Somers Town has been the site of reform, radical thinking and political action. The neighborhood is home to a number of trades unions – but the radical and reforming roots of the area go much further back. This wall of posters depicts just some of the campaigns and radical campaigns and organisations of the area.
Anarchism and Feminism might be derived from Somers Town residents William Godwin and Mary Shelley – but quickly after them comes the Chartist John Arnott, Secretary and General Secretary of the National Charter Association, in the 1840s, and political song writer. In 1894, teenage children from the Rossetti family set up an Anarchist press, The Torch of Anarchy, on Ossulston Street and published fiery newsletters. In 1898, the press and premises were acquired by Freedom, an anarchist grouping, which stayed in Somers Town for three decades and issued publications from its Freedom Printery.
Politics took place on the streets here: Traces can be found of the existence of regular political meetings in the shadow of the arches at the Somers Town Goods Yard. The St Pancras Communist Party was active in the area from the 1920s, publishing rank-and-file newspapers for railway workers and other trades.
In the 1940s, the International African Service Bureau ran influential campaigns against British colonialism in Africa and India from George Padmore’s flat on Cranleigh St. The 1970s brought squatting activism in the North of Somers Town, replete with counter-cultural magazines. Save The EGA was a prominent campaign launched in 1976 to prevent the closure of the women’s hospital, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. GLC-backed activism appears in the 1980s, with entities such as the Camden Lesbian Centre and Camden Black Lesbian Group, located next door at what is now Training Link.
More recent campaigns and activist work include disability actions, the Somers Town festival, relaunched in the 1990s, in response to racial tensions, Defend Council Housing and various campaigns against large scale development in the area – notably the coming of the Francis Crick medical institute and the railway project at Euston, HS2.
Recording Somers Town
Somers Town has been recorded more than many places – for example in surveys and maps devised by reformers to clear the slums and point out the perils of alcohol or the correlation of density and crime. It has also been extensively recorded in film and photography. Basil Jellicoe and the St Pancras House Improving Society were adept at using media to raise investment funds, as well as sustain interest in their rebuilding project. They made films, distributed bleak photographs of slum life with lurid descriptions and depictions of vermin and bed bugs. Once the project was underway, they continued to make films showcasing their achievements and they published a regular illustrated magazine called Housing Happenings.
In later years of the twentieth century, interest in the history of Somers Town – especially the reformist and radical aspects – led to more recording. In the 1970s, a grouping called History Workshop captured the memories of a generation who had been through the hunger years of the 1930s. In the 1980s, Sue Crockford, a youth worker, made a film about working class life and culture here, capturing memories of the ‘creation of a new Jerusalem’, with its rooftop nursery, community halls, mums’, dads’ and youth clubs and summer trips to the Children’s House at Wallis Wood, Surrey.
Of course many private photographs, cine films and videos have been taken over the years, at family celebrations and in the various parties, events and beanos from jubilees to street festivals. More public examples of an attraction to the fabric, if not always the folk of the place, include record covers, photo shoots in squats here in the 1980s, glimpses of it in some of the films by Mike Leigh, who lived on Cranleigh St, and an extensive use of it as setting in Somers Town, the 2008 film by Shane Meadows.