“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Monday, 9 September 2013

Radical Dorking? Some mistake surely.

Because Dorking lies at the heart of the Surrey Hills, the closest place for myself and Her Indoors to go for a tramp in the country, we tend to visit the little town fairly frequently. I can't really put my finger on the reason but I quite like the place. I think that "old fashioned" might be the best way of describing the town that, as far as I'm aware, is most famous for being home to a very handsome variety of poultry. We usually arrive after a long walk, look round the shops, marvel at the Oddfellows Hall and the existence of a large Labour Party HQ in this Tory heartland, drop in for a pint and get the bus home. But the other day we called into the small local museum and what an eye opener. I had no idea what a radical past Dorking had. Home of any number of radical dissenters and a Parliamentarian stronghold during the Civil War, many Dorking residents were well to the left of Cromwell. Later the town would provide safe haven for the Fifth Monarchy man Christopher Feake.
By the early decades of the 19th century the level of poverty among the labouring classes in the countryside surrounding Dorking became intolerable and 1830 was to see full scale riots as unemployed labourers descended on the town. The now quiet and respectable main street rang to the cry, "Bread or Blood" and the status quo was only restored when a platoon of cavalry was dispatched from the nearest garrison.
No doubt the majority of the gentry living in the big houses on the outskirts of Dorking held staunchly conservative views on society and politics. No so Frederick and Emmerline Pethwick-Lawrence. Emmerline was a principle members of the Women's Social And Political Union and their home near Dorking served as a recuperation centre for suffragettes who had endured forced feeding in prison. Later both Fredrick and Emmerline would be charged and found guilty of conspiracy to cause criminal damage and would themselves suffer forced feeding. There is an interesting piece on these life-long political activists on the Spartacus Education website.
Dorking was also home to the journalist John Langdon-Davis who wrote Behind The Spanish Barricades after his return from the civil war. Later he would join with fellow anti-facist Tom Winteringham in the early days of the Home Guard when this organisation was far more of a people's militia than we might think from watching Dad's Army. 
But if the town had a radical past is there a radical Dorking today with anarcho-syndicalists on the council estate and the local WI a hotbed of militancy? I would like to think so.

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