62 Fieldgate Street: yesterday, today and tomorrow - Mark Kauri

Fieldgate Street in the 1970s

A look at the history of the building in East London where the London Action Resource Centre is based.

This issue of the Occupied Times was hand-folded at the London Action Resource Centre (LARC) in Whitechapel. For a little over two years now, following the eviction of the St Paul’s protest camp and moves by the OT towards full independence from any affiliation, we have been meeting at LARC to prepare new copies of the OT and contribute to the upkeep of the building.

Recently, a few of us have been talking history. In particular, local histories of resistance, worker and community organising: the kind of stories that can easily fade into the past, so much so that were it not for a handful of scant sources, individual testimonies or ageing, printed publications, they might be at risk of disappearing completely. So – what better way to draw on these interests than by focusing on some history close to home? We present here what we have managed to pull together from the rich history of this one corner of the East End now occupied by LARC, and its more recent reclamation of Whitechapel’s radical roots.

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The building at 62 Fieldgate Street began life in the late nineteenth century with an 1884 application by Christian Methodists to build a mission hall in this corner of the East End (what was at that time the corner of Charlotte Street and Nottingham Place). Traces of the architecture from those early days remain, including the gothic windows on the second floor and the stone-work in the lobby and ground floor main hall. The sizeable mission hall remained into the second decade of the twentieth century until a transition occurred that would transform the space, placing the building more in alignment with Whitechapel’s radical legacy of the previous century.

In March of 1921, the building began to host the last of the International Modern Schools through an association with the long-standing, albeit waning, community of Jewish anarchists in the area. The school, which initially held classes on Sunday afternoons and on one evening a week, as well as during the summer months, declared its intention to combat the anti-social environment of capitalist education, to raise children in the “spirit of freedom” and to explore subjects and methods of teaching that would look to interest and instruct without dominating. This philosophy drew from the tradition of Catalan anarchist Francisco Ferrer, who had established a model for education among working class communities in Spain that was based on a non-coercive method.

The extra-curricular activities of the school included May Day marches that would set out from Fieldgate Street, field trips to Epping Forest and the Zoological Gardens, as well as the publication of a student-authored magazine which ran articles on topics such as history, science, biography and satirical critiques of state institutions. Classes held at the school included clay-modelling, talks on evolution, science, botany, singing, poetry readings and storytelling. Former student Lou Appleton, whose father had left London in 1917 to take part in the Russian Revolution, remembers his education here as a rich cultural experience in an atmosphere unconfined by rules and regulations, and recounts with delight his experience of being part of a movement helping to “fan the flames of discontent”. He remembers a poem often recited at the school, entitled Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, which opens with the provocative verse:

“Our yesterday was very bitter
Our today is not sweet either.
Tomorrow only brings more rods for our backs
And chains for our feet and hands.”
The school ran for the best part of seven years until it was forced to close due to a lack of funding and difficulties finding available teachers, though at its peak it was attended by more than 100 students, after starting with only 30, and saw an average weekly attendance of 85. Today, the interior of the building still contains traces of this former function, such as a second hand-rail that runs the length of the stairwell to the top floor, which is fixed below waist height, within the reach of children.

Although the Ferrer school is one of the most well-documented uses of the space, it was not the only function of the building at this time. Following the suppression of the Arbeter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend) Yiddish radical publication during the First World War, and the closure of the group’s premises, Fieldgate Street became host to the activities of this and other groups. The Worker’s Friend resumed publication for a time under the editorship of J.M. Salkind, who also gave lectures at the school and was chosen by the local community as a delegate to attend an international congress on anarchism organised in the early years of the decade.

Throughout the 1920s, the building hosted numerous social events, often to raise funds for the anarchist newspaper Freedom, which, like the building, also started life in the mid-1880s, at Freedom Press, which can today be found across the north side of Whitechapel high street (the longest-standing anarchist publishing house in the English-speaking world). Leafing through archived copies of Freedom printed throughout the twenties reveals widespread activities of solidarity, organised discussions and mutual aid among working class groups, with locations across the East End hosting social gatherings and dances to raise funds for different individuals and groups.

The building, known at this time as the new Worker’s Friends Club, also began to host meetings of the East London Anarchist Group from late 1923 onwards. The group’s secretary, E. Zaidman, was a notable public speaker at events including a well-attended public debate at Tower Hill in 1919 on the “Fallacy of Marxism” as well as other open events run by the group where large amounts of political literature and copies of Freedom were distributed.

A year after the closure of the Ferrer school, the building underwent a further transformation, firstly to serve as a Synagogue and listed Linus Hazedek & Bikur Cholim (hospice for the sick). These remained active until 1946 after which followed a stretch of rag trade use of the space under the ownership of tailors Abraham Spitalowitch and leather manufacturer H. J. Victor throughout the fifties and sixties.

While the details of the building’s history between the 1970s and the late 1990s remain foggy at best, the activities and social conditions in the area at this time shed some light on the broader context. Since the early 1970s, the East End became home to many people of Bangladeshi origin amidst the war that gave rise to their nation’s independence, as well as the devastation caused by the Bhola cyclone. As opportunities for work were limited, low-paid employment in the textile trade was common among immigrants, and there is some speculation as to whether sweatshops were operating in Fieldgate Street; a continuation of this long-standing labour practice in Whitechapel that had, in the previous century, often recruited cheap labour from the Jewish immigrant community.

This period of migration, marked by outbreaks of racial violence and conflict in the community, coincided with an active squatting scene across the East End, which helped to save the nearby nineteenth century tenement blocks known as Fieldgate Mansions that had been scheduled for demolition in 1972, allowing them instead to be taken over by a community housing trust. Squatters including gay rights activist Tony Mahoney, the co-founder of the East London chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, took part in some of the spectacular and media-savvy activities that would save this historic site. Former squatter David Hoffman recounts some of the activity at this time:

“Bengali families were having a hard time and we were opening up flats in the Mansions for them to live there. We were really active, taking over other empty buildings that were being kept vacant in Myrdle St and Parfett St, because the owners found it was cheaper to keep them empty.”

LARC was first conceived of in 1999 by a group composed of people largely involved in the Reclaim The Streets movement of resistance opposed to corporate interests and neoliberal globalisation. RTS originated out of anti-road protest camps, but throughout the course of the decade would switch its main focus to the broader target of capitalism, through non-violent direct actions such as street parties that would pull in people by the thousands, road blockades, as well as organisation among striking workers and strikes against oil companies.

As RTS was facing increasing levels of state suppression, with squats frequently facing the threat of eviction after related actions, the group wanted to create a safe space and resource for London’s direct action groups, to serve as a catalyst for discussions, strategies and to form a network of affinity groups. Resources were pooled and the group collectively bought what was, at this time, a very run-down, ramshackle and disused building: 62 Fieldgate Street.

From the start, following a few years of intensive refurbishment work, LARC was set up as a non-hierarchical, inclusive and safe space for groups and individuals working towards social and environmental justice. The building has three storeys, as well as a cellar below street level which today hosts the studio for the twice-monthly Dissident Island internet radio show. On the ground floor, the main hall that once formed the central space of the mission hall and the Synagogue remains an open space for functions and meetings. The top floor houses an office which opens onto a terrace and roof-garden overlooking Parfett Street, while the second floor contains a well-stocked library that was first set up by early users of LARC, among them local resident Martin, who continues to contribute to the library, the building and the community of user-groups. The library has gained donated books and refined its collection over the years, offering hundreds of titles on politics, feminism, history, Marxism, anarchism etc.

The space today, which is a legally owned non-profit, is entirely self-funded, often through donations and fundraising events, and is maintained by its various user-groups who carry forwards the initial aims of LARC, whilst, at the same time, circling back on history in reclamation of the radical roots of this corner of London’s East End.

By Mark Kauri | @kauribunga

With many thanks for assistance in researching this piece to Peter Guillery of the Survey of London, Nick Heath, Martin and Chickpea at LARC, David Hoffman, Vicky, Tony, Mark and the original RTS crowd.

Taken from http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=13168#sthash.8iRNrOyB.dpuf