If you’ve ever wondered what possible link there might be between the actors Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles and Udham Singh, the man who shot the British officer responsible for the 1919 Amritsar massacre, then Rebel Footprints A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History will enlighten you.
It is organised around nine walks in various parts of London that take a radically different perspective to the usual tourism trail. The people and places it brings to life encompass the widest range of left radicalism — from the Chartists to new unionism through to the peace and suffrage movements and secular humanism, with lots of other stops in between. It gives us a distinctive, personal viewpoint in which Rosenberg’s enthusiasm shines through. For example, a chapter on immigrant radicals in Spitalfields captures with real warmth the almost breathless energy of agitators, workers, writers and activists busy creating a heady mix of revolutionary politics and cultural innovation.
Helping us to make a connection with that history is no mean feat given the monumental corporate make-over of much of the area, which lies on the edge of the Square Mile, in recent years. Some of it you just couldn’t make up. The site of the historic match women’s strike in Bow has been transformed into a gated community, shielding the inhabitants from the remaining working class communities in the area. There is a display about the history of the match factory and its workers, but there is no public access to it. Rosenberg’s meticulously researched walks encourage us to visit the public spaces that are increasingly being encroached upon by corporate developments.
In 1895 Rudolf Rocker, a German radical in exile, described the East End as where “riches and poverty lived almost on top of each other”. That brings home both the changes and continuity in the history of London’s working class communities. As David Cameron announces the latest Tory plans for social cleansing that would see the remaining vestiges of working class life expunged from inner London, this book is a timely contribution to reclaiming our history and our streets.
So what links Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles and Udham Singh? The answer is Caxton Hall in Westminster. That’s where the first two got married (not to each other) and where Singh shot the former Governor of Punjab. It’s also where Lenin attended a conference of people living under foreign rule in 1910, and where in 1967 the Nazi National Front was founded. Coincidence? Well, yes. But also a snapshot of the political ferment and contrasts that London has always fostered.
It also gives a glimpse of the depth of Rosenberg’s understanding and knowledge of London’s history from below, which he wears lightly but which makes this book entertaining…and something more.