‘In times of crisis, East Londoners take to the streets’

Social historian Esther Freeman on joining a long history of east London activism
By Waltham Forest Echo

Campaigners with E17 Don’t Pay outside Walthamstow Central Tube Station (credit: E17 Don’t Pay)
Campaigners with E17 Don’t Pay outside Walthamstow Central Tube Station (credit: E17 Don’t Pay)

On a gloriously sunny morning, I stood outside Walthamstow Library wearing more layers of clothing than I needed. I was there with the E17 branch of the Don’t Pay campaign and, while wriggling out of jumpers and jackets, saw one of the day’s organisers Heidi arrive, laden with banners and flyers.

Gathered around us was a mixed crowd, ranging from young students to older, more experienced activists. After some brief introductions, Heidi began: “I saw my energy bills double in a month. I’m 25 and it feels like I can’t save and I can’t plan anything because I’m spending all my paycheck on rent and energy bills.”

Not everyone was there because of financial hardship, however. “I don’t personally have a problem paying my bills,” Roland told the crowd, “But I’m angry at the way money is being transferred from those who can least afford it, to a small number of billionaires.”

(Credit: E17 Don’t Pay)

Our group set up shop by a picket line of transport workers from the RMT union at Walthamstow Central Station and was soon joined by local campaigners opposing immigration raids and the hostile environment. We had common cause in fighting the cost-of-living crisis and our lack of faith in the government to solve it. The activists out that day instead believed in solidarity movements; solutions coming from the community itself.

“The best way to build any kind of movement is by talking to your neighbours,” one campaigner, Holly, said, “They’re exactly the same as you; they go to the same shops and they live in the same area. Whether or not you know it, you’re connected through the same struggles.”

(Credit: E17 Don’t Pay)

As a social historian, I know solidarity movements have a long history in east London. In 1888, a small group of women were sacked from the Bryant and May match factory in Bow after speaking to a journalist about their appalling work conditions. Within a day, 1400 of their fellow workers, mostly young women, had walked out in solidarity. They were told a strike would never work, that other more desperate women would be shipped in to take their jobs, but they stood firm. Within two weeks, the women won all their demands.

In 1939, women in the Langdale and Brady Street mansions organised a five-month rent strike against their unscrupulous landlords. To prevent bailiffs from entering, the women erected barricades and barbed wire, while guards patrolled the entrance. Even the milkman had to secure a permit to enter.

Don’t Pay should take a lesson from our area’s history. As the economy collapses, things will get worse and millions who can’t pay their rising bills will find bailiffs knocking on their doors. This will be the time for neighbours to act together. As Heidi says, many of us share the same struggles.

To read more about Esther’s research visit