I’m an expert on Brussels sprouts. Well, not really, but I was really pleased when a journalist interviewed me about the 1906 Triangle Camp to be able to tell him that the unemployed squatters of Plaistow planted, among other things, my favourite winter greens.
The Triangle Camp was one of a number of ‘land-grabs’ mounted in 1906 as part of a socialist campaign against unemployment. The logic was simple: if the middle classes believed that the unemployed were idle scroungers, then the unemployed would demonstrate their willingness to work in the most eye-catching, theatrical manner possible. By working, in the full gaze of the public.
Of course, squatting land and planting it was not the only option. Plaistow then fell within the boudaries of the Borough of West Ham, whose council established a labour colony for unemployed men at South Ockenden in Essex. John Burns, a former socialist and trade union official who became a Liberal minister, visited the colony and reported that it was full of ‘Tired Tims’ and ‘Weary Willies’, who ‘where skilled did not belong to Friendly Societies or Trade Unions’.
Led by Ben Cunningham, a local trader and councillor, a small group of unemployed men occupied a small plot of derelict land in the early hours of 13 July 1906. They ran up a tent, which they called the ‘Hotel’, agreed some rules, recruited a band, and started digging. They banned alcohol from the site, and set themselves a long working day.
Although it had no particular plans for the site itself, West Ham Council took a dim view of this protest. Its first attempt to evict the campers fizzled out when the Council workmen decided to donate to the Triangle support fund instead. It then obtained an injunction, and sent bailiffs with a police guard. Watched by a large and sympathetic crowd, the men left peacefully enough, most of them heading for a neighbouring plot – donated by a sympathiser – to plant their cabbages and sprouts.
Ben Cunningham and his supporters continued to hold meetings protesting unemployment, and eventually he was arrested for trespassing once more on the Triangle site. After serving his prison sentence, Cunningham duly appeared on the stage of the Bow Palace theatre and music hall, re-enacting the land-grab in front of appreciative local audiences.
The journalist asked, reasonably enough, whether I thought this story had any contemporary relevance. Three things occurred to me. First, it reminds us of the need to resist the contempt in which our society holds our unemployed. Second, the tradition of guerilla gardening is alive and well, and indeed the Triangle protesters are evoked in a community garden in Plaistow to this day. Third, it shows that protest can capture the imagination and resonate down the years when it is imaginative and – literally in Cunnungham’s case – theatrical.
If you want to read more about this story, and the wider context, then you will have to get hold of my book – and I say this, of course, purely in the sprouty tradition of seasonal goodwill. Happy Christmas! 🎅🏽