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 www.LibCom.org 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 Ancestry.com and the www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

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: info@E7-NowAndThen.org, and we will ensure that you are consulted in the process.

All Saints in 1909

Emmanuel church (2) - rapid rise and fall of the Church of England in Forest Gate

Monday 10 September 2018

This is the second of a two part article on the Church of England in Forest Gate.  The first, immediately above, traces the story from the establishment of Emmanuel church in 1852 until the 1880's when church building expanded rapidly in the area.

Emmanuel Church, in 1907
Rapid population expansion, from the 1880's lead to the building of three "daughter" churches to Emmanuel in Forest Gate: St James;' in 1882, St Saviour's, in 1884 and All Saints in 1886 - although All Saints had started life as an "iron church" on the site - donated by the local MP - six years earlier.

St James' church, completed 1882

The original St Saviour's, on
Macdonald Road, completed 1884

All Saints, built in 1886
A fourth - St Mark's - began life in a cattle shed, now 65-67 Tylney Road, before becoming an established church building, in its own right, in 1894.

St Mark's church, completed 1894
Before then the congregation met in
a former cattle shed in Tylney Road
These were days of a religious boom that scarcely seems conceivable today. The Congregationalist church (now the Azhar Academy) on Romford Road was completed in 1880 and its Sebert Road counterpart, later that decade. 

Romford Road Congregational
 church, built in 1880
Woodgrange Baptist church, on Romford Road was built in 1882 and the original Methodist church on Woodgrange Road, the same year. St Antony's of Padua Catholic church was completed, in Upton in 1891.

St Antony's - built 1891
Further extensions were built to Emmanuel, itself - increasing its capacity to a little over 800 - and finished in 1891.

At around this time the "high church"/"low church" tensions previously referred to came to a head and wrought havoc and division within the parish.

The "low church" attacks on the high church incumbents of Emmanuel were lead by M GG Poupard - supported by the Sunday school teachers and pupils. They left Emmanuel and built an "iron church" (iron framed, with corrugated iron walls and roof), Christ Church, the Free Church of England in Earlham Grove (see photo). It cost £4,000 to build and seated 450 people.

Another dissenter, Mr Haslet built another rival church, Ridley Hall, in Upton Lane, see photo - which still exists as the Ridley Christian Centre.

The Earlham Grove breakaway tried, but failed, to get Church of England recognition: instead it was accused of having committed a schism. The breakaway fizzled out and in 1911 the iron church was bought by the parish of St James' in Southampton for £225 - and moved, girder by girder, to be rechristened St John's, where it remained, until demolished in 1950.

St John's, Shirley, Southampton - which
previously had been Christ Church, in
Earlham Grove - an early 20th century
break-away from Emmanuel
Meanwhile - back in Forest Gate - the population continued to expand and in 1892 work began on the construction of St Peter's Upton Cross, in the grounds of Upton House (see photo), which had been bought by the Diocese of St Albans in 1885.

Interior of St Peter's, Upton Park
Upton House, itself, the one time home of Lord Lister, (see photo below), became the vicarage and parish rooms of St Peter's. And still demand for church space in Forest Gate grew.

Upton House - former home of Lord Lister -
became the vicarage of St Peter's Upton
Cross, the church, itself,  was built in its grounds.
In 1906 and iron Mission Hall, belonging to St Peter's was built on the junction of Plashet Road and Gwendoline Avenue, for £360, and remained (see photo), until bombed during WW2.

Partially obscured by the tree in the front
 left, the iron mission hall built on the
corner of Gwendoline Avenue and Plashet Road

And the flats that have replaced it
The last church to be built in the Emmanuel family was St Edmunds, on Katherine Road - which became a parish in its own right in 1901. This was probably the high point of Church of England significance in Forest Gate's history.

St Edmunds,
Katherine/Halley Roads
There are scant surviving records for the Emmanuel church for the early decades of the twentieth century, other than the fact that electricity was installed within it, at a cost of about £250, in 1929.

The 1930's saw another outbreak of "high church"/"low church" disputes and by the middle of the decade the church's congregation had declined to about 170 - considerably fewer than the 800+ attendees of the 1890's.

Joost (pronounced Yoast)de Blank was Emmanuel's shortest-serving, but probably most prominent, vicar. He was only there from 1937 - 1940.  Born in Holland, he moved to England aged six months. After university, at Cambridge, he had a couple of minor ecclesiastical appointments, before moving to Emmanuel.

He was a dynamic priest. For example, he hired the near-by Odeon Cinema (now the Idara Minhaj-ul-Quran mosque) on Romford Road, for recruiting purposes. He soon attracted national, as well as local attention.

Originally a pacifist, he changed his opinions and joined the war effort as an enthusiastic army Chaplin/captain, in 1940. He was posted to Egypt the following year, which effectively ended his incumbency at Emmanuel.

de Blank returned to London at the end of WW2 and was appointed Bishop of Stepney in 1952. Five year's alter he became Archbishop of Cape Town, where he became a leading Anti-Apartheid campaigner.

Joost de Blank, as the Bishop of Stepney, in
the early 1950's.  To his right, the late Queen Mother
Emmanuel, itself, was bombed during WW2 - but did not suffer the destruction of the near-by Princess Alice, Queen's cinema or Woodgrange Methodist church. Its roof was damaged, windows blown out and the spire lost its then-famous striped tiles.

Congregations dropped to around 100. The church shored up its ailing finances by letting out its Institute - opposite - to the emerging local authority Youth Service.

Post war activity focused on physical reconstruction and building its own youth groups. Central heating was installed at Emmanuel in 1949.

The old vicarage in Earlham Grove was in bad repair and sold in 1950 for £2,600. A replacement, 2b Margery Park Road (see below), was purchased for £100 more.

The Margery Park Road vicarage, that
replaced the Earlham Grove one in 1950
A declining local population and congregation meant contraction and changes for the Church of England in Forest Gate. In 1962 the parishes of Emmanuel and St Peter's (see above) were merged.

The first physical casualty was the splendid vicarage of St Peter's. The Archdeacon of West Ham challenged a preservation order on the building and the site was sold for £17,000. It was demolished and is now occupied by Joseph Lister Court (see below).

St Peter's Hall, in Neville Road was next to go. It was sold for £6,750 in 1971 to the local Sikh community, and is currently the Ramgharia Gurdwara.

Next - St Peter's, itself. This was demolished in 1972 and the site sold for £15,000. The intention was to rebuild it on the site of the old Gwendoline Avenue Mission hut (see above) - but money was too short. That land, too was sold - in 1980 - for £35,000.

St Peter's Hall, Neville Road,
now a Sikh temple
St Peter's was merged with Emmanuel and the combined congregation had slumped to a mere 50, by 1982.

One response by the local clergy was greater ecumenicalism - with more joint ventures launched between Emmanuel and the nearby Baptist and (rebuilt) Methodist churches.

There were discussions of the also declining St James' church merging with Emmanuel, but in the event, it merged with St John's in Stratford.

The interior of Emmanuel church was reshaped in 1980, to take account of the declining congregation, and changing church lay-out fashion - at a cost of £83,500. These changes made the Institute - opposite - redundant and it was sold to Wag Bennett as a gym in 1982 for £60,000 (see here for details of the use he made of it).

Further consolidation continued in 1989, with the establishment of the Forest Gate ministry - a closer grouping of the remaining local Forest Gate churches - Emmanuel, St Mark's, All Saints and St Edmunds. The church yard and graves were re-landscaped in 1991.

The church was given Grade 11 listed building status by English Heritage in 1984.

All in all, a fairly spectacular rise and fall in Forest Gate of an institution that was once the backbone of English civic society.

The church has moved on to serve the community in different ways this century. It hosts Faithful Friends - a forum for understanding other faiths - not aimed at conversion. A breakfast club for homeless people is hosted and the church sponsors a group supporting people with mental; health issues.

Footnote: This article is almost wholly based on a now out of print booklet That big church on the corner - a history of Emmanuel church, Forest Gate, by Andrew Wilson (then assistant curate, now rector of St John of Jerusalem church, Hackney), 1995, to whom we are most grateful.