Monday, February 21, 2022

Russian Revolutionaries in New Cross/Deptford, 1907

In 1907 the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was held at the Brotherhood Church in Hackney. The 338 delegates represented the various factions of the party, chiefly its Bolshevik and Menshevik wings, and included Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and, Maxim Gorki. The Radical History of Hackney blog has written about this and why not, that was where it all happened.

But did some of the delegates stay in SE London? A later account given by one George Adam, a Reuters journalist at the time, suggests so. The article 'When Lenin came to Islington' (Graphic, 4 February 1928) states that:

'shortly before the Harwich boat-train came in with its cargo of Russians,six unmistakable Yard men, wearing the Yard bowler hat and the Yard boots [...] marched on to the platform and took up strategic positions behind the pillars supporting Liverpool Street Station. The delegates were marched off into groups with Scotland Yard in step with them to the East London Underground

In the train I became friendly with one of the C.I.D. (Special Branch), and he confessed that they did not know where the Russians were going, adding that they were all Nihilists, bomb-throwers, and villains of the deepest dye. They went no farther than New Cross, where these desperadoes- they certainly looked the part- prosaically marched up to a big London County Council lodging - house, paid a tanner apiece for their bedrooms, and went to sleep comfortably, while the Special Branch found what rest it could on the hard wooden benches of the hall'.

Adam managed to get inside the Church during the Congress - this is his description - 'There were men from all the Russias, thin-faced Jewish fanatics, university intellectuals, bovine peasants... The vestry had been turned into a refreshment bar. From two or three barrels, resting on a house-decorator's trestles and planks, beer was being dispensed... There almost under my eyes, the organization of the Soviet, more or less as it afterwards came into being, was outlined'

The tale is certainly feasible. At this time trains could indeed be taken on the East London line from Liverpool Street to New Cross, and if so the accommodation mentioned is likely to have been the LCC's Carrington House in Brookmill Road, Deptford, opened in 1903 as a hostel for working men.

Which of the delegates stayed there is not known - others stayed elsewhere for sure, including Stalin who is said to have stayed at another hostel in Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel.  

Carrington House - the building still stands

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Light Perpetual - remembering the New Cross V2 disaster

An eye catching, if slightly storm frayed billboard advert in New Cross Road announces the paperback publication of Francis Spufford's novel 'Light Perpetual'. Spufford has been teaching creative writing at Goldsmiths since 2008 and the novel is directly inspired by events in New Cross Road. As he explains in the book, 'for the last twelve years, I've been walking to work at Goldsmiths College past a plaque commemorating the 1944 V2 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Of the 168 people who died, fifteen were aged eleven or under. The novel is partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century'.

The premise of the novel is to imagine what might have been given some very slight alteration in circumstances - supposing a technical fault has caused the missile to fail during its journey, as many did, or it landed relatively harmlessly in a park rather than a crowded shop on a Saturday?

'That's time for you. It breaks things up. It scatters them. It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once
scattered, forever scattered. It's irreversible. But what has gone is not just the children's present existence [....]  It's all the futures they won't get, too. All the would-be's, might-be's, could-be's of the decades to come. How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this
absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may still be'.

And so Spufford imagines how the lives of some of the children who died might have played out in the decades to come, what they missed out on and what the world missed out by their absence. I really enjoyed the novel but admit to being puzzled why he set a story that is so clearly tied to a real New Cross event in the fictional south east London borough of Bexford. But as he recently explained, 'I wanted to find a way of remembering the event that was faithful but not literal, so had to invent a London borough and drop a V2 of my own on to it, not to trample on anybody’s real grief'.


There are actually two memorial plaques at the site (where the Iceland store now stands)- the first put up by Deptford History Group in 1994...

...and the second sponsored by Lewisham Council unveiled in 2009, as reported here.

As I roved out on Deptford Broadway

The events are also referenced in a song from 2012 included on the compilation 'Deptford Day: Songs About SE8'. 'As I roved out on Deptford Broadway'  by Neil Gordon-Orr imagines somebody looking back on their youth in the pubs and cinemas of New Cross and Deptford and missing his friends lost in the Second World War, including in the V2 attack.

As I roved out on Deptford Broadway

As I roved out one summer Sunday
To take the air on Deptford Broadway
Fell in with Jo and Sam and Susie
Says I who'll share my wages with me?

We had a quick dram in the Dover
In the Royal Albert we sipped some porter
Sam left with Jo and Susie after
She caught the tram and I fell over

I saw Susie the next Friday
In the Odeon kissed through a movie
Next week we danced in the New Cross Palais
Next year in St Pauls we were married

Now I sit here in the Granby
And all those years have gone behind me
So have a drink and sit beside me
My old friends' stools are all long empty

Sam never came back from the army
Jo crossed the seas when she got married
And Susie died right here in New Cross
When the rocket blew up Woolworths

Now I go walking every Sunday
I dodge the cars on Deptford Broadway
I think of Sam and Jo and Susie
And all the other ghosts beside me

The sunlight perpetual reflects off the gold letters on the billboard
'Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifest in time; come
knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come,
unsounded deep. Come, undivided light. Come dust' (Frances Spufford)


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Reweirding London: Authors on the Secret City at the Amersham Arms

'Reweirding' put on interesting talks and events at Conway Hall and elsewhere. Next month they are coming to the Amersham Arms in New Cross for 'Reweirding London: Authors on the Secret City', an event that will feature talks from the authors of three recent books on underground London - physically and metaphorically. 

Speakers include:

Caitlin Davies –  'Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks'

Lara Maiklem – 'Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames'

Tom Chivers – 'London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City'

All this plus short films on London from Video Strolls.

24 March 2022 7pm – 10 pm

Venue: The Amersham Arms, 388 New Cross Road, London SE14 6TY

£7 / £5 concessions, advance tickets advised available here.  

Books available from The Word Bookshop, 314 New Cross Road SE14 6AF

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Deptford Slavery Map Launch

A campaign group has been set up with the goal of establishing a Museum of Slavery and Freedom (M ō S a F) on the site of the old Royal Naval Dockyard on the bank of the River Thames at Deptford:  'The museum will focus on the role of Deptford, London and the Royal Navy in the triangular slave trade and demonstrate how the UK grew rich as a result of their activities. It will celebrate the way freedom from the trade was won and explore how the legacy of slavery lives on today'.

On Saturday 12th February at 3 pm they will be launching a new Map of Deptford's links to slavery and freedom. The event will take place at the studio of Empathy & Risk, 1 Borthwick Street, London SE8 3GH (by Twinkle Park).  Among those present will be Dr Helen Paul (Lecturer in Economics and Economic History, University of Southampton), who researches the slave trade, and artist Keith Piper -  among other things a founder of the  BLK arts group.

Keith Piper, Go West Young Man (1987)

MōSaF say: 'There are few memorials to the slave trade in the UK’s capital, an astounding gap in the country’s cultural landscape. Our railway system, cotton and coal industries, the City of London and the Country House movement all owe a substantial economic debt to the trade in humans. The MōSaF Map is unique because it goes local. Deptford provides a historical snapshot of how, and exactly where on our streets, our citizens and businesses engaged in the trade in humans. Deptford is also home to key landmarks in the fight for abolition'

See previous Transpontine posts on this subject:

Haberdashers, Hatcham and Slavery

An anti-slavery speech in Deptford 1830

Deptford's Runaway Slaves

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Revolt at the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich 1840

The buildings that today house the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park previously housed a school to train boys for the Navy, as well as at times girls for domestic service. The Royal Hospital School had its origins in the early 18th century and from the beginning of the 19th century the Queens House in Greenwich was converted for boarding school use, with other buildings being added later. It continued there until 1933, with the buildings being transferred to the new museum trust in the following year.

In a remarkable episode in 1840 pupils at the school absconded en masse and fought with police trying to recapture them, seemingly in protest against harsh conditions there.

'Revolt in the Royal Naval School, Greenwich Asylum'

  (Kentish Gazette, 22 September 1840)

'For several days past a spirit of insubordination has manifested itself amongst the boys of this Institution, and although there has not been any decided outbreak on the part of the boys in the Upper School they evidently sympathise with those of the Lower School, in which there are four hundred sons of British tars clothed, fed, and educated.

On Friday last four of these youngsters scaled the wall into the Park and had proceeded on
their way to Portsmouth as far as Kingston-upon-Thames, where they were apprehended by the police and brought back in a chaise to Greenwich on Saturday morning, and arrived in the Asylum yard at the time the boys were returning from breakfast. The policeman had no sooner delivered them over to the mate when they made their escape into the midst of their comrades and were soon lost sight of.

The boys, generally, commenced pelting the officer with a volley of stones, and the four refractory urchins again made there escape over the walls. Several others, in the course of the day, followed their example, and deserted the Asylum. On two of them being taken in by a police constable, he was severely pelted, and considerably hurt in consequence.

Walker, another experienced and powerful constable, apprehended two of the runaways, and on delivering them at the school, where he conceived that he should be received with all due deference, the boys began to pelt him with stones, at the  same time using the most gross and improper language. He said there were some stonemasons at work in the grounds, who were obliged to beat a retreat under the incessant volleys directed against them [...] for some time he did not know what to do - he being surrounded as it were by hive of bees. At length be determined to take off his waist-strap and run in amongst them, but they were so nimble he could not secure them, as they retreated in all directions and again renewed the attack. Walker said he had witnessed many desperate rows in St. Giles', where mischief was intended, but he never saw such cool determination exhibited before.

On Sunday morning, immediately after breakfast, upwards of forty scaled the walls and made their way for Shooters Hill where a number of them provided themselves with bread, milk, and apples, expressing a determination to proceed to Chatham, and go on board ship rather than remain in the Asylum and be ill used as they said they had recently been.

Within the three days upwards of seventy have deserted the Asylum and at sunset on Sunday
evening there were upwards of forty absentees. Those who have been recaptured are placed in charge of the main-guard of the Royal Hospital, until an investigation of the circumstances takes place. The mutineers generally complain that they have not a sufficient quantity of food, that which they do get being of a bad quality; that they are severely punished for the slightest offences; and that the drills and gymnastic exercises have recently been more strict than usual: and, further, that instead of allowed to go out once a fortnight, they have only permission out  twice in three months, and their friends have only leave to visit them for about two hours on the first Wednesday in the month [...]

There are 400 boys in the Upper School, sons of Naval officers, who so far sympathised with the revolters as to assist in pelting of some of the police-constables while they were in the act of apprehending some of the delinquents in the Park. A strict investigation into the cause of the general disaffection will immediately take place, as it is of the first importance that youths who are destined for the public service should be kept in proper discipline and subordination, or there is no knowing what consequences may be the result when employed in her Majesty's service. [...]

In addition to the number of boys who deserted the school, 17 others scaled the walls on Monday
morning. On making inquiry we found that, in addition to the alleged ill-usage and indifferent food, the boys complain of the intention there exists of making them soldiers, as one of the reasons which has induced them to desert and although it is well known that the sailors had a great antipathy to a marine during the last war, that feeling has greatly diminished; nevertheless the sons of the old tars have e great aversion to be made soldiers of.

Twenty of those which have been recaptured have been severely flogged, and 27 are now in charge of the main-guard of the Royal Hospital, and there are 43 absentees. Although the apprehension of being made soldiers of has materially increased in consequence of the severe drills they have heen subjected to, a degree of harshness towards them in that particular, and also in their gymnnastic exercises, together with the confinement they now endure as compared with former regulations, has materially contributed to bring about the serious disaffection which at present exists... Ten of the mutineers were drummed out of school on Friday the band playing the Rogues March during the ceremony'.