Friday, August 12, 2011

Deptford Red Flag Riots, 1932

In June 1932, Deptford was the focus of what became known as 'The Red Flag Riots'. On a Sunday evening following a National Unemployed Workers Movement protest, 'a large body of people were marching home from an antiwar demonstration at Woolwich when, at Deptford Broadway, some of them started to sing "the Red Flag". Policemen who were escorting the procession tried to stop the singing, but the men refused'. In fact, the demonstrators' own band had first struck up the tune and been stopped, after which (a court was later told) Alexander Duncan was heard to say "Now then, comrades, if we can’t play it we will sing it". Duncan was the husband of Kath Duncan, who had stood in elections locally as a Communist Party candidate.

In the clashes that followed six people were arrested and the police made free use of their batons: 'when the arrested men appeared in court, three of them had large plasters on the back of their heads'. Over the next week there were further demonstrations and riots in Deptford. The following morning unemployed workers in local training centres went on strike and 'Nearly a thousand unemployed… attended a meeting at Deptford Broadway to protest against the arrest of the six men and to raise funds to support their families'. That evening 'nearly 8,000 people assembled at the Broadway… a number of men attempted to sing The Red Flag. The police drew their batons and had some difficulty in controlling the crowds'.

On Tuesday night, 5,000 gathered in nearby Stockwell Street, Greenwich and blocked London Street, where mounted police charged the crowd. On Wednesday bricks were thrown at police in Church Street. By the end of the week things seemed to have calmed down, although there was a peaceful unemployed demonstration from Deptford to Blackheath; apparently 'The demonstrators were informed of the meeting by chalked messages in the streets'.

There had been a number of further arrests during the week, and later six people received sentences of between two and four months in prison with hard labour: Alfred Lucas (aged 41, a mechanic from Clandon Street), George Childs (24, a clerk from Vesta Road), Albert Crane (24, a hosier from Shere Street), Edward MacCafferty (22, a salesman from Pagnell Street), William Trott (30, a fitting hand from Adolphus Street) and Victor Hammond (32, a labourer from Coston Street).

In early October, two of those jailed, Albert Crane and George Childs, were met by ‘a small band of Deptford Communists' on their release from Brixton prison, going on to address a meeting of 400 people in Deptford Broadway where they 'said they would not be afraid to go back if there was any chance of it doing any good to the working classes of Deptford'.

(all above quotes from South London Press, June and October 1932).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kath Duncan

Kath Duncan was a legendary Communist in Deptford between the wars. A teacher, she became a redoubtable organiser of the unemployed. A remarkable orator, she was a woman of obvious personal magnetism, with an attractive demeanour. The local Deptford press felt unable to refer to her with mentioning her “blazing red hair”!

Katherine Duncan was born about 1889 in Scotland,

A teacher and member of the NUT, she moved with her husband Sandy initially to Hackney, London in 1923.

Kath and Sandy moved to Deptford, in South London in 1930.

On one Sunday in June 1932 a group of marchers returning back from a 3,000 strong meeting in Woolwich, at which Kath and Sandy had spoken, were informed by a police inspector that they must stop singing the `Red Flag’. When they refused, a large number of police appeared and laid into the crowd with batons, making numerous arrests including Alf Lucas. Sandy Duncan was hospitalised and the events became known locally as the “Battle of the Deptford Broadway”.

The news of the unprovoked attack was met with great indignation in Deptford. The next day, as a direct result of the Police attack, unemployed men at the Unemployed Training centre went on strike. A 5,000 strong crowd gathered in the Deptford Broadway. Kath demanded the dismissal of the Inspector and the police responded with a mounted police charge.

On Tuesday the Daily Worker reported “groups of police patrolling about and the place is liked an armed camp”. Later, pictures of those arrested were sold to raise money for the “defence fund”.

Six months later 19th December 1932 Kath appeared in court under laws originally used against the leaders of the 14th century peasant revolt on a charge of being “ a disturber of the Peace of our Lord the King”. She refused to be bound over or stay out of politics and was sentenced to six months in Holloway Prison. (Coincidentally, the 76 year old Tom Mann was also in Brixton Prison at the same time for the very same reason!) While in prison, Kath was forced to make shirts, she herself was “convinced no one would wear”.

On her release the people of Deptford flocked to greet her in the Broadway. However the LCC Education Committee wrote to her a few days after her release to inform her they were going to remove her from the list of approved London County Council Teachers. A campaign, spearheaded by the NUT and other unions, secured 5,700 signatures in opposing the attempted victimisation in Deptford alone, and as a result the attempt to remove her was defeated.