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IF YOU stand on Great Dover Street across from the Tube in Borough, south London, and look north, you see the historic church of St George the Martyr. It’s overlooked by the new “iconic” skyscrapers of the city across the river, which tower over the old church like drunken teenagers leering over a wall to bully some poor unsuspecting soul.
It’s a church I’ve passed, on foot or on bike, a hundred times without giving it a second glance. But, thanks to David Rosenberg’s book Rebel Footprints, now I know better.
Behind the church was once the infamous Marshalsea prison, where Charles Dickens’s father was once held and it’s an area in which several scenes of the great author’s Little Dorrit were later set.
Dickens himself worked in a boot-blackening factory nearby, when the areas of Southwark and Bermondsey were renowned, in Dickens’s words, for “every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage,” and cholera epidemics.
Things desperately needed to change and change they did — thanks to struggle, organisation and protest. Rosenberg’s main focus is to geographically luxuriate in the memories of London in danger of being lost behind newly built luxury flats, oafish towers and privatised public space — a London of rebels and of people coming together to achieve social progress.
“The skyline of our city is rapidly changing,” he writes in his introduction. “The traces of a rebellious city are literally being erased before our eyes.”
Rosenberg — an organiser of historical walks around the East End — is the perfect man to ensure the memories are not forgotten even if the physical bricks and mortar of these historic events have vanished over the years.
Borough marks the end point of the walk around radical Bermondsey — the one I have chosen to follow, albeit backwards — on a humid Thursday night. What’s particularly commendable about the book is how it explores the lesser-known tales of London radicalism alongside the more famous episodes, such as the battle of Cable Street and the Suffragette struggles in and around Westminster.
Bermondsey has never been a fashionable part of London but, as I discover, it has an important part in our socialist history. By the turn of the 20th century, work was casualised and focused around the docks and there was a growing food processing and packaging industry. It produced much of the country’s jam and biscuits back when Britain was largely run on jam and biscuits.
Conditions hadn’t improved much since Dickens’s time. Bermondsey was still a byword for squalor.
Yet by the 1920s and 1930s, the neighbourhood had been transformed.
Walking through the backstreets of the area, we learn about the people who helped achieve this change and the masses who struck and unionised for better pay and conditions in the strikes of 1911.
We hear too of those behind Bermondsey’s first Independent Labour Party (ILP) group and their resolve forged in supporting these struggles, including the remarkable Ada and Alfred Salter. She became the area’s first socialist councillor, later mayor, and her husband became the area’s first Labour MP. Slum clearance, council house construction and health and sanitation improvements followed.
Only smatterings of Bermondsey’s radical past survive physically, the area having been heavily bombed during the second world war. But enough converted factories and warehouses remain to get a sense of the area’s past atmosphere.
The walk takes us past gardens, pre-war housing estates and health centres, historic legacies of progress.
There are legion walking guides to London, from Ian Nairn’s idiosyncratic architectural guide to Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic wanderings around the stories of Hackney.
As a reminder of our radical past and an inspiration for our radical future, Rosenberg’s book deserves its place in the front rank.
- Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History is published by Pluto Press, price £8.50. Details of David Rosenberg’s autumn series of London walks are available at eastendwalks.com
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