Sprouts and all the trimmings: London’s protesting unemployed gardeners, 1906

triangle-camp-plaistow-1906-e1326887146910

From the Abbey Gardens website: http://www.abbeygardens.org

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! ūüéÖūüŹĹ

 

Including illustrations in your article or book

Most social scientists accept the value of visual data.¬†You can use them to illustrate a particular point,¬†and they also serve as forms of evidence in their own right. So including them in your published work can make sense, but it isn’t always easy.

Originally, I planned to use about a dozen illustrations in my book on British work camp systems. There are hundreds of images of work camps, labour colonies, training farms and instructional centres, so my main problem at that stage was choosing which images to use, in agreement with the publisher. Then came the crunch: negotiating with copyright holders.

Most of the photographic images are under the control of large firms. You may have heard of some: Getty and Corbis, for instance, own the copyright of many photographs originally commissioned by the press, while Francis Frith specialises in old postcard collections (yes, postcards – of work camps).

Still others belong to libraries and archives. Sometimes the archivist does not know¬†who holds copyright; sometimes they don’t reply, or apparently have never heard of the image, which, of course, you have found on their website.

Almost all of these organisations charge for their services. Some don’t, including the fabulous British Museum. Others do: Newham Library has several images of the 1906 Triangle Camp, taken when unemployed Londoners squatted and worked a patch of waste land in order to show that they were not idle; they charge ¬£5 to scan each image, ¬£40 for UK reproduction and ¬£80 for worldwide use – in short, ¬£125 for¬†the first¬†edition of the book using the image, and ¬£120 for subsequent editions.

This isn’t a lot, and it is certainly less than most big private companies charge. But what it means is that a dozen images will cost far more than you will ever receive in royalties. And working your way through the procedures is loaded with risk and uncertainty: if you tick the wrong box on – say – paperback sales in Samoa, and pay the wrong fee,¬†what happens next? I was not keen to find out.

In the end, after¬†talking with the publisher, I gave up. We decided to use an image on the front cover of men at an International Voluntary Service camp in South Wales; it’s a good photo, but we chose it partly because the IVS archivist happily provided the image for free, and even wanted to know which format we would prefer.

What is really frustrating is that several other people offered images for free. The photo at the head of the blog shows young women and men at the David Eder training farm, run by a Zionist youth movement for members who wanted to prepare for life on a Kibbutz. It is one of a fantastic series of images given to me by Allen Bordoley, whose uncle attended the farm, and who himself knows and helped interview several trainees.

I could, I suppose, simply have used the images that came for free. That would, though, have strongly biassed the story. No images of women (Getty hold the copyright to a fine picture of women standing in line outside the Lapsewood Home Training Centre, brooms and dustpans held out for inspection), for example. None of the major Instructional Centres, or the local government labour colonies.

But it would have included a letter from Wigmore Instructional Centre. It was written by Hughie Edwards, an unemployed Welshman, on tree bark, and was given to me by his nephew. Hughie wrote:

Dear Maw, Just a few lines hoping you are ok the same as I am. I am sending you a photo of the South Wales boys and myself, it was taken up the forest. Well, I will only be here for a week next Wednesday. And overleaf: This bark was out of a tree in July 4th 1934 in Wigmore.

Wigmore hughie edwards2

Does this tell us something useful about trainees’ experiences in the work camps? Right now, I’m annoyed with myself for giving up so easily.