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East End Anarchism - A Guided Tour, Friday 28th April.

For those who are interested in a bit of anarchist multi-cultural history of London, the MayDay 2000 conference offered a guided tour through Whitechapel and Bow. An occasion to make connections with other communities of activists: Mainly Jewish Anarchists and The Suffragettes. Wandering through the streets of the East End, the tour brought us into another time that these places had seen while we looked at them from the perspective of the 21st century. It was an occasion to remember the Jewish anarchists who had moved to the East End at the last turn of centuries, escaping from pogroms in Eastern Europe and maybe also the narrowness of the in many ways traditional shtetls. 

At Whitechapel tube-station, the black and white checked patterns of police hats reminded us that this was not going to be an undisturbed walk in search for a political history, and it prevented us from indulging in a romanticised version of East End nostalgia.
We started off in the pouring rain at Fulbourne Street, where Lenin and Trotzky, then emigrants from Russia, met in a Hebrew/Jewish Club, opposite the hostel where Jack London, who was also "a bit of a lefty" used to stay. In Cambridge Heath, Eleanor Marx was rallying against the pogroms in Russia. At the place which is now Sidney Estate North, there was a massive siege, working class protestors where enclosed by police. None of us knew exactly when this happened. Luckily, one of the 20 policemen who escorted the tour taking pictures and videos of everyone was able to inform us that it happened in 1911. 
The police were obviously eager to learn their history, following the tour along narrow residential areas with 4 vans. The two grey haired women who watched the strange procession from the window of their front room had a slightly puzzled expression on their faces.

We passed the Anarchist Club where Rudolf Rocker, who worked with an anarcho-syndicalist paper called "Arbeiterfreund", used to hang out. Try to imagine what these clubs where like - lots of meaty food - filleted fish, herring and salted beef, but no alcohol. Today everything is vegan, but there is no shortage of beer. This was an immigrant scene, tailors, sweatshop-workers, English was second or third language. It had an influence on many present-time anarchists in the US, like Noam Chomsky. 

Opposite Bow Road Station, there is a distinctive clock hanging from one of the buildings. It is the Landsbury memorial clock, put up in 1921, commemorating Minnie Landbury, a radical counsillor. Bromley Public Hall nearby was where Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of the suffragette leader, was active in an early direct action movement. A middle-class activist she, was radicalised by the working class. To get attention for a speech, she threw a brick in the window of a funeral company - a tactic that definitely is still working today, though it doesn't necessarily get the media to report anything beyond "violence". 

Near Roman Road is a former matchmaking factory. Matchmaking involved phosphor, a poison that badly damaged the health of the workers.  In 1888, the matchgirls went on strike, and consequently founded the first union for unskilled workers. Annie Besant, a journalist and lecturer in her 40s at the time of the strike, became it's first secretary, and later worked with Mahatma Ghandi. 

Further down Roman Road, the printshop "Arber" which produced the first left mass-paper is still there. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1997. "Dreadnaught" had a weekly print run of 10,000 copies. Most of the Bow area was destroyed by the blitz and reconstructed in the 60s. Today, gentrification is spilling over to Roman Road from Bethnal Green, with nice pavements, more trendy shops and fancy pubs.

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