Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Croydon Council Plans To Reduce Its Archives Service

Croydon Council plans to disengage  from cultural intervention as part of the next phase of its spending cuts. This includes reducing spending on the Local Archives service to ‘the statutory minimum’.  

Some important questions arise:

Apart from continued support for Fairfield Halls, what positive cultural intervention did it undertake in 2012 bearing in mind its shafting of the Warehouse Theatre:
  • Is the Council  turning its back on supporting the Borough’s local cultural activity and heritage?
  • Is it a snub to local people who use the local archives/studies service and help contribute to our understanding of how Croydon developed?
  • Will local archives/studies staff cuts result in the loss of valuable knowledge about archive material?
  • With the reduction in staffing across all Council services will the loss of institutional memory lead to future bad decision making based on ignorance? 
  • Does this mean that the Local Studies (as opposed to Archives) service will be closed?  Does a reduction mean an end to open access and the introduction of an appointment only system?
  • Does it mean remote access with a consequent rise in remote enquiries  on the staff who remain?
  • Will it reduce accessibility of historic resources which have wider significance than the Borough boundaries?
  • What effect will it have on Croydon’s ability to occupy satisfactorily its position among the network of archives on which historic researchers depend?
  • To what extent will the future proposed service be capable of meeting The National Archives  new archive accreditation framework
  • What capacity will there be to continue to collect the records of Croydon Council, the archives of other organisations and individuals and the ongoing collection of local studies materials?
  • What are the implications for potential depositors going elsewhere with their collections and existing depositors seeking to withdraw collections already with the archives because of concerns about the security of the service?
  • Could Croydon’s reputation be damaged resulting in a possible loss of ability to apply for external funding to bodies like Heritage Lottery Fund? 

Statutory Framework

These are among a series of questions that need to be answered by the Council and justify a Scrutiny and Oversight Committee review of the future of Local Archives and Studies within the wider context of the disengagement from cultural intervention and within the context of the statutory framework and Government guidance on what are called ‘proper arrangements’.

The main legislation governing archives and records are the Local Government (Records) Act 1962 (amended 2003), the Local Government Act 1972. The 1962 Act confers limited discretionary powers for local authorities to provide certain archives services: 'a local authority may do all such things as appear to it necessary or expedient for enabling adequate use to be made of records under its control'.  Activities include allowing inspection and copying of records, preparing indexes and guides to them and publishing and exhibiting them, and acquisition of records of local significance over and above their own administrative records, care for them and make them available for study by the public. The 1972 Act requires local authorities to 'make proper arrangements with respect to any documents that belong to or are in the custody of the council of any of their officers'.

Government Guidance

Government guidance explains why record keeping is important: Records represent information, one of the most important resources of any organisation. Local authorities should make arrangements for the cost-effective management of these records in the interests of the efficient transaction of their business. Local authorities also need to preserve certain classes of records for the legal protection of their own property or other interests.’

The guidance addresses the management of a local authority's administrative records, whether kept on paper or in electronic form, and proper arrangements for those records which have enduring historical value and which should be kept by an established archive service. The latter include the public records of such bodies as courts, coroners, hospitals and prisons held on behalf of central government; and those given to or purchased by the authority, or deposited with the authority normally on indefinite loan.  Records include manuscript, typescript and printed records, photographs, sound recordings, film, videotape, computer disks and records held in electronic form.

The guidance explains thatproper arrangements’ cover:
  •     the preservation of the records, including storage and conservation
  •     ‘the provision of access, including preparing finding aids and the means for enabling members of the public to consult the records (subject to any restrictions) under supervision.’
  •     the skilled supervision of their management by an appropriately trained member of staff’.
  •     the provision of adequate storage for the records in conditions where they will not deteriorate and with protection from unauthorised access.
  •     the provision for consultation by the authority's staff and, where appropriate, by members of the public.
  •     the adoption of  guidelines  for the safekeeping of records retained directly by staff of the authority.
  •     the adoption of  ‘policies to cover the electronic records, integrated with the overall information strategy, and the facilities and procedures to implement those policies through the lifecycle from creation to disposition of the electronic record.’
  •     provision for preservation and conservation.
  •     provision of  a designated study area for use by the public .
  •     liaison with schools and other educational bodies so that the educational potential of the archives can be realised.
  •     outreach activities to the wider public.

Interestingly An authority should consult its archive/records management service before it invests in electronic document management systems’ and adopt a comprehensive information systems strategy, including the avoidance ‘of electronic records becoming inaccessible because they are trapped in obsolete technology.’

Information Management System

If a Council Oversight/Scrutiny Review takes place it should be examining what the benefits of effective information management of its own records are:
  • Is time saved because information can be found quickly and easily?
  • Is compliance improved by keeping documentation in line with legal and regulatory requirements?
  • Is efficiency improved through information being readily accessible?
  • Is the quality of information improved, providing staff with access to accurate and reliable records?
  • Does it increase the security of confidential information.
  • Does it support risk management and business continuity.
  • At what level of reduced funding for the archives service will result in increased costs elsewhere in the Council because of inadequate involvement in record management?

More detailed questions that could be asked in an Oversight/Scrutiny Review include:
  • What does the Council consider the statutory minimum to be?
  • What aspects of the current service are in addition to the statutory minimum?
  • Who will have access to the slimmed down service?
  • Will it just be for Council officers?
  • Will it be for members of the public and if so what will the new opening hours be?
  • Will the Council guarantee that archive collection material will not be thrown out?
  • Will the Council continue to accept new collections for deposit or on loan?
  • Will the Council ensure that new material being created by Council Departments and Committees are archived?
  • What resources will be available for cataloguing new deposits?
  • How many staff will there be?
  • Will staffing be sufficient to avoid periods of closure due to staff (a) holidays, (b) training, (c) sickness; etc?

Let’s hope that the concern about the future of the local archives/studies services is shared by both Tory and Labour Councillors to lead to a consensus on carrying out an Oversight/Scrutiny Committee review.

Further detail about the legislation and guidance can be seen on

Details of the developing Archive Service Accreditation Standard can  be seen on

Sunday, 6 January 2013

How Should We Approach Labour Biography? A Discussion Note

Friday 8 March sees a Conference on History & Biography at the Institute for Historical Research at London University's Senate House. The organisers comment that 'Biography remains one of the most popular forms of non-fiction, and historical biography has often been the genre in which professional historians have written for a wider audience. But what happens when it is the historian who becomes the subject of the biographer? In recent years several major biographies of historians have been published, and others are on their way. The Conference showcases the phenomenon of biographies by and about historians, and also looks across the humanities at current research on life-writing. Biography may well be ‘history without theory’, but that is no reason not to explore why it remains one of the most compelling and challenging ways of understanding the past in relation to the present.' While this Conference is focused on the biographies of historians, it will raise broader questions about the functions of biography in general. However, historians such as Christopher Hill, Edward Thompson, John Saville, Ralph Samuel, who have all been subject to biographical studies, have been more than just historians. They were teachers and political activists as well within the broad labour movement. 

Back in 1997 (15 March) the Society for the Study of Labour History's Conference was ‘A life’s work: Labour Biography today’. Having previously written a review I later posted a discussion note on how we should approach labour biography on the Labour Heritage website in 2003. This what I wrote with slight editing.

Biographies of people who were active in the labour movement are an easy and readable way for non-professionals to become familiar with the history of the labour movement. An ever ending stream of full-length biographies and biographical sketches are published by journalists, politicians, academic political scientists, and academic and non-academic historians. The motives of each author vary from those who view the individual they are writing about as heroes to those who regard them as villains.

These aspects of labour biography rippled through the presentations and discussion at the Conference, which was appropriately held at the then North London University's Learning Centre on Holloway Rd which now houses the TUC Library (bar the John Burns Collection) and Christine Coates, the former TUC Librarian. This is a rich archive for movement and biographical research. It is now part London Metropolitan University and also holds the archive of the Workers’ Educational Association. ( It has recently launched the TUC History Online website:


Traditionally, labour movement history in general and biography in particular has concentrated on men. There are of course notable exceptions such as biographies on Margaret Bondfield and Ellen Wilkinson. But the motives of many writers on women stem from a perfectly valid feminist perspective. e.g. Margaret Mulhvihall's biography of Charlotte Despard. This can result in less emphasis being paid to women's labour movement involvements, so that further biographical essays are needed. It was, however, right that the Conference sought to redress the imbalance towards women and to have only one paper on a man.

Angela John (Greenwich University) talked about ‘Gendering labour biography’. She was too theoretical and assumed the listeners knew about the authors and the women she was talking about. It became more down to earth when she illustrated her talk by citing information about Caroline Ganley, who had been researched by one of her (John's) students. Ganley is an important figure in the Battersea movement on the local Council, the LCC and after the war as MP for Battersea South. She was also a leading figure in the London co-operative movement. I was delighted to hear about this work, particularly as the student had located a relative and discovered Ganley's own autobiographical notes. Potentially this could be a very important new source for the history of the Battersea labour and the co-operative movement. I hope the dissertation will be turned into a book.

Difficulties of Writing Biography

Nina Fishman (University of Westminster), who was working at the time on a biography of Arthur Horner, and a sketch of Jack Tanner, spoke on ‘The importance of labour biography as a resource’. She shared some observations on the difficulties of writing labour movement biography, especially about individuals who were known by people who are still alive.

She regretted that too often in the past the history of the movement and its organisations has been parallel but separate to biographies of movement activists. Nina suggested that one of the problems of this lack of integration is that the role of the individual can be overemphasised.

Individuals and Movements

I enthusiastically nodded my agreement with the points she was making. In the course of my own research and writing into the history of the Battersea labour movement I have discussed the relationship between the individual and the movement, and tried to integrate biographical sketches of leading figures into the discussion on the movement. I stress that people could only rise to regional and national level because of their local base. The relationship is a two way process. They are nurtured and developed by that local base, and they can help to change its nature, as John Burns and Tom Mann did in the Battersea movement in the second half of the 1880s.

Personal Lives

Nina Fishman warned about the problems of tackling aspects of people's personal lives, such as sexual affairs and excessive drinking. The problem is how to assess whether they are important in terms of the movement's activities, and if they were not, how much detail should go into. There is clearly a danger of a Sun or News of the World mentality being applied to the personal lives of dead people. To what extent should people's private lives be respected after their death?

Personal Interlinks

Jane Martin (Nene College) talked about her research into Mrs Bridges Adams, the SDFer, educational and peace campaigner. It was a very interesting report on work in progress. One of the pieces of information she recounted was that Adams had worked for a time for the aristocratic SDF supporter Lady Warwick, which was of particular interest to a member of the audience who was researching Lady Warwick.

Motives and Selection

Anna Greening of the Fawcett Library (now the Women’s Library) spoke about resources for women’s biography. Her warning that no source or biography should be trusted was well made. The material in archive collections has been selected; so what has been left out? Researchers select from that material depending on their motives for writing to biography.

Working Women

Greening illustrated her talk with pictures from the Collection showing different representations of women at work, and with samples of material that could be used to write a biography. She cited Tom Mann suggesting that no woman would want to be a working man's wife, and wondering how it could be interpreted. This and the pictorial images of working women prompted a question about how the myth that women did not go out of work had developed, as it was clearly not true for women in the nineteenth century. It was pointed out that often trade unions were hostile to working women. This was often couched in language such as 'dilution of labour'. I made the point that this was not entirely the answer. There were expanding industries in the nineteenth century in which the employment practices were determined by the bosses long before trade unionist was even organised e.g. on the railways. This issue of the relationship between women and men's work is discussed in published work by my brother Colin at Hull University.

The Value of  Press Cuttings

An interesting disagreement during the Conference related to the usefulness of collections of press cuttings. One person regarded them as a nuisance with little value. Others thought they were useful in providing the starting off point for building up biographical material that can be followed up. In my own researches I have found the collections of contemporary press cuttings from Battersea newspapers invaluable in allowing me to pinpoint key meetings and debates, which I have then been able to follow up in more detail without having to plough through endless issues of local newspapers with little reward.


There was also a discussion about whether obituaries are a useful starting off point. It was pointed out that the facts in some contemporary national press obituaries can be wrong, and the assessments given in them can be open to bitter challenge by others who knew the dead person. It was suggested that local newspaper obituaries were less likely to suffer from these problems.

Material Spread Across Archives

The last paper was given by the journalist Frances Beckett on his work researching a biography of Clem Attlee, subsequently published as ‘Clem Attlee. A Biography’ (Richard Cohen’s Books 1997, and Politico’s Publishing, 2000). He spoke about the way in which relevant archives were spread around different institutions. This highlights the problems for non-professionals who do not have the time e.g. because of their work, to go to a wide variety of institutions.

Janie Buchan enlivened the proceedings by explaining the importance in the Scottish movement of short ditties that ridiculed politicians' shortcomings. She gave a rendition of the re-wording on a traditional ditty by a young man outraged by Harriett Harman's decision to send her son to a selective school.

The discussion provided a useful reminder that the biographies and autobiographies of colleagues of people like Clem Attlee were themselves useful sources of material, and that further light can be shed on their colleagues. e.g. the very close working relationship between Attlee and Bevin.

The Motives of Biographers

It has been my experience that another problem with many biographies of national figures is that, the individuals being written about are not always properly placed and analysed in the context of their local area base. One biographer of John Burns, for example, says that the formation of the Battersea Labour League was a deliberate move to finally break with the local SDF. The local press reports on the formation meeting, however, clearly show that the SDF jointly proposed the resolution with the local Radical Association. The League was set up as a progressive alliance organisation. Apart from the period when he was a leading figure in New Unionism, Burns has come down as a villain for not associating with the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Party, and for joining the Liberal Cabinet despite the fact that his local supporters had suggested this months beforehand, and the TUC welcomed it. Yet despite the hostility towards him from the local socialists from the early 1900s he was adopted as Parliamentary candidate by the newly formed Battersea Trades Council & Labour Party for the 1918 General Election, hardly an indication of him being totally beyond the pale. He had after all resigned from the Cabinet in protest at the declaration of War in 1914. The reason he did not run in the Election was that he withdrew because he was not prepared to accept the discipline of the Parliamentary Whip system.

There were some important gaps in the programme. The inclusion of Beckett's talk highlighted the absence of a paper on someone who was not so well known. While Mrs Bridges Adams is not as well known as Clem Atlee, she is frequently mentioned in a wide range of books about movement organisations, activities and personalities. There were at least four people in the audience who could have given talks about how they have gone about researching individuals, and which would have been encouraged others who are not academics or journalists to start research on people they are interested in. Peggy Attlee had published a biography of Thomas Attlee (Clem's brother). Paul Tyler was researching Will Crooks. Harold Smith was trying to get a plaque put up on the Battersea house of George Potter, a leader of the building workers' in 1859/60, the owner of The Beehive newspaper and the opponent of the trade union Junta. Bruce Aubrey had been researching Arthur Field, the Maidstone ILP activist, photographer, who moved to Battersea and threw himself into the movement for Indian Independence, and was a friend of Saklatvala, Battersea's Labour and Communist MP. 

New Dictionary of National Biography

The New Dictionary of National Biography project was the subject of a talk by Duncan Bythell. It intended to redress the traditional DNB imbalance against women and trade union leaders. At the time Bythell was the adviser on trade union personalities. There was scope for people to recommend names for possible inclusion, and for people to put themselves forward to write about them.

At the time there appeared to be problems with the project in that it seemed that some people did not fit comfortably into the editorial categories. How would the project team fit in nineteenth century reform radicals like Baxter Langley, who became President of the ASRS? How they would they fit in labour movement figures who were not active trade unionists, like Stephen Sanders, one of the architects of the alliance that successfully backed John Burns for Parliament in 1892 and took control of the Vestry in 1894. He became a leading Fabian and ethical socialist, Alderman on the LCC, and worked for the ILP, and became an expert on Germany. After the First World he worked for the International Labour Office. After the split with the Communists, North Battersea Labour invited him to be its Parliamentary candidate, defeating Saklatvala and becoming member of the MacDonald's Labour Government, remaining with Labour after the establishment of the National Government.

It was also important to ensure that black activists in Britain are included, such as William Cuffay (the Chartist leader who was transported to Australia), John Archer (Progressive Mayor of Battersea in 1913, Pan Africanist, Labour Party activist from 1918, backer of Saklatvala in the early 20s, and 'K.C.' on the Board of Guardians for the local unemployed), and Saklatvala himself.

Local Activists

A gap in the Conference programme was how to recognise the unsung millions who have made their contribution to the movement, in their unions and their communities. One way is for local historians to produce Local ‘Who's Who’s or Dictionaries of Labour Biographies. Martin Tupper and I have been working for some time on the first edition of such a Who's Who of people active in Battersea's labour movement. It comprises names gathered during our own and other people's researches of trade unionists, SDF, ILP, Labour and Communist activists, and co-operators, from about 1850 to 1964 when Battersea was merged into Wandsworth. Some have only one or two line entries, and some will be the subject of sketches. It will be available in photocopied format, so that new names and new information about existing entries can be added. 

Future Discussion

A future Conference on labour movement biography could usefully go into more depth into research approaches and pitfalls, especially for the benefit of non-professional historians, using speakers who have been working on lesser known figures in the national labour movement, on prominent activists at local level, and on those whose contribution spanned more that one locality. It would also be interesting to try and encourage people whose approach is family history to talk about members of their families who were active in the movement.

A big problem that needs to be overcome is the lack of knowledge about who is working on which biographical projects, so that information and ideas can be shared as part of a process of helping people produce better biographies.


- Nina Fishman sadly died in 2009 (

- I hope my review of Martin Hoyle's biography of William Cuffay demonstrates the wider point I made about biography as an introduction to labour movement history: 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Questioning the Mayor's Police and Crime Plan

Starting in Lambeth from 9 January a series of sham consultation roadshows is being run by London Mayor Boris’s Police and Crime Office on his Police and Crime. Sham? Because they are only an hour long and pre-registration is required. Further details can be seen on

A proper consultation would require a chance to ask a whole series of questions about the details of policing each London Borough and the role in that of each police station, especially in the light of the threat to close large numbers of police stations, and open counters in libraries and supermarkets. Obviously many people will campaign against station closures, but many may also want to campaign against the idea of renting space in supermarkets, diverting public money into helping increase the profits for the likes of Tesco and Sainsburys. It is to be hoped that Community/Police Consultative Committees will ask the kind of penetrating questions that need to be asked. Given the wider implications of changes in police Council Scrutiny Committees may wish to quiz their Borough Commanders.

Here is my life of some of the questions that I think need to be asked.

How many additional crime categories did the police have to deal with in 2012 compared with 1997, 2002 and 2007?

What is the average time taken for police officers despatched from each of the police stations in response to an incident?

At the beginning each quarter in 2012 were the staffing establishment at each police stations: 
·         Police officers
·         Community support officers
·         Civilian staff

During 2012 what were the  total number of hours per station put in by:
·         Police officers
·         Community support officers
·         Civilian staff

During 2012 what were the total number of hours and % put in by each of the above groups of officers and workers responding to:
·         Burglaries
·         Motor vehicle thefts
·         Thefts from motor vehicles
·         Shoplifting
·         Traffic accidents
·         Fights in public spaces
·         Drunk and disorderly behaviour
·         Domestic violence
·         Rape and sexual abuse
·         Drug offences

During 2012 what were the total number of hours and % put in by each of the above groups of officers and workers in relation to:
·         Appearing in court
·         Attending training
·         Sick leave
·         Holidays
·         Attending meetings of neighbourhood watch, resident organisations and others
·         Police federation duties

In 2012 how much hours overtime was put in by each category of ‘staff’ by station?

In 2012 were all categories of civilian staff paid wages at or higher than London Living wage level?

Are cleaners and canteen workers employed by the Met Police Service or by contractors and are they paid at or above the London Living Wage level?

In 2012 what were the cost budgets for each of the police stations with regard to:
·         Repairs and maintenance
·         Redecoration
·         Upgrades of equipment
·         Energy

In 2012 were the average costs of holding detainees in the custody areas broken down into ‘staff’ time and costs such as food and non-food supplies for detainees?

How much money is predicated to be saved by the closure of each police station?

How much is the predicted sales proceeds for each police station?

In 2012 what were the annual costs of the police vehicle fleet at each station?

What is the predicted increase in fuel costs for the vehicle fleet if vehicles are moved to remaining stations thereby increasing the distances that have to be travelled to respond to incidents?

In 2012 what was the average cost of early morning raids on people alleged to have committed crime?

In 2012 how many raids were carried out in the early mornings on people with no history of violence who are simply wanted for questioning?

What are the projected rentals that will have to be paid to have police service counters in
·         Libraries
·         Supermarkets

How many individual premises will be needed to provide police service counters in libraries and supermarkets?

What steps will are proposed in respect of continuing to tackle the racial discrimination by police officers as illustrated for example in stops and searches?

In 2012 what is the estimated time and financial costs to the police service in the Borough of dealing with problems relating to
·         alcohol
·         violent disorder not linked to alcohol
·         domestic violence
·         care protection
·         vulnerable people protection
·         mental health crises

In 2012 how many stops and searches were made in the Borough by age, gender and race, shown Borough wide and by each police station, and the figures of whether arrests were made for what crimes, and how many of these crimes led to charges, and how many of these charges led to court appearances, and how many of these court appearances led to acquittal or custodial and community service sentences?

In the experience of the Borough’s police what % of people arrested need access to the following treatment and support rather than a custodial sentence for:
·         alcohol problems
·         mental health problems

What consultation has been carried out at each station with police officers, community support officers and civilian staff on what measures they think could be undertaken which will:
·         reduce costs
·         improve service
·         decrease wasted time such as at courts waiting for cases to be heard
·         improve community relations
·         reduce crime?

How much space in square footage and % of the total is not currently used as each police station? 

If the projected police stations are closed where will the police officers, community support officers and civilian staff be based?

What steps are being taken to ensure that police officers do not leak information to the press and other media?

What steps are being taken not to name suspects until they have been charged and their names become public on court listings, so as to protect the reputations of those who are not charged?

In each of the years 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 what was the percentage of chargeable crimes committed by (a) Borough residents and (b) non-Borough residents?

In each of the years 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 what was the percentage of people sentenced in Borough courts for offences committed in the Borough to custodial sentences who were (i) Borough Croydon residents and (ii) non-Borough residents?

In each of the years 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 how many Borough residents were
·         Charged with crimes committed elsewhere in other parts of London and outside London
·         Were subject to custodial sentences?

How many Borough residents are currently in prisons around the country?

How many Borough residents are still regarded as having unspent criminal records?

'What An Amazing Man'. William Cuffay. Review of Martin Hoyles' Book

Over the years the story of the life of the London Chartist leader William Cuffay, a Black Briton, has been slowly circulating around the Black History and Chartist networks as a leading organiser of the 1848 Kennington Common Demonstration and the presentation of the 3rd national Charter petition, who was then convicted and transported for conspiracy to foment an armed uprising.

He receives almost no mention in the standard works on Chartism through to the early 1980s. John Saville provided a sketch of him in the Dictionary of Labour Biography (Vol VI. Macmillan) in 1982, which allowed Peter Fryer to include more information in Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press 1984). Bruce Aubry dug into Cuffay’s early years born and raised in Chatham in William Cuffay: Medway’s Black Chartist. (Rochester. The Pocock Press. 2008). In Australia Mark Gregory has been researching his life following transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), and runs a website about him: My own dabblings into Cuffay led to my talk at the Feargus O’Connor memorial event – see my blog of 30 July 2010:     

Now we have the exceptional book by Martin Hoyles William Cuffay. The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader (Hansib 2012). Why exceptional? Because Martin had done much more than present what is known so far about Cuffay’s life. Hopefully there is a lot more be found in archives and newspapers, especially as the more of the latter become available in digital format. Martin  sets Cuffay within the wider British and international context of slavery, the growth of the working class, radicalism and Chartism. His style is a joy to read for its down to earthiness, not stuffed with impenetrable language or the distraction of footnotes. This is a book for the general reader and a first class introduction to broader aspects of British working class history and the struggles for democracy and citizenship participation.

The story is set on three islands: St Kitts, where Cuffay’s grandfather had been taken against his will from Africa to feed the slavery economy; Britain, the heart of a growing Empire, where Cuffay’s grandmother and father were living as free blacks in 1772 and where William was born, grew up and became politically active; and then Tasmania where Cuffay lived the rest of his life after transportation.

Cuffay Family History

The Cuffay family stories are linked by a summary of how the slavery system operated, the experiences of black people in Britain, the efforts by Granville Sharp and others to challenge slave owners through the courts, the Mansfield judgement which was thought to have meant that no one could be a slave on British soil, the activities of Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Bill Waters, Charles McGee, and Jack Black (the gardener). Chatham’s importance was its Naval Dockyard, the working conditions and strikes, and a base for the prison hulks made famous by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations which had held republican prisoners from France and then Americans captured in the War of 1812, and later for a short while the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

This was the Chatham where William Cuffay was born, one of five children to Chatham Cuffay and a local white girl Juliana Fox following their marriage in 1786. William was the eldest baptised on 6 July 1788. Chatham died in April  1815 and Juliana in 1837. William was apprenticed to a tailor but by May 1819 he was living in London where he married Ann Marshall in St Martins-in-the Field Church at Trafalgar Square. Ann died in 1824 and William remarried the following year, his second wife, also Ann, dying in childbirth in 1826. These tragic deaths allows Hoyles to talk about the fragility of life in the early 19thC, and especially about rickets as the main disease of infancy.


In May 1827 William married again to Mary Ann Manvell, a straw hat maker. They lived in Lambeth. Hoyles explains the importance of straw plaiting work especially for women and girls.   Tailors had a radical history. In 1721 and 1744 the London tailors were on strike. Because it was a seasonal trade there were periods of unemployment so the tailors had their own benefit clubs and trade (union) societies. One of the radical tailors rose from journeyman to small scale employer: Francis Place. Cuffay had a reputation as a good tailor and one who liked to teacher others.

In 1833 the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors of London was founded, and several London tailors were involved in setting up the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. Although he did not approve of the tactic at the time he came out on strike in 1834 in solidarity with his fellow tailors.  A week before the strike began of the 40/50,000 strong London demonstration supporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs over a fifth was tailors. The strike collapsed due to lack of funds. Many including Cuffay  remained unemployed for refusing to sign an agreement that they would not join a trade union.

Hoyle broadens the story out again to talk about the working conditions in various branches of tailoring especially sweated labour in millinery and dress-making. He discusses the importance of Thomas Hood’s Song of the Shirt (December 1843) based on a Lambeth widow, which was set to music and song on the streets.

The 1834 strike led Cuffay into political activity. Hoyle reminds of us previous black activists: the four black demonstrators in the Gordon Riots, Oladuah Equiano’s anti-slave trade campaigning, William Davidson who was hung and decapitated for his role in the Cato St Conspiracy of 1820,  and Robert Wedderburn, and through his acting Ira Aldridge.

Cuffay and Chartism

He explains the rise of Chartism following the limited extension of the vote in the Reform Act of 1832, the crowds cheering the burning of the Houses of Parliament in October 1834, and the formation of the London Working Men’s Association which developed the 6 points of the People’s Charter in 1838. He reminds us that the Chartists looked back to the radicals of the English Revolution, the Monmouth Rebellion, the role of Major John Cartwright, the London Corresponding Society, the role of petitions and mentions the welcome African  Americans would receive campaigning in Britain against slavery in the United States.

The chapters ‘1839’, 1842’ and ‘1848’ tell the story of Chartism in each of the years of the three national petitions for the vote and other reforms. Martin pays particular attention to the Newport Uprising and female Chartists, especially their campaign to boycott shopkeepers that did not support the Charter.

By November 1839 Cuffay is a leading member of the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and moves the resolution condemning the Government’s rejection of the Charter demands. 1842 sees Cuffay chairing the tailors’ public meeting to adopt the 2nd National Petition. He also argued against emigration appealing to people to stay in Britain and fought for improvements.   The year saw a large scale strike in the Potteries. By the time it ended 1,500 Chartists had been arrested and 600 put on trial. In the Potteries out of 276 people tried 54 men were sentenced to transportation and 166 men and women imprisoned for up to two years. Cuffay was one of signatories to a letter in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star about the Chartists Metropolitan Delegate meeting’s decision to raise funds for the prisoners. Mary Cuffay played an active role in fundraising. By now a leader of the London Chartists and member of the National Executive, ‘Cuffay’s oratory is often commented on – he was clearly a very powerful speaker.’ Press reports refer to his skill in chairing meetings.

The Importance of Social Activities

Entertainment was an important ingredient in Cuffay’s politics. He sang at social events and meetings. At one event he and five others sang a glee ‘I am a bold Democrat’.  Hoyle discusses the importance of theatre at the time, which allows him to provide more information about Ira Aldridge. In 1846 Cuffay is himself living at 12 Maiden Lane in Covent Gdn at the back of the Adelphi Theatre. He performed in an Amateur Dramatic Society production for the National Victims Fund, in which he sang The Laughing Song. Martin discusses its origins of the song, possibly in Handel or Blake, which leads him to review the importance of poetry to Chartists.                                                                

Hoyle then turns to the Chartist Land Plan of Feargus O’Connor which Cuffay was an active supporter of and an auditor for.   Writing in The Reasoner in 1849 Christopher Doyle, one of the Directors, praised Cuffay for his honesty. The initiative links back to the land nationalisation ideas of Thomas Spence and the development of the co-operative movement with the founding of the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844.

The Chartist Fiasco of 1848

By the beginning of 1848 the horror of the Irish Famine had politicised many Irish on the mainland. A Grand Metropolitan Demonstration was held in March to celebrate the French Revolution of February and universal suffrage. Cuffay addressed 10,000 people in Westminster Rd, Lambeth, and seconded a resolution by Ernest Jones against British interference. At another demonstration on Kennington Common the black seamen David Anthony Duffey and Benjamin Prophet were arrested and sentenced to transportation for 14 years.

Plans were underway for the presentation of the 3rd National Petition and a demonstration in support. Although it was banned the demonstration went ahead  on Kennington Common. Feargus O’Connor advised against processing with the petition to the Houses of Parliament against the ban. Cuffay was outraged and spoke against. He remained militant at the National Convention in the face of Government rejection of the Petition. A new Treason-Felony Act was used during the summer to arrest large numbers of Chartist leaders. From July a joint group of Chartists and Irish Confederates started to meet to plan an uprising. Cuffay became involved. He was arrested. Evidence against him and others was given by two police informers.

Hoyles looks at how political prisoners in the past and those who were Chartists used their time in prison to write. O’Connor paid for Cuffay’s barrister. He was sketched by fellow prisoner William Dowling. The sale of the print became one way in which money was raised for Mary Cuffay and others through the Victims and Defence Fund. His trial opened in September 1848. He was  found guilty. He made a powerful speech from the dock. While waiting to be transported he and others were imprisoned in Millbank, and then Wakefield.

Life in Tasmania

They were shipped from London in late July to Van Diemens Land (later renamed Tasmania). The system under which those transported lived, and the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines is examined. There is then a chapter about Cuffay’s life in Tasmania, and the success of the campaign against the transportation system in May 1853. Mary was able to join him a month earlier, her passage being paid for by the Government and the Medway Union Poor Law Guardians. William became politically involved in support of the anti-transportation campaign, for trade unions and then against the Master and Servant Act. He and others were given a Royal pardon in 1857. He took on the management of the renovated Albert Theatre. He remained politically active into his 80s. Mary died in 1869 and after admission to the workhouse in October he died on 29 July 1870.

Cuffay’s Reputation

The book ends with a chapter reviewing Cuffay’s ‘Reputation’. ‘What An amazing man! And how scandalous that he has been so neglected… his was one the most widely known names amongst the Chartists.’ He was ‘feared and reviled by the Establishment’; The Times and the Illustrated London News  referring to him as ‘nigger’. William Thackeray wrote  a poem in 1848 ridiculing him and Charles Kingsley mentions him in Alton Locke (1850). Even George Holyoake ‘could mix abuse with his praise’ in his Sixty Year’s of an Agitator’s Life (1892). ‘We owe  a lot to William Cuffay. This was a man who survived disability, poverty, bereavement, unemployment, ridicule, racism, imprisonment and transportation.’ The William Dowling portrait shows him smiling just as he is about to be transported for life. If there is one thing to remember about his remarkable man, it is his perseverance. He had the ability to laugh and make others laugh in the grimmest of times and surely he deserves to be commemorated for the inspiration which that provides.’