Last weekend, I went with my Mum and sister to the On Blackheath festival which is, funnily enough, on Blackheath in south east London. Shared between the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich, it is one of the largest areas of common land in London today. It is a fantastic setting for a family-oriented festival; when it gets dark you can see the lights of the towers in Canary Wharf glinting from across the river. But Blackheath is ancient, going back at least as far as the Doomsday Book, and it has hosted countless other gatherings of a more turbulent nature.
The common land of London has always played a role in the life of turbulent London, hosting many a protest and political meeting. Before the Gordon Riots in 1780 the Protestant Association held a mass meeting in St. George’s Fields, the area of modern day Waterloo and Lambeth. In 1848 the Chartists held a rally on Kennington Common (all that remains of which is the Oval cricket ground) which did not go their way and effectively ended the Chartist movement. The similarity between St. George’s Fields and Kennington Common is that they no longer exist. Blackheath does, and when you go there you can imagine standing in the footsteps of famous radicals.
So when I was standing on Blackheath on Saturday night, listening to the Manic Street Preachers performing “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” which is inspired by the 1936 Spanish Civil War, I got thinking about Blackheath’s radical history. The Manic Street Preachers are not afraid to be political in their performances, and they may not have realised it but they were continuing a strong Blackheath tradition by doing so at On Blackheath. During the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, and the 1450 Kentish Rebellion both used Blackheath as a rallying point. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, is commemorated by Wat Tyler Road, which runs across the heath. After camping on Blackheath, Cornish rebels angry at a war tax imposed by Henry VII were defeated at the Battle of Deptford Bridge (otherwise known as the Battle of Blackheath) in June 1497.
In the middle of Blackheath is a mound of earth called Whitefield’s Mount (or Whitfield’s Mount/Mound), which at one point was known as Wat Tyler’s mound because it was used for making speeches during the Peasant’s Revolt. One of the speakers was John Ball, who uttered that well-known statement of equality:
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?
He didn’t necessarily make this speech on Whitefield’s Mount, but wouldn’t it be great if he did? It has been speculated that the Mount is the final resting place of some of the 200-2000 Cornishmen killed during the Battle of Deptford Bridge. True or not, Whitefield’s Mount is clearly intimately linked with London’s turbulent past.
By the 1830s and 40s, radicals were addressing a new set of issues, and the Chartists had began using Blackheath as a location for meetings as part of their campaign for universal male suffrage. Almost a hundred years later, it would also be used for meetings calling for female suffrage. More recently, Blackheath was used in 2009 for a week-long climate camp, complete with compost toilets, and a pedal-powered radio station and TV channel. In 2013, there was a protest against Zippo’s Circus who were set up on Blackheath, one of the few UK circuses that still use animals in their performances. Even the On Blackheath festival itself has been the subject of protest, with anarchist Ian Bone objecting to common land being fenced off for a ‘foodie fest’ that was not accessible to the poor communities in surrounding areas.
London’s open spaces play a vital role in the city’s life by hosting gatherings of all kinds. From festivals to protests, they are a key part of the social, political and cultural life of the city. London’s 2000+ year history means that almost anywhere you go in London will have been the site of past protest of some sort, but areas of common land have been particularly contentious, and Blackheath is no exception. By performing songs such as “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” the Manic Street Preachers were both drawing from and continuing a tradition of dissent on Blackheath that stretches back hundreds of years.
Sources and Further Reading
Anon. “Blackheath, London.” Wikipedia. Last modified 12th September 2015, accessed 13th September 2015. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackheath,_London
Anon. “Cornish Rebellion of 1497.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_Rebellion_of_1497
Anon. “Zippos Circus Protest in Blackheath!” The London Animal Rights Meetup Group. No date, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at http://www.meetup.com/animalrights-202/events/112127872/
Chandler, Mark. “BLACKHEATH: Climate Camp Protest Criticised by Councillors and Police.” News Shopper. Last modified 27th August 2009, accessed 15th September 2009. Available at http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/4568764.BLACKHEATH__Climate_Camp_protest_criticised_by_councillors_and_police/?ref=rl
Read, Carly. “I predict a riot! Hell-raising anarchist Ian Bone set to boycott posh On Blackheath music and food festival – and urges The Levellers not to perform.” News Shopper. Last modified 29th July 2014, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/11372522.Hell_raising_anarchist_set_to_boycott_On_Blackheath_festival/
Runner500. “In Search of the Battle of Deptford Bridge.” Running Past. Last modified 2nd January 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at https://runner500.wordpress.com/tag/deptford-bridge/
Runner500. “Whitefield’s Mount- A Rallying Point for Protest and Preaching.” Running Past. Last modified 29th October 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at https://runner500.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/whitefields-mount-a-rallying-point-for-protest-and-preaching/