Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Rotunda Radicals in SE1 (1830s)

Lots still going on at the Cuts Cafe, the temporarily occupied space in Stamford Street SE1 in the lead up to Saturday's big anti-austerity demonstration in London. I popped along last week and heard an interesting talk from someTravellers Solidarity Network activists, veterans of last year's Dale Farm eviction in Essex (incidentally they are protesting in London this Friday on the anniversary of the eviction).

Past Tense remind us that 'Just over the road, on the north side of Stamford Street where it meets Blackfriars Road, once stood the Rotunda... For a few short years nearly two centuries ago, this was the most influential radical social and political meeting space of its era.. Founded as a ‘Freethought Coliseum’ and debating club, with a capacity of 1000 people, sometime in the 1780s, the Rotunda stumbled through various owners and numerous uses, until it was taken over by Richard Carlile in 1830, when it entered a brief golden age.  Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer...

In November 1830, at the height of the Reform agitation, armed crowds met at the Rotunda, waving radical newspapers and attempted to march to Parliament:  “On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with "Reform" painted upon it, and a cry of "Now for the West End" was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, "Reform" - "Down with the police" - "No Peel" - "No Wellington." They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police... The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line… A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued...".

William Knight, one of those arrested, was found to be carrying a will bequeathing his body, in the event of his death, to the barricades in the cause of Liberty! The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.” Two days later, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused... After Carlile was jailed for supporting the Swing rioters, the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) became the co-tenant of the Rotunda, in July 1831. They held mass debates here; according to leading London reformer (and police informer!) Francis Place: “I have seen hundreds outside the doors for whom there was no room within.” ' (lots more at Cuts Cafe: We Rememeber the Rotunda)

After the departure of the Rotunda radicals (sometimes known as Rotundists), the building continued in various incarnations, including as a music hall and a warehouse, before it was finally demolished in 1958.

Inside the Rotunda

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