Archiving With May Day Rooms
None are the historian’s pleasures that beat the finding of a new archive unless it’s starting one.
It was with boyish excitement that I discovered from the man with the cigarette on Phoenix Street behind the mighty Mt. Pleasant Postal sorting depot in Clerkenwell, London, that he worked right there in the British Postal Museum & Archive – indeed he was the archivist.
Half a dozen of us had wandered over there from the Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green where, as part of a process of animating my part of the archive of the Zerowork project of the 1970s, I had been talking about the prisoner movement back then. Zerowork was a small journal of ‘working class’ revolutionary analysis and theory which attempted to tie in the auto, mining, welfare, and university struggles to the Keynesian and capitalist crisis. To start off I’d said it was a project where the hippy met the tankie (to use the term for the rigid Stalinist who’d send in the tanks at the slightest deviations from the line). But we were “discovering” not the waged, as the force of historical change, but the power of the wageless, or the houseworkers, the peasants, and the prisoners, thanks to the rising of the women and the worldwide people of color.
A new archive is being established in London as part of an exciting enterprise called May Day Rooms which will soon be installed at 88 Fleet Street. May Day Rooms organized a series of meetings “Round About Midnight” in order “to open the boxes.” Their idea was to map the tributaries of the Midnight Notes operation of pamphlets, books, and half-pints (as we called our quarto productions). Zerowork, the New York Wages for Housework, and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa all agreed to deposit their records with May Day Rooms, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, and I gave background presentations on these different tributaries over three days.
For my part, I deposited a run of twenty different issues of NEPA NEWS: The Voice of the New England Prisoners’ Association, 1973-1975. Prisoners fought for citizen observation, prisoners fought for unions. The Attica massacre of September 1971 set it off, and the assassination of George Jackson set off Attica. He had been a teen-ager and robbed a filling station. He had written,
Capitalism is the enemy. It must be destroyed. There is no other recourse…. Each individual born in these Amerikan cities should be born with those things that are necessary to survival. Meaningful social roles, education, medical care, food, shelter, and understanding should be guaranteed at birth. They have been part of all civilized human societies – until this one. Why else do men allow other men to govern?
On one side was ‘zerowork’, and on the other side … well, let George Gissing, the Victorian novelist, explain. He wrote in The Nether World (1889) about Clerkenwell. There you could see “how men have multiplied toil for toil’s sake, have wrought to devise work superfluous, have worn their lives away in imagining new forms of weariness.” Historically Clerkenwell was filled with watch-makers and jewelers in tiny workshops where cunning fingers and contriving brains produced those wheels within wheels that William Blake said destroyed the imagination, stunted the mind, and made slavish and dull the human person. “Wealth inestimable is ever flowing through these workshops, and the hands that have been stained with gold-dust, as likely as not, some day extend themselves in petition for a crust.” Dens full of hungry children awaited their mothers return with her chance earnings.
In our day, as the traces of our radical movements are being thrown into rubbish pits, as state sponsored “austerity” demands the commodification of every inch of space, and with sinister intent destroys the evidence of our past, its joys, its victories. Clear out the closets, empty the shelves, toss out the old footage, shred the underground press, pulverize the brittle, yellowing documents! Thus neo-liberalism organizes the transition from the old to the new; they must silence alternatives. We do not want the voice of George Jackson to be silenced. His words still eloquently describe a desirable program, a necessary program. This is the need that brought about the project of May Day Rooms run by a remarkable collective of activist scholars, artists, teachers, and sponsored by the Glass House Trust.
As for Clerkenwell Green it had been a staging area for the peasants who had come to London in 1381 to demand the return of their commons. The London corresponding Society, the first democratic society, met just east of the Green in Jerusalem Passage. The Clerkenwell mob kept recruiting offices out of the Green. Here Henry Hunt spoke for Parliamentary reform, and William Cobbett opposed the Corn Laws. In 1832 the National Union of the Working Classes met here. In 1842 the Prime Minister actually “banned meetings on Clerkenwell Green.” John Stuart Mill helped make No. 37a a place of meeting of the London Patriotic Club where Eleanor Marx, Petr Kropotkin, and William Morris spoke.
At the Marx Memorial Library we met in a room dedicated to the International Brigades who had fought against fascism in Spain during its Civil War. This was an archive too. Dating from 1737 the building had become a meeting place . The Bolshevik Lenin had studied here in exile, his study actually was above us where he Iskra (“the Spark”) was edited. Hanging from a wall was the banner designed by Morris of the Hammersmith Socialist Society.
It was here in 1966 that the late Eric Hobsbawm had kindly arranged for me to look at the English translation of Marx’s decisive articles on the criminalization of custom, or the “theft of wood,” in the Moselle Valley thus enabling him (and us) to analyze the transition from the commons to communism. It was here that I met Johnny Williamson, the “dangerous Scot,” who had been a CP organizer in the 1934 Toledo General Strike, so important to my university and so important (along with the general strikes of the San Francisco dockers and the Minneapolis teamsters) to the passage of the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the Act for Aid to Families to Dependent Children. The New Deal program, or the Welfare State, now in ruins.
In 1966 Johnnie Williamson pointed to the first translation by Helen MacFarlane of The Communist Manifesto hanging on the wall protected in glass casing. “A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism “ is how she rendered the passage more familiarly known to us as “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.” Look into the etymology or the philology of “hobgoblin” and “spectre” and you’ll find the difference between revolutionary intellectual abstraction and the gothic of the peasant’s lore of the commons. Be that as it may.
We met at Marx House because the May Day Rooms’ Fleet Street venue is under renovation with a planned completion sometime this spring to activists, comrades and citizen archivists who alone can animate it.
Well, if archivery is a pleasure only rarely surpassed in the historian’s craft, it just might be superseded by the pleasure of the flaneur, the person who strolls the streets, loafing at corners, getting lost, chatting with strangers, pausing for a smoke, casting a glance at the scene. Wandering is a methodology inherent to discovery.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
The poem is “London” by William Blake, a Song of Experience, published in 1794. He hears in every voice “mind-forg’d manacles” and then provides three examples. One is how the chimney-sweeper’s cry “Every blackning Church appalls” which conjoins the themes of the period, child labor, industrial pollution, and Fundamentalist bigotry. A second example is how the
Hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood won Palace walls
In fact the headline in The Guardian newspaper the day I arrived in London declared how Prince Harry had “killed” from his heliocopter in Afghanistan. Thus royalty in the 21st century teaches young men the meaning of “manhood.” The magic of royalty, the mystique of sovereignty, has always depended on murder as sublime. And then Blake’s third example is
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
Prostitution and STDs awaited the young women coming to town. Their children uncared for, syphilis abounding, and the structures of social and human reproduction corrupted by the most devastating policies of prison, enclosures, prostitution, factories, slavery, and war. Violence was widespread and universal, violence against women was specific and particular. The era produced Thomas Malthus, the population “explosion,” and the devouring of lives in the gaping maw of war. For men, killing. For women, breeding.
So, in wandering the streets with an old Ordnance Survey map of Clerkenwell in hand I quickly found that Clerkenwell Green was surrounded by sites of prisons, workhouses, dungeons, mad houses, and institutional enclosures. The carceral was the principle that laid out this neck of the woods. The pavement itself seemed marked with weakness, with woe. Clerkenwell real estate magnate had erected a house for 100 “fallen women.”
Anthony Davies of May Day Room took me to the site of Middlesex House of Detention where a kindly porter guided us through a parking lot of upscale vehicles (BMW, Volvo, Mercedes) to a lichen and moss covered brick wall upon which was attached a plaque commemorating it as the exact place where a gunpowder explosion had breached the walls in an attempt to rescue the Fenians, or Irish freedom fighters, in 1867. Nine were killed and forty injured.
This was a notorious prison built in 1775. In W.J. Pinks’ outstanding and unsurpassed History of Clerkenwell (1881) he described its prisoners as lamentably ignorant and superstitious taking “great delight in sitting in a ring and telling their adventures and relating their dreams; they tell stories of spirits.” Precisely! It was against these adventures, dreams, stories, and spirits that the system of solitary confinement had been introduced, including another prison called the Middlesex House of Correction erected in 1794.
Edward Marcus Despard, the abolitionist, the United Irishman, and Jacobin revolutionary suffered under that system at Cold Bath Fields prison in 1798-1800. The prison was erected in the same year Blake wrote “London”, and it was named after the bathers who had believed the waters of the Fleet River here possessed healing properties. Actually, the common people called it “the Steel,” short for the Bastille, and in truth it was erected as part of the enclosing repression against the ideas of liberté, égalité, and fraternité and there was nothing at all rehabilitative or reformative about it whatsoever. Of all the mind-forged manacles it was the key. It closed off those dreams and stories. But even such totalitarianism, the dream of total control and incessant labor, such as Jeremy Bentham proposed that year with his “panopticon,” was incomplete because, as we used to say, “the power of the people is stronger than the man’s technology.”
The Angela Davis of the time, the Michelle Alexander or Ruthie Giomore of the day, was a woman, a revolutionary, named Catherine Despard. She organized a remission of Edward’s unjustifiable incarceration without trial; she lobbied parliament successfully; she stirred up the press to see the imprisonment as a scandal; she caused some politicians to become active against the cruelties of the place and its governor; she organized the wives of the other political prisoners; I do not know what part she played, if any, in the riotous demonstrations that took place outside the walls in the open fields and common lands to the north of the prison walls. Together and in combination all of these efforts succeeded and he was released. Bentham’s totalitarian panopticon was never actually realized thanks to her.
Catherine was an African American to use our terminology; at the time she was described as a Negro or a creole. However, the point is not her ethnicity. The point is the relation between ethnicity and historical experience. She came from that part of the world proletariat that had most experience in the struggle for liberation, I mean the slaves of north America, or their descendants and affines.
Clerkenwell is not only an archipelago of enclosures. Enclosure is never absolute: there are always means of getting under, over, through, or around.
On the north side of Mount Pleasant (named because it had been a noisom trash and ordure mound) is Calthorpe Street where one of the new police had been killed an affray of 1831 and the London jury famously found the democrats indicted bor the fact not guilty, by reason of “justifiable homicide.”
Then a few yards away was Spa Fields. Here a massive and dangerous insurrection, led by Spencean Philanthropists, broke out in the winter of 1816-17 with starving soldiers, sailors, and Clerkenwell workers which sent such a shudder through the higher echelons of the gentrified classes that even Jane Austen was compelled to notice it with a fright.
The archivist at the Mount Pleasant Museum and Archive explained to me that with the decline of letters and parcels (lost to the internet) the huge Post Office depot was moving. It had been established, he explained, in 1887 on top of the ‘Steel,’ the old Cold Bath Fields prison. Remains of its cells could still be found underground in the basements of the building. Thus, quite by accident, I had found the location of Despard’s incarceration; my feet were treading too on the grounds where Mrs. Despard had remonstrated. Thus did wandering complement the archiving.
On my way back to Marx House I noticed the silhouette of the City of London was no longer dominated by the restful dome of St. Paul’s. What was that huge spire-like structure to its east? I asked a near-by stranger having a smoke on the sidewalk . “We call it ‘the Shard’”, he explained in Irish brogue. “The bottom storeys are for offices, and the top floors are the condos for the billionaires whose names I cannot pronounce.” “They’re now talking of trillionaires,” I added irrelevantly. “Yes, trillions,” he agreed, and flicking away the fag-end of his roll-up, departed saying “what we need is mass insurrection.”
I happily made my way back to Marx Memorial House and the wonderful archiving of the May Day Rooms knowing that our efforts of preservation of that movement George Jackson had defined cannot be obliterated.
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:email@example.com
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (2000)
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2011)
William Blake, The Songs of Innocence and Experience (1791, 1794)
Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003)
Ruthie Gilmore, The Golden Gulag (2000)
George Gissing, The Nether World (1889)
George Jackson, Soledad Brother (1970)
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)