David Rosenberg has demolished an assumption and disrupted a habit. I always assumed my knowledge of London’s dissenting tradition was adequate but incomplete, but this revised edition of Rebel Footprints exposed my ignorance of key aspects of even the better-known episodes in the city’s radical history.
For years, quarterly meetings in Chancery Lane have been preceded by aimless, time-killing strolls around EC4, but my next visit will include a carefully planned trudge from the Savoy Hotel, on The Strand, to Dorset Rise, just off Fleet Street. As Rosenberg reveals, the Savoy marks the site of a palace destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, while Dorset Rise is the location of an obelisk commemorating Robert Waithman, linen draper and rebellious MP.
The Fleet Street writers and rioters walk, new to this edition, also introduces us to the London Corresponding Society, which integrated the struggle for democracy with the battle against slavery. Local figures of note are ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a Leveller flogged, pilloried and gaoled for attacks on the authority of the clergy, and the pamphleteer Richard Carlisle, who was repeatedly imprisoned on charges of seditious libel and blasphemy.
Another new segment, on Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, introduces us to the area’s housing campaigners, including Charles Mowbray, tailor, printer, anarchist-communist, ‘no rent’ activist, co-founder of the Socialist League and sole non-Jewish member of the Yiddish-speaking sweatshop workers strike of 1889.
Mowbray’s story, deftly outlined over a few pages, illustrates one of the strengths of the book. Rather than compartmentalising people, places and issues, Rosenberg meanders across thematic and geographical boundaries to highlight the connectedness of class struggles and celebrate the resilience and diversity of Londoners.
The book’s eleven historical excursions are crammed with fascinating detail, such as the geographical and class-based schisms in the suffragette movement, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s lifelong commitment to socialism and anti-fascism. Sylvia’s contribution to the foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union did not, we are told, secure a namecheck on the suffragettes’ commemorative statue in Westminster.
Rosenberg’s style is clear and accessible and his scholarship impressive, but the vital element of Rebel Footprints is its passion for the capital’s history of radical change. And it’s tremendous fun. Each chapter ends with an elegantly lettered and illustrated map, and an itinerary listing significant landmarks in geographical order.
This is a welcome antidote to the focus on ‘great men’, royalty and military adventure celebrated by the heritage industry and official guidebooks. It’s also a goldmine of narratives showing conditions can be improved, racists can be resisted, better cities can be built. The publication of this new edition is a fitting celebration of the first 50 years of Pluto Press.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
David Rosenberg’s first book – Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s – was published by Five Leaves