Unemployed struggles echo through time

Law and Authority, Under the Heal of Kensington Bumbles

Dreadnought Publishers, 1922

Reviewed by Jim Horton

Law and Authority was published one hundred years ago. The exact date is unknown, but the pamphlet was deposited at the British Library on 28 October 1922, two days after parliament had been dissolved following a Tory rebellion which had ousted Lloyd George’s coalition government after years of social and industrial unrest.

Three years earlier, in October 1919, Montague and Mabel Channell and their five young children were made homeless. On the day of their eviction the whole family paraded Fleet Street with a placard highlighting their plight, a photo of which featured on the back page of the Daily Herald, a socialist newspaper edited by George Lansbury.

While the Daily Herald carried a number of short articles on the Channell family’s situation over the next couple of years, the Channell family’s story was only fully recounted by Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought newspaper, on 16 September 1922. The feature article was subsequently republished as a pamphlet, Law and Authority. Then, like so much working class history, the story fell into obscurity, but after much research over the past couple of years it can now be retold.

In just sixteen pages, covering the period 1919 to 1922, Law and Authority documents the personal, and quite remarkable, story of the Channell family’s battle against a bureaucratic and callous welfare and justice system, particularly their resolute fight to prevent their young family from being separated in Kensington Workhouse, where conditions were harsh and food was insufficient.

The pamphlet provides a fascinating slice of social history, graphically revealing the contempt with which capitalist institutions typically treated the poor a century ago. Rather than a promised ‘land fit for heroes’, the end of the first world war ushered in a period of mass unemployment, poverty and homelessness, with many thousands of working class families forced into workhouses under a Victorian ‘welfare’ system not legally abolished until 1929.

The impact of the bosses brutal class war on workers during this period permeates the pages of Law and Authority, though the pamphlet does not comment directly on the then unparalleled industrial unrest engulfing British society. The political establishment had palpably feared socialist revolution as strikes over pay by railway workers, miners, transport workers, engineers, textile workers and even the police, plus mutinies in the armed forces, prompted the then prime minister Lloyd George to judge that Britain had come ‘close to Bolshevism’.

One month after the signing of the armistice in November 1918 Montague Channell’s redundancy from a dairy company set in motion a chain of events which would lead to his family being forced into Kensington Workhouse. In August 1919 the Daily Herald reported the eviction of Montague and Mabel Channell and their five children, all under the age of five, from their privately-rented home in Kensington. A century on, Shelter reports that one in four households are at risk of homelessness by private landlords.

Over the next few months the Channell family lived in cramped conditions at Mabel’s mother’s abode in West Brompton. Montague appealed to the Royal Borough of Kensington authorities for suitable accommodation. On 30 October, on the absurd grounds that the West Brompton house was overcrowded, they turfed the Channell family onto the streets where clearly there was much more living space! Meanwhile, two thousand properties remained empty in the borough. Official morality had changed little in Kensington by the time of the Grenfell tragedy nearly one hundred years later.

Montague’s Fleet Street parade came to an abrupt end when he was arrested for obstruction. The whole family was herded to Vine Street Police Station where they were treated like criminals. They were searched and then locked up in cells. Ignoring Montague’s and Mabel’s protestations, the police inspector and Poor Law authorities arranged the family’s incarceration in Kensington Workhouse. Released on probation, Montague was unrealistically given just three days to find alternative accommodation or face the separation of his family within Kensington Workhouse.

Montague refused to become an inmate. His threat to expose the social injustices and callous treatment meted out to him if he were prosecuted on the obstruction charge compelled the Workhouse Guardians to agree to tenancy status for his family. Yet on their first day of incarceration the authorities reneged on the agreement and sought to impose the usual penal methods, including dressing in workhouse clothes and the separation of the family. While Montague was out seeking new employment, it was Mabel who valiantly continued the fight for tenancy status within Kensington Workhouse, successfully keeping the family together with the provision of two small rooms to rent.

In May 1920 Mable gave birth to a sixth child, Evelyn. Mabel had initially refused referral to the workhouse infirmary for fear of being separated from her other children. Lacking any compassion at a time of great concern for Evelyn’s health the Workhouse Guardians gave Montague and Mabel a month’s notice terminating the tenancy arrangement, with the ultimatum that the family either find alternative accommodation, or be separated and become regular inmates of Kensington Workhouse. Soon after the ultimatum Evelyn died from infantile debility, aged just five weeks. At the end of the month the Guardians still insisted the family must become inmates, but Mabel’s vehement protests left the matter unresolved.

In January 1921 Montague was compelled to apply for outdoor poor relief because his unemployment benefit, which included nothing for his family, was wholly inadequate. This was refused on the ground that he was living in Kensington Workhouse. Without food and hungry, Montague then applied to Kensington’s medical officer of health for milk at reduced cost, but this too was refused for the same reason.

Desperate, Montague stole five pints of milk from the doorstep of a posh house, intentionally in sight of two police officers. As Montague expected, he was immediately arrested and taken to Kensington Police Station. Montague’s subsequent Court hearing was reported in several newspapers, including the Daily Herald, Leicester Evening Mail and Hull Daily Mail. All quoted what Montague had told the police when he was arrested: “I took the milk for my wife and five children. I cannot see them starve, and I have nothing whatever to give them”. The papers also reported the findings of a police officer who went to their workhouse accommodation and discovered there was no food, and the children were sitting around a table waiting for their father to bring home some milk for their breakfast. Montague was bound over for twelve months, and given some temporary relief out of the poor box.

The media publicity resulted in people regularly sending food parcels to Mabel at Kensington Workhouse, greatly assisting the family for more than four months. This infuriated the Guardians, as did the fact that other inmates followed the Channell family’s lead, and successfully demanded tenancy status.

Piqued, Kensington Workhouse authorities vindictively resolved to eject their tenants. Montague and Mabel were targeted first for their role in leading the assault on the institution’s rules. Despite Mabel now expecting another child, the Court granted an ejectment order, to take effect one month after the birth. Lilian was born on 9 May 1921. Two months later, impervious to Lilian’s bronchitis diagnosis, the Court Bailiff turned the family onto the streets, making them homeless for the third time in two years.

The family returned to Mabel’s mother’s home, and Montague reapplied for outdoor relief. The Guardians again refused, insisting the only relief available for the family was re-entering Kensington Workhouse as inmates. Montague replied that a body of people capable of turning a baby suffering from bronchitis into the streets was not capable of taking care of his family. After three months, Montague found a room for his family in a deprived area of Kensington.

In the meantime Montague’s personal unemployment benefit had ceased. The scheme introduced under the National Insurance Act of 1911 was inadequate to cope with the large-scale unemployment that followed the end of the first world war. After an initial post-war expansion of the scheme, by early 1922 seeking-work and means tests had been introduced aimed at restricting benefit payments. At a time when over two million workers (one in five) had no employment, Montague’s appeal against the ending of his benefit was refused on the spurious grounds that he was not seeking full time employment, despite providing officials with evidence of his job applications.

With all income stopped, and the Channell family in a wretched situation, Montague sold or pawned all that remained of their household goods in order to buy food for the family. Montague also appealed again to the Guardians for relief, eventually securing nine shillings (45p) worth of food a week for four weeks. Mabel, ignoring the Guardians’ stipulation that this was to be consumed by her alone, shared the food with her children.

Mabel was also subsequently granted three tins of Nestle’s milk per week for her youngest child, on the condition that none of it was to be consumed by Mabel or the other children. To add to the family’s already desperate situation the education authorities ended free school meals for the older children, again to put pressure on the Channell family to re-enter Kensington Workhouse as inmates.

The level of cruelty and vindictiveness displayed by the authorities to the Channell family may seem incredulous to some readers today, but the remit of local Boards of Guardians was to keep down costs by restricting relief or by forcing the unemployed and their families into workhouses. Today the DWP still penalises the poor with sanctions resulting in benefits being either cut or stopped.

Montague was active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM), which in the immediate post-war period was based on direct action by local unemployed groups campaigning on issues affecting the unemployed, including homelessness, opposition to the workhouses and pressing for more generous welfare payments.

Both the Daily Herald and Workers’ Dreadnought regularly reported on local NUWM activities, including in Greenwich where a meeting of the Guardians was occupied to force the board to grant one hundredweight of coal to those in receipt of relief, and in Southwark where the local workhouse was ransacked for food.

The local NUWM probably assisted Montague with the Fleet Street placard, and possibly provided legal guidance during this traumatic time for his family. It is likely that Montague also became a member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Communist Workers’ Party, which was formed after she had been expelled from the newly formed Communist Party a year earlier for refusing to hand over control of Workers’ Dreadnought, though there were also fundamental political differences. (See Sylvia Pankhurst: A Pioneer Socialist Feminist, in Socialism Today No.245, February 2021)

Montague and Mabel’s story in Law and Authority ends on a cliff edge. In September 1922 they received an eviction notice for non-payment of rent.

The first paragraph of Law and Authority still resonates: “The case of Montague Channell and his struggle to maintain a home for his family should cause those who live in comfortable ease, confident that all is well with this twentieth-century civilisation, to catch a glimpse of the injustice upon which the foundations of society are built”.

Much has changed in Britain since the pamphlet’s publication, yet one hundred years later the foundations of society are still built on injustice, with homelessness and poverty endemic. Few would venture to proclaim all is well with twenty-first century capitalism.

In January 1924 the Workers’ Dreadnought recommended the Law and Authority pamphlet to its readers. The article’s socialist conclusion that “the end of this hideous private property system is, indeed, overdue” remains as pressing as ever.

Montague and Mabel Channell were my grandparents. Law and Authority will be republished with a new extensive introduction and postscript.