Smallholders - on countdown

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Smallholders, the pets and garden centre of  113-117, Woodgrange Road, has had a brief reprieve from its impending closure.

Smallholders, today
Earlier this summer, Kevin Shaw, the shop's proprietor, was given three months notice to quit the premises, as his lease was nearing its end. Kevin was able to amiably negotiate a year's extension from the leaseholder, and is now on the look-out for new premises, from next September.

Smallholders - like Barry's, the butcher and Websters, the iron mongers - has been one of the fixtures on the Woodgrange/Woodford Road strip for decades, offering a retail plus professional advice and experience for relevant E7 and beyond shoppers.

The outlet was originally established by John Frost in 1948. His family still has the freehold on the property and  is looking to sell, as part of tidying up his business affairs.

Originally from Ridley Road, Kevin joined John, as a 13-year old "Saturday boy" in 1985, and has been working at the shop ever since - apart from an unsuccessful five month stint,  in the late 80's, as a pipefitter. Kevin took over as proprietor in 1999, and has since transformed the business.

Kevin at work
The shop's original main selling points were pets and plants, but times have changed and the business focus has changed with them. Kevin sells few live pets, these days - there isn't the demand, and only has a couple of busy times a year on the "plant" side now.

The sale of live animals is tightly controlled by legislation, and inspected regularly by local authority animal inspectors.  Kevin and his shop have never had problems on this front, but he says the demand for pet animals has declined locally because of the changing demographic profile of the area, and the fact that so many Forest Gate people live in flats, these days.

When plants were bigger business
He has a much greater turn-over of pet food and toys than he does for animals they are aimed at. But even here, he suffers from strong competition from pet supermarkets. He makes only pennies from packages of pet food, and a ruthless accountant would advise him to discontinue the lines - as they take up too much space for too little reward. He continues with them, though, mainly as a service to long-standing customers.

Pet supplies - not profitable lines; poor
financial returns on considerable shelf space
His plant business suffers now from competition from large garden centres, although his Christmas tree offers are good value and save a transport problems for local purchasers.  The quality of his  plant seedlings in the summer, provides him with a reasonable stream of business. As far as fresh flowers are concerned, he is squeezed at one end of the market by the cheap bunches from supermarkets and petrol stations and at the more exotic and high end, by florists, such as Molly and Bill's a little further along the road.

Kevin's major business, these days, is in the area of exotic fish - as a visit to his website will testify. He reckons it now accounts for 70% of his turnover. A visit inside, and you'll soon find out why.  It almost feels as if you have stepped into an aquarium!

From the website: some of the fish on offer
Such has been the success of the "fishy business" that Kevin has almost doubled the floor space of the shop, since he first took over, those 19 years ago, with most of the additional space occupied by tanks of exotic fish.

They have become fashionable, and Kevin is able to get them from almost all over the world - on demand.  Importing of fish is, of course, subject to animal welfare and health and hygiene restrictions - the fish have to go through a quarantine period having entered the UK, for example. And Kevin knows his way around these complexities.

Smallholders will be homeless in a year, unless Kevin can find another shop.  He admits he's been well treated by his former boss and present landlord, and is grateful for the support he has received.

 But rental of an equivalent space locally will cost in excess of £20k per year, before taking into account business rates, fuel bills and the other overheads.  Sums like this are simply unaffordable, even without taking into consideration the limitations on trade imposed by parking restrictions on shopping streets in Newham.

Almost an aquarium today:
exotic fish and supplies by the tank load
So - why doesn't Kevin go down the road of so many of Forest Gate's other innovative retailers - and get a railway arch? The problem, he says, would be the vibrations from the trains as they pass, they would disturb, frighten and in extreme cases, possibly kill the fish.

Kevin is having to look further afield for an affordable relocation. Further into Essex is an option - as Barry the butcher tried, before returning to Forest Gate. Kevin could offer a free delivery service on appropriate orders to local customers, should he move further east.  But, as Barry discovered, that can be easier said than done.

Hurry down - while stocks last!
If Kevin has less than a year to go, give him a good send off. A Christmas tree there, in December, perhaps? A new interest in exotic fish? Or planting out his seedlings next summer - as a fond farewell?

The Edwardian Upton Hunger Marchers, and others influenced by Plaistow's Land Grabbers

Friday, 12 October 2018

The Plaistow Land Grabbers actions, see previous post, provided inspiration and stimulus to a local resident, William Pooley, who soon organised Hunger Marches and the "Back to the Land" movement, as a solution to unemployment in Edwardian England. 

Pooley and his activities provide a colourful, if eccentric, chapter in the radical, anti-poverty politics of pre World War 1 West Ham, and the south-east more generally. They are the primary focus of this article.

The Land Grabbers were also the inspiration to a community garden established in the south of Newham, a century after the original fizzled out. The Abbey Gardens are featured at the end of this article.

Huge thanks to Dr Mark Gorman for sourcing some of the great images, here.

William Pooley was a fascinating character.

He was born in Castle Acre, Norfolk in May 1856, the illegitimate son of an agricultural labourer. By the age of five he was still living there with his mother and an illegitimate sibling, in the house of his grandparents.  The family were all agricultural labourers. A decade later he was, himself, an ag lab, living in West Hexham, Norfolk with his mother and step-father, a shepherd.

He married Catherine Gurney (no connection to the affluent Upton Gurneys), daughter of a bricklayer in Kingston, Surrey on Christmas Eve 1877, and within four years the couple were living at 39 Cypress Place, Beckton, where he was described as an "Eating House Keeper".

A decade later, in 1891, he lived at 175 Queen's Road, Plaistow (subsequently built over by more modern housing) when his occupation was given as a "Temperance Drinks Manufacturer". The couple had nine children, and were at the same address in 1901.

William Pooley was described as an employer, working at home with two of his sons, Herbert and William in the firm in 1901. He began to spread his business wings soon after this, however, and within four years began to display, publicly, the first signs of the showmanship that characterised the rest of his life.

By 1905 he was advertising himself as an estate agent and auctioneer in the Essex Press, promoting "Pooley's East London Auction Repository", which was, in fact his home address.  He was offering businesses for sale: confectioners, land plots in Essex, dining rooms, grocers in Leyton, a blacksmith's in Chelmsford and apparently, his own Mineral Water business (for £175).  See advert, below.

He subsequently moved just around the corner, to 149 Plashet Road, which he described as his "East London Estate Office", offering the same services - see photo of premises, today. 

He was clearly inspired by the Triangular Camp, established by the very local Plaistow Land Grabbers - which set him off in a completely different direction, although still following his business as a soft drinks manufacturer. 

One press report, from the Grays and Tilbury Gazette of 25 May 1907 described him as its "the chief mover behind" the Triangular Camp. But, given his proclivity for self promotion and aggrandisement - see later - this is probably an overstatement, as he scarcely features in contemporaneous press reports of the Camp.

Pooley, above, as estate agent in
1905. Below 149 Plashet Road today

Pooley became a flamboyant anti-unemployment campaigner in the south-east of England, and attracted not a little notoriety and scepticism for his actions and claims.

Shortly after their eviction from the Triangular Camp, in late August 1906, the Land Grabbers  set up another camp, just around the corner, in Pooley's yard in Queen's Road, with their “Commander” Ben Cunningham in charge. To generate funds, Pooley, charged visitors a 1d. entrance fee, for which a glass of ginger beer was served; thus combining his convictions with his business interests, as he was to do for much of the rest of his life. 

Concerts and talks were also on offer to visitors and campers, alike. “Pooley’s Triangular Camp”, as it was called, attracted large numbers of visitors.  Its fate is unclear, but it was short-lived (see press cutting, below).

East London Advertiser 18 August 1906
A new body was set up, the “Right to Live Council”, with Cunningham as its chairman. Its aims were “to bring together labourless land and workless labour” by letting small plots of land at nominal rents, and establishing workshops for unemployed workers.  Anticipating “a terrible winter for the workless”, Cunningham’s committee aimed to force the state to take action.

The Grays and Tilbury Gazette, referred to above, provides a flavour of the "hunger march". The press report continued: "A band of Barking Unemployed are on their way to Southend",  accompanied by the Metropolitan Police. In Leigh-on-Sea:

Arrangements had been made for them to stay in an empty house along the Hadleigh Road, not far from the Elms Hotel. The house is used as a wine store by Mr William Pooley, who has works at Barking etc and who has a great interest in the Barking Unemployed Fund and was the chief mover in forming the Triangular Camp in Plaistow. Mr Pooley has named the home "Paradise Gardens", although it is somewhat difficult to discern the appropriateness of the title.

The last sentence is a somewhat tongue in cheek reference to Pooley's penchant for exaggerating the importance of buildings, by allocating them rather grandiose titles - as will be seen later in this article.

The Gazette reported that there were about 60 people on the march and that according to Pooley: "The object is an account of the starving unemployed, who are willing to work and unable to get it. They are in terrible straits"

The intention of the march was to collect money in Southend for the hungry wives and children of the marchers.  The Gazette said: "Mr Pooley added with pride he and his sons cooked a fish for each man and gave them half a pint of ginger wine."

William Pooley with his "curious looking vehicle"
and hunger marchers campaigning through Essex.
Pooley, in the only surviving photo of him, is
standing waving his arms on a platform
on the vehicle. 

The photo, above, was the front of a postcard, published by Pooley. The message on the obverse was: 

'Back to the Land Movement', headquarters Pooley's Hall, Upton Park (ed: his house!), with City Office: 22 Coleman Street EC. As a result of the 'Hunger March' on July 29th last (as represented from a photograph on the other side) a large number of unemployed have received permanent work on the land, Road-building, etc. 

Similar 'Marches' organised weekly entailing considerable expense are providing equally encouraging and successful. Subscriptions and all other practical help earnestly and urgently needed, and will be gratefully received. W Pooley - founder and organiser.
Pooley and his marchers were on the road again, and in trouble with the police, the following year, when he lead a “right to live” march from Upton Park to Trafalgar Square - the demonstration was broken up with some force by the police.

   The Ross Gazette of 8 October 1908 reported:

Riotous scenes took place on Sunday afternoon at the close of an unemployed and "Right-to-Live" demonstration held in Trafalgar Square, London, resulting in the arrest of Stewart Gray, the leader of the Hunger Marchers and six others, who belonged to the "marchers".

The demonstration was organised by Mr William Pooley of the "Back-to-the-Land" Society. Marching from Upton Park, the "Hunger Marchers", about fifty in number arrived at Trafalgar Square at about three o'clock.

Several thousands of people, a large proportion of whom were unemployed, from various suburbs had gathered to meet them.

Ross Gazette 8 October 1908

The meeting passed a resolution that the government receives a deputation: "with regard to purchasing land by which the working man can live by his labour".

Photo of Stewart Gray at the Trafalgar
Square demonstration, from Illustrated London
News 10 October 1908
As the meeting broke up, seven men were arrested for public order offences.

Pooley, chairman of the “Back to the Land” Society, was seen as a colourful character, whose “chariot”, carrying both himself and a band of musicians, became a familiar feature on “hunger demonstrations".

According to the Nottingham Evening Post, of 13 January 1910, he was a "Back to the Land" candidate for South West Ham in the election of 1910.  This sounds like fanciful story telling by Pooley, for there was no such candidature in the General Election in that year, for the seat held by Will Thorne.

Nonetheless, the Evening Post went on to report that his election address was dominated by quotations from the scriptures, announced that: "With the abolition of the workhouse, there'll be no separation (ed: by gender in the wards) at Pooley's Happy Homes. Hallelujah!"

Pooley told the paper that he planned to leave no stone unturned: "until we get the people back to the land."

On the back of the "election address" were the objectives of the "Associated Garden Village", with "The whole scheme to be carried out by Pooley's Glorious Army."

Later in 1910 he led another march through his home county of Norfolk with the stated intention of petitioning the king at Sandringham. The march petered out, but not before Pooley had been involved in a fracas with local farmers. Described as “thickset and robust” and dressed in a frock coat and silk hat Pooley appeared to have access to funds, which financed a number of ventures apart from the marches, including a farm colony on Canvey Island, and various institutions in east and west London to support the unemployed.

The Norfolk News of 15 October 1910 had this to say about the march:

A curious looking vehicle, quite unlike anything seen in ordinary road traffic, entered Norwich on Thursday (ed: see photo). .. It was drawn by two hardy looking ponies, and on all sides stood out in bold letters words which spoke of an ardent campaign ... most conspicuous was the injunction: "Back to the Land" and the name of Pooley.

The paper variously described Pooley as: "reputed author of The Triangle Camp Plaistow", of "The Hunger Marcher Movement", of "Pooley Farm Colony, Winter Gardens, Canvey Island", with "headquarters at Pooley's Hall, Upton Park" (ed: his house at 66 Plashet Road - see photo, today - yet more aggrandisement of the ordinary, to create effect), "with city offices and branches all over the land."

Norfolk News 15 October 1910
The Norfolk News described some of the information produced by the marchers (Pooley), as being in a little song and hymn book, urging "Back to The Land" policy, clearly influenced by his childhood:

Part of it is vaguely scriptural, some of it is broadly humorous, but all of it passionately advocating the simple joys of the agriculturalist.

Mr Pooley makes a fine figurehead for his campaign, but his thick set, robust figure, clad in a frock coat and silk hat and the massive head and a full-grown beard hardly suggests the "hunger marcher".

Pooley sang and preached "back to the land" messages, accompanied by a man on a harmonium, as the marchers stopped in different settlements on their marches, in an effort to raise funds for the families of the poor marchers.

He said that there was room for 2 million men and their families, on the land - which would solve the problem of unemployment.  The newspaper said that:"His literature talks of establishing a chain of self-supporting garden villages, within 50 miles of the metropolis".

66 Plashet Road, today.  Pooley's house, which
he described as "Pooley's Hall"
Three months later, Pooley was in court in Norfolk for non-payment of rates, for a stable in Oak Street and a shop in Golden Ball Street Norwich. Quite where he obtained the money for these properties is unclear - as he was not, despite his pretensions to the contrary, a man of wealth or substance, as details of his estate, published four years later, showed.

It is not clear, either, whether Pooley had, by now tired of the both the estate agency and auctioning business, as the 1911 census continued to show him as a Mineral Water Manufacturer and employer, based at 62 and 66a Plashet Road, from where he conducted his business.

Later that year he was involved in a court case, in west London for altogether very different activities, which may raise an eyebrow, today, and show a very different side and priority for the man.

The Norfolk News of 11 November 1911 reported the strange case, where details of Pooley's life style were revealed, in passing. He was described as running "Pooley's Castle" (another exaggeration), a former police court in Brook Green, Hammersmith. Pooley, who confirmed his interest in unemployed people, was said to have used "the Castle" to house hunger marchers and was described as a non-alcoholic drinks manufacturer. 

Quite how, or why, he was running a "Castle" in Hammersmith is unclear, but equally unclear is why he ran what was described as "Pooley's Ark" in Fulham Cross - also in west London. It was described in court as being an "Abode of Love ... inhabited chiefly by boys and girls."

This seems to have been Pooley's last significant public foray before his death two and a half years later, but his obituary in the Fulham Chronicle on 24 April 1914, penned by someone clearly unsympathetic to him paints a picture of a complex man. Part showman, part drinks manufacturer, part friend of the unemployed, part Christian - with just a hint of the charlatan about him. 

The article said that he was known as "Father" Pooley at the Ark, which "became notorious in the district as the centre of the professional unemployed of the district." The report continued:

Pooley was a picturesque figure, with long grey beard, usually displayed himself in a frock coat, very shiny at the seams, a top hat of antique shape and a glaring pair of pepper and salt 'reach-me-downs' (ed: second hand trousers).

Pooley was a mob orator of considerable ability and he combined much word philosophy with a good deal of business acumen. He was to restore Eden to earth by placing the unemployed back to the land.

As an earnest of his intentions, Pooley held open-air demonstrations at Fulham Cross and Waltham Green and, incidentally, raked in a good many subscriptions towards the necessary expenses.

But, the unemployed whom he gathered about his banner: "The earth is the land's and the fullness thereof" blazoned across it, never got back to the land.

"Father" Pooley found them employment at very low rates in the manufacture of mineral waters and British wines. The sale of these was promoted by a door-to-door canvass, conducted by "genuine unemployed" who made the ground of the appeal to buy the fact that they received a commission on each bottle sold.

The mineral water cart, with its attendant troop of canvassers, was quite a familiar spectacle in Fulham and district. It travelled far afield, too, and right down to Portsmouth. Pooley's men spread the news of his wonderful wares and his fine philosophy. There was one distinctive feature about the selling which conveys much to the intelligent reader.

They never worked the same district twice. A typical "unemployed" - and in those years it was a distinctive business - told the present writer the secret:

"Why guv'ner", he confessed with a cynical smile, "if yer were to go to an 'ouse where you'd sold a bottle before, they 'it yer over the 'ed with the empty". Volumes would not have said more.

Pooley always gave an air of religious sanction to his "philosophic labours, and by much quoting of the Scripture. His favourite "Back to the Land" banner bore the text; "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", though why this fact gave Pooley and his followers any claim to it was never explained.

He had a remarkable knack of getting hold of soft-headed parsons and stupid church people and securing a collection. ... Pooley, himself, sang the hymns and attended to the devotional exercises with fine fervour.

He died of syncope (fainting) on 16 April 1914, in a shop in Albert Road, North Woolwich, apparently, as the press reported with some glee, "after eating a very large meal". As one headline put it, the “strange fate of a hunger marcher”. 

His death certificate registered his home address as 66 Plashet Road, and the sole beneficiary of his will, published six months later, was his eldest son, Herbert - who received a total of £175 (less than £20,000 in today's terms).

There is barely a trace of a footnote in the various social histories of life in Edwardian Britain of William Pooley, but  a man with local connections and a colourful past surely demands one. The above piece is written in the spirit of providing it!

Fast forward a century

Exactly century after the Plaistow Land Grabbers occupation, a group of residents from around Abbey Road in Stratford  - about a mile away from the occupation site - took a much more legitimate route to secure a similar plot of land for local use, and established Abbey Gardens. Working with Newham Council, they established a community garden there. In doing so, they have helped create a memorial to the Plaistow Land Grabbers.

Abbey Gardens, today - run on the principles
 of the Triangle Camp - right down
to lay-out of growing beds
Like the Plaistow land, this ground was largely unused at the time of the creation of the gardens. There is within it, however, a small patch of land of archaeological interest. It has been surveyed and excavated twice by the Museum of London and declared to be the site of the entrance to gatehouse to the 12th century Cistercian Stratford Langthorne Abbey. As such, it is protected from development by English Heritage.  Again, like the Plaistow plot, it is almost adjacent to a railway line - this time the DLR, and is next to the Abbey Road station.

Many of those involved in the development of Abbey Gardens were inspired by the Plaistow Land Grabbers and reproduced the principal surviving photo of the group on the outside of the headquarters they established on the site. They have also inscribed the message painted on "The Triangle Hotel" on the back wall of the site - "What Will The Harvest Be?" (see photo, below).

Museum of London excavation of Langthorne
 Abbey gatehouse - an artist's impression of
which is reproduced, below

Volunteers have created 30 raised triangular growing beds - inspired by "The Triangle Camp" - in the garden and run it as a collective allotment, or community garden, similar to that in Forest Gate. No individual "owns" or "rents" any of the raised plots - they are, instead, tended collectively. There are a number of sessions each week when volunteers are encouraged to tend the plants and share the delights of the open space.

Above and below, Abbey Garden's homage to
the Plaistow Land Grabbers, today

Friends of Abbey Gardens are always on the look-out for volunteers and support. They often run events for local people and have started to host a local market, on Saturdays. They can be reached via their website: and have both a Twitter (@_AbbeyGardens)  and Facebook presence ( They would be delighted to hear from you.

Footnotes. Much of the contents of this article has been extrapolated from the archives of Ancestry and the archives of the British Newspaper Library. Our thanks are extended to  The Friends of Abbey Gardens website (see above) for some of the images reproduced of Abbey Gardens. We wish them well.

A nod at our neighbours (4): the Plaistow Land Grabbers - part 1

Sunday, 30 September 2018

This is the first of a two-part post on a remarkable piece of direct action taken in the early years of the twentieth century by "The Plaistow Land Grabbers" to address the serious issue of unemployment in the borough of West Ham. The second part, to follow, looks at activities inspired by the Land Grabbers, at the time and subsequently. Their actions are largely forgotten today, but were an important chapter in the life of the developing and radical borough of West Ham.

These two posts are the culmination of a number of pieces of research undertaken by this site and contributors, Mark Gorman and Peter Williams and the active participation of modern day public space cultivators, such as the Abbey Gardens collective in Stratford and allotmenteers, Kevin and Elaine Fieldhouse, who currently tend some of the land taken over 110 years ago by the Land Grabbers.

West Ham had Britain's fastest growing population as the twentieth century dawned, and had already gained a reputation for political radicalism. The borough included the constituency of  the country's first socialist/labour MP - Kier Hardie, in 1892, and hosted the country's first socialist/labour local authority, for twelve months, six years later.

That was the backdrop to a dramatic piece of direct action taken by local unemployed people, in the borough, within a decade. This, is the story of the Plaistow Land Grabbers.
Iconic photo of the "Plaistow Landgrabbers",
 in the triangle Camp, July 1906. "Captain"
Cllr Ben Cunningham, front, far left.
"Organiser"/ "Minister of Agriculture"
Bill King, third from right.
There was a surge of unemployment in Britain in 1902, following demobilisation from the Boer War and the heavily industrialised and intensely populated borough was badly hit. The local Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF)actively began to campaign, door-to-door, against unemployment in the southern part of the borough - principally around Canning Town - by 1904.

Forest Gate resident, anarchist and prominent
anti-unemployment campaigner at this time,
Charles Mowbray
Open air meetings were held in The Grove, Stratford and in the Town Hall, addressed by, among others, the SDF leader, Henry Hyndman. Meanwhile, local anarchists - Charles Mowbray (see here for details), among them - were  agitating against unemployment in West Ham in December 1904, following the laying off of a large number of dockers, due to a protracted period of heavy fog on the river. Matters came to a head when protests against unemployment were held at local churches on Christmas Day that year, and the protestors were threatened with arrest.

The camp exercised the interest of
national publications, like The Sketch
In an attempt to diffuse the tension, the Liberal candidate, and later MP, for the Forest Gate Parliamentary seat, CFG Masterman (see here) met with Mowbray and others at the Liverpool Street hotel. Masterman noted, in passing,  that Mowbray insisted on keeping his overcoat on throughout the meeting, because he had sold or pawned his jacket because of his straightened financial circumstances.

The following year Mowbray and others demanded that the, by now, Municipal Alliance (a broad-based anti- socialist group) council met to discuss unemployment locally. The council rejected the request, so a meeting of 1,500 was organised inside Stratford Town Hall in August 1905, where it was said that the 12,000 local unemployed would not remain docile for much longer, if steps weren't taken to alleviate their position.

In October of that year, Mowbray addressed another meeting of 1,200 at Stratford Town Hall, where "songs, recitations and speeches were given." It was decided that 200 "heads of family" would march to West Ham Workhouse (located in Leytonstone) the following week, with Mowbray at its head. 

Mowbray said the intent was to tear down the gates and demand abolition of the Poor Law in the district and the introduction of directly employed labour by the local council.

The protests fizzled out, but the Municipal Alliance-dominated council became alarmed enough to establish a local Distress Committee. This established a farm colony at South Ockendon, Essex. None of these measures, however, achieved much due, in a large part, to the high number of casual labourers, especially in the docks.

It was an unhappy period for the Labour councillors, powerless after their recent electoral success.

Mowbray continued to agitate on the issue of unemployment in the area and in the following year was linking up with local Independent Labour Party (ILP) councillor, Harry Baldock - husband of local suffragette leader, Minnie (see here and here) - on the issue, in Canning Town.

Meanwhile, SDF-lead  unemployment agitation and campaigning in the north of England  (Levenshulme, Bradford, Salford and Leeds)resulted in the occupation of land locally, for short periods of time, to draw attention to the plight of the jobless.

A combination of this SDF action elsewhere, and the plight and agitation of unemployed workers in West Ham, inspired a local SDF plumber and councillor, Ben Cunningham, and 14 unemployed workers to march on a piece of council-owned, vacant land of approximately three acres, just south of the railway line between Upton Park and Plaistow, on 13 July 1906 - and occupy it.

Headlines from Stratford Express,
July 1906, where the Land Grabbers
are referred to as "Land Jumpers"
(According to Ancestry, Ben Cunningham seems likely to have been born in Croydon in 1860 and moved with his family to West Ham, as a young boy. He lived in Hermit Road, Canning Town, at the times of the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses - although in different houses: at 53, 85 and 67 respectively. He was a self-employed  plumber who had seven children and died in South East Essex in September 1937).

The East End Local Advertiser of 21 July 1906 had this to say:

"The plot temporarily in the hands of the out-of-works is bounded by Northern Road, St Mary's Road, Southern Road and Western Road and is commonly known as Gravel Fields or the Ballast Hole. Some twelve years ago it was accepted as a sand and gravel pit by the municipal authorities and when worked to the depth of 15ft - 20ft it was filled up with street sweepings and the like. This was completed some three or four years ago and since then it has been lying idle, although during the winter before last 500 unemployed were set tidying up the ground and were paid 9/6d each for two days work (ed: 47p, today, or approx £55, adjusted for inflation). The land will be useless for building purposes, as make good of this sort takes about ten years to settle down and become solid."

This land is today partially occupied by Southern Road Primary school and the St Mary's allotments. It had been the subject of an unsuccessful motion at West Ham Council urging the council to allow the local Unemployed Aid Society to have access to it, for allotment-type purposes,  the night before the occupation.

Rare humour - and almost sympathy -
from the Stratford Express, 28 July 1906
By the end of 13 July 1906, 20 unemployed workers were cultivating the land on the site, which was soon known as the Triangle Camp; by Monday, Savoy cabbages had been planted. The occupiers received thousands of young plants and seeds from supporters. Broccoli, and celery were soon added to the crops under cultivation.

The camp was well enough established to have
post-cards of it reproduced - see above and
below - both appearing to show the same
sign-writer at work!

By the Tuesday most of the planting had been completed and the men busied themselves watering the dried ground. Donations,  not just of plants - but food and money too - began to flow in, from well wishers. A Joseph Terrett donated a lamb, which the men dined on, accompanied by peas from another donor. (Terrett seems likely, according to Ancestry, to have been a 33-year old butcher, then living in Park Road, Plaistow).

The same evening some of the men's wives joined the campers and entertainment was provided, via a mouth organ and a wind-up gramophone.

Water supply proved to be a problem for the Land Grabbers, until someone discovered a disused well near the site. This was successfully reactivated, to such an extent that one of the campers was expelled from it for drinking "somewhat liberally" from it!

Ben Cunningham was appointed "Captain" of the occupation and Bill King, "Minister of Agriculture". King decided the land should be divided into four triangular plots, and the site soon gained the name The Triangle Camp. A "headquarters" was established on the site, built from canvas and wooden poles, and was soon dubbed The Triangle Hotel.

Managed by Cunningham, it provided over -night accommodation and dining space for the squatters/land-grabbers. A sign was erected, reading "You are requested not to spit on the floor of this hotel".
Sympathetic national news coverage from
 The Graphic, 21 July 1906 - with the heading
"Every man his own landowner" -
The Plaistow Land-Grabbers at work.
On the wall at the rear of the plot, someone had painted in large white letters "What Will The Harvest Be?" - see photo of the land-grabbers.  Ben Cunningham told the Stratford Express that later someone had later added, perhaps intended tongue in cheek, but what turned out to be prophetic,  the words "One month's hard".

Collections were held to support the camp and its occupants, with one collector, 60-year old labourer, James Cleaver, arrested for begging. It seems likely, according to Ancestry, that he was a bricklayers' labourer, then living at Burnham Street, by the Victoria Docks.

One of the occupiers, named Francis, turned an old cigar box into a collecting box and used the money donated by the curious and local supporters to buy bread and cheese for the Grabbers. The Land-Grabbers also received financial help from William Pooley, a local businessman, who became the leading figure in the “Back to the Land” campaign (see the second part of this post for a full consideration of his role).
West Ham's mayor, Alderman Byford, wrote to Cunningham, telling him that, as a magistrate, he was going to take action against the illegal occupation. Cunningham wrote back: "With all due respect to your worship's opinion, I don't consider that I have acted illegally in taking possession of disused land which rightfully belongs to the people."

Land Grabbers remembered today in Abbey
Gardens, Stratford.  For story, see next episode
On 26 July a large body of police accompanied council highways official George Blain to reclaim the land. Blain, himself, was not unsympathetic to the occupation and is said to have donated money to support them. The Land Grabbers were encouraged by a crowd of between 3,000 and 5,000. The Western Times reported that "there was no disorder, and the utmost good feeling prevailed." Blain and company beat a strategic retreat.

The crowd was addressed by French syndicalist Mde Sorgue and Tottenham SDF member Herbert Thomas, who supported the action and exhorted revolution. Others on the left, including local SDF MP, Will Thorne and luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw, however, distanced themselves from the occupation.

Later in July Justice Bricknell granted the Mayor writs against the Land Grabbers and Blain returned to the camp, accompanied by several police, and began to clear it. Cunningham refused to go peacefully, and was carried off.

The "hotel", which included the squatters bedding, was pulled down.

A second group of squatters then occupied the site, but were driven off by the police, later that night
Cunningham and others returned to the camp on 4 September, but were denied entry by up to 120 police and 30 council officials. Ben Cunningham was subsequently imprisoned for contempt of court and stayed in Brixton until he apologised for his actions, on 11 October. Two others were charged with offences connected to the 4 September return.

George Pollard, a 35 year old gardener, from Plaistow was accused of assaulting George Blain. He refused to take his hat off when he appeared in court and the police removed it for him. He told the court he was an anarchist-communist and had been looking for work from morning until night, without success. He had six children and told the court he could not get relief payments from the council, saying: "While we have capitalists, be they Christian or otherwise, we are bound to have distress."

Pollard was sentenced to six weeks, with hard labour (oh - the irony, work at last!).

Thomas Evans was charged with assaulting Alfred Thomas Taylor, a West Ham Council official on 4 September and was fined twenty shillings, or 14 days imprisonment in default of payment.

Land Grabbers slogan recalled on
walls of Abbey Road Gardens, today
The magazine, Literary Review, reported on the "anarchist heroes", commenting: "These are the kind of heroes who are supposed by numerous sentimental dreamers in this country to be heralding the social revolution."

Although notionally "defeated" in their attempts to relieve distress through the Triangle Camp, the Land Grabbers did not quietly fade away - but provided inspiration for a new movement - see the next post.

Ben Cunningham  was disowned by the SDF for his actions and was de-selected as its candidate for council election.  He stood as an independent and came a poor third in the election later that year - apparently never again surfacing in formal local politics.

The extent of the scourge of unemployment in the area at the time was illustrated by the fact that  over 1,000 local residents emigrated to Canada and New Zealand, the following year - on government advice.

The area of Triangle Camp, itself, was approved by West Ham Council to become council allotments, in 1910, after the Labour Group had taken control of the council.

We visited the site, now known as the St Mary's allotment site, recently and it remains a successful, thriving allotment site. There are around 130 plots on the site, with a waiting list of the same number again.  It is the most popular in Newham, because of its position. Also, somewhat surprisingly because of the richness of its soil. Given the fact that the Land Grabbers moved onto essentially a council dump, the rich state of the soil today is a testament to the hard work put in by a century of allotmenteers.

St Mary's allotments today, thriving over
a century after the Land Grabbers took occupation
The plot holders are very diverse - almost mirroring the racial composition of the borough.  Those with South Asian and Caribbean heritage have done a fine job in cultivating crops from their countries of heritage and origin. So, a fine array of squashes, together with pumpkin and okra are to be found, among many other crops unfamiliar to the traditional English garden.

There are schools on three sides of the allotments: Southern Road Primary, Plaistow Primary and Lister Secondary. 

There was an open day when we visited and over 50 people attended, the main scene of the activity took place on the position of the Triangle Hotel - see photo below. The allotments are run by a committee, featuring the very convivial Elaine and Kevin Fieldhouse.

Site of the Triaingle Hotel today - equally
welcoming on the open day on which
we recently visited
 Footnote We are indebted to Nick Heath from the blog and Neil Fraser, author of Over the Border: the Other East End, Function Books, pub 2012 £9.99 for much of the information in this article. Other sources include and the

All change at All Saints

Thursday, 20 September 2018

As we concluded the second part of our history of the Church of England in Forest Gate, the Brentwood Diocese undertook the second of three consultations on the fate of All Saints church.

This post reproduces the information boards on display at the event, and encourages readers to take advantage of the feedback process the church and potential developers are operating (click on the images to enlarge).  See the end of this post for details.

All Saints was built in the 1880's, as part of the explosion of church building highlighted in the last post on this blog - initially as an iron church, in 1880 and finally the present building in 1886.

As with other local churches, All Saints has seen a decline in congregations since its heyday.  In the 1970's its accompanying hall and vicarage were demolished, to be replaced by the housing now surround the church.

The church itself is no longer fit-for-purpose for its congregation. It is too big, the floor space is inflexible, and cannot accommodate the range of activities the church leaders would like. Its fuel bills are huge and rising repairs and maintenance costs make it a completely uneconomic building.

The local congregation, rather like that of Woodgrange Methodist church (see here), would like to demolish the church and replace it with a more modern building and around 30 flats.  The proposal is that all of the flats should be for local "key workers" (teachers, nurses, police etc), be managed by a housing association, with nomination rights in the hands of Newham Council.

The consultation is the second of three that will be held about the development. The church is in discussion with the Council's planners over the possibilities the site offers. Once these are firmed up into more concrete proposals, the third and final stage of the consultation process will be held - next year.

The hope is that with the maximum goodwill and co-operation, the building process could be completed within three years.

The congregation want a modern fit-for-purpose building for their various activities. The present church, however, is host to a number of important historic and artistic artifacts, that the church is keen to preserve.

These include the large, dominating, triptych windows that feature in some of the illustrations, below. This was created by Paul Woodroffe, a prominent Arts and Crafts movement ecclesiastical window designer, with works in St John's cathedral, New York.

There a are a number of other, less artistically significant side stained glass widows, which have a local historic importance, being memorials to significant parishioners In addition to the familiar WW1 war memorial plaque, there are two much rarer stone plaques listing all the members of the parish who fought in WW1.

The church also features some interesting and quite rare examples of Arts and Crafts movement ceramic tiles.

The current congregation of the church, quite frankly, has little interest in these features, but the Diocese is anxious to save and preserve them in whichever way seems most appropriate. They have officers and contractors dedicated to the preservation of these items, and are sometimes able to lever external money in order to help with their preservation.

They have committed to work with a small group of local social and art historians to determine what, ideally, should be saved and where and how it should be preserved.  If you have a genuine interest in helping with this endeavour, please contact this blog's administrator at:, and we will ensure that you are consulted in the process.

All Saints in 1909