Working-Class Lives in 1980s Peckham
Learning from the Peckham Publishing Project (PPP) Amy Todd
The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers started as a network of working-class writing groups in the late twentieth century in the UK, supporting groups across the country to write and publish their own stories. In a British context, the Federation was created in the late 1970s in London, to address the need to see and share stories of working-class people and their experiences, at a time when working-class identity was under attack.
There are two competing origin stories of the Federation, each showing the intention of the organisation. One tells the story of the teacher, Chris Searle and the creation of Stepney Words—a collection of his students' poetry, published against his employer’s wishes. The other was a coming together of working-class writing groups across the country, again showing the importance of solidarity and collectivism in creating and publishing the material. Class struggle and solidarity, particularly expressed through the written word, was not only understood historically by the Federation but overtly stated in their origin story. From its origin, the Federation understood its work as part of the corpus of working-class literacy output and the applications and importance of this work in changing the political landscape. This was at the forefront of the members’ minds at a time when working-class identity was coming under attack: ‘we understood that when a dying culture can no longer provide any hope for living in a different way ... the working-class movement had seen the need to take on the direct responsibility for making a new culture’.
Their inclusive take on class analysis was explained as an ‘understanding of a collective identity open to revision and expansion—a working-class identity without guarantees’. Both groups and individuals can apply to be published through the Federation today, as was the case in earlier decades, with a clear understanding of the importance of intersectional identity.
To become members of the Federation, a group contacts the Executive Committee (a body of seven elected members voted to take account of regional representation and a balance of women and men)… The main criterion used in deciding whether or not to accept groups into the Federation is whether they are genuinely self-organising and not encouraged into being and still controlled externally within some kind of community development or education programme.
The Peckham Publishing Project started in 1977 as an early FWWCP group with an aim to:
Produce books by and for people in Southwark as an integral part of work at The Bookplace, Peckham’s community bookshop … The group has regular monthly meetings to make decisions. Work sessions on individual books are organised as necessary. The members are local people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and occupations … To March ‘82, twelve books have been published, with particular emphasis on writing by women, school students, black people and old people … Publishing policy is actively anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-fascist and open to all local people on this basis.
Texts from the Archive: I want to write it down - writing by women in Peckham
Credit: Peckham Publishing Project and the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers - ‘I want to write it down’ pg 1
Thatcher worked hard to make sure ‘working-class’ conjured up images of the grey, depressing, homogenous blob of the 1950s where there was no sense of individuality, no social mobility, no choice. Her rhetoric tied the Soviets and the Miners together as ‘the enemy within’, with collectivism as the common denominator, sapping up personal liberties. The Federation and the collections ‘challenge overly deterministic accounts of the rise of individualism, which assume that affluence and the aspiration to better oneself necessarily meant disregarding others and rejecting the claims of community’ as Jon Lawrence explains. This first work is a great example of this: individual accounts and entries but printed collectively under the banner of women who want to share their words. In the introduction alone we can see the politicised message expressed by the group for the publication.
The women talk openly about the poverty and housing crisis experienced by the diverse group—which bind their experience in their locality. They also address the lack of formal education available to the women in their adult literacy class setting. It was the lack of qualifications and opportunities which in part led to the creation of this book—women across Peckham had come together to learn and better their prospects, which due to cuts to adult education and with soaring unemployment, were now under threat. It is clear that these women not only thought it important that their experiences be heard, but also that they showcase their new-found education and put it to political use in support of their right to education and work. This is evident in the first page of the publication which starts with a poem directly addressed to the prime minister accusing her of the cuts to education. In Dear Maggie, one of the writers pleads with the prime minister for the right to an education in order to get better paid employment and refers to the class barriers that working-class women in Peckham face—as opposed to those who ‘had the chances you had’. Joanna Bourke explains that because of the oppression resulting from their gendered class experience, ‘Women were much more sensitive to class distinctions than men’ and by reading these writings, we see the intersection of gender, class and race in detail. After all, growing unemployment hit hard in the decade, but the hardest hit were West Indian women: ‘Unemployment, then, not only tended to hit West Indians harder than any other ethnic group, it also hit West Indian women workers harder than other women workers.’ And with the large West Indian community in south-east London—these women in Peckham were aware of this.
Credit: Peckham Publishing Project and the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, ‘I want to write it down’, page 4
The ‘Women and Trade Unions’ piece explains that because more women are part-time workers, in order to work whilst raising children, they are not represented appropriately and therefore, many are exploited in the workplace. This account references the Chix sweet factory and the Asian women strikers opposing low pay and terrible working conditions. Sociologist Paul Gilroy explains that the intersection between class and other characteristics must be applied to a modern evolution of class identity which is successful in this diverse collection of women coming together to write collectively under the Federation’s working-class banner, ‘Class analysis must be opened up so that it can be supplemented by additional categories which reflect different histories of subordination as well as the historical and moral elements Marx identified as determining different values for different types of labour power.’ These writings opened up the Federation’s accounts of working-class experience in the decade by intersecting class experience with race and gender.
Credit: Peckham Publishing Project and the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, ‘I want to write it down’ pg. 12
Writing together and publishing the work collectively as an act of activism itself was clearly strengthened by many of the women’s other activist work outside of their writing groups. For example, we hear an account of the women of the Mothers and Toddlers group on the Sumner estate who contacted the council to campaign for funding for a drop-in centre on the estate for those who had ‘nowhere to go … shut in with small families all day, many of them single parents’. They were later denied funding for their project but they encouraged other women to do the same. This focus on the language of community is a product of the decade and an example of the ‘in between’ that Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite explains, how class identity changes and evolves in the decade. The Federation always stated explicitly that its mission was not to prescribe to any strict sense of ‘working class’ and that the material created was not a complete expression of working-class experience. This flexibility has allowed for variety and breadth.
Credit: Peckham Publishing Project and the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers
Texts from the Archive: So This Is England - Peckham Publishing Project
Credit: Peckham Publishing Project and the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers
This collection of work showcases the migration narratives of Peckham residents from across the world. Again inspired by an adult education course delivered by South East London College, students came together collectively to write and publish their experiences. The book is separated into sections – ‘Coming to England’, ‘Housing’, ‘Schooldays’ and ‘Memories’ which shows the group’s own decision-making in topics most pressing to their experience in moving to and living in London. Class is inherent in the material in the publication—whether or not the writers would have identified as working class in their native countries; once in the UK they were treated as, and experienced life in the country as, working-class people—valued only, and exploited, for their labour. Experiencing class identity as Carolyn Steedman describes, ‘not only as a structure of feeling that arises from the relationship of people to other people … but which is also an understanding of the world … a proper envy of those who possess what one has been denied’.
Joseph Olubo speaks of this denial in ‘My Return’, about moving back to Nigeria briefly as a child and comparing this experience with that of living in London. ‘Perhaps now, in England, where people live close together, yet so privately, so isolated, this seems a claustrophobic situation, but it was a way that shared so much—responsibilities, problems, joy and grief.’ On his return to London to live with his Irish mother, leaving his Yoruba father back in Nigeria, Joseph finds London ‘unutterably alien’ and laments the loss of a community where he feels experiences are shared and importantly where to be black was natural, not a disgrace—expressing his experiences of racism not through personal attacks but through the holistic experience of not being accepted because of the colour of his skin.
Family bonds being broken and strengthened, being away from family and loved ones and re-uniting is another theme inherent throughout the works. Lorna Morris talks frankly about her childhood and the difficulty in getting to know her mother in her youth after being brought up in Jamaica by her wider family. Veronica Isaacs talks about the difficulty in forming a relationship with her mother, ‘I had a vision of a mother loving, full of tender kisses for me, but instead of that mother, I received no kisses, no embrace, no warmth of welcome, no feeling of appreciation. A feeling of total isolation enveloped me.’ Like Carolyn Steedman, with her description of her experience of her working-class childhood, she explains her mother had no love to give them and thanks god she never pretended what she did not feel. This acts as a counterpoint to the many working-class narratives that martyr the mother and give the false view that all working-class mothers were salt of the earth, loving and generous women, an idea more prominent in white working-class narratives reminiscing of earlier decades.
These accounts, especially from childhood perspectives and contextualising the sometimes fractured family structures, are important challenges to Thatcher’s comment on Black families. As she said in response to the 1981 Brixton riots, ‘Black criminality is not political but a consequence of family structures.’ This furthered her Conservative vision to promote ‘traditional moral values’ which Thatcher equated with a fabrication of Britain having a franchise on morality. It also furthered the ‘otherness’ stoked by Thatcher’s cabinet and felt by migrants across the country in the wake of the rise of far-right racism in the period Hyacinth Durrant recalls the harrowing experience she had on searching for housing for herself and her children but who, due to a “No Coloureds, No Children” rhetoric found in housing advertisements, was forced, like other migrants, into poor housing This further reinforced an association between migrants and poor housing. Hyacinth’s son was murdered by a tenant in the same building whilst she was in hospital giving birth to her daughter, ‘I felt rejected by this society.’
Many of the narratives show a disconnect between what they thought England was going to be like and what England offered them once they were here. Mac Dixon, who was born in London but then spent his early childhood in Jamaica, explains that he was sent for by his parents to return to London at age eight. Expecting to ‘walk on goldmines. I thought I could walk streets and pick up 50p’s and all paper money and I thought I could get paper money all the time. I thought I was going to get a new suit of clothes every day and sling them away the next day.’ As soon as he arrives Mac decides any money he has is going to be used for his return fare but doesn’t explain why—we are left to deduce that England wasn’t as he expected. Phillip Hylton explains the loneliness, cold, and isolation felt as a child in London whilst his parents worked. Lack of opportunities and safety, unlike the beach, river or cane walks of Jamaica, led to children experiencing the poverty and class oppression felt not just by their parents. As Carolyn Steedman explains this happens to working-class children being left to feel the ‘economic terms’ of their existence. She adds ’it is clear that many working-class children have understood these terms’.
Like Madge in the piece, ‘Looking Back’, it seems many of the accounts show they were unaware of the racial problems and prejudice rife within England when they arrived and were shocked by the state of housing available, the cold and the lack of sunlight Many were left wanting to return to their home countries. Jeremy Gilbert explains further, ’Notoriously, the conformist culture of Fordism found various types of cultural difference extremely difficult to tolerate: in particular, the new immigrants from the Commonwealth were expected to assimilate to ‘British’ ways of living, or to expect social and economic rejection from all sides.’ Reading these experiences, you can see consciousness of class develop in these groups, with migrant experience as a commonality, through the act of coming together to write and share common experience.
In the next piece, ‘First Steps’, we hear from Muriel in her emotive piece about assimilating into British life. When Muriel is perturbed by the snow, her husband, who has been living in London for a few years when Muriel arrives to join him, explains that she must ‘step in where the people already step and make a way’, an image that suggests the life ahead for Muriel in assimilating to this new country. This epitomizes the collective experience of the writers – forced into trying to assimilate to get by in this new country, suffering under structures of oppression like the inability to access safe housing and derided by Thatcher and later politicians for not adhering to “British Values”. These latter ideas echo our politics today where an intrinsic Britishness is “defended" from the “threat” of immigration.
Texts from the archive: Godfers
Jim Allen’s account of his Bermondsey childhood states on the blurb the importance he feels about recording these stories to accompany other histories from the period. ‘Their stories are not spectacular or outstanding, but if war and political intrigue are worth recording, then so are these.’ Jim frames his accounts as being part of an urban landscape and suggests that similar accounts can be found from across the country, telling the story of the poverty endured by families after the First World War. To this end, Jim writes in third person which gives a sense of universality to these tales and draws in the reader, especially if they also grew up in the local area – which is the intended audience of the PPP’s resources. Because of this Jim can tell the wealth of stories found on his one street from perspectives of different members of the family.
Three publications in the work of the PPP talk about their experience of this conflict and the ramifications of the war on British society in the 1920s. To read such vivid testimonies of living through this period today is rare. Outside of living memory – there is much more focus on the Second World War after which the public enjoyed the prosperity of the 1950s. In direct opposition, the decade following the First World War left families with ‘wages being low and working hours long; the reward of parents for winning World War One’. Jim’s characters experience personally the impact of poverty in their daily lives, from lack of food and the death of children on the street, to the lack of fathers in local families. Throughout the stories, children are not spared the responsibilities, horrors and harsh realities that come with a working-class life on the breadline. In the ‘Fireworks and Fish’ chapter, the author shares the ‘Thursday atmosphere’ experienced every week when everything had been pawned, all the food had been eaten, but hope in the form of Friday payday was around the corner. In the piece entitled ‘The Grotto Season’ we hear about the second occurrence of grotto-making in texts from the PPP, whereby young children would create attractive displays on the pavements in order to secure loose change from passersby. A young girl adds in a photograph she finds in her house to brighten the display on the loose understanding it is of her father—though she had never met him as he had died in the war. When a passerby recognises the photograph and gives her sixpence, she is overwhelmed not just with the money but with the realisation for the first time that she’d lost a father to the conflict, ‘she did something no child should do during Grotto Season—she cried’.
Jim introduces the experiences of mothers on the street through ‘Mother’s Medal’. Like in ‘I Want to Write it Down’, we see again evidence of women being more sensitive to class distinctions than men due to the impact they had on their daily lives looking after the family. ‘Let her wash her blankets, trousers, shirts, sheets, nappies, towels—everything I do in the scullery … wonder if she’d smile then.’ states one mother when musing over a glamorous advert in a magazine. These are the same magazines she had to borrow from a neighbour in exchange for potato peelings for her pets, which she gets her son to exchange, with the proviso that he must also state that she apologises if she has caused any offence. Apologising for the poverty experienced by her family, which she has no control over, shows the rituals of respectability that working-class families were forced to adopt in order to assimilate themselves to other classes without falling into the ‘underclass’. As Sarah Attfield explains, ‘Many working-class people have aspired to respectability—maintaining cleanliness in the home, presenting an image of “niceness” through neat modes of dress, or speaking “proper”. This respectability is intended to show those in power that working-class people are worthy of their attention and assistance.’
Unpacking these accounts as a historical source throws up some interesting aspects of the material, format, and the organisation itself. The main theme of Godfers and many of the texts of the PPP is of memories of childhood, and mothers in particular feature heavily in most of the recollections. A chronological retelling of one's life is a well-known, established and almost ‘legitimate’ feeling way of telling your experience, backed up by hundreds of years of literary tradition. Because of this there is a definite emphasis given to these formative years by the writers. Sometimes this childlike perspective can skew what we can learn about the experience historically—as opposed to if we could hear the account of the mother herself, for example, where we might hear an altogether different view of some of the particularly good or bad times. The founding members of the Federation further critically discuss this issue in the material created in a historiographical context and the focus on nostalgia and the issues arising from that.
It goes back to a long historical discussion about the way that cultures get frozen in the diaspora. When people go looking for the most authentic version of the Childe ballads from Scotland they find them in the Appalachians; to find the most authentic Irish music, go to Chicago, don’t go to Dublin.
The poverty experienced and the political disenfranchisement felt by working-class communities after the First World War can be seen distilled here in the voices of working-class people from south-east London–even writing decades afterwards. There is a strong sense of solidarity created between the reader and the text because of the emotional accounts and the impact of poverty on these communities. Reading them we can experience a little of the collective experience in writing and publishing these materials together—it must have created and built up a strong sense of the experience of class these authors felt. Acknowledging the tumultuous times of the present decade, and relating these earlier struggles of the working class highlights the similarity of the conditions experienced and gives us an idea of how to help working-class solidarity to flourish.
Put plainly, this work is relevant today. Conversations about structural racism, colonialism, the history of immigration and people of colour in Britain, sexism in the workplace, social cleansing—these are all issues that are at the top of the agenda for those who make social justice their business today. It is these same themes that dominate the work of the PPP and the wider Federation in the 1980s. It is written so those who lived through the era do not forget, and those born after, understand how little change there has been when it comes to the working-class struggle, and for them to see how change happens, how long it takes and how this affects different people based on their characteristics. This interpretation of recent history is important in an era where more people have no lived experience of alternative ideologies in government and where unregulated privatisation, capitalism, and neoliberal ideology seem to have put many people in a situation where they cannot imagine an alternative. The writing from the PPP can inform debates around Black Lives Matter today as it shows the experience of the Windrush generation and the intentional destruction of class identity in these communities and other working-class communities by Thatcher’s government. These lessons can all be learnt through the words, stories, and poems from working-class people themselves in the archive and could offer alternatives for collective action in the future. ‘Institutional life aggregates people or disperses them, moulds group identities and draws people into settings in which collective action can erupt.’
Honest accounts of difficult family relationships, abject poverty that can’t be hidden, and mothers that were not the martyrs that many working-class narratives depict are all here. They widen the genre of working-class life stories and challenge the division within class identity of those deserving of support—a working-class identity without guarantees. Out of this I hope that the research works towards a more contemporary re-imagining of working-class identity that fits our world today, as even though the language of class might not be as strong a tool to mobilise social action, the injuries of class are still deeply entrenched. As Jon Lawrence explains, ‘Community hasn’t died, but it has changed.’ Inspired by the FWWCP’s redefining of class to fit their era, there may be hope to do the same in 2021.
Amy Todd is a sort of historian. She grew up between Scunthorpe and Doncaster before moving to London to study, as the first person in her family to go to university. She recently finished her MA in Public History at Birkbeck after last studying history at age thirteen. She is the programme manager of the Newington Green Meeting House: Revolutionary Ideas project sharing the history of radical thought in North London.
Harding, Jennifer, Jessica Pauszek, Steve Parks, and Nicholas Pollard, ‘Alliances,Assemblages,and Affects: Three Moments of Building Collective Working-Class Literacies’, (http://repository.londonmet.ac.uk/3371/1/e6-29-Sept18-CCC.pdf,, 2018)
Maguire, Paddy, Dave Morley, and Ken Worpole, The Republic of Letters: Working Class Writing and Local Publishing, London: Comedia Pub Group, 1982 Lawrence, Jon, Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Post-War England, 1st edn,Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019
Gray, Richard ‘“History Is What You Want to Say…” Publishing People's History: The Experience of Peckham People's History Group Oral History’, Oral History and Community Projects, 12, 2, Autumn, 1984
I Want to Write It Down: Writing by Women in Peckham, London: Peckham Publishing Project, 1980
Bourke, Joanna Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity, London and New York: Routledge, 1994
Gilroy, Paul, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation London and New York: Routledge, 2002
Hilton, Matthew, Chris Moores, and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘New Times Revisited: Britain in the 1980s’, Contemporary British History, 31, 2, 2017, pp 145–65
So This Is England, London: Peckham Publishing Project, 1984
Jackson, Ben and Robert Saunders, Making Thatcher’s Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012
Steedman, Carolyn, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives London: Virago, 1986
Allen, Jim, Godfers, London: Peckham Publishing Project, 1984