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Islington's socialist history: 'Why is it radicals come from Clerkenwell?'

PUBLISHED: 14:39 06 February 2019

Karl Marx mural, which is in the Reading Room of the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell

Karl Marx mural, which is in the Reading Room of the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell

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Islington is Labour’s heartland with a proud tradition of left-wing politics dating back to its origins as an outskirts-town where radicals and industrialists converged to conspire.

Picture of the memorial library in 1941, Pic: Islington Local History CentrePicture of the memorial library in 1941, Pic: Islington Local History Centre

It’s where Wat Tyler rallied revolting workers during the “great uprising” of 1381, when peasants faced-up to king Richard II over tax hikes; where, in 1791, Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man collection arguing in favour of the French revolution; where the left-wing Spencerians incited the people of Clerkenwell to join the Spa Fields riots in 1816; and where Lenin and Trotsky plotted in an Angel pub to overthrow Tsar Alexander and establish communism in Russia.

It’s not just the modern day vanguard of Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry – Islington’s hosted the full spectrum of the left, from Joseph Stalin sleeping in a hostel, to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair schmoozing over who would lead New Labour at an Upper Street restaurant in 1994.

“I think it began with Islington being just outside London,” the shadow foreign secretary told the Gazette.

“So whilst the city was fully policed in terms of law and order, just outside the city was where people would go to protest from Wat Tyler to Spa Green and the Copenhagen demonstrations. The place to go was just north of the city.

Clerkenwell Green and the Marx Memorial Library in 1898, Pic: Islington Local Histroy CentreClerkenwell Green and the Marx Memorial Library in 1898, Pic: Islington Local Histroy Centre

“And that’s why Clerkenwell Green was important. It’s a geographical thing – it [Islington] became a centre of radicalism. “

The Copenhagen protests ignited in 1834 after five men were sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude in Australia after forming a trade union in their home town of Tolpuddle, Dorset.

But in April of that year a mass protest saw tens of thousands converge on Copenhagen Fields, or modern day Cally. The protestors delivered a petition with 250,000 signatures to Parliament and the Tolpuddle Martyrs were pardoned in 1836.

“A carpenter from Islington went to Russia for some international Labour organisation meeting,” said Ms Thornberry.

Vladimir Lenin in the Kremlin. October 1918. Anonymous. Photograph. 1918. State Museum of History, Moscow. Portrait  When: 26 Dec 2011Vladimir Lenin in the Kremlin. October 1918. Anonymous. Photograph. 1918. State Museum of History, Moscow. Portrait When: 26 Dec 2011

“And Lenin said: ‘Why is it that all the radicals come from Clerkenwell?’”

While exiled from Tsarist Russia, Lenin had an office at 37A Clerkenwell Green, now preserved as part of the Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School, from 1902 to 1903.

The building was then occupied by Printers Twentieth Century Press, which produced ISKRA (The Spark), a Marxist publication then smuggled into Russia to spread sedition among proles.

Lenin, who lived at Holford Square, off King’s Cross Road, met the Marxist thinker Leon Trotsky – another key figure in the Bolshevik 1917 revolution – during this period.

The Islington Anti-Apartheid movement will be a focus of the tour. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe Islington Anti-Apartheid movement will be a focus of the tour. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“Of course there were meetings of socialists in Clerkenwell,” said the Islington South MP.

“The story goes that Lenin and Trosky met upstairs in this pub and somebody from the British secret service was in the cupboard listening, and [afterwards] someone said: ‘What did they say?’

“He said: ‘I don’t know, they were speaking Russian,’” she laughed.

The Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which predated the Communist Party and was held at a former church, in Southgate Road, on the border with Hackney, in 1907. This was where revolutionary Bolsheviks secured supremacy over the Menshevik faction.

Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PAEmily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The soon-to-be mass-murdering megalomaniac dictator Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, was among them – but apparently he struggled for a place to stay in Islington.

“Nobody wanted to house Stalin,” said Ms Thornberry. “Because he was a drunk and fought people – no one would put him up.”

He ended up staying at the Whitechapel Rownton House, in Fieldgate Street, described contemporaneously as a “monster doss house”.

Ms Thornberry singled out Finsbury as a key player in Islington’s tradition of “meaningful socialism”. She said Finsbury Health Centre, designed by visionary architect Berthold Lubetkin, was a “precursor for the NHS”. It was also historically progressive in having “palaces” for “poor working class people” to live in. Wat Tyler and Jack Straw held their final major rally in Highbury Park in 1381. This was honoured with a plaque at Highbury Barn Tavern in 2011.

Speaking at the time, former Labour politician and socialist darling Tony Benn said: “The Peasants’ Revolt was one of the early examples of a long series of public campaigns to secure freedom and democracy in Britain – a great moment in history.”

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