Stirrings from the South

You couldn’t make it up #5

Stirrings from the South

David Rosenberg, author of Rebel Footprints, a book about London’s radical history, also does labour history walks around the capital. Last month he was leading a walk round Battersea and, as the starting point was just outside Napo HQ at Clapham Junction, he was kind enough to allow us to join the tour.

Battersea has a proud history of radical politics and community activism. The borough, which is today part of Wandsworth, grew from a population of just 6,000 in 1840 to 166,000 by 1910, mainly due to the opening of Clapham Junction railway station.

From 1894 to 1919 the local politics was dominated by a “progressive alliance” of Liberals, socialists, radicals and progressives. Their motto was “Not for me, not for you, but for us”. The alliances achievements included a working week reduced to 48 hours for council employees; library extensions; a public laundry; swimming baths; a sterilised milk depot; an electric light station; and a health visiting service. Their crowning glory was Battersea’s first council housing estate opened in 1903 and comprising 173 two-storey dwellings at an affordable rent for skilled workers.

The area was notorious for its poor, overcrowding and insanitary living conditions. It needed people who could make a difference and they emerged in the shape of Charlotte Despard, an aristocratic widow from Kent with Irish connections; John Archer, a Liverpudlian with a Caribbean background; and Shapurji Saklatvala, an Indian from a Zoroastrian family of industrialists. We walked round the area looking at where they lived and important sites commemorating their achievements, and learning more about them.

Charlotte Despard, was an active campaigner around pay and conditions for women. Her home became a community centre/youth club/clinic. She joined the suffragettes but later led a splinter group – the Women’s freedom League. In 1918 she was the Labour parliamentary candidate for Battersea North – but as a pacifist during WWI she suffered defeat in the militaristic atmosphere at the end of the war.

In 1913 Battersea became the first London borough to elect a Black mayor – John Archer – a Liberal who ran a photographic studio locally and who later devoted his political energies to the Labour Party.  He championed the rights of the poor, the unemployed and ex-servicemen, fought for a minimum wage for council workers and was active in Pan-Africanist organisations in London and nationally.  He also encouraged the political career of Shapurji Saklatvala, who was elected as Battersea’s MP in 1922 with the support of the Trades Council, the Communist Party and the Labour Party. “Comrade Sak”, as he was known, supported local trade union struggles including spending two months in jail for sedition after calling on troops to defy orders to act against the workers in the general strike in 1926.

During the general strike, meetings were held every night in the Princes Head pub and Battersea residents continued to support miners in Wales for six months after the strike ended. The Trades Council showed similar solidarity in the late 1930s with Spanish Republicans fighting Franco’s fascists.

Why not look into the labour and trade union history around your local area – there might be hidden gems – and share it with Napo Magazine in the form of a small article. £25 of vouchers are there for contributions published. Email

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