Posts Tagged ‘protest’

The Suffragette and Fascist Mary Richardson and the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery.

Thursday, July 25th, 2013
Mary Richardson at the National Gallery after her arrest, 1914.

Mary Richardson at the National Gallery after her arrest in March 1914.

 ”Everything that Valasquez does may be regarded as absolutely right.”  – John Ruskin

In June 1934 at an anti-fascist gathering at Trafalgar Square a 52 year old Sylvia Pankhurst angrily denounced Blackshirt violence. It had been only three weeks since Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists had held their huge staged rally at Olympia for which the Daily Mail had offered free tickets to readers who sent in letters explaining ‘Why I like the Blackshirts’.

The B.U.F. rally had been designed to attract more recruits but also to impress the invited audience of politicians and journalists. Usually a stickler for punctuality, as most good fascists are, Mosley arrived on stage an hour late, but he quickly launched into a virulent anti-semitic speech shouting about ‘European ghettos pouring their dregs into this country.’

It wasn’t long before around 500 anti-fascists who had bought tickets for the meeting started shouting abuse. Mosley stopped speaking and the hecklers were picked out by roving spotlights and then ferociously attacked by black-shirted stewards. Female stewards had been trained to deal with the women hecklers by slapping instead of punching.

The British Union of Fascists' rally at Olympia on 7th June 1934.

The British Union of Fascists’ rally at Olympia on 7th June 1934.

The Daily Express, not afraid to show where its sympathies lay, wrote about ‘reds’ gatecrashing the rally and gushed:

Inside Olympia the most amazing meeting London has seen for two decades was taking place. As soon as Sir Oswald Mosley – a remarkable black-shirted figure, picked out by the glare of two dazzling search lights, started to speak he was howled down. In the audience that had rallied to his support were hundreds of women in evening dress. As fighting broke out in all parts of the hall many started to scream, left their seats, and made for the exits. Sir Oswald’s voice amplified through twenty-four loudspeakers could be heard crying for calm. “Keep your seats! Please keep your seats.” The women were reassured and sat down. Others, of bolder spirit, were standing on chairs watching the fighting through opera glasses and laughing with excitement.

Margaret Storm Jameson, of the Daily Telegraph, presumably was sitting somewhere else in the arena and had a different view:

A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and her mouth and nose were closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue.

The vicious ‘Biff Boy’ blackshirt violence at the B.U.F. rally shocked many and indeed during her passionate speech to the Trafalgar Square crowd Sylvia Pankhurst particularly criticised the brutality seen at Olympia. She also warned her audience about the treatment of women in Italy saying that Mussolini had said that the “chief business of women is to be pleasing to men.” At the end of her angry speech she demanded the arrest and detention of fascist sympathisers in Britain – one of whom, notably, was her erstwhile colleague and fellow member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Mary Richardson.

Mary Richardson, 1914.

Mary Richardson, 1914.

Black Friday: This was the first time that Suffragette protests were met with violent physical abuse, however it was generally supported by the British population, who at the time were relatively opposed to women's franchise. Two women died as a result of police violence, and around two hundred women were arrested.

Black Friday 18th November 1910: This was the first time that Suffragette protests were met with violent physical abuse, however it was generally supported by the British population, who at the time were relatively opposed to women’s franchise. Two women died as a result of police violence, and around two hundred women were arrested.

Herbert Henry Asquith in 1910 around the time of Black Friday.

Herbert Henry Asquith in 1910 around the time of Black Friday.

Twenty years previously Mary Richardson had campaigned, been arrested and imprisoned with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East End of London in 1913. She had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union after witnessing ‘Black Friday’ when the WSPU lobbied parliament and were physically attacked and even sexually abused by the police.

She was arrested nine times and served several sentences in Holloway prison for assaulting police, breaking windows and arson. She was, however, particularly notorious for slashing the ‘Rokeby Venus’ in the National Gallery in March 1914. In a particularly militant period of Suffragette activity in the months preceding WW1 it is Richardson’s vandalism of Velasquez’s famous painting that is still remembered today.

The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez.

The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez.

The Toilet of Venus or La Venus del Espejo, as it is more properly but rarely called, had been painted by the great Spanish artist Diego Velazquez sometime between 1647 and 1651. It is his only surviving female nude, which was an artistic direction not overly encouraged by the Inquisition in seventeenth century Spain. The painting came to England in 1813 when it was bought by John Morritt for £500 who hung it in his house at Rokeby Park in Yorkshire – hence the painting’s popular name and which it has retained ever since.

Morritt once wrote to his friend Sir Walter Scott of his “fine painting of Venus’ backside” which he hung high above his main fireplace, so that “the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing the said posterior into the company.”

The painting at Rokeby Park.

The painting at Rokeby Park.

In 1906, the painting was acquired for the National Gallery by the newly created National Art Collections Fund and was described by The Times as ‘perhaps the finest painting of the nude in the world’. King Edward VII greatly admired the painting and provided £8,000 towards its purchase.

The Times, struggling to find an excuse to look at a naked woman, wrote of the painting:

a marvellously graceful female figure…quite nude…neither idealistic nor passionate, but absolutely natural, and absolutely pure; she is not Aphrodite but rather “the Goddess of Youth and Health, the embodiment of elastic strength and vitality – of the perfection of Womanhood at the moment when it passes from the bud in to the flower.

When Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery on 10 March 1914 with a meat cleaver hidden on her person, The Rokeby Venus was undoubtedly one of the most famous paintings in Britain.

Richardson had arrived at the gallery at about ten in morning and for about two hours she appeared to innocently wander around the building making occasional sketches of the paintings. No one noticed that she had also brought along a narrow butcher’s meat cleaver which was hidden from view up her sleeve held there by a chain of safety pins. She later wrote: “All I had to do was release the last one and take out my chopper and go..bang!”

As an ex-art student, she knew the gallery well and decided upon Velazquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’. Richardson would later say: “It was highly prized for its worth in cash…the fact that I disliked the painting would make it easier for me to do what was in my mind”. She had actually submitted the idea of damaging a painting to Christabel Pankhurst some weeks before to which Christabel, eventually, wrote back saying ‘carry out your plan’. The previous year three Suffragettes had been arrested and two imprisoned for smashing the protective glass of fourteen paintings at the Manchester Art Gallery and there had been added security in exhibition spaces and galleries around the country since.

Christabel Pankhurst, September 1913. She approved Richardson's plan to attack the Rokeby Venus.

Christabel Pankhurst, September 1913. She approved Richardson’s plan to attack the Rokeby Venus.

Two detectives and a gallery attendant were guarding the Rokeby Venus and a nervous and agitated Richardson almost gave up on her pre-meditated plan. At around midday one of the detectives went for lunch and the other sat down, crossed his legs and opened up a newspaper hiding the painting from his view. Richardson quietly released the cleaver from inside her sleeve and seized her chance. In an interview recorded in 1959 for the BBC, two years before she died, Richardson described what she did next:

I went and hit the painting. The first hit only broke the glass it was so thick, and then extraordinarily instead of seizing me, which he could have quite easily, because I was only a couple of yards from him. He connected the falling glass with the fanlight above our heads and walked round in a circle looking up at the fanlights which gave me time to get five lovely shots in…

The attendant rushed forward but could only slip up on the highly polished floor and he fell face first into the broken glass. Two tourists also threw their guidebooks at Richardson but eventually the detective sprang on her as she was ‘hammering away’ and snatched the cleaver from her hand. Richardson offered no resistance and as she was being taken down to the basement she quietly told the visitors she passed,

I am a suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst.

 

The damage caused by Mary Richardson's cleaver.

The damage caused by Mary Richardson’s cleaver.

Mary Richardson had been jolted into action that morning because she had been particularly angered at the news of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest the night before at St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow. Emmeline Pankhurst was at the time protected by a 25-strong bodyguard of women trained in the martial art of jujitsu. They were taught by a woman, just four feet eleven inches tall, called Edith Garrud.

Garrud had started working with the suffragettes a few years before in her own women-only training hall initially in Golden Square in Soho but later in the East End. She also taught her suffragette students how to use wooden Indian clubs which could be concealed in their dresses and used as a reply to the truncheons of the police. Garrud once said that a woman using jujitsu had ‘brought great burly cowards nearly twice their size to their feet and make them howl for mercy.’

Mrs Garrud demonstrating her Ju-Jitsu skills against a 'policeman'.

Mrs Garrud demonstrating her Ju-Jitsu skills against a ‘policeman’.

The Suffragette that knew Jujitsu. 1910.

The Suffragette that knew Jujitsu. 1910.

According to The Glasgow Herald there were ‘unparalleled scenes of disorder’ when the police tried to arrest Emmeline at St Andrew’s Hall. They had been waiting for Pankhurst who had entered the building early. When she started to speak the police attempted to storm the stage but were severely hampered not only by the barbed-wire hidden in the flower decorations but also Mrs Pankhurst’s trained bodyguards.

Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a Suffragette rally at Trafalgar Square.

Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a Suffragette rally at Trafalgar Square.

Emmeline in ‘My Own Story’ described what happened:

 The bodyguard and members of the audience vigorously repelled the attack, wielding clubs, batons, poles, planks, or anything they could seize, while the police laid about right and left with their batons, their violence being far the greater. Men and women were seen on all sides with blood streaming down their faces, and there were cries for a doctor. In the middle of the struggle, several revolver shots rang out, and the woman who was firing the revolver–which I should explain was loaded with blank cartridges only–was able to terrorise and keep at bay a whole body of police.I had been surrounded by members of the bodyguard, who hurried me towards the stairs from the platform. The police, however, overtook us, and in spite of the resistance of the bodyguard, they seized me and dragged me down the narrow stair at the back of the hall. There a cab was waiting. I was pushed violently into it, and thrown on the floor, the seats being occupied by as many constables as could crowd inside.

Mary Richardson would have also known that the day before Emmeline’s arrest, her daughter Sylvia Pankhurst had also been arrested. Sylvia had been travelling along the Strand on a ‘motor omnibus’ on her way to Trafalgar Square where she was to speak at a protest rally organised by the Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.

The bus had stopped outside Charing Cross Station but when Sylvia stepped on to the pavement plain clothes policeman quickly surrounded her. Like her mother she was arrested under the so-called Cat and Mouse Act. The police bundled her into the back of a taxi cab and she was sent on her way back to Holloway prison.

Sylvia Pankhurst arrested at Trafalgar Square, 1913

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested. Yet again.

Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested. Yet again.

The following day the Daily Express reported that the news of her arrest had caused ‘intense indignation in the crowd’ waiting at Trafalgar Square, they continued, ‘Miss Patterson (sic) who acted as chairman, led a detachment towards Whitehall, waving a flag and shouting “It is deeds, not words!”.

The next day Margaret Paterson, who had continually attempted to strike policemen with a short thick piece of rope loaded at the end with lead, was fined £2. Miss Paterson said to the judge, “It had taken ten men and eight horses to arrest me. You…drag people like Sylvia Pankhurst back again to prison. You have roused a fire in the East End and ten men and eight horses won’t be enough next time!’.

It was to the Cat and Mouse Act that Mary Richardson owed her temporary freedom when she had been released the previous November after a long bout of forced-feeding. After her release she declared, ‘The worst fight on record since the movement began is now raging in Holloway’. Richardson, one of the earliest suffragettes to be force-fed had written about her experience in a 1913 suffragette leaflet, where she described a tube a yard long that ran through the nasal passage down the throat into the stomach:

Forcible feeding is an immoral assault as well as a painful physical one, and to remain passive under it would give one the feeling of sin; the sin of concurrence. One’s whole nature is revolted: resistance is therefore inevitable.

The infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was the name given to the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act passed by H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government exactly 100 years ago in 1913. It had been hurriedly enacted to counter the growing public disquiet over the tactic of force-feeding suffragettes who were determined to continue their hunger strikes whilst in gaol. The law’s intention was that suffragettes could hunger strike to the point of emaciation, be let out of prison to recover, and then recalled to serve the rest of their sentence.

The Act’s nickname compared the government cruelty of repeated releases and re-imprisonments of suffragettes to a cat playing around with a half-dead mouse. Not surprisingly the Cat and Mouse Act had the opposite of its intention and did little to deter the more militant campaigns of the suffragettes and if anything made the public more sympathetic to their cause.

Cat and Mouse poster.

Cat and Mouse poster.

The Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith had been an opponent of women’s suffrage since the 1880s and his government’s implementation of the Cat and Mouse Act caused the WSPU and the suffragettes to consider the Prime Minister with particular enmity. Even women in his social circle had been privately objecting to his attitude. Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine once complained of Asquith habitually peering down cleavages, while the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell once protested that Asquith, ‘Would take a lady’s hand as she sat beside him on the sofa, and make her feel his erected instrument under his trousers’.

A few hours after Mary Richardson was apprehended in the National Gallery she was brought up before Bow Street Police magistrates court where she was charged with maliciously damaging the ‘Rokeby Venus’ to the amount of £40,000. Richardson told the magistrate that she was amazed that anyone was willing to preside over the farce of trying her as it was the tenth time she had been brought before a magistrate in one year. He could not make her serve her sentences, but could only again repeat the farce of releasing her or else killing her; ether way, hers was the victory. The unimpressed magistrate said that he would not allow bail and committed her for trial.

Immediately after Richardson’s ‘outrage’ the National Gallery closed to the public and remained so for two weeks. The Trustees of the gallery met that afternoon to consider what steps were needed to further protect their collection.  One of the trustees was Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, who on his return to England had led the campaign against women’s suffrage in the House of Lords. In 1908 he had helped establish the Anti-Suffrage League of which he eventually became president.

12th March 1914. The National Gallery was closed for two weeks after the attack on the Rokeby Venus.

12th March 1914. The National Gallery was closed for two weeks after the attack on the Rokeby Venus.

15 Reasons 1

15 Reasons 1

Lord Curzon 15 reasons part 2 copy

 The press widely publicised the attack on the painting and The Times wrote:

One regretted that any person outside a lunatic asylum could conceive that such an act could advance any cause, political or otherwise.

Even the New York Times commented on the story the next day:

The British Government is getting precisely the sort of treatment it deserves at the hands of the harridans who are called militants for its foolish tolerance of their criminal behaviour. Why should women who commit assaults and destroy property be treated differently from common malefactors.

Richardson received six months for the damage she caused and later said: ‘the judge nearly wept when I was tried because he could only give me six months.’ In fact Richardson, after starting a hunger strike, only served a few weeks before she was released again.

Mary Richardson, 10th February 1914. A month before she slashed Velasquez' Rokeby Venus.

Mary Richardson, 10th February 1914. A month before she slashed Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus.

At the outbreak of WW1 Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the activities of the WSPU and instructed suffragettes to get behind the Government and its war effort. Sylvia, opposed to the war, was horrified to see her mother and sister Christabel become such enthusiastic supporters of military conscription.

Mary Richardson published a novel called Matilda and Marcus during the war and also two volumes of poetry. In the twenties and thirties she stood several times as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party most successfully in Acton in November 1922 when she received over 26% of the vote although losing to the Conservatives.

She joined the British Union of Fascists in late 1933 declaring in the light of her previous political experience, ‘I feel certain that women will play a large part in establishing Fascism in this country’.

Fascist training at the Women's BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

Fascist training at the Women’s BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

Her initial post was assistant to Lady Makgill – the officer in charge of the Women’s Section whose headquarters were then based at 233 Regent Street (now the Lacoste shop next to the Apple Store) but which moved in January 1934 to 12 Lower Grosvenor Place adjacent to the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The women’s section of the Blackshirts had initially been set up by Mosley’s first wife Lady Cynthia who was known as ‘Cimmie’ and was the daughter of the anti-woman’s suffrage campaigner Lord Curzon.

Cynthia had married Oswald Mosley, then a Tory MP, in 1920, and nine months later gave birth much to the consternation of Margot Asquith, wife of former Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who told her:

You look very pale. You must not have another child for a long time. Herbert always withdrew in time. Such a noble man.

In 1929 Cynthia was elected Labour MP for Stoke on Trent as was her husband but for the constituency of Smethwick. Two years later, Oswald, unhappy with the direction of the Labour Party formed the New Party in 1931 and subsequently the British Union of Fascists the year after that. Cynthia supported her husband in his political activities until she died in 1933 after an operation for Peritonitis following acute appendicitis. This unconditional support for her husband was generous on her part for during their marriage Oswald had an affair with both Cynthia’s younger sister and step-mother.

The women MPs of the Labour Party in 1929. Cynthia Mosley is on the far left.

The women MPs of the Labour Party in 1929. Cynthia Mosley is on the far left.

The women’s HQ was seen as crucial for nurturing female interest and recruitment levels in the BUF. The female blackshirts were encouraged to train in jujitsu and The Blackshirt newspaper reported in 1934 that it was particularly popular in London, saying ‘the ladies especially showing remarkable aptitude in this splendid form of defence so suitable to members of the “weaker sex”’.

The new main BUF headquarters, however, was practically out of bounds to women. It was called ‘Black House’ situated on the King’s Road near Sloane Square. The Fascist HQ Bulletin in 1933 stated, under the heading ‘Lady Members’, that “ladies are no longer allowed access to NHQ premises, except to attend mixed classes and concerts and at such times as may be from time to time authorised.’ Despite this ‘lady members’ made up 20-25% of the BUF membership – extremely high for a political party of the time.

Black House on the King's Road, almost opposite Peter Jones, 1934.

Black House on the King’s Road, almost opposite Peter Jones, 1934.

It seems odd that an ex-suffragette, and such a militant one at that, would have put up with these rules, but in April 1934 Richardson became the Chief organiser of the Women’s Section.  A young female BUF member remembered Richardson at the time:

The moving spirit of this [women’s HQ] was an ex-suffragette of great character. She was a fiery speaker particularly at street corner meetings and used to plaster her hair down with Grip-fix so that it would not blow about on these occasions.

Grip-Fix

Grip-Fix

Women 'black-shirts'  from Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists on parade give the fascist salute. Their uniform is a black shirt and tie, beret and slightly flared grey skirts.

Women ‘black-shirts’ giving the fascist salute. Their uniform is a black shirt and tie, beret and slightly flared grey skirts.

Three female blackshirts. c. 1934.

Three female blackshirts. c. 1934.

Richardson had replaced Lady Makgill who had resigned after being suspended for embezzlement which must have been embarrassing to her husband who had co-founded the January Club an organisation whose aim was to attract members of the Establishment to the B.U.F. cause. Mosley, however, was aware of the value of his women members. He later wrote:

My movement has been largely built up by the fanaticism of women; they hold ideals with tremendous passion. Without women I could not have got a quarter of the way.” Even the Blackshirt newspaper, stated: “Women have won the vote, but not their rightful influence in politics. Only when women represent Woman will womankind attain its rightful influence.

It was a woman who, ten years previously in 1923, created the first fascist organisation in Britain. It may well have been the first time a woman had started and led any political party in this country. She was called Rotha Lintorn-Orman and she started the British Fascisti in response to what she thought was a growing threat from the Labour party. The B.F was actually the predominant fascist organisation in Britain until Oswald Mosley created his party in 1932.

Rotha Beryl Lintorn-Orman by Bassano. The photograph is from 1916, seven years before she started the UK's first fascist party.

Rotha Beryl Lintorn-Orman by Bassano. The photograph is from 1916, seven years before she started the UK’s first fascist party.

On 10 November 1924 the Fascisti held a rally consisting of almost 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square most of whom, it was reported, were wearing black and silver British Fascisti badges. The Manchester Guardian reported that there was ‘a large contingent of women’. It was a man, however, the monocled Brigadier-General Blakeney, that told a cheering crowd waving black and white fascist banners and Union Jacks, that there “was a great danger that aliens should be allowed to settle in this land, over crowding the towns and taking employment from the workers.” The rally finally marched down Whitehall where several large black and white wreaths bearing the legend “British Fascists for King and country,” were left next to the four year old Cenotaph.

The British Fascisti ultimately lost members to the Imperial Fascist League and then the BUF. Lintorn-Orman, stubbornly, would have nothing to do with the latter as she considered Oswald Mosley to be a near-communist. Lintorn-Orman’s mother, who was actually the first-ever female Scout Leader, had been pay-rolling the organisation from the beginning, eventually stopping the funding amid lurid newspaper gossip about her daughter that involved alcohol and drug fuelled orgies. Rotha Lintorn-Orman died in March 1935 and her British Fascisti organisation wound up four months later. The Official Receiver reported that:

Throughout the company’s history its accounts seemed to have been kept in a lax, casual manner, and though formed to organise Fascism in the country the company appeared to have been incapable of organising itself.

In 1934, the BUF, however, now with Richardson in charge of the Women’s section, seemed organised, efficient and most of all popular. The Daily Mail on May 18 reported – ‘The recent development of the Women’s Section has been particularly remarkable’ and a few days later the Sunday Dispatch wrote:‘The women’s sections are adding – Beauty. The women and girls of Britain are flocking to the movement. Many of them are strikingly beautiful.’

November 1933:  Mrs Swire a leading figure in the women's section of the British Union of Fascists wears the new uniform of grey skirt with black shirt talks to a member of the HQ staff in London who wear all black. Mosley was afraid the women members might jokily be called the 'black skirts'.

November 1933: Mrs Swire a leading figure in the women’s section of the British Union of Fascists wears the new uniform of grey skirt with black shirt talks to a member of the HQ staff in London who wear all black. Mosley was afraid the women members might jokily be called the ‘black skirts’.

9th September 1934:  Sir Oswald Mosley acknowledging fascist salutes from female members of the British Union of Fascists at an evening demonstration in Hyde Park.

9th September 1934: Sir Oswald Mosley acknowledging fascist salutes from female members of the British Union of Fascists at an evening demonstration in Hyde Park.

Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail and the Sunday Dispatch, had for several months been promoting the BUF’s cause in his newspapers. He wrote a now infamous article headlined ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ in which he suggested that:

Britain’s survival as a great power will depend on the existence of a well-organised party of the Right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same direct purpose and energy of method as Mussolini and Hitler have displayed.

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1934

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1934

After Sylvia Pankhurst’s speech in Trafalgar Square in June 1934 Mary Richardson responded quickly to the criticism and in the June 29 issue of Blackshirt reminded her of their shared memories of working together in Bow and being confined in Holloway at the same time. Richardson wrote:

How can she forget so easily and conveniently that the Suffragette movement, when she stood in the vanguard, was proud of its use of “force and bludgeons,” of dog whips, truncheons (carried and used by Mrs. Pankhurst’s bodyguard), stones in their multitude, and bricks and the hammers? Does she remember how for years her reply to her accusers was: “We are attacked, we must hit back!” “Paid hooligans break up our meetings; we are right to retaliate!”

Richardson continued:

I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the outrage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service, and the ability to serve which I had known in the Suffragette movement. When later I discovered that Blackshirts were attacked for no visible cause or reason. I admired them the more when they hit back, and hit hard.

Mary Richardson left the BUF sometime in 1935. For what particular reason is not exactly known (her autobiography published in 1953 doesn’t mention her political activity in the BUF at all) however Lady Mosley, Oswald’s mother, described Richardson as being full of ‘dishonest inefficiency’. In 1935 Richardson spoke at a meeting of the Welwyn War Resisters – an anti-war group. The Welwyn Times on 19th December 1935 reported that she had told the meeting that she joined the B.U.F. believing that it opposed class distinction and stood for ‘equality of opportunity and pay for men and women’. She had found, however, that the organisation was riddled with hypocrisy and had been expelled in February for ‘attempting to organise a protest’.

On November 7th 1961 Mary Richardson died at her flat at 46 St James’ Road in Hastings of heart failure and bronchitis aged seventy eight. She was still remembered as the woman who had cut up the Rokeby Venus forty seven years before and most of the papers reporting on her death still used Richardson’s nickname the press used in 1914 – ‘Slasher Mary’.

If you look closely you can still see the marks caused by Mary Richardson’s meat cleaver, although the National Gallery make no mention of her vandalism on the card next to the painting. Christabel Pankhurst once said:

that ‘the Rokeby Venus’ has because of Miss Richardson’s act, acquired a new and human and historic interest. For ever more, this picture will be a sign and a memorial of women’s determination to be free.

IMG_4938

To this day you can still see people having a close look at the painting to see if the damage is still visible. It is. Mary Richardson throughout her life used to visit the painting ‘to cheer herself up’.

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The GLC and how they Nearly Destroyed Covent Garden

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Covent Garden in 1974. By Clive Boursnell

Covent Garden in 1974. By Clive Boursnell

The London premiere for the film of My Fair Lady took place at the Warner cinema in Leicester Square on 21 January 1965. It couldn’t have been anything less than a glamorous occasion – Audrey Hepburn, Cecil Beaton, Rex Harrison (who came with Vivien Leigh) and even Jack Warner himself attended the show. The cinema was only a few hundred yards from Covent Garden, a location featured in the film (albeit a Hollywood studio-version) and which in the mid-sixties was still a functioning wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market. A market that had been trading officially for almost 300 years ever since the Duke of Bedford in 1670 acquired from Charles II a charter allowing a fruit and vegetable market to take place every day except Sundays and Christmas day.

The ‘greatest ever musical’, as Pathé described the film, and of course Shaw’s original Pygmalion from which it derived, purposely used an Edwardian Covent Garden to show the contrast of rich and poor Londoners rubbing shoulders in what was then a very poor area of inner-city London. Over half a century later in the sixties and seventies Covent Garden, as a place to live and work, was still a very run-down and shabby part of the West End, difficult as it is to imagine these days.

33 Neal Street in 1969. Ellen Keeley’s family emigrated from Ireland during the potato famine and had been making and renting out barrows for the Covent Garden traders since 1830. The firm also ran a florist and a boxing gym.

Covent Garden’s flower market from around 1970

Presumably most of the councillors of the recently-formed Greater London Council, which had replaced the smaller London County Council the previous year, went to see My Fair Lady – after all it was a very popular film. Just two months after the film’s premiere, however, the new Labour-run GLC published the Greater London Development Plan part of which proposed, astonishingly, but as was the wont in those days, that over two-thirds of the historic Covent Garden area should be razed to the ground.

Covent Garden in Edwardian times.

In his book The Changing Life of London, the late George Gardiner, a former journalist and Tory MP who with Norman Tebbit and Airey Neave would end up playing an important role in the election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader (not that she could have thought much of Gardiner as he was offered not one ministerial or front-bench position while she was leader of the Conservative party), put across his view of the Covent Garden Development Scheme:

Any loss of nerve on this by the GLC in face of protest from a small section of London’s populace… when the opportunity has presented itself, will do down as a black day in London’s history. If the drift of population away from the centre is combined with a retreat from a policy of comprehensive redevelopment in favour of mere site development it is the next generation of Londoners who will be the losers and who will look back on our timid age with scorn.

Covent Garden market had essentially been nationalised in 1961 by the Conservative government when they created the Covent Garden Market Authority. Soon after there was a plan to move the overflowing market to Nine Elms in Battersea. In 1965/6, mindful that the fruit and vegetable market would soon be gone from the West End, three councils, the Labour-controlled GLC, the Tory-run City of Westminster and the Labour-run Borough of Camden, together with Bovis, the Prudential Assurance company and Taylor Woodrow worked together on the Covent Garden scheme. All of the parties were interested in just one thing – a totally comprehensive redevelopment of the 96 acres that made up the historic Covent Garden area.

Gardiner wrote that when the initial draft plans was presented to the public “more than 3,500 people attended, and in fact, most of their comments wore favourable”. The suggestions from the public that weren’t so favourable, however,  were taken on board and a revised plan was approved by the GLC in 1970. What had changed, however, was that the three London councils, the GLC, Westminster and even Camden were now all Tory-controlled.

An A to Z map of Covent Garden from the 1960s. The GLC plan would mean that two thirds of the area between Shaftesbury Avenue, Holborn, Kingsway and the Strand would be demolished.

The Covent Garden redevelopment plan in 1968.

Covent Garden in 1955

The Covent Garden redevelopment scheme covered 96 acres in an area bounded by the Strand, Aldwych, High Holborn, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road and it proposed the large-scale demolition of the great majority of the 18th and 19th century buildings around the historic old market.

Gardiner, after rather excitedly describing the Covent Garden scheme as Central London’s biggest and most exciting redevelopment project since the Great Fire, wrote of the first phase of the plans which were originally intended to be built by 1975:

There would be three new schools in place of the two old ones, open recreational spaces and new shopping facilities, new hotels, and something London at present does not possess at all – an international conference centre. It would also include a new covered road, running roughly along the line of Maiden Lane, parallel with the Strand, carrying eastbound traffic while the Strand is made one-way westwards.

Horrifically, the international conference centre was designed to completely enclose Covent Garden’s famous Piazza – the Italian-style arcaded square built by Inigo Jones in the 1630s and which was commissioned by the fourth Earl of Bedford to encourage wealthy Londoners to move, to what was then, a semi-rural area. It has been said that Inigo Jones’ new and exciting designs for Covent Garden made it, as far as London was concerned, the birthplace of modern town planning.

The Covent Garden redevelopment model. 1970.

North Spine of the redevelopment, circa 1970.

The solid line are new roads or widened roads. The dotted lines would have been major underground roads while the shaded area was planned to be an open space that would have waved goodbye to Long Acre. Just the road network planned for Covent Garden would have destroyed so much of the Covent Garden we know today.

Meanwhile the second phase, planned for completion by 1980, involved the areas from Maiden Lane down to the Strand. The main feature of which was a new upper level pedestrian street that would link Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square with the Conference Centre. Beneath the raised walkway a brand new main road would run from Charing Cross Road to the Aldwych.

The third phase involved the area north of the piazza, sorry I mean the International Conference Centre, and would consist mostly of new housing, much of it built above smaller offices, the new schools, and other community facilities. In the same area, and as was the fad in those days, another concrete upper-level pedestrian street would run from east to west beneath which an internal service road linked to car parks was planned. At Cambridge Circus there would be a new recreation centre, with a swimming pool and squash courts and an office building one and a half times the size of Centre Point (infamously empty at the time with the developer, Harry Hyams, reported to be happy making money from the rising value of the property rather than letting it out).

Covered pedestrian areas would lead to shops, existing theatres, restaurants and pubs, and over at the northern end of Drury Lane there would be a group of pedestrian squares at different levels, surrounded by shops and flats. This third phase of developments were were conceived to be completed by 1985.

Protest organised by the Covent Garden Community Association in 1972.

In April 1971 a Covent Garden Community Association was formed to provide a unified protest from the local residents and small businesses affected by the radical redevelopment plans. By the time of the local inquiry into the plan in July 1971, Camden Borough Council, which by now had changed from Conservative to Labour control also became formal objectors to the plan it had helped work up three and five years previously.

On the 26th June Anthony Crosland, MP for Grimsby, and the shadow Environment minister made a passionate and influential speech in the commons attacking the damage to London made by the post-war developers:

I believe with passion that it is now time to call a halt. It is time to stop this piecemeal hacking away at our city. It is time to say to the GLC, to Westminster City Council, to Land Securities Investment Trust, to Town and City Properties, to the lot of them, “Gentlemen, we’ve had enough. We, the people of London, now propose to decide for ourselves what sort of city we want to live in.

He added:

If the minister takes the opposite view and allows these plans to go ahead, a very dangerous mood will develop amongst Londoners. There already is a mood of helpless resentment at the inability to stop these damned developments, and this may develop into a mood of active resentment. People will not have London continuously mutilated in this way for the sake of property development and the private motorist. They will not have an endless number of Centre Points and an endless number of uniform, monolithic, comprehensive redevelopments which break up communities and destroy the historic character of the city.

1970. Lady Dartmouth, later Raine Spencer and step mother of Princess Diana, with her son Rupert Legge, at a polling station during the 1970 general election. She would later say about the Covent Garden plans: “I have felt  increasingly that our proposals are out of date and out of tune with public opinion.”

Desmond Plummer, the Conservative leader of the GLC, being shown the Covent Garden plans in 1972. The GLC would become Labour controlled the following year. It’s said because of their opposition to the new roads planned in the West End and all over London.

To the horror of many people who lived and worked in Covent Garden it initially looked like the GLC had won the redevelopment war when in July 1972 the plans were completely upheld by the inquiry inspector in his recommendation to the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment Geoffrey Rippon.

Within a few weeks, however, the conservationist-minded Lady Dartmouth (who would later marry the Earl of Spencer and become the step-mother of Princess Diana) resigned from her post as chairwoman of the joint local authority committee who had been over-seeing the redevelopment plans. She had been affected by angry protesters who had at one point besieged her house and in her resignation letter she explained:

The theory of organising the sites so that offices, hotels and shops pay for housing, a park and a leisure centre is well-meaning; but no individual or bodies who represent the general public have supported us, and I have felt  increasingly that our proposals are out of date and out of tune with public opinion, which fears that the area will become a faceless, concrete jungle…I am unable to work for a project in which I no longer believe, and which could do unnecessary  and irreparable damage to an historic part of London.

The post-war consensus of modernising cities like London with the bull-dozer approach to redevelopment and traffic circulation was starting to fall apart. In January 1973, nearly eight years after the Covent Garden Redevelopment plan was originally made public and six months after the inquiry inspector had recommended the latest version, Geoffrey Rippon, while ostensibly approving the plan, effectively killed it. He had added 250 buildings to the list of those already protected because of historical and architectural merit which made comprehensive redevelopment in the Covent Garden area almost impossible.

A porter using his head to help carry flowers at Covent Garden market, London around 1970.

In 1961 number 23 Cecil Court was the scene of a murder when the body of part time shop assistant Mrs. Elsie May Batten was found in the rear of the antique shop. An eighteen-inch antique dagger was protruding from her chest.The shop’s owner, Louis Meier, remembered a young man who had shown an interest in a particular dress sword and some daggers in his shop the previous day. The sword was now missing.It turned up in a gun shop on the opposite side of the court, where the son of the owner told police that a man had brought it into his shop that morning. Using these witness’s descriptions the police complied England’s first Identikit picture and released it to the media.On 8th March 1961 PC Cole, who was on duty in Old Compton Street, recognised 21 year old Edwin Bush as being the face on the picture and arrested him. Bush was subsequently hanged for the murder.

Covent Garden in 1974. Photograph by Dave Flett.

Covent Garden in 1955.

Covent Garden in 1974. Photograph by Sean Hickin.

In 1973 the GLC was recaptured by Labour and the new council told the developers and planners that they had to completely start again. Eventually the Covent Garden Community Association would have most of its demands met and nine out of ten of the key sites marked for demolition were saved in the final plans published in 1976.

Anthony Crosland, formerly the shadow Environment secretary, with his wife Susan in 1977. Five days before he died.

Anthony Crosland MP who had made such a fine speech about London post-war development back in 1972 had written a book called ‘The Conservative Enemy’ ten years previously. In it he presciently summed up what had happened, and would happen, to so many city centres around the country:

Excited by speculative gain, the property developers furiously rebuild the urban centres with unplanned and æsthetically tawdry office blocks; so our cities become the just objects of world-wide pity and ridicule for their architectural mediocrity, commercial vulgarity, and lack of civic or historic pride.

In 1974 the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market moved to Nine Elms in Battersea two years later than planned.

11th November 1974: The old Covent Garden fruit, vegetable and flower market lies deserted at its Covent Garden site

The 1938 version of Pygmalion

The Nags Head, Covent Garden in the early 70s

The picture above comes from a book called Old Covent Garden by Clive Boursnell. You can buy it here.

Brian Protheroe – Pinball

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