27 February 2024

Red Lion Square, reminders
of Fenner Brockway, and
the death of a student
on a protest 50 years ago

The statue of Fenner Brockway (1888-1988) by Ian Walters in Red Lion Square in Holborn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During my strolls around Bloomsbury, Holborn and Fleet Street earlier this month, I visited a number of London churches that I have blogged about in recent days. But I also stopped to visit Red Lion Square, a small square in Holborn.

This square was home in the Victorian era to many of the pre-Raphaelites. It has a sculpture commemorating Fenner Brockway, a father-figure – or, perhaps, a grandparent figure – in the modern peace movement.

I remember Red Lion Square too as the place where 50 years ago Kevin Gately, a young student, was left dead during a protest against fascism and racism on 15 June 1974. He was the first person to die in a public demonstration in Britain for over half a century, and no one has ever been held responsible for his death.

Although Oliver Cromwell’s head is said to be buried in the antechapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, some sources say that after the Restoration the bodies of Cromwell, his son-in-law Henry Ireton, and a third regicide John Bradshaw, were dumped in a pit on the site of the square in 1661 after they had been exhumed and beheaded posthumously.

Red Lion Square was laid out in 1684 by Nicholas Barbon, who was active in redeveloping the City after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Barbon was the eldest son of the Fifth Monarchist Praise-God Barebone (or Barbon), who gave his name to ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, the predecessor in 1653 of Cromwell’s Protectorate. At his baptism in 1640, his father gave Nicholas an unusual tongue-twister of a baptismal name: ‘If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned.’

Barbon’s developments, including squares, streets and houses on the Strand, Bloomsbury, St Giles and Holborn, linked the City of London with Westminster for the first time. Red Lion Square took its name from the Red Lion Inn, reputed to be the most important pub in Holborn. It was a fashionable part of London in the 1720s, when the residents included an eminent judge Sir Bernard Hale and Sir Robert Raymond, Lord Chief Justice.

Red Lion Square was ‘beautified’ under an Act of Parliament in 1737. But, by then, it had become a ‘receptacle for rubbish, dirt and nastiness of all kinds and an encouragement to common beggars, vagabonds and other disorderly persons.’

Charles Lamb was painted at No 3 in 1826 by Henry Mayer. A generation later, many of the Pre-Raphaelites lived and worked on Red Lion Square. Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived at No 17 in 1851, while William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Richard Watson Dixon also lived at No 17 from 1856 to 1859. No 8 was a decorator’s shop run by Morris, Burne-Jones and others from 1860 to 1865, and it was the first headquarters of Marshall, Faulkner & Co, founded by William Morris.

At the same time as these Pre-Raphaelites were living and working in Red Lion Square, Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872), a towering figure in 19th century theology, lived at No 31. He was sacked as Professor of Theology at King’s College London in 1853 because of his leadership in the Christian Socialist Movement, but became a professor of theology at Cambridge in 1866.

However, Red Lion Square may have become unfashionable by 1860s. Anthony Trollope, in Orley Farm (1862), reassures his readers that one of his characters is perfectly respectable, despite living in Red Lion Square.

The landscape gardener Fanny Wilkinson laid out the square as a public garden in 1885. In 1894, the trustees of the square passed the freehold to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and it then passed to the London County Council.

The centrepiece of the garden today is a statue by Ian Walters (1930-2006) of Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), which was installed in 1986. There is also a bust of Bertrand Russell.

Archibald Fenner Brockway was a socialist, pacifist, vegetarian, journalist and anti-war activist. He was born in Calcutta, the son of missionary parents, the Revd William George Brockway and Frances Elizabeth (Abbey). After leaving school, he worked as a journalist and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1907. He later recalled he was introduced to socialism through Keir Hardie. He soon became the editor of the Labour Leader (later the New Leader).

He became a vegetarian in 1908 and by 1913 he was a committed pacifist. At the outbreak of World War I, he was involved in forming the No-Conscription Fellowship to campaign against the government attempts to introduce conscription. The Labour Leader offices were raided in August 1915 and he was charged with publishing seditious material. He was acquitted but was arrested again in 1916 for distributing anti-conscription leaflets. After refusing to pay a fine, he was sent to Pentonville Prison.

He was arrested a third time for refusing to be conscripted after he was denied recognition as a conscientious objector. He was court-martialled for disobeying army orders, and was jailed in the Tower of London, in a dungeon under Chester Castle and in Walton Prison, Liverpool, before he was transferred to Lincoln Jail. There he spent some time in solitary confinement until he was released in 1919. He revisited Lincoln Jail with Éamon de Valera in 1950.

Following his release, he became an active member of the India League. He became secretary of the Independent Labour Party in 1923 and later its chair.

Brockway stood for Parliament several times, including standing against Winston Churchill in a by-election in 1924. He was elected the Labour MP for Leyton East in the general election in 1929. In Parliament he was outspoken and was once ‘named’ (suspended) by the Speaker while demanding a debate on India.

He lost his seat in 1931 and he disaffiliated from the Labour Party the following year, along with the rest of the ILP. He stood unsuccessfully for the ILP in the 1934 Upton by-election and in Norwich in the 1935 election.

He was the first chair of War Resisters’ International in 1926-1934. But, despite his long-standing pacifism, he resigned from War Resisters' International at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and helped to recruit British volunteers to fight Franco’s fascist forces, including Eric Blair – better known as George Orwell. He wrote a number of articles about the Spanish Civil War, and was influential in having George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia published.

He chaired the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors throughout World War II, and continued as chair until he died. He tried to return to Parliament, but was unsuccessful as an ILP candidate in by-elections in Lancaster (1941) and Cardiff East (1942).

After World War II, he visited the British occupation zone in Germany as a war correspondent in 1946, and wrote about the visit in German Diary, published by the Left Book Club.

Brockway rejoined the Labour Party, and after an absence of over 18 years he returned to the Commons in 1950 as MP for Eton and Slough. He forced a Commons debate in 1950 when the Labour Government banished Seretse Khama from what would become Botswana after he married an English woman, an action seen an affront to apartheid South Africa.

He was one of the founders of War on Want in 1951, and from the 1950s on he regularly proposed legislation to ban racial discrimination, and spoke out against responses to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. He strongly opposed nuclear weapons and was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

He narrowly lost his seat in the 1964 election. Later that year, he was made a life peer, with the title Baron Brockway of Eton and of Slough in the County of Buckingham.

As Lord Brockway, he campaigned for world peace and against the war in Vietnam. With Philip Noel-Baker founded the World Disarmament Campaign in 1979. It was through these campaigns that I met him in the early 1980s. He died on 28 April 1988, six months shy of his 100th birthday.

Fenner Brockway was a prominent member of the British Humanist Association and the South Place Ethical Society. His Conway Memorial Lecture in 1986 was chaired by Michael Foot and the Brockway Room at Conway Hall on Red Lion Square is named after him.

Conway Hall – the home of the South Place Ethical Society and the National Secular Society – opens on to Red Lion Square. Many remember it to this day for the protests against a meeting by the National Front in Conway Hall on 15 June 1974. In the chaos and disorder that afternoon and the police response, Kevin Gately, a student from the University of Warwick in Coventry, was left dead.

Peter Cadogan (1921-2007), who was chairman of the South Place Ethical Society from 1970 to 1981, took the controversial decision to allow the National Front to book the meeting in Conway Hall. The counter-demonstration was organised by Liberation, a movement opposing colonialism and of which Lord Brockway was the president.

In scenes that must have been reminiscent of the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, the police led the National Front marchers around the south and east sides of Red Lion Square and into Conway Hall. A total of 51 people were arrested that day – all were counter-protesters and none was among the National Front.

Kevin Gately was 20 when he died as the result of a head injury that afternoon. He was not a member of any political organisation and he had come to London from Coventry for the day. It was his first protest march, and he was the first person to die in a public demonstration in Great Britain for at least 55 years.

A public inquiry by Lord Scarman denied there was any evidence that Gately had been killed by the police. Inquiries and reports refused to blame the police or the National Front for his death. Liberation was never involved in political violence, but the far-left groups who infiltrated the counter-demonstration never accepted any responsibility for their role in the afternoon’s mayhem. And Peter Cadogan always maintained that he had allowed the National Front to book the Conway Hall only in the interests of freedom of speech.

Kevin Gately and Blair Peach, who was killed in Southall in 1979, have been described as martyrs against fascism and racism, but they are largely forgotten.

As I stood in front of Fenner Brockway’s statue in Red Lion Square on a bright February morning, I recalled the price FD Maurice paid for his socialism, the radicalism of the Pre-Raphaelites, and how many of Fenner Brockway’s values remain relevant to the needs of Britain and the world today. But I also wondered who is going to remember Kevin Gately later this year on the 50th anniversary of his death or murder.

As I thought of this year’s inevitable general election, I thought of Fenner Brockway’s many efforts to get elected. But I realised too, 50 years after that dreadful and deadly afternoon in Red Lion Square, how many of the demands of the National Front have since become mainstream policies in the Conservative Party, including withdrawal from what became the European Union, caps on immigration and the forced deportation of vulnerable immigrants.

Red Lion Square in London, with Conway Hall in the distance to the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
14, 27 February 2024,
Saint Etheldreda of Ely

Saint Etheldreda, Abbess of Ely, depicted in stained glass in Ely Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent began earlier this month on Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and this week began with the Second Sunday in Lent (Lent II, 25 February 2024). The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (27 February) remembers the life and ministry of George Herbert (1633), priest and poet.

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in Common Worship.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the surrounding landscape … it has long been known as the ‘Ship of the Fens’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 14, Saint Etheldreda, Abbess of Ely

Saint Etheldreda, Abbess of Ely, is commemorated in Common Worship on 23 June. Saint Etheldreda (Audrey) was born in Suffolk in the seventh century, a daughter of the king. She desired to commit her life to prayer and chastity and, after two arranged and unconsummated marriages, founded a religious house at Ely for both men and women, over which she ruled as abbess.

At her death on 23 June 678, she was revered as a woman of austerity, prayer and prophecy. Her abbey is now part of Ely Cathedral.

Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 23: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

The unique Octagon or Lantern Tower is the glory of Ely Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 27 February 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: Freedom in Christ.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Bianca Daébs (Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil).

The USPG Prayer Diary today (27 February 2024) invites us to pray:

Pray for God to be at the centre of our human relationships – with family members, colleagues, friends, and all in our lives.

The Collect:

King of glory, king of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honours
to be a priest in the temple of his God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant George Herbert revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s Reflection: Saint Ethelburga of Barking

Tomorrow: Saint Hilda of Whitby

The Porta or great gateway to the monastery in Ely now houses the King’s School library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org