Anarchists of the East End

Joe Jacobs, communist organiser and anti-fascist, recounts his first encounter with the anarchists, in an extract from his autobiography Out of the Ghetto

Memory can play tricks on you and you will forgive me if my dates are not always exact, but it must have been 1925. I was almost twelve years old with a few months to spare before returning to school. The rest of the children over the age of three to four were at school. I was in the street where I usually sought to occupy myself without daring to go far away  from my small section, when I heard what sounded like a drum being beaten, coming from the direction of Varden Street, which joined my street forming a T-junction.

I hurried towards the sound and as I reached the corner I saw a huge multi-coloured banner blowing in the breeze, held by two men on either side with straps over their shoulder meeting at the waist into a brass fitting in which rested the pole supporting the banner walking in front was  slightly built man and I was looking into his face  which seemed to have a sort of ‘far away’ look… Across the top were the words ‘The London Jewish Bakers’ Trade Union’… There were about 20 men following the banner and one of them was beating a drum. Bringing up the rear was a man carrying what looked like a small collapsible step ladder.

I was so fascinated that it was some time before I realised that I had left our street and was in fact several streets away, as I followed the procession to the middle of the road, I noticed we had acquired the presence of a policeman walking alongside on the pavement. I continued to follow, seemingly unable to stop and turn back. We arrived at a baker’s shop in Jubilee Street. There was a man walking up and down outside with a red armband, bearing the word ‘Picket’. He had two placards suspended from his shoulders with words painted on them. I can’t remember what they were.

Jubilee Street is where I was told Stalin stayed during his short visit to London.  Between Jubilee Street and my street is another street running parallel – all three extending from Commercial Road to the south and Whitechapel Road to the north. This is the famous Sidney Street. I heard many personal accounts of the siege so often connected with Winston Churchill’s career as Home Secretary. Most of these tales, which have become part of the folklore of my East End, seldom refer to Peter the Painter and his friends as bandits or criminals, but as Anarchists and part of a revolutionary organisation.

The procession stopped, the banner was lowered to the ground the man with the step ladder opened it and it turned out to be a speaker’s platform. The thin man with the faraway look climbed onto it and began to talk, at first quite quietly. Gradually his voice got louder and louder. The faraway look had gone and he became at times very angry and spoke with great emotion. His message was so simple even I could understand it. After describing the terrible condition in which bakers worked, the heat, the long hours through the night, the low wages, the threat of instant dismissal if you displeased the boss and so on, he said that the only way the men could relieve their suffering was to organise in Trade Unions to meet the attacks of the boss by their own united action. This strike, for this is what it was, started because some employers had refused to recognise this union who were demanding that they should stick a small label on the bread which said, ‘This is made by Trade Union Labour’. It was not uncommon to see such labels on a variety of products in those days. Many printers still continue this practice. This must have been the first time I heard the words ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. I heard them often enough from speakers on many platforms, as time passed.

After about twenty minutes, the speaker left the platform, the procession reformed and we all moved off. The crowd which had formed round the platform dispersed, all talking to each other as they went. We proceeded as before but by a different route all through the back streets for about a mile or more before arriving at another baker’s in a narrow turning called Plumbers Row. The same procedure as before followed outside this shop and once again we left and headed for Walden Street where we all stopped outside a small building. The semi-basement was the headquarters of the London Jewish Bakers’ Union. All the men went inside after rolling up the banner with loving care.

The man who had captivated me was called ‘Proof’, the organising secretary of the union, who I was to hear described as ‘The Anarchist’. He went back to Russia some time after the incident I have described. I did hear that he died as a result of his disagreement with the Bolsheviks but I don’t know if that is true. It was about 2.30pm and I had been missing from our street for about three hours. I realised then that I was very hungry. I felt elated. I imagine this is how a drug taker must feel after his first ‘fix’. Most certainly, something had entered by bloodstream.

  • From Joe Jacob’s seminal political autobiography Out of the Ghetto (Phoenix Press, 1978)
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