|The Birthplace of
A short one hundred and fifty years
ago Kennington Common, later to be renamed Kennington Park, was host to
a historic gathering which can now be seen as the birth of modern British
democracy. In reaction to this gathering, the great Chartist rally of the
10th of April 1848, the common was forcibly enclosed and the Victorian
Park was built to occupy the site.
History is not objective truth.
It is a selection of some facts from a mass of evidence to construct a
particular view which, inevitably, reflects the ideas of the historian.
The history most of us learned in school left out the stories of most of
the people who lived and made that history. If the design and artifacts
of the Royal Park mean anything they are a symbolic obliteration of such
a people's history: an enforced amnesia of what the real importance of
this space is all about. A history of life, popular discourse and collective
struggle for justice is replaced with a few antique objects and some noble
The significance of Kennington Park
goes back to its origins as a common. What is important about this site
is not the physical aspects of its layout but the traditions of its usage,
a usage which arises from its unique position in South London. It is here
that the road from Buckingham Palace to Dover crosses the older road from
the City of London to Portsmouth. It was the last common before the centres
of power to the North of the river, particularly parliament. It was first
recorded as a common on Rocque's 1746 map of London, but it must have been
crucial as a public meeting place long before that. The Southbound highways
date from pre-Roman times when a fork in a major road was considered to
have magical significance.
The importance of its position made
it a site of power struggles from an early time. From the 17th century,
if not before, the South Western corner of the common was selected as the
South London site of public execution. In the 18th century the country
was still dominated by an aristocracy; but the term gangster would be more
appropriate. But by the 17th century the unifying monarchical state had
transformed this naked violence into ordered spectacles of horror--public
The first execution recorded is
of Sarah Elston, who was burnt alive for murdering her husband in 1678.
"On the day of execution Sarah Elston
all dressed in white, with a vast multitude of people attending her. And
after very solemn prayers offered on the said occasion, the fire was kindled,
and giving two or three lamentable shrieks, she was deprived of both voice
and life, and so burnt to ashes."1
The most infamous of those terrible
spectacles was the execution for treason of nine members of the Manchester
Regiment, Jacobites, who were hung, drawn and quartered on Wednesday July
the 30th, 1746. Now that Scottish devolution has finally been achieved--with
somewhat less bloodshed--we might dedicate the fountain, which stands on
the site, to their memory. (The fountain is outside the park perimeter
railings to the South West, opposite the Oval Tube Station).
It continued as a place of execution
until the early years of the 19th century. The last person to be executed
was a fraudster from Camberwell Green, by the name of Badger.
The history books have portrayed
executions as popular entertainments; but it only takes a little sensitivity
and imagination to realise the trauma that any witness, not already emotionally
calloused would feel.
Children were hauled screaming onto
the gallows, to be 'wetted' by the sweat of the corpse, as this was supposed
to be a cure for scrofulous diseases. It is true that many took the day
off work and a 'carnival' atmosphere prevailed along the route that the
condemned travelled, but this was a way of resisting the morbid terror
that the state was hoping to induce.
The dawn of the 19th century brought
about many changes. The rising capitalist class was challenging aristocratic
power and the composition of the ruling classes changed. At the same time
the population was gradually becoming concentrated in cities. The density
of the urban population, with its intense social life, gave rise to new
political potentials. Consequently, the state required new forms of oppression.
The Peterloo massacre of 1819, in which 11 were killed and 600 badly injured,
taught the ruling class that overt violence could create martyrs and inflame
revolt. Their strategy was to sap the vital energies of the new urban population
by denying them cultural autonomy. This would be done by 'civilising' them
by training them 'to behave', making them outsiders in their own nation.
As in the new colonies, violent
conquest was followed by cultural repression. The enclosure of Kennington
Common marks a point at which class oppression changed gear; replacing
external violence with more cultural and psychological mechanisms of social
The Common on the site of the current
park had been a meeting place since the early 18th century, if not earlier.
It belonged to people communally and it was the South London Speaker's
Corner. It seems as if there was a mound at this time, perhaps an ancient
Tumulus, from which the orators could stir their thoughts. What were the
issues of the day that were broadcast from this site?
Earlier Times: Methodism
Large crowds were attracted to many
brilliant orators. The most famous of these may have been John Wesley,
the founder of Methodism, who addressed as many as 50,000 people on Kennington
common around 1739. This was a church with a stern morality which also
stood firm against slavery. Inevitably, anti-establishment and without
hierarchy, almost anyone could become a preacher. Methodist preachers could
interpret scripture in ways which linked Plebeian magical beliefs with
primitive Christian egalitarianism.
Robert Wedderburn was one such preacher
who operated in this area. He was born to Rosanna, an African born house
slave in Kingston, Jamaica, who was sold by her owner, Robert's father,
before he was born. He arrived in England aged 17 in 1778, and was in the
Gordon Riots of 1780. In 1786 he fell under the thrall of a Methodist street
preacher and experienced an instantaneous conversion. Intoxicated on the
power of grace and inspired by Wesley's stance against slavery, he soon
obtained a dissenting preacher's license. At the same time he stayed firmly
a part of the 'underclass' and its vulgar culture.
By 1813 he had become a follower
of Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the
enclosures of the commons in England. This talismanic interpretation of
scripture led to milleniarism, free thought and political radicalism. Spence
was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs,
tracts, pamphlets and periodicals. He also issued token coinage to publicise
This was a period of intense popular
political discourse and self-education amongst the new urban classes. Radical
debating organisations became active but were then made illegal and had
to operate covertly or on a smaller scale. One of the most famous was the
London Corresponding Society, formed in January 1792 by Thomas Hardy, a
Free 'n' easies were one form of
social gathering in which radical toasting contests and political sing-songs
would alternate with heated debates. The Green Man and Horns, on the corner
of Kennington Road and Kennington Park road, was a likely venue. It was
later to become known simply as The Horns. More on this later...
The most popular text that arose
from these radical undercurrents was written by Thomas Paine, a good friend
of William Blake. Blake lived near the Common so Paine would have been
familiar with the area. His book 'Rights of Man': "Met with a response
that was unique in English publishing history ...Like an underground manifesto,
it was passed from hand to hand, even when it became a crime to be found
with Rights of Man in one's possession...extracts were printed in pamphlet
Tom Paine believed that: "Conquest
and tyranny, at some early period, dispossessed man of his rights, and
he is now recovering them...Whatever the apparent causes of any riot might
be, the real one is always want of happiness. It shows that something is
wrong in the system of government that injures the felicity by which society
is to be preserved."3
Chartism: The World's first national
From these feverish debates came
an agreement on the need for Republicanism and universal suffrage--for an
all inclusive democracy. In 1832 a voting Reform Act gave the middle class
the vote but left the working class, who had agitated in favour of the
bill, still entirely disenfranchised. The basic political demands, which
had been the elements of radical discourse for some time, were drawn up
as a six point 'Charter.' Presented as a new Magna Carta, by 1838 it was
supported by almost every working class group across Britain and rapidly
became the World's first national labour movement.
The people who supported it were
Chartists. Not a small active party with a large passive membership but
a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people's lives. It was
an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholic, Protestant
and Freethinkers, and who included Irish, West Indian and Asian people
in the membership. There were also women's groups. Chartist meetings had
a carnival like atmosphere, probably something like a contemporary free
festival. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christening and
funeral rituals and its own music. It was a counter cultural experience
that changed people's perception of themselves--they became conscious of
a unifying class identity.
The main political strategies of
Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition was big
enough to have the force of an unofficial referendum. The monster rallies
were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense
of community. By 1848 Chartism had built up a head of steam. The petition
for the Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million
signatures. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport
it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time,
after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th of April 1848.
Icon of Modernity
This moment in the struggle for
democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early
photographer, took Daguerreotype plates of the rally from a vantage point
from the top of The Horns. These were the first ever photographic representation
of a large crowd. Considering the cultural importance that photography
was to assume in the next 100 years it is perhaps not surprising that the
negatives of this iconic image are held in the Royal Archives at Windsor
castle, which retains a strict copyright control.
The fact that the events of the
10th of April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting
reforms has been held up by official historians as the 'failure' of Chartism.
But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms, but rather
in the profound qualitative effects it had on the millions who took part.
This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was
a real democratic culture and sense of social justice behind the Charter
which remains unrealised to this day.
The stand-off on Kennington Common
that day had shaken the arrogant complacency of the British ruling class.
from then on a unique alliance, between the waning aristocracy and the
burgeoning capitalist 'middle' class, was forged. This newly united ruling
block determined to crush or commercialise urban popular culture. From
then on there was an uneven but constant pressure to undermine and destroy
the unity, vigour and autonomy of the new urban lower class.
Enclosure of the common
The first step was to symbolically
annihilate the common land that had become such a focus of the Chartist
struggle. The Commons have symbolic roots going back to before the Norman
conquest. They stand for the right of every human to have access to the
fruits of our Earth: In stark contrast to the predatory individualism promoted
by the 'enlightened' imperialist. This individualism was calloused to any
sense of communality, unfeeling of the humanity and intelligence of the
crowd, and incapable of a non-exploitative relation to the Earth. This
lack of feeling was a necessary precondition of a class of men who were
destined to lead the conquest and exploitation of people across the globe.
The spirit of the commons was the
antithesis of this dominating cult of individualism and private ownership.
It was the spirit that had inspired the Diggers in April of 1649.
"For though you and your ancestors
got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power
from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous
Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do)
about that disturbing devil, called Particular Propriety: For the Earth,
with all her Fruits of Corn, cattle, and such like, was made to be a common
Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinds, friend, and foe, without exception."4
The ruling class united in the face
of this new threat to their power and the individual diversity of the working
classes was erased and replaced with a bland and ugly concept of 'the masses.'
The image of the masses as an irrational and potentially savage mob can
be traced through Carlyle and Dickens to Hollywood--it is a manufactured
Soon after the rally a committee
of local worthies was set up and soon found support from the Prince of
Wales. By 1852 they had already got the requisite bill through Parliament
and Kennington Common was 'enclosed'--its status as an ancient common was
reduced to that of a Royal Park. The planting and construction of the park
which forms the familiar pattern we know today was largely completed by
1854. This was a symbolic and real colonisation of working class political
The Common was occupied, fenced
and closely guarded. Not only was the perimeter fenced but so was the grass
and the shrubberies. The remaining paths were patrolled by guards administered
by H. M. Royal Commissioners. It stayed under the direct control of the
Royals until it was taken over by the Metropolitan Board of Works (later
to become the London County Council) in 1887.
During the early period of occupation
the use of the park was limited to an annual meeting of The Temperance
Societies of South London starting in the summer of 1861. It was also used
for local schools' sports. It is not clear what other sorts of public meetings
may have been allowed. Park Superintendents filed six monthly reports from
1893 to 1911 but they may have omitted to report on meetings which were
spontaneous or political. Certainly we know the park was used during the
General Strike of 1926.
This was just the beginning of a
period in which the new urban working class culture was attacked, undermined
or commercialised in all its forms. The Unions and socialist parties either
considered culture a distraction or encouraged their members to follow
the middle class programme of 'rational recreation.'
In the late 19th century this area
of South London was a theatre land, with vibrant theatres, assembly rooms,
dancehalls and musichalls. In 1889 the London County Council (LCC), later
to become the GLC, provided the park with an elegant bandstand and between
1900 and 1950 there were concerts of military bands for a paying seated
audience on Sundays, Wednesdays and Bank Holidays. These 'rational recreations'
were seen to offer a civilising alternative to the 'vulgar' musichall culture
which hemmed in on all sides.
But the theatres gradually declined
because of the gentrification in the area and because of the growing popularity
of the new cinemas. The beautiful Kennington Theatre, facing the northwest
corner of the park opened in 1898 as the Princess of Wales Theatre. It
was on of the most sumptuous in London. In 1921 it was showing 'cine-variety.'
It closed in 1934, failing to get its licence renewed for the 1935 season--perhaps
a victim of the depression. It was finally demolished in the 1950s to make
way for Kennington Park House, a block of flats built by the LCC, now run
by a Tenants Co-op.
Everywhere it was the same: Working
class pastimes were replaced with commercialised forms, 'rational recreations'
or erased altogether, leaving acres of public housing which had been culturally
sterilised. The active, autonomous anarchic culture of the crowd was replaced
with an increasingly passive, commodified and privatised 'popular' culture
of the 'masses'.
The Horns had been a favourite haunt
of Charlie Chaplin's profligate father. At one time the young Charlie lived
in poor lodgings overlooking the north of the park in Kennington Park Place.
The park may have been where he and his friends would imitate their musichall
heroes and practice their silly walks. In his autobiography he tells us
that he met his first girlfriend in the park.
The Horns, a key social centre whose
life would have flowed naturally into the park and energised it, was partly
destroyed by a bomb in World War II. The remains were demolished in the
1960s and replaced with the formidable dark concrete of the Social Security
block designed by Colonel Siefert, architect-in-the-pocket of many notorious
60s developers. Since the original tavern was destroyed, the bawdy spirit
of the Horns seems to have migrated north to the White Bear with its theatre
club and bohemian/crusty reputation.
In the Second World War the park
was the site of communal shallow trench-style air-raid shelters. On the
15th October 1941 these suffered a direct hit and at least 46 bodies were
recovered. The chaos of war along with the need to keep up morale meant
that no official toll of those dead and missing was taken. From the flimsy
evidence in the Lambeth Archives it seems as if the remains of between
seven and seventeen or more bodies may have been left unrecovered when
the site was levelled around the 19th of October. Many people must have
been blown to pieces and the south field of the park is their unmarked
grave to this day.
The park had passed from the LCC
(by then the GLC) to Lambeth Council in 1971. This was the Conservative
led Council which launched John Major on his career. In January 1977 the
squatters in St. Agnes Place, situated between the old park and the newer
extension, precipitated the fall of the Conservative Council in the most
Councillor Stimpson, called in a
demolition firm to knock down the squatters houses, whilst the squatters
were living in them. But he ignored necessary legal procedures and a few
of the squatters were able to get a last minute High Court injunction and
call a sudden halt to the demolition. The squatters in the area, who were
quite numerous at this time, were elated by this victory and spontaneously
set off down Brixton Road to march on Lambeth Town hall. Arriving at the
Town Hall they knocked on the front door and, to their amazement, someone
let them in. Angry squatters then teemed through the hallowed halls of
the Council, occupied offices and called vociferously for Stimpson's resignation.
Stimpson's blundering led to the fall of the Conservative Council and the
start of 'Red Ted' Knight.
The new Socialist Council started
the annual fireworks displays in the Park the following year. By 1984 the
park was again being used for political gatherings. The demonstrators on
the Anti-Apartheid Rally of that year used the park as an assembly point.
In subsequent years the park has hasted many important political gatherings
including: Gay Pride (Starting 1986), National Union of Students (1986),
Irish Solidarity Movement (1986), Vietnamese Community Event (1989), Anti-Poll
Tax march (1990), Kurdistan Rally (1991), Integration Alliance (1993),
TUC (1993), Nigerian Rallies (1993), Campaign Against Militarism (1993)
and Reclaim the Streets (1997). These events often reflect key moments
in the political history of the time and are an important part of the democratic
What's happening now
In 1996 Lambeth Council set up a
Park Management Advisory Committee (MAC). At the inaugural meeting a local
estate agent, lawyer and priest took up the key posts and plans for a 'Victorian
Restoration' of the park were quickly put into motion. The powers of Lambeth
Council to give permission for use of the park is to be limited--all future
applications are to be monitored by the MAC. This conservative committee
of local residents may have an influence on the park which does not take
account of its wider significance and use in the democratic politics of
Claire Asquith, a student of landscape
design, was commissioned to produce a public exhibition to promote the
restoration programme. This began by dismissing the Common as a place which
was "notorious" and whose ditches were "the cemeteries of all dead puppies
and kittens of the vicinity" and into which "raw sewage was discharged
from adjacent cottages." She omits to point out that there were many open
sewers in London at this time.
She writes of the erection of St.
Marks church in 1824, on enclosed common land, as "the salvation of the
common." But the building of the church was the first step in the occupation
of the site by the ruling classes. It was the Vicar of St. Marks, the Reverend
Charlton Lane, who led the committee for the enclosure of the common. A
recent paper from the Church, oddly reminiscent of a tract by Robert Wedderburn,
tells us that at that time it "unfortunately became a church for the rich,
who alone could afford the price of a pew."
The Victorian monuments that survive
in the park do not seem to symbolise or commemorate anything--other than
Victoriana. They do not deserve or receive any great respect and have been
progressively wrecked and vandalised. The War memorial, however, dating
from 1924, has an important function, it is regularly honoured with wreathes
and poppies and rarely defaced.
An application has been made for
Lottery funding for a major facelift. Anyone wishing to see the plans should
contact the Regeneration Department, Lambeth Council.
Friday the 10th of April 1998, the
150th anniversary of the birth of modern British democracy, the anniversary
of the most important date of the Chartist movement, the first national
labour movement in the World. An important site for anyone who values democracy--at
the time of writing there isn't even a commemorative stone. Kennington
Park still needs to be put on the map as a site of International significance.
1. H.H. Montgomery, The History
of Kennington, 1889, p.32
2. Howard Fast, Thomas Paine, 1948.
3. Rights of man Vol 2, 1792.
4. Gerrard Winstanley, Declaration
from the Poor oppressed People of England to Lords of Manors. 1649.