“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Samuel Johnson. But what if London is tired of London? As inequality increases from the citadel of the city of London to the converted garages and sheds of London’s new slums, we have to ask whether the centre can still hold. We look to London’s liminal spaces and the people who have organised to transform the city for the better – from the university settlers to the Brick Lane squatters of the 1970’s – and ask whether these fragments of utopia can inspire a city that works for the many, not just the few.
Below there are four different explorations of the city; through Vauxhall, the radical East End, The Strand and Bloomsbury.
A walk through the future: Vauxhall past, present and future
A walk through Vauxhall can unearth the hidden future that lies in our past. It reveals how people and communities have shaped their environment, and their cityscape. It explores the way that the environment has shaped the lives of the people of Vauxhall over time, and how a range of active and dynamic groups and organisations are reshaping the landscape in response to contemporary challenges and opportunities.
The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens entertained Londoners and visitors for over 200 years. From 1729, under the management of Jonathan Tyers, the Gardens became, according to historian John Barrell, ‘an extraordinary business, a cradle of modern painting and music…a pioneer of mass entertainment.’Originally known as the ‘New Spring Gardens’ (with first reference made by Samuel Pepys in 1662), the site became Vauxhall Gardens in 1782. Its many famous artistic connections include Canaletto, Hogarth, Handel and Blake. Different communities have reinvented how they use the gardens over time: for leisure, exercise, entertainment, sexual freedoms and political interventions; activists have resisted development on the site since its sale in the mid-nineteenth century, ensuring it continues to be a green lung for the contemporary Vauxhall community. Its preservation, but constant reinvention, is a fascinating model for contemporary urban green-space management.
Bonnington Square gardens, community centre and café
Bonnington Square shows the power of the collective through the transformation of run-down, abandoned housing stock into a thriving community living space. The site in which the Bonnington Square Pleasure Garden now stands was the result of WW2 bomb damage. In the 1970′s the Council installed swings and seating, creating an urban garden, but didn’t maintain them, and the park fell into disrepair.
In 1990 a builder working in the area applied to the Council to use the site as storage, which had the unintended effect of alerting local government officials to the fact that they owned valuable ‘idle land’, and local residents to the fact that the same land might be under threat. The Bonnington Square Garden Association was formed by local residents to lay claim to the ‘wasteland’. Funding from a joint Government and Local Council scheme in 1994 enabled the BSGA to begin transforming the space into ‘The Pleasure Garden’.
The area also has a rich manufacturing and working past, as a reminder that an integration of work, domestic space, food growing and leisure facilities can be rooted in a locale, even in a vast, sprawling city like London; and what insights this might offer us for a resource-constrained future urban environment.
Vauxhall City Farm
Vauxhall City Farm has offered this most urban of communities a little slice of rural life since 1976. Started as a land occupation, the pioneers of the city farm wanted to help preserve green space in the urban environment. A group of architects squatting in nearby St. Oswald’s Place began working the then vacant plot, and the Jubilee City Farm (as it was then known) was born. The Farm was collaboration between local community groups, activists and vegetable growers. Since then the Farm has grown, but continues to serve the local community, with a therapy riding centre, extensive education programme and award-winning collection of animals.
In addition the Farm hosts craft workshops, with a long-running spinners group who use wool from the farm’s sheep and alpaca.
The Garden History Museum
The Garden History Museum provides an opportunity to reflect on the history and legacy of the Garden City Movement and to explore a range of innovative contemporary projects. The Garden Museum was set up in 1977 to rescue the abandoned ancient church of St Mary’s. The church is the burial place of John Tradescant (c1570 – 1638), the first great gardener and plant-hunter in British history. His magnificent tomb is the centrepiece of a knot garden planted with the flowers which grew in his London garden four centuries ago. The poem carved on to the lid of the tomb reads: ‘Angels…shall with their trumpets awaken men… and change this Garden for a paradise’
In 2008 the interior was transformed into a centre for exhibitions and events. Three exhibitions each year explore the making of British gardens, and a programme of over 30 talks and interviews celebrates heroes and heroines from the forgotten plant-hunters and gardeners of the past to the designers and writers of today. The Garden Museum works closely with the local community, including primary schools, a nursery and children’s centre as well as a gardening project at a local doctors’ surgery. The programme is aimed at encouraging children, their families and adult members of the local community to garden and learn about how plants grow. The Museum also hosts urban foraging walks, herb days and a community harvest festival. From 2011 the Museum has run a scheme training apprentice curators to embed sustainability into every aspect of a Museum’s practice.
Tea House Theatre, Spring Gardens
Until two years ago, this café was a strip club and a blight on the local area. In the week that it opened, a local resident presented the owners with a bunch of flowers of thanks; another came to tell them it was the first time she was able to take her children into the playground next door without feeling intimidated. A cup of tea (and a piece of cake) is an optional end to the walk.
Settlements and Mutualism: How London’s past shapes the future
Our collective history is one of self and community-organising, working and living cooperatively. Even in our contemporary political climate, which is hostile to any model that does not promote selfish and self-interested values, communities continue to work, play, and live together. This walk celebrates our collective past and its possibilities for the long now.
The Bishopsgate Institute
Explore the Bishopsgate Institute with its extensive archives of radical London workers’ and political histories. Since 1895, the Institute has been a hub for ideas, debate and enquiry; and an important repository for books, documents, oral histories and more covering issues such as the labour movement in London, anarchism, cooperativism, feminist and gay activism, free thought and humanism.
Folgate Street and the Huguenots
Successive waves of immigration create a palimpsest of radicalism, as new people and cultures are absorbed into the city. The Huguenots brought not only their skills in the silk industry, but also a radical, questioning political and religious tradition, carried form their own experiences of marginalization and oppression in France. Huguenot Reading Groups became a key part of the early story of organizing towards collective labour, bargaining and trades unions.
Toynbee Hall and the Settlements Movement
The Settlements were a radical approach to social change and challenging inequality: by bringing people from privileged backgrounds to live and work among the poor they set out to challenge the structural causes of poverty. More than that, in the words of Jane Addams they aimed to: ‘express the meaning of life in terms of life itself, in the forms of activity’
Whitechapel Art Gallery
Founded in 1901 to ‘bring great art to the people of the East End of London’, the Whitechapel Art Gallery occupies an arts and crafts building designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. Guernica, Picasso’s iconic depiction of the horrors of the Spanish civil war is displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery on its first and only visit to Britain.
Founded in 1886 by exiled Russian anarchist and author of Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin, the Freedom Bookshop offered a much needed outlet for radical ideas and a meeting place for the anarchist thinkers of the day. It’s a tradition that continues today. The Press is the oldest of its kind in the English speaking world.
The London Action Resource Centre was founded in 1999 as a resource centre for activists. It is a modern example of cooperative space in operation – maintained and run by the groups who use it and who are campaigning for non-hierarchical, self-organised projects for radical social change.
Re-drawing the map of the City: The Strand
Maps claim to accurately represent of the physical surface of the Earth, yet the story they tell is only ever partial and almost always political. Urban maps trace a built environment that confidently asserts the inevitability of relentless human progress, but the streets they describe cannot help but host a multiplicity of other ways of being. This walk explored the area between the National Gallery and Somerset House, as part of a series of happenings to celebrate the John Berger archive being donated to Somerset House.
The National Gallery
In April 1824 the House of Commons agreed to pay £57,000 for the picture collection of banker John Julius Angerstein. His 38 pictures were to form the core of a new national collection for the enjoyment and education of all. In 2009, author, artist and activist John Berger went on Good Friday to draw a sketch of Antonello da Messina’s painting of Christ Crucified. After an altercation with a security guard (Berger had put his bag on an empty guard’s chair and was asked to remove it; he put it by his feet but that too was not allowed) the octogenarian was thrown out of the building. The many sides of the national culture industry are exposed here: the elite project of culture-generation, underpinned by the establishment and banking; museums and galleries are still dependent on corporate funding for exhibitions; an elderly man ejected for wearing the wrong bag; National Gallery security assistants are, along with other staff, fighting staff cuts at the museum after its 15% cut in funding announced in 2010.
The Strand was always a dividing line: between the City of Politics and the City of Commerce and Letters. The street boasts many ghosts – two tube stations were once called ‘Strand’ – the now-closed Aldwych and part of the complex that now makes Charing Cross. The Strand was used by the Romans; it formed the central part of Lundenwic, whose memory is preserved in St. Clement Danes. Hugging the river Thames, it has always been a key strategic site; a place of power, politics, publishing, sex – and the struggle for London’s soul. Aristocrats and autocrats lined the streets with palaces, whose names linger on in hotel and office names. Savoy. Essex. Arundel. Salisbury.
The English Revolution
The Strand is a place to plot. Lost in the hubbub of the City, numerous pubs and coffee houses became places to gather for seditious talk. The Dog and Duck was where the Gunpowder plotters conspired. In the seventeenth century the Nag’s Head pub became a meeting place for Leveller elements of the New Model Army. In a famous meeting with Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, they declared The Remonstrance of the Army, which called for the abolition of the monarchy, and the trial of Charles I.
Shell Mex House
The new Princes of Capital have their HQ on the Strand to this day. At number 80 Strand stands Shell Mex House, built in 1930 on the original site of the Savoy Palace, trashed by the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. This was the home of the merged Shell and BP Ltd., despite the ‘de-merger’ of the two companies in 1975, Shell continued to occupy the building until 1990. It is now home to a variety of different employers including Pearson Plc and Penguin Books.
The Radical Press
Number 142 Strand was the home of radical publisher and physician John Chapman (1821-1894), who also edited the radical Westminster Review, with his collaborator Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot). His home was a gathering place for a great many writers and intellectuals of the period, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Martineau, Thomas Huxley, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. The Westminster Review was established by Jeremy Bentham in 1823, as the quarterly journal of the philosophical Radicals, and ran until 1914. It pioneered in particular a pro-evolutionary editorial line; in 1886 it published Eleanor Marx on ‘The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View.’
Somerset House plants firmly on the site of a former Tudor Palace; designed in 1776 by Sir William Chambers. Its Tudor ancestor, built by the Duke of Somerset, was never lived in by its progenitor, as he was executed in 1552. The eighteenth century house has been variously: The Salt Office, The Stamp Office, The Tax Office, The Navy Office, The Navy Victualling Office, The Publick Lottery Office, The Hawkers and Pedlar Office, The Hackney Coach Office, The Surveyor General of the Crown Lands Office, The Auditors of the Imprest Office, The Pipe Office, The Office of the Duchy of Lancaster, The Office of the Duchy of Cornwall, The Office of Ordinance, The King’s Bargemaster’s House, The King’s Bargehouses. Today Somerset House is a Trust, which offers space to a wider variety of creative and artistic activities and groups, including music, film and dance groups.
Degrees of Capture: How Corporations took over London’s Universities and what we can do to win them back
Bloomsbury has transformed from London’s rubbish dump to a centre for intellectual life; with its rich tradition of self-help and mutual aid, pamphleteering, sedition and feminism to the neo-liberal assault on education today, the rise of student radicalism and what we can do to win back free education for all.
University College London (UCL)
London University has radical origins – with an open admission policy, and a dissenting position towards organised religion (the Godless of Gower Street). University College London was founded in 1826 to open up education for students of any race, class or religion – and was the first place to admit women on equal terms to men in 1878. Alongside the University’s early radicalism, we witness, as with so many other institutions, the impact of commercialisation today – (UCL receives funding from amongst others BHP Bilton) and wider concerns about the marketisation of universities. The battle is on for the soul and purpose of England’s higher education system.
53 Gower Street – The Bloomsbury Social Centre
Creative new tactics are being taken up by the student movement, to provide free and open educational spaces that are more reminiscent of early experiments in popular education. ‘Free Universities’ are mushrooming across the country as a response to the rising cost of study and a philosophical commitment to the idea of free, accessible education. This has rich roots in community self-organising through reading groups, corresponding societies and subscription libraries; as well as the Worker’s Educational Association, founded in 1903.
Tavistock Sq – Gandhi’s statue
Tavistock Square remembers Gandhi’s legacy of the power of non-violent organising and its role in social transformation– the creative tactics he inspired still used by campaigners today. Continuing the spirit of non-aggression the Square also hosts a conscientious objectors memorial stone, which was unveiled in 1994.
British Medical Association HQ
Annie Besant commissioned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the building that now houses the BMA, when she was President of the Theosophical Society. Besant was, amongst many other things, a union organizer and a campaigner for education for all. According to Tom Mann: “Mrs. Besant transfixed me; her superb control of voice, her whole-souled devotion to the cause she was advocating, her love of the down-trodden, and her appeal on behalf of a sound education for all children, created such an impression upon me, that I quietly, but firmly, resolved that I would ascertain more correctly the why and wherefore of her creed.” Besant was elected to the London School Board in 1889. Having gained a fifteen thousand majority over the next candidate, Besant argued that she had been given a mandate for large-scale reform of local schools. Some of her many achievements included a programme of free meals for undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those in elementary schools.
Women’s Education and Mary Ward House
Women’s Education was, and continues to be, a key site of struggle. Mary Wollstonecraft was an early campaigner for women’s education, and founded a girl’s school in Newington Green:
“The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men: I extend it to women.” Vindication of the Rights of Women
The Passmore Edwards Settlement was built in 1898 by a wealthy philanthropist; called Mary Ward House after the woman who inspired it through her ideas about promoting greater equality through access to education, crafts, music and other skill-sharing activities. Mary Ward was also a best-selling novelist in her own right.
SOAS cleaners – many of them from Columbia and Ecuador – have been striking for better conditions, including sick pay, holiday pay and pension rights. The University has outsourced its cleaning facilities to ISS, a transnational facilities company with over half a million employees. This leaves the workers very vulnerable – to so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts and very little security. Whilst there is growing support across the University for the Justice for Cleaners campaign, outsourcing in university facility services across the country is leading to increasingly tough conditions for workers. Outsourcing has been consistently resisted by trade unions; their campaigns are forging new alliances between students and workers to resist further erosion of worker’s rights. A student was prosecuted for writing ‘sick pay, holiday, pensions now’ as part of a protest to support the cleaners.
Increasing criminalization of protest – both on and off campuses – raises some interesting questions for the academy, with its supposed role in intellectual leadership and enlightenment. If our universities cannot be a place of free thought, discussion and activism, then what are they for?
Charles Holden – architect of Senate House (and many of London’s underground stations) – lived a simple life, and refused a knighthood twice because he believed that architecture is a fundamentally collaborative process and should not be awarded according to the cult of personality. Senate House was taken over by the ministry of information during WWII and became the inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
Today, the continued outsourcing of student services means that Senate House has become an administrative ‘Hub’ for London – the North wing to be redeveloped for SOAS to have a central ‘student services’ atrium to include ‘enterprise’.
“Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirement of management? Or can we … transform it into a centre of free discussion, and action, tolerating and even encouraging ‘subversive’ thought and activity for a dynamic renewal of the whole society within which it operates?”
By narrowing our frames of reference, and the commodification of knowledge itself we risk undermining our ability to respond to future challenges. Where are the new spaces of possibility in which freethinking, self-help and mutual aid can flourish to be found?