Monday, January 22, 2024

Music Monday: Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and the Critics Group in Beckenham

In musical terms the folk singer Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) is associated in most people's minds with the Salford where he was raised (the subject of his song Dirty Old Town) and the Scotland of his parents with which he so strongly identified. But many of his most creative years were actually spent in the outer reaches of South London.

MacColl seems to have first lived in London for a short period in the mid-1930s shortly after marrying his  first wife, Joan Littlewood. They hoped to pursue their radical theatre ambitions in the capital. In 1936 they lived for a while in 'a borrowed flat on the north side of Wandsworth Common' then 'rented an enormous run-down house at 113 West Side, Clapham Common, paid a month's rent deposit and a month's down, furnished the place with hire-purchase goods and set about communal living' with a group of young drama hopefuls. The money soon ran out and later that year they moved back to Manchester, though Littlewood was to return in the 1950s and become a major figure in theatre, living on Blackheath (where she hosted Brendan Behan - see previous Transpontine post).

In the 1953 MacColl moved back to South London with his second wife Jean Newlove - a dancer and choreographer who he had met through their involvement with Theatre Workshop. They rented a flat at 109 Rodenhurst Road in Clapham Park then later that year rented a flat at 11 Park Hill Rise in East Croydon; 'Old Theatre Union friends Barbara Niven - now a full-time fundraiser for the Daily Worker - and her partner, the social realist painter Ern Brooks, took the flat upstairs'. MacColl and Newlove put up visiting musicians and friends there including the American singer Big Bill Broonzy, folk song collector Alan Lomax and Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

Ewan and Jean had two children together, but by the time the second was born - the singer Kirsty MacColl - Ewan had fallen in love with the American folk singer Peggy Seeger. Peggy first lived in London in 1956 and over a couple of years lived as a lodger in Greenwich (16 Crooms Hill) at the home of another influential figure in the folk revival, A. L. Lloyd - as discussed previously here.

In 1959 MacColl and Seeger rented a flat at 55 Godstone Road, Purley before in 1961 taking out a mortgage on the upstairs flat at 35 Stanley Avenue, Beckenham, Kent - where MacColl lived for the rest of his life. This was not just a family home but a productive centre of London folk music. From 1964 to 1972 a group of folk singers met there regularly to study and sing. The Critics Group recorded a number of albums including two collections of London songs in 1966 'Sweet Thames Flow Softly' and 'A Merry Progress to London'. The collective with its floating membership was active in left wing politics, particularly opposition to the Vietnam War.

As described by MacColl biographer Ben Harker: 'The stalwarts who congregated in the Beckenham workroom on one, two or three evenings a week in 1964 were mainly in their early twenties. They were typically from working-class backgrounds, had been caught up in the skiffle craze, and had subsequently renounced American-based music in favour of British or Irish traditions'. Early members included Sandra Kerr, John Faulkner, Frankie Armstrong and Gordon McCulloch, as well as for a short while Luke Kelly of The Dubliners. Children's author Michael Rosen was a later member.

Sweet Thames Flow Softly, written by MacColl, was sung on the Critics Group recording by John Faulkner. A song of a pleasure boat trip from Woolwich Pier to Hampton Court, it has become something of a folk standard, sung by many including Christy Moore/Planxty, Sinead O'Connor, The Dubliners, Maddy Prior and of course MacColl himself. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s MacColl and Seeger ran their own Blackthorne Records from their Beckenham home where today there is a plaque commemorating 'political songwriter and playwright' MacColl.

All quotes above from Ben Harker, Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl (2007)

Saturday, January 06, 2024

Goldsmiths Occupations: a chronology

Found at the awesome 56a Info Shop archive a copy of SHIP Network News (Southwark Homeless Information Project) reports an occupation at Goldsmiths College in Summer 1991, specifically of the  Outreach Unit at 32 Lewisham Way which had just been closed down. 'the occupiers have opened it up to anyone and everyone' and proclaimed a 'free university' with a planned democratic education summer school. Not sure how far this got, as they seemed to have quickly been served a court summons. I don't know if this was the same 1991 occupation at which there was talk of Spiral Tribe putting on a party in the Great Hall only to be blocked by nervous student union officials.

There have been quite a few occupations at Goldsmiths over the years, some of which we have covered here previously. But here's an attempt at a chronology - no doubt missing many so let us know if you have any others - or have memories/documentation of the one below.

1968: Perhaps surprizingly Goldsmiths does not seem to have been directly affected by the wave of student occupations of art schools in 1968, notably at Croydon and at Hornsey Colleges of Art. It is though recorded that ‘Sixty students from Goldsmiths’ College of Art, New Cross, SE, invaded Hornsey College of Art on the first day of its new term… They crowded into the corridors of Hornsey and chanted ‘We support you. We support you’. Hornsey college authorities called police, who dispersed the students and ejected them’ (Times, 5 November 1968).

1976: Students at Goldsmiths voted to occupy as a part of a wave of protests sweeping teacher training colleges prompted by the fact that at a time of education cuts many newly qualified teachers were leaving college and ending up unemployed.(Socialist Worker, 29 May 1976)

1984:  the Administration building (later the Whitehead building) was occupied for 8 days to protest against staff cuts in the Media and Communications team (more here)

1999: as detailed by Past Tense, 'Part of Goldsmiths College, New Cross, was occupied 26th February – March 5th 1999. 300 students took over college admin building, after eight students were expelled because they couldn’t pay £1000 a year tuition fees that had been imposed on them. A court granted the college an eviction order, but the occupying students refused to leave till the eight reinstated. A few weeks previously, students had held a demonstration, blocking New Cross Road outside, over same issue'. Mark Brown told me on Twitter that during this occupation they received a message of support from Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners) and that Rob Newman, Silver Sun and Mark Keds (Senseless Things) all played.

2009: a two day occupation of the Deptford Town Hall building  by 50 or so students as part of a national wave of protest against Israel's bombing of Gaza (plus ca change). The occupation did achieve one of its demands -  scholarships for students from Palestine's al-Quds university. The blog from the occupation is still online 


2010 saw a huge movement linking together university students, school students and others in the front line of austerity in the aftermath of the financial crash.  In November 2010 around 40 students occupied the old Deptford Town Hall for two days in protest at education cuts and the proposed increase in students fees. Effigies of prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg were strung up on New Cross Road next to a banner saying 'Education for the Masses, not the Ruling Classes'. More here.

November 2010 occupation

Then in December 2010 there was a larger scale occupation of the library, with several hundred taking part at the beginning. This lasted for almost a week from 5 to 11 December (More here and here). I believe Kae Tempest (then known as Excentral Tempest) performed at the occupation. The radical anthropologist David Graeber, then working at the College, was heavily involved, going on the next year to play a significant role in the Occupy protest in New York.  I gave a talk in the library on the radical history of New Cross.

December 2010

In March 2011 there was a short occupation of the Town Hall in support of striking lecturers. More here

March 2011

A short occupation of the Whitehead building in November 2011 declared itself 'in solidarity with the UK-wide strike on November 30th and the global occupy movement. We are here because we reject the privatisation of the university, symptomatic of the neo-liberal agenda that permeates all aspects of life. For this reason we have strategically occupied the building housing Goldsmiths’ finance offices, responsible for executing the cuts and the privatisation agenda'. More here.

November 2011

In December 2013 around 100 people occupied the Town Hall building in support of striking staff. More here.


March 2015 saw another occupation of the Town Hall with a wide range of demands and a focus on the marketisation of education. More here


The Goldsmiths Anti- Racist Action occupation of 2019 took over part of the Town Hall and lasted for a mammoth 137 days between March and July. Arising as part of the global Black Lives Matter movement its demands focused on institutional racism at Goldsmiths. 


Updated May  2024:

Goldsmiths students occupied the Stuart Hall building on 20th February 2024 in solidarity with Palestine. The occupation finished after five weeks, with the University agreeing to create an additional Palestinian scholarship

(2024 images from Gold4Palestine)

On 29 May 2024 there was a further Palestinian solidarity occupation of the College's gallery, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, prompted by allegations of it receiving sponsorship from Zac Gertler, a property magnate described last year as 'Netanyahu’s new favorite multimillionaire, the owner of the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, where Bibi spent a tense election night last November'. The occupation continued for at least another week.

With Goldsmiths management threatening to make more than 130 lecturers redundant as part of a brutal programme of cuts, students occupied the Council Chamber in the old Deptford Town Hall on 4 June 2024 and remained there the next day.

photo by @phellermann

(last updated 6 June 2024)