Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dod Street - Free Speech Fight
East London 1885

The Social Democratic Federation had been established in 1881 as Britain's first avowed Socialist Party. In 1884 a group which included branches from East London, Hammersmith and Leeds broke away and formed the Socialist League with William Morris, Ernest Bax, Edward Carpenter, Edward Aveling, Walter Crane and Eleanor Marx as some of its most high profile members of the Socialist League.

It was while leading the Socialist League that William Morris had become embroiled in the exploits of the Free Speech Vigilance Committee, formed with the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League and the Radical Union to defend their right to speak at what had become a traditional spot, at the corner of Piggot Street and Dod Street at Limehouse, East London. This densely populated factory area of East London was usually deserted and quiet on Sundays, and the open space afforded an ideal venue for open air meetings. Several leading lights in the socialist world addressed the crowds at Dod Street, including Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx and Lewis Lyons, Jewish Tailors’ Trade Union leader.

On 20 September 1885, at the end of a meeting, the police launched a violent attack on the speakers, arresting and charging eight men, among them Jack Williams and Lewis Lyons. The hearing was set for Tuesday 22 September. Morris wrote to his wife, “I did not go either to the East End meeting or the Parks on Sunday: but, as you will see by the papers, I felt bound to go to the police court today. My adventure there is pretty well told by the Daily News and the Pall Mall I send you.”

At the Thames Police Court, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx gave evidence on the men’s behalf, nevertheless Lewis Lyons was sentenced to two months imprisonment. Morris, as he mentions in his letter above, was in amongst the spectators who cried “Shame,” when the sentence was passed. He immediately found himself under attack as the police turned their attentions on him, and two hours later he was in Thames Police Court in front of the magistrate on the charge of disorderly conduct. When the magistrate, Mr Saunders asked, “Who are you?” Morris replied, “I am an artist and a literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe.” This reply evidently impressed Mr Saunders who dismissed the charges against him.

This episode served only to strengthen the group’s resolve to defy the law and the next Sunday (27th September 1885), an estimated crowd of sixty thousand people turned up in Dod Street to hear Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, amongst others, speak. So great was the gathering that it spilled over into East India Dock Road and down West India Dock Road.

This time the police kept away, on the orders of the Home Secretary, who did not want an incident which could be used to the advantage of the Government’s opponents during the run up to the elections, which were being held in November of that year.
Rosemary Taylor


Lewis Lyons a member of the Social Democratic Federation was the leader of the 1889
"Great London Tailors Strike". This strike was amongst 6,000 Jewish tailors in the East End. Their strike headquarters was at the White Hart, Public House, Greenfield Road.

The strike began on the 29th August 1889 and received £100 donation from the Dockers also on strike. A huge march to Hyde Park was organised by the tailors.

A Federation of East End Labour (originally Federation of Jewish East End London Labourers) was established 1st December 1889. This was in a tradition of East End Jewish unions running back to the 1870's and the second Jewish Tailors Union was established as a shoot off of the Hebrew Socialist Union on 26th August 1876 at Gun Street.

Lewis Lyons, later established a London Tailors Council in 1909
Lewis Lyons, Socialist, trade unionist, tailor died July 1918.