Walking Radical London

There are  things I can be guaranteed to do on any trip, I always buy honey to bring home and I'm certain to buy too many walking tour books! I love to have a good choice of walking guides and I'm never satisfied with just one as I like a variety of perspectives. I like to walk, and I love the way a walking guide gives you a purpose - a reason to head out in a particular direction! The truth is I'm not so good at aimless wandering and  like any good dilettante I like to be constantly learning. 

London's a great city to see on foot and there are an extraordinary number of walking guides including many I own; the wonderful Time Out Walks, The Lost Rivers of London, the three volumes series on Hidden London and many more. We used and liked all of these but the book we most enjoyed most was the recently published Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London's Radical History by David Rosenberg. I'd run across Rosenberg's name before (as the instructor for a class on East End history at the Bishopsgate Institute) and having read his book I'm only sorry I was unable take his course.

The walks introduces figure like the radical activist Annie Besant. She was instrumental in organizing  the 1888 Bryant and May Match Factory strike led by working women and later she became the president of the Indian National Congress. I came across her again at the Masonic Hall in Covent Garden. Apparently she was also a mason too! The photos above are of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, East London. As you can see here, and below, the old industrial buildings have been converted into expensive flats. They've even kept the old factory gates.
I love the format of Rebel Footprints. First you have a chapter on the history of an issue and then a section outlining a walking tour. This means of course that you can read the book as a social history, which allows Rosenberg to include much more detail than you would find in  a standard walking guide. 
As Billy Bragg points out in the introduction, so much of the history that is celebrated in London is about those in power; politicians,  the military, the empire, the crown. What is so interesting about Rosenberg's book is that it illumines a different side of history by examining diverse social movements and the contribution of radical figures, many of whom lived in the East End. I found his focus both fascinating and inspiring. For example he shows the ways in which women workers led the fight for unionization and how Socialist figures in Bermondsey set up health clinics for the poor that predated and became a model for the National Health Service. He covers periods in which mass social movements brought considerable gains in the standard of living and working conditions of regular people.

"Would anyone actually go on such a walk?" asks the Guardian and the answer is a resounding, yes! In a world where one often feels cynical and powerless, it's really meaningful to  witness  the invisible and  erased historic struggles for equality and social justice. We were moved by the extraordinary sacrifices made by regular people who showed real solidarity in their actions, creating changes from which so many of us have benefitted. Following in the  steps of history with Rebel Footprints felt rather like making a socialist pilgrimage, and it provides a significant  counterpoint to the dominant histories of the capital. Highly recommended for those who want to look beyond the hegemonic narratives.
This famous statue of Gladstone outside the Bow church is very interesting. As you can see there is red paint on his outstretched hands and the history of this is interesting. The statue was erected in 1882 by the factory owner Theodore Bryant and the women workers said they had been forced to contribute to it through deductions made against their wages and they protested at the unveiling. In the years since, the red paint has been applied as a commemoration to the women and their subsequent strike action.

We're not the only ones who liked this book, here's a review from the Times Higher Education Supplement. However, I have to say I agree with their question, "why so little on empire?"