The United Suffragists’ Women’s Club in Borough Road, 1915.

For International Women’s Day, my second post on the radical history of Southwark is on the United Suffragists’ Women’s Club during the First World War.

The United Suffragists were formed in early 1914 by those disenchanted with the direction of the Women’s Social and Political Union. It admitted men as well as women, and unlike the WSPU continued to campaign for universal suffrage during the first world war. The club was opened in November 1914, at  92 Borough Road (see it on Google Maps), with the firm intention of not being a philanthropic institution bestowed by middle class women on working class women:

It is not a “charity,” in the ordinarily accepted sense of that misused word. It is not a club run for one class of women by another class of women. There are no artificial distinctions of that kind at 92, Borough Road. Women of all classes and kinds meet there for recreation and rest, for mutual sympathy and help, for conversations and refreshment, and all the usual things for which one meets in clubs everywhere. Naturally, the Club members, who are women of the workers’ class, predominate; and although what they contribute to the funds is as much as they can afford, and therefore equal to what the wealthier women helpers and friends of the club contribute – for they also give as much as they can afford – the sum total is not sufficient to meet all the expenses of rent, heating, lighting, and general upkeep.

Source

These tensions, of the U.S. being outsiders, from across the Thames, across class boundaries, are apparent in the account of the opening day:

We hoped above everything that the Club looked like a club, and not like a philanthropic institution, and that our guests would see us as friends, and not as interlopers.

But the women of Southwark put their minds at ease, and proved the need for it:

“The neighbourhood is in raptures about it,” said one of the early arrivals, when we flung open the doors of the U.S. Women’s Club for the first time last Saturday afternoon.

….

“What I like about it”, said one of our guests – we opened with a tea party – “is that it’s just like a West End gentlemen’s club.”

….

There was a great crowd of women there, but scarcely one of them who had not a relative at the front or in the camps here. In many cases they had not heard a word from their man since he left home in August. A very human touch was contributed by a poor, sad mother of eight children, who was brough by a friend to be cheered up, because her husband had just enlisted in Ireland.

“I didn’t mind so much at first,” she told me, “but when all his clothes came home to me to-day, it fairly got me! There they all were, looking so like him – his coat and his weskit [waistcoat] and his blue tie – it made me cry, it did. It’s worse than a death, that’s what I say, because you never know in this war what’s happening to ’em.”

Votes For Women

This article was signed “E.S.”, probably the club secretary Evelyn Sharp, author, window-smasher and, during the war, tax resister. A year later she reviewed the progress of the club, and the puncturing of some presumptions about what the local women wanted:

A SUFFRAGE CLUB.

Shortly we shall be celebrating the birthday of our Women’s Club in Southwark. Just a year ago, as our readers will recall the United Suffragists took a house at 92, Borough Road, Southwark, painted and papered it as brightly as they could, furnished it, with the help of many kind friends, to look as unlike an institution as possible, and threw it open, hopefully, to the women of South London at a membership fee of 1d a month. Throughout the year we have had an average membership of eighty or so, and this number does not include the many friends who are brought in to enjoy the hospitality of the club for an afternoon or evening, but who do not become regular members, or numbers of others who join for a time and then drop off. Of course, we made some mistakes at first. We thought, for instance, that the one thing needed by these tired and overworked members of the community would be quiet. So we tactfully arranged a quiet room on the first floor, where members could use the writing tables to correspond with their friends at the front, and sit in the comfortable armchairs by the fire and doze, or read the paper or an amusing book from the shelf on the wall. But our quiet room was a complete failure. What our members really like to do is to congregate in the ground floor room adjoining the restaurant, set the gramophone going, and under cover of its cheery optimism discuss everything under the sun, from the war to the Lord Mayor’s Show, and from Mrs Hampshire’s new hat to Mrs Lloyd’s new baby. And I don’t blame them! In these dark days I know nothing that cheers me up quite so much as to join that group of mothers and daughters and sisters and wives, who meet at our club of an evening and manage to keep their spirits up in the face of rising food prices and continued anxiety about their menfolk who are away, and all kinds of daily worries and hardships. As for our quiet room, we have found a much better use for it in the meetings and concerts that are held up there every week. I think that was our only real mistake, and it was a fairly excusable one. The restaurant has been a definite success from the very first. We supply simple food at the following tariff (cost price):

Cup of tea and two slices of bread and butter, or jam             ½d
Cup of coffee or cocoa and one slice of
bread and butter, or jam                                                                 ½d
Slice of cake, or one little cake                                                        ½d

The food, thanks to generous gifts from country friends and others, is of excellent quality, and is enormously appreciated in consequence. We find that this kind of substantial tea is what is preferred, both afternoon and evening, and have therefore given up another early idea of ours in connection with sandwiches and soup. We do not set out to be instructive in our club, the object of which is primarily to be recreative; but having found that certain ways of passing the evening were popular, we have arrived at the following weekly programme:

Monday.—Afternoon: Mothers’ working party, and children’s creche. Evening: Dancing.
Tuesday.—Suffrage meeting.
Wednesday.—Rehearsal of play for younger members- Reading aloud to older members.
Thursday.—Concert and entertainment.
Friday.—Sewing and knitting taught by an expert.
Saturday.—Rehearsal of play.

The Monday afternoon programme is an innovation, and promises to be very successful. The idea is to keep the babies and children amused in one room (milk and sponge cake are supplied for ¼d per head), while the mothers are helped over their sewing and are read to, in another room.

Source

Aside from accounts in the United Suffragists’ newspaper Votes For Women, and a couple of anecdotes in Sharp’s autobiography, I have found out very little about this club. I don’t know a simple detail like when it closed, never mind who the local women who frequented it were. Which is one more example of why we need International Women’s Day.

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The Austrian Butcher visits Southwark

Plaque commemorating the attack on General Haynau by the draymen of Barclay and Perkins Brewery, Southwark, 1850

Plaque commemorating the attack on General Haynau by the draymen of Barclay and Perkins Brewery, Southwark, 1850

In preparation for leading a history walk round Southwark sometime later this year, centred on my work on debtors’ prisons and sanctuaries, I have been assembling material on other aspects of the Borough’s radical history. As well as walking these places, I’ll be blogging them too, starting with an international incident in a brewery.

Park Street in Southwark hosts one of London’s most unique plaques, and not just for being – unlike the standard plain blue – illustrated. It is one of the few plaques to commemorate a riot. The occasion was the visit of General Haynau, ‘The Austrian Butcher’, to Barclay and Perkins Brewery in 1850. Renowned for his brutality in repressing the risings in Italy and Hungary during the 1848 revolutions, and especially for whipping female prisoners, he was considered by many as the veritable embodiment of tyranny, which explains the glee in Reynold’s Newspaper’s account of the visit:

The Miscreant Haynau in London

Well and nobly have the high-spirited fellows employed at Barclay and Perkins’s brewery displayed their disgust and horror for a ruffian who has dared pollute our shores by his presence, and thrust his scoundrel person amongst us. The following description is given of his reception at the large brewery, where he was introduced as Rothschild’s friend:-
On Wednesday morning, shortly before twelve o’clock, three foreigners, one of whom was very old and wore long moustachios, presented themselves at the brewery of Messrs. Barclay and Company, for the purpose of inspecting the establishment. According to the regular practice of visitors, they were requested to sign their names in a book in the office, after which they crossed the yard with one of the clerks. On inspecting the visitors’ book the clerks discovered that one of the parties was no other than Marshal Haynau, the late commander of the Austrian forces during the attack upon the unfortunate Hungarians. It became known all over the brewery in less than two minutes, and before the general and his companions had crossed the yard, nearly all the labourers and draymen ran out with brooms and dirt, shouting out, “Down with the Austrian butcher!” and other epithets of rather an alarming nature to the marshal. A number of the men gathered round the marshal as he was viewing the large vat, and continued their hostile manifestations. The marshal being made acquainted by one of the persons who accompanied him, of the feeling prevailing against him, immediately prepared to retire. But this was not so easily done. The attack was commenced by dropping a truss of Straw upon his head as he passed through one of the lower rooms; after which grain and missiles of every kind that came to hand were freely bestowed upon him. The men next struck his hat over his eyes, and hustled him from all directions. His clothes were torn off his back. One of the men seized him by the beard, and tried to cut it off. The marshal’s companions were treated with equal violence, They, however, defended themselves manfully, and succeeded in reaching the outside of the building. Here there were assembled about 500 persons, consisting of the brewer’s men, coal-heavers, &c, the presence of the obnoxious visitor having become known in the vicinity. No sooner had the Marshal made his appearance outside the gates than he was surrounded, pelted, struck with every available missile, and even dragged along by his moustache, which afforded ample facilities to his assailants, from its excessive length, it reaching nearly down to his shoulders. Still battling with his assailants, he ran in a frantic manner along Bankside until he came to the George public-house, when, finding the doors open, he rushed in and proceeded up-stairs into one of the bed-rooms, to the utter astonishment of Mrs. Benfield, the landlady, who soon discovered his name and the reason of his entering the house. The furious mob rushed in after him, threatening to do for the “Austrian Butcher;” but, fortunately for him, the house is very old-fashioned, and contains a vast number of doors, which were all forced open, except the room in which the marshal was concealed. The mob had increased at that time to several hundreds, and from their excited state Mrs Benfield became alarmed about her own property as well as the marshal’s life. She accordingly despatched a messenger to the Southwark police-station for the assistance of the police, and in a short time Inspector Squires arrived at the George with a number of police, and with great difficulty dispersed the mob and got the marshal out of the house. A police galley was at the wharf at the time, into which he was taken, and rowed towards Somerset House, amidst the shouts and execrations of the mob. Messrs. Barclay have suspended all hands, in order to discover the principals in the attack. It appears that the two attendants of the marshal were an aide-de-camp and an interpreter. He had presented a letter of introduction from Baron Rothschild. who had therein described him as “his friend Marshal Haynau.”

ADDITIONAL PARTICULARS.

Our own reporter, who visited Bankside on Thursday, ascertained that the general had a narrow escape from death, as his captors exhibited a strong inclination to extend towards him the same full measure of vengeance which he had so often exercised towards the unfortunate patriots of Hungary. In flying from his pursuers, he, as stated above, entered the George, where, after seeking vainly for some outlet by which to escape, he found his way into a small pantry, in which was a door. This door the general opened with the energy of desperation, and was half-way through it, when he found there was no hope of escape that way – the conqueror of Hungary had taken refuge in a dust-bin. As he stood looking around him, half in the pantry and half in the dust-bin, his pursuers overtook him; and, as he stood in a stooping posture, had a good opportunity of thrashing him with their various weapons, one of which, a bean-stalk, about an inch and a quarter in thickness, was used with such hearty good will, that it was broken upon his back. He was then seized by half-a-dozen of his assailants, some of whom had hold of his coat, while others less tender of his person, grasped his long moustachios, and dragged him back along the passage towards the street: but watching his opportunity, he managed, with the help of two labouring men, who were ignorant of his name, to break away from his captors, and rush up-stairs. His newly-found champions closing the door at the bottom of the staircase, and mounting guard outside. The general and his two foreign friends who had accompanied him, tried to escape by a window in one of the bed-chambers, but not succeeding, were compelled to remain in “durance vile,” until the arrival of a strong detachment of police enabled them to leave the house with safety. The general’s outer man had been so damaged in the fray, that he was glad to accept the loan of a coat, and that from a pitying bystander. The two men who had so gallantly defended the “Saviour of the Austrian Empire” against his assailants, were magnificently remunerated; the one receiving 4s. 6d , and the other 2s. 10d. for his services. The landlord of the George, upon inquiry at Morley’s Hotel, Trafalgar Square, on Thursday morning, was told that the general “had gone back.” Several dismissals have, we are told, taken place in Barclay’s brewery, but the obnoxious name of Haynau, together with those of his two companions, have been carefully obliterated from the visiting book.

Transcribed from Reynold’s Newspaper, hosted at the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required).

The attack quickly became an international incident between Britain and Austria, exciting a schism in government between the Prime Minister Palmerston and Queen Victoria, becoming a cause celebre in the newspapers, and initiating a bizarre debate on the morality of misogynistic violence as the defenders of Haynau accused the draymen of being wife-beaters and the press compared the flagelatory practices of Haynau with those of the Duke of Wellington.

There was an explosion of ephemera about the incident. Innumerable prints and satires were published, and at least 4 songs written to commemorate this mobbing, three of which can be found online: General Haynau, Haynau’s Retreat, The Southwark brewers and the Austrian butcher. There was even a ‘Commemorative Handkerchief’, printed with a scene of the ‘Escape of Marshal Haynau from Barclay and Perkins Brewery, London.’ It is upon this that the illustration on the plaque is based.

Hankerchief commemorating the Escape of Marshall Haynau from Barclay & Perkins's Brewery

Hankerchief commemorating the Escape of Marshall Haynau from Barclay & Perkins’s Brewery

haynau-hankie-closeup

Hankerchief commemorating Haynau’s escape from Barclay & Perkins brewery, detail.

Source: Museum of London

Haynau left London a few days later, but did not leave his troubles behind. The Evening Standard [paywall] of the 16th September 1850 reported:

The Zeitung fur Norddeutschland of the 11th inst., announces the arrival of General Haynau at Hanover, and the outbreak of some petty disturbances in consequence of a mob wishing to attack the hotel in which the marshal had taken his quarters. Several arrests took place, and it was found necessary to disperse the crowd by means of the civic guard.

Further reading:
Open Plaques record.
Hammerton, A.J., Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth Century Married Life,  on the sexual politics of the Haynau Riot.
Kurtl, L., The Women-flogger, “General Hyena”: Images of Julius Jacob von Haynau (1786-1853), Enforcer of Imperial Austria

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Wikimania for Historians

Coming to the Barbican in London this weekend (August 8 to 10) is Wikimania 2014, a great gathering of people involved in Wikipedia and its many related projects. There are hundreds of panels and talks, and as an attendee and contributor with predominantly historical interests, I’ve been sifting the program for relevant sessions. Below are a list of those that in some way touch my own interests as a historian; mainly they concern making useful tools for research than the actual investigation of the past.

Note that there is a whole ‘GLAM‘ (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) track as well, which should cover historical matters in some part. The talk on Saturday afternoon about crowdsourcing transcription listed below is part of it.

Obviously there are many other intriguing sessions, and many that can be considered useful to the historian – such as dealing with copyright (and staying out of jail). For the whole lot, go consult the program.

Friday August 8th

10:00, Fountain Room: Free Our Research – Reaching out to academics from the good folk at the Open Knowledge Foundation

14: 30, Frobisher 456: Transforming Wikipedia into the timeline of everything!

5:30, Auditorium: Peter Murray-Rust on Machine Readable Scholarship PMR is doing great work on getting data out of PDFs, that, although centered on scientific literature, could be used to liberate all sorts of historical data.

Saturday August 9th

9.30, Fountain Room: Maps The cartographical session of most interest to a historian.

11.30, Hammerson Room: Humanitarian Mapping The other cartographical session.

12.00, Frobisher 456: The Old New Thing Crowdsourcing the transcription of a historical text, in this case an early c20th Hebrew dictionary.

Sunday August 10th

9.30, Frobisher 123: Wikidata Could be very interesting for ‘big data’ historians.

10:30, Frobisher 456: The Full OA Stack – Open Access and Open Source Panel on getting free software into the Open Access world, featuring Martin Eve of the Open Library of Humanities.

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Records and Music

Old hoarding exposed by rennovation work at 52 Stoke Newington Road, N16.

Old hoarding exposed by rennovation work at 52 Stoke Newington Road, N16.

A piece of urban history recently uncovered by the remorseless redevelopment of Dalston is this old shop hoarding, ‘Records and Music.’

A search on Google Books for 52 Stoke Newington Road reveals it was the headquarters of Sci Fi promoter John Carnell and the ‘International Fantasy Award Committee’; that it sold albums of sound effects;  and in the 80s, under the name ‘Phase 3 Records’ , sold Nigerian vinyl. Most recently it was a Turkish TV and video shop.

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Radical Hackney after World War One

Spurred on by the great Radical Hackney History blog, I’ve dug out some digital press clippings on radical movements in my home borough after the first world war. The first covers an early instance of squatting, when unemployed workers unoccupied properties, the second a rent strike in Shoreditch.

These two articles are taken from the fantastic Trove, a resource built by the National Library of Australia. Most of the digitization of English newspapers has been by private companies, and consequently they are neither accessible nor usable. Hidden behind paywalls, with the most horrendous automated text transcription rendering them both illegible and unsearchable, one wonders whether they even succeed in their main aim of making money.

Trove, on the other hand, is free to view, and allows the reader to correct errors in the transcription. A virtuous circle ensues: the more it is used, the more useful it is, in turn attracting more users and sharing the heritage. Although it collects Australian newspapers, there are many news reports from the United Kingdom, even down to the local level as these two cuttings show.

Aside from the local aspect, these reports caught my eye as examples of spatial contestation in London. This city has been made and remade through conflicts over space, whether as buildings, commons, communities or customs. This is an aspect of my work on the debtors’ sanctuaries of London circa 1670 to 1724, but the long story of the struggles over the terrain of London remains to be written. It’s on my to-do list, but not near the top.

For more North London WW1 radical history, see Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier.

 

UNEMPLOYMENT IN ENGLAND.

Seizure of Town Property.

[Australian Press Association.]

LONDON, December 2. [1920]

The increasing unemployment has resulted in much disorderly conduct in some of the London suburbs. In several instances unemployed have seized unoccupied municipal property in order to establish relief organization. The latest step has been the occupation of the town halls of Tottenham and Edmonton. The men hoisted the red flag on the building, and declare they will remain in possession until work is found for them. At Camberwell they seized the Free Library building and 21 empty houses, and at Hackney they have occupied a drill hall. The public are supplying them with rations of bread, ‘bully beef,’ and coffee. There were riotous scenes also at Dalston, another metropolitan suburb, where men out of work attempted to seize empty houses. The police were obliged to draw their truncheons in dealing with the riot. The whole problem of unemployment has become a serious question. Some boards of Poor Law guardians are granting relief to men at the rate of 10/ per week, with 10/ extra for a wife and 5/ for each child.

Source

A NO-RENT STRIKE

LONDON, September 7. [1921]

A meeting of unemployed at Shoreditch carried a resolution that no rent should be paid by those out of work until the maintenance of the unemployed had been made a national charge, and a scheme  for the provision of full maintenance for the unemployed was in practice. In order to enforce the “strike,” the   borough was divided into 16 parts, each under a marshal, who will arrange pickets to patrol the streets and give   assistance against the authorities, in the event of any attempt being made to evict a “striker.”

Source

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#closed

As announced on twitter, I have decided that every time a paywall or an archive blocks me from reading an academic article, I’m going to tweet it with the hashtag #closed.

I’m a PhD student and so, through my university, have access to a great number of online journals; certainly far more than the general public has. Yet despite this, and despite this material being the raw material for my work, I still come up against inaccessible articles.

This is not to criticize my university’s library. On the contrary, I can fully understand why they can’t possibly subscribe to everything, given their finite budget and the price-gouging of publishers. Even Harvard finds the subscription fees untenable.

My aim is to show that academic publishing is broken even for academia itself. It does not support the work of the academics, librarians, students and researchers who actually produce and curate the content. It follows, I believe, that the best interests of academia are not contrary to those of the larger, global public, of anyone with any interest – but without formal accreditation – in the research carried out in universities. The restrictions in place are for the benefit of the publishers, not the authors, who are denied communication with their peers as well as with any wider audience.

I hope that these tweets will help expose the everyday failure of the current publishing business. Raising the curtain is the prelude to action. In connection with this, it is worth mentioning the fine article by Jeffrey Salaz “Your Paper has just been outsourced” as revealing the production process behind all those expensive journals.

Finally, I want to make a clear commitment to the growing open access movement that wants to free research and knowledge from its proprietary chains. And in this connection it is worth mentioning the forthcoming OAButton project, a tool to track who is being blocked, what is being locked up,  and where else it can be obtained.

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Stella and Fanny

Following the unveiling of the plaque to Herzen (see it on open plaques) in Judd Street last month, the Marchmont Association have just installed another round the corner in Wakefield Street, commemorating the Victorian cross-dressers Boulton and Park, a.k.a. Stella and Fanny (open plaques entry).

Plaque to Stella and Fanny, aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, Wakefield Street, London W1.

Plaque to Stella and Fanny, aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, Wakefield Street, London W1.

‘Cross dressers’ is something of an under-statement. For not only did they drag up on stage but also in public; they were deeply involved in the homosexual subculture of Victorian London; and they were the defendants in a notorious trial that had the crowds  flocking to the courtroom.

Indicted for conspiracy to commit and incite to commit “felonious and unnatural crime”, and for public indecency, they were found not guilty. The police investigation came in for cutting criticism from the judge:

“The act of the police-surgeon in examining the person of the prisoner as he did, without any legal authority, was wholly unjustifiable. He had no more right to do it than he would have to inflict such an indignity on any person in custody, or any person he met in the street. The seizure of the letters of the other defendants also appears to have been without any legal warrant or authority.” Case Report

And the prosecution couldn’t even show it was a criminal offence for men to drag up in public.

In his brief overture to the unveiling Neil McKenna spoke of how the site itself had a larger part than just being the lodgings for Stella and Fanny. Now the headquarters of the United Reformed Church, 13 Wakefield Street had been a ‘house of accommodation’ for young men with a penchant for dressing up in women’s clothes. Consequently, there was quite a community based around it. Not a brothel as such, but not a legitimate lodging house either, it was run by Martha Stacey, probably a former prostitute, who knew what was going on and when to turn a blind eye to it. It was also the scene of the illegal police raid  so criticized by the judge.

So it’s not just these two men who are remembered by this plaque, but an SSSSI – a site of special sexual sub-cultural interest.

 

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Digital Humanities GIS projects revisited

A milestone: my list of Digital Humanities GIS projects has now topped 100 entries. It currently stands at 103 entries, the latest to be added being the Google-sponsored Routes of Sefarad, mapping Jewish Heritage in Spain, and Placing Literature, an ambitious attempt to crowd-source the locations of novels.

The original aim was to catalogue academic mapping projects; my interest was in how the new digital ‘neogeography’ was being used in universities, and for what ends. But the list has drifted away from this, to cover literary and historical mappings in general. So projects produced outside academe are listed as well.

I’m not aiming to be comprehensive, and have enough data for my original purpose, but I will continue to maintain this list in an ad hoc fashion. Know of a project not listed? Put it in the comments.

For more maps, more than you could possibly explore in a lifetime, see Google Maps Mania – which goes beyond what the name suggests. And for weird cartography, see the ever excellent Strange Maps.

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Spaces between Places

“Space seems to be either tamer or more inoffensive than time; we’re forever meeting people who have watches, very seldom people who have compasses. We always need to know what time it is (who still knows how to deduce it from the position of the sun?) but we never ask ourselves where we are. We think we know: we are at home, at our office, in the Métro, in the street.”

Georges Perec, ‘Space’, from Especes d’espaces, translated by John Sturrock as Species of Spaces, Penguin 1997. (Google Books)

I read these words on a plane, at an altitude of somewhere round 37,000 feet, somewhere over Denmark or Germany, perhaps even Sweden or Holland. I had my phone with me – who wears watches these days? – but it firmly stated it could not locate my position.

At that very moment, when technology had uncoupled, when the view was restricted by a small window and a fixed chair, when only glimpses of land could be made between the clouds, when that land offered only unfamiliar landmarks, I truly did not know where I was.

But I wouldn’t have noticed if I had not been reading this piece by Perec.

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Gorilla in the Roses: The Collages of Halliwell and Orton

“On the frontispiece a picture of a monkey’s head had been pasted in the middle of a rose.”

“On the front, where there should be pictures of eminent persons, there are the faces of cats and a bird has been pasted where the face of an eminent person should be.”

“In a book on the life of Dame Sybil Thorndike there was a photograph of her sitting in a chair in a room, but the picture of a man’s torso had been pasted in front of her face to show her looking at the man.”

Such were the dry descriptions given in court of the vandalism carried out by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton on numerous books in Islington public libraries. Rarely seen, they are currently on display at the Islington Museum until February 25th (the end of this week – hurry hurry hurry!).

The understatement of the court-room minimizes the ferocious transgression of Halliwell’s and Orton’s activities. They had been stealing books for nigh on four years, cutting out plates – some were used for decorating their flat – then redesigning and collaging the covers, sometimes adding fantastically obscene blurbs. They would then replace the books on the shelves, and watch for an unsuspecting member of the public to browse them.

Several themes are apparent in the volumes chosen and their subverted covers. The Arden Shakespeare series are treated with great respect, being given dramatic and exciting images reflecting the subject; the critique is of the plain design of the series, monotone and dull, putting passionate work into the equivalent of a plain brown bag. The pulp literature and easy reading was given a more mocking treatment: the startled simian bouquet of the Collins Guide to Roses (a gibbon according to some sources, a baboon for others, although the Mirror headlined with ‘Gorilla in the Roses’); another monkey and assorted unlikely faces for The Great Tudors; even more apes for Exotic Cage Birds; the betrothed cats – with a kitten implying the motive for marriage – on Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Along with grotesque juxtapositions were queer entendres: the Queens Favourite was wrestling men.

But it is the biographies that inspire the greatest iconoclasm: The Lunts – a theatrical couple of some repute at the time – are portrayed as grotesquely garish childrens’ toys, John Betjeman is tattooed from neck to feet, Alec Clunes’s portrait is a smashed skull and Dame Sybil Thorndike, a statutesque amazon on the front cover, was not just looking at “a man’s torso” but staring straight at the crotch on the back.

Thus far, some inspired defacing. But it was using these works to provoke scandal that brought them notoriety, and gives them a guerilla aspect. They were designed to rupture the staid ambience through a rough surrealism and blatant sexuality. “I used to stand in corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back in the library and then watch the people read them. It was very funny, very interesting.” said Orton afterwards.

Most of their work was destroyed after a trial that saw both men sent to prison and given fines that nearly impoverished them: “because we’re queers” in Orton’s opinion. What is on display, around 40 covers, is all that survives of these remarkable productions.

The exhibition frames these works as an investigation into the juvenalia of a famous and celebrated playwright. These are his youthful exuberances, before finally ‘cracking it’ and breaking into the mainstream. But given their queer aspect, the lives of their makers and the vindictiveness of the trial, it is worth considering these works without hindsight and in their own moment. Had Orton not been successful, what would have been made of these works? Would they have been less interesting, less intelligent, the work of a vandal rather than a critic?

I think not. Even if Orton hadn’t been successful – and such a way of framing it underplays the equal contribution of the unrecognized Halliwell – these collages would still embody a contempt for boredom, a queer ‘in your face’ aesthetic, and a provocation outside the art gallery, executed with quite some skill. And as at the time, they were a couple of unknown, pre-1967 gays, constrained by and pushing against the mores and the policing of the time, it is in that light they should be appreciated.

Above, film of Joe Orton interviewed by Eammon Holmes Andrews (whoops!) about his library exploits.

Two online galleries of the covers: The Guardian and Joe Orton Online

“Malicious Damage: The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington” is on at the Islington Museum until 25 February 2012. A book of the same name is rumoured to have been held up for legal reasons.

Quotes from the trial taken from “Because We’re Queers: The life and crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton”, by Simon Shepherd, Gay Men’s Press 1989. Open Library record. Quotes from Orton from “Prick Up Your Ears” by John Lahr, Penguin 1980. Open Library record.

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