Founded as a ‘Freethought Coliseum’ and debating club, with a capacity of 1000 people, sometime in the 1780s, the Rotunda stumbled through various owners and numerous uses, until it was taken over by Richard Carlile in 1830, when it entered a brief golden age.
Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.
Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)
Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… a culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ‘40s.
In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out.
But Carlile had a gift for thinking big and doing the outrageous… In May 1830 he spent the vast sum of £1275 (he was skint, so he borrowed the whole sum!) to rent the Rotunda as a venue lectures on atheism (although a fait chunk of this went on cleaning and a paintjob, as the building had got somewhat run down)… The Rotunda’s location played some part in Carlile’s choice of venue, being 200 yards north of Rowland Hill’s chapel (on the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street, where the famous Ring later gave birth to modern boxing), a leading centre of religious revivalism of its day. Carlile and his collaborator Robert Taylor saw the Rotunda as the perfect counterblast to this famous chapel.
In cahoots with Carlile, as least for a while was the ‘Reverend’ Robert Taylor, a former Church of England clergyman, who blended ultra-radical politics with a fierce opposition to religion. He was twice convicted of blasphemy, the first time in 1827 on an indictment for a blasphemous discourse at Salters' Hall and on another for conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion. Sentenced to one year's imprisonment, at Oakham gaol he met fellow-prisoner Carlile; after they were both released they went on a four months lecture tour in May 1829.
At the Rotunda, Taylor preached in to large audiences dressed as a clergyman. Two ‘sermons on the devil’ in June 1830 gained him from Henry Hunt the title of ‘the devil's chaplain.’ He was described him “over the middle size, inclined to be stout, and of gentlemanly manners”…
Taylor’s Rotunda lectures were multi-media extravaganzas, enhanced by 12 zodiacal emblems painted on the dome overhead, and a large board carrying greek ‘hieroglyphs’, a merchanical pointer, an expensive illuminated globe and a clockwork orrery… he was also sometimes accompanied by a female chorus playing guitars. His ‘Divine Service’ was offered on Sundays: a burlesque on bible, it usually started with readings from scripture, expanding into a satire on the Anglican service.
Taylor, unlike Carlile, leant strongly on theatre as a means of propaganda and saw it as a powerful lever of social change… They also disagreed on the demystifying power of satire and ridicule. Taylor’s Rotunda performances featured more and more burlesque and buffoonery, while Carlile always inclined to the more serious and moral style of lecture.
In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be. Taylor put on a play enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’; but a year late the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.
In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform. A rough alliance of middle class and working class co-operated in pressing for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, and other measures, to limit the power of the aristocracy… For a couple of years polite political reform, riotous workers and radical demagoguery all seemed to be part and parcel; of course in the end the 1832 Reform Act would later give the vote to the middle classes, who promptly ditched their plebeian allies with a fond fuck you all… Still it was a time pregnant with possibilities.
In November 1830, at the height of the Reform agitation, armed crowds met at the Rotunda, waving radical newspapers and attempted to march to Parliament:
“On Monday night (8 Nov 1830) a meeting was held at the Rotunda in Blackfriars road… an individual exposed a tricoloured flag, with "Reform" painted upon it, and a cry of "Now for the West End" was instantly raised. This seemed to serve as a signal, as one and all sallied forth in a body. They then proceeded over the bridge in numbers amounting to about 1,500 shouting, "Reform" - "Down with the police" - "No Peel" - "No Wellington." They were joined by women of the town, vociferous in declamations against the police.”
The Duke of Wellington – then Prime minister, was the arch-champion of the most reactionary tories of the time, dead set against any political reforms or concessions to change of any kind. The class conscious workers movement especially considered him one of their main enemies. Note the flying of the French tricolour, the emblem of the first French Revolution, then still used by English radicals who took part of their inspiration from the events of 1789 in France. It was only really superseded as the main workers flag by the red flag in the later 19th century.
“The mob proceeded into Downing-street, where they formed in a line… A strong body of the new police arrived from Scotland yard to prevent them going to the House of Commons. A general fight ensued, in which the new police were assisted by several respectable looking men. The mob, upon seeing reinforcement, took to flight.
Before noon organised bands of pickpockets were prowling about. About two o'clock in the afternoon a sham fight was attempted to be got up in Fleet street, and crowds collected. About five o'clock the first indication of a mob was observed round the house of lords. Members got into their carriages without molestation, but were assailed by shouts...
The refuse of the mob, proceeded in a body, vociferating "No Peel - down with the raw lobsters!" At Charing Cross, the whole of them yelled, shouting and breaking windows. They were dashing over heaps of rubbish and deep holes caused by the pulling down of several houses, when a strong body of police rushed upon them and dealt out unmerciful blows with staves on heads and arms.
In the evening another mob made their way to Apsley House, the residence of the Duke of Wellington, hallooing, in their progress thither, disapprobation towards the noble duke and the police. They were met by a strong force of the police, who succeeded in ultimately dispersing them. During the conflict many received serious injuries.
At half-past twelve o'clock, a party were in the act of breaking up [a paling], for purpose of arming themselves, when a body of police made a rush forward and laid unmercifully on the rioters, making many prisoners…”
William Knight, one of those arrested, was found to be carrying a will bequeathing his body, in the event of his death, to the barricades in the cause of Liberty! The Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”
Two days later, the military besieged the Rotunda at ten o’clock at night trying to provoke another fight; they ordered Carlile to open the doors, but he refused, so they eventually buggered off.
After Carlile was jailed for supporting the Swing rioters, the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) became the co-tenant of the Rotunda, in July 1831. They held mass debates here; according to leading London reformer (and police informer!) Francis Place: “I have seen hundreds outside the doors for whom there was no room within.”
The NUWC had arisen as an alliance of groups of London trade unionists, many of whom were also sympathetic to the ideas of Robert Owen. However they largely rejected Owen’s belief that political reform was irrelevant, that the working class should organize only on the economic level. The NUWC instead maintained that political action was vital, that universal male suffrage, winning the vote for working men, would in the end bring about economic equality. They saw class relations as fundamental to society, and that in order to win their rights workers had to organize for themselves: some in the NUWC said the workers should organize themselves separately, in their own organizations. In London their support was mainly among artisans, who had formed the backbone of the reforming and radical movements, with a strong tradition of self-education, self-employment, apprenticeship and independence.
Membership of the National Union of the Working Classes totalled about 3,000 in London, they were divided into local ‘classes’ of 80 to 130 people, mostly in then solidly working class areas like Lambeth, Bethnal Green, Hammersmith and Islington. But their influence was greater than membership numbers suggest: especially through papers like the Poor Man’s Guardian, which were read widely among artisans and the emerging working class. In government and official circles, fear of the power and influence of the NUWC was, however, probably wildly out of proportion to its real power.
Some leading lights of the NUWC were George Foskett;
William Lovett, later a moderate Chartist leader; Henry Hetherington, (who printed the debates in his 'Poor Man's Guardian’, the leading unstamped newspaper) William Benbow, James Watson and John Cleave, all three of who ran radical newspaper and book shops in London. Many had been linked to the ‘War of the Unstamped’ (see above). Most of these, and much of the membership of the Union in general, helped to create, or became involved in, the Chartist movement, a much larger expression of working class desires for reform, greater rights and power. The NUWC in many ways was a sort of proto-Chartism, though strong in London, where Chartism’s greatest strengths were in the new industrial cities of the north and midlands.
It was at the Rotunda that Benbow first advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term "holiday" (holy day) because it would be a period "most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty". Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity "to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up... that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production." Benbow's theory was published in a radical newspaper, the Tribune of the People, and in a pamphlet, Grand National Holiday (1832).
From 1831 to 1833, weekly NUWC meetings and debates were held at the Rotunda; on and off; during this time there was an intense agitation nationally for reform, and many of these were heated discussions, as the Union was from the start to its end divided. There were arguments over definitions of class, over strategy and tactics, over the uses of violence, over whether to ally with the (then stronger) middle class political reform movement, or the more progressive wing of the Whig party.
Especially after the 1832 Reform Act gave voting rights to middle class men, but not the working class, some elements of the Union came to the conclusion that the lower classes would have to rebel to obtain their ‘rights’. There was a strong sense that the middle class reformers had used the threat of working class uprising as a stick to force the aristocracy to share power with them, then shafted their proletarian allies. Benbow made a speech celebrating the great reform riot in Bristol in 1831, but was opposed by other members of the NUWC Committee… Some NUWC members made plans to arm themselves in self defence against police attacks on rallies, which jacked up the government and bourgeoisie’s fear of the Union. By 1833, the moderates were beginning to desert the NUWC and the more desperate elements came to the fore. Their plan to launch a Convention of the People (a scary notion for the upper classes, coming straight from the most radical phase of the French Revolution) led to a rally on Coldbath fields in Clerkenwell, which was kettled and attacked by police. In the fighting a policeman was killed.
The NUWC began to fall apart after this, but its influence helped give birth to Chartism. Both the London Working Man’s Association and the London Democratic Association emerged from same groups and individuals in London, and they were crucial in kickstarting Chartism in the late 1830s. But its inherent divisions over class, whether workers could co-operate with the middle class, over the use of force, over the ultimate aim (just equality, or power for the workers as a class), were inherited by the larger later movement, and continued to divide Chartism through its existence… And are indeed questions alive and kicking in our own movements and struggles today…
Richard Carlile in fact was not a fan of the NUWC, though he sublet the Rotunda to them, he was much more of an individualist, and and not greatly convinced by either the idea of class struggle, or organizations in general. But he had other problems… including a growing rift between him and Robert taylor. Carlile disapproved of Taylor’s levity and clowning, and his wild behaviour, heavy drinking, and consorting with what ‘serious’ radicals saw as unsavoury characters, although he admired his ability to hold mass audiences. Taylor’s spoofs on religious services became wilder and wilder, he dressed as a bishop, parodied church services, and made more and more outrageous blasphemous comments on christian rituals or the scriptures. As a result he was hauled up in court in July 1831 for preaching blasphemy, found guilty, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane gaol, with a hefty fine. His friends raised a subscription for him in September 1832.
This jail sentence actually caused a real split between Carlile and Taylor. Carlile thought radicals jailed for their ideas should be stoical martyrs: upstanding, unbending and morally correct. But Taylor was an unsatisfactory freethought martyr: he whined, wrote to the Prime Minister trying to get his sentence reduced, and got caught smuggling brandy into his cell.
Without Taylor’s appeal to large audiences, Carlile struggled to fill the Rotunda, though he continued lectures, with the Southcottian shoemaker John Zion Ward, and Carlile’s free love partner and feminist freethinker Eliza Sharples as speakers… But he just couldn’t put bums on seats, so he eventually gave up his lease on the Rotunda in March 1832.
The building’s brief life as the pre-eminent radical political centre of its day was largely over (though the NUWC did continue to meet there).
There is one interesting footnote however. According to The Times of 17 August 1843, the Rotunda was crowded out after placards declared that the part of the queen in Shakespeare's Hamlet, then playing there, was to be taken by “Miss Mary Ann Walker of Chartist celebrity” - a famous female Chartist (“notorious”, if you read the mainstream bourgeois anti-feminist and anti-Chartist press) When the queen appeared on stage and was clearly not the person expected, a cry went up of “No, no! That ain't Miss Walker.” Despite an apology and explanation from the stage manager that the placards had been a hoax, the crowd howled and laughed through the rest of the play.
Huge corporate developers St George may be planning to engorge the site of the Rotunda with their erection of a skyscraper boasting 274 luxury flats, a “lifestyle hotel’ (whatever the fuck that is), and more sterile public space empty of meaning – somewhere there’s a riotous crowd arming for uprising; and a man dressed as a bishop is mocking the absurdities of religion.
From the past to the present to the future: we have hung out on a lot of corners – that’s one of ours.
Solidarity to the Cuts Café.
Past tense October 14th 2012.