around $1 trillion. Between 2,500 – 4,500 people work in this building and it has sleeping pods, a running track, massage areas. What it doesn’t have is a union. Can lessons be learned from the women workers at Bryant and May? Of the dockers and the gas workers in 1889? If those workers could be organised, can technology workers? Match workers, dockers, gas workers were sectional in that they worked in particular industries. But technology workers cross all industries and sectors. Technology workers are essential to office work, clerical work, retail, transport and distribution, manufacturing, construction, leisure. As the size and power of capital has increased, so too has the potential power of the working class. Which explains the reluctance and fear of seeming powerful companies to the organised power of workers.
Kings Cross station was completed in 1852. The workforce was key to the formation of trade unions on the railways. That process of building effective trade unions in the railways took several decades; but the success of that union building has led to far better pay and conditions and pensions than anyone could have imagined in the 19th century. Before the First World War the Suffragettes sold newspapers, handed out leaflets and held demonstrations and protests here on a more or less weekly basis. A dozen Suffragettes arrived at the station on the morning of Saturday 25 April 1908 to meet the excursion trains arriving for the FA cup final between Wolves and Newcastle. As the football fans came off the trains they were met by the Suffragettes who started handing out their leaflets. A tense moment when it wasn’t clear which way it might go; but local working class women joined in, flower sellers, snack sellers, on their way to the shops. ‘You should listen to these women’ they said. Huge crowds of fans were won over and as they went off to the march they chanted ‘Votes for Women!’.
Two months later on 21 June 1908 the Suffragettes organised a huge national demonstration. The whole area outside Kings Cross and St Pancras stations was the meeting point for Procession A (one of seven processions across London which converged on Hyde Park). The women were encouraged to wear white and to wear the colours of purple and green. Emmeline Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence led this procession. Behind them huge banners, the Suffragettes organised into squads by ‘captains’. HG Wells, Keir Hardie and many others were on the demonstration. Newspaper reports describe how the ‘Lancashire Lassies’ (as they were called) dealt with hecklers and opposition. These were working class women from the mills and factories of Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Burnley and across the whole industrial area. A few loafers telling them to ‘go home’ were a very puny opposition and were soon shut up. It is estimated that a million people attended the demonstration. But given the distorted version of democracy in Britain (which continues), a few male politicians, elected on a limited franchise were able to deny the vote for women (and many men).
The walk looked at the labour of the working class in Somers Town and looped around to examine the accumulation of capital around Kings Cross. Labour and capital. But it is the extraction of labour from workers which makes this possible. That extraction of labour, the exploitation of labour, the oppression of labour is the basis of capitalist society. It was the great achievement of Marx and Engels to describe this process in the 19th century, a process which continues at a faster speed and with greater intensity today.
In 1860 Karl Marx applied for a job at Kings Cross station as a railway clerk. But no-one could read his handwriting so his application was unsuccessful. Without that distraction he was able to continue his studies of capitalism which he outlined in Capital which was first published in 1867. This book remains one of the keys by which we can unlock what is really going on in this area.
Capital is now squeezing the working class in this area. Not just in the realm of production but also in the realm of housing. What is the future of Somers Town and working class housing? Let us end with a thought.
Christopher Alexander wrote The Timeless Way of Building in the 1970s. Alexander is an architecture and thinker about housing, architecture and urban environments. But his starting point is not buildings or construction methods. It is people. He argues that this should all be predicated by something he calls ‘the quality without a name’. It cannot be properly defined but it embraces a great range of human activity and relationships; meeting friends, hanging out, watching the world go by, enjoying a walk by the sea or a sunset; showing kindness, people showing kindness to you. None of this can be quantified, monetised, financialised or commodified. And therein lies part of the struggle between Labour and Capital; whether the world is about people, or about profit.
Alexander, Christopher – The Timeless Way of Building
This is a lovely book with what feels at first to be a tangential approach to housing, architecture and building. But it turns out to be stimulating, thought provoking and highly original. A great starting place to understand what housing could be.
Bauer, Catherine – Modern Housing
This is based on extensive research and a trip across Europe in the early 1930s. This is a brilliant book. As Bauer said ‘Homes are more than housing’. There is a super video introduction by Professor Barbara Penner here.
Clarke, Linda – Building Capitalism
I have found this quite dense but Clarke’s approach is a good one. She looks at the development of capitalist relations of production in the construction trades with particular reference to Somers Town. And she points out that the history of capitalism is too often written as a history of manufacture with little if anything said about role of construction. And while factories are in specific places, buildings are everywhere and define the urban landscape and environment.
Dangerfield, George – The Strange Death of Liberal England
The irrepressible Paul Foot wrote a review of this book here. It needs no other introduction.
Foot, Paul – Shelley’s Revolutionary Year
A good introduction to Shelley and contains many of Shelley’s revolutionary poetry.
Gabriel, Mary – Love and Capital
Karl Marx himself states in the introduction to Capital that the book will require deal of effort on the part of the reader. If you want a different introduction to Marx, and to discover more of what he was like as a person, this is great. It’s a very warm and humane introduction to Marx, his family and his milieu.
Hatherley, Owen – Red Metropolis
An introduction to the history of municipal socialism in London. There’s a review here which suggests that socialism is more than town halls.
Holmes, Rachel – Sylvia Pankhurst
A big book but Sylvia Pankhurst deserves nothing less. Review here.
Kapp, Yvonne – The Air of Freedom
This is a good introduction to the development of the new unions in 1888 – 1889, focusing on the gas workers.
Minton, Anne- Big Capital: Who is London For?
Concise and well researched overview on how capital continues its assault on labour. Review here.
Pankhurst, Sylvia – The Suffragette Movement
This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the Suffragettes, the political differences and the discussions over strategy and tactics. Plenty of copies for sale on the t’interweb.
Pankhurst, Sylvia – The Home Front
This is not an easy book to get hold of, but to understand what was going on in Britain during the First World War it is essential reading. It might be possible to get a copy through inter-library loans.