Working Class Pride Worldwide
The history of our end of East Oxford is steeped in stories of heroism, resistance, self-sacrifice and collective struggle in the cause of freedom, yet if you relied on the school curriculum and most of the history books you’d be forgiven for believing we have nothing to be proud of. Much has been done over recent years to undermine our once proud working-class communities, from unfair housing policies, to the promotion of selfish individualism personified, at street level, by the county-lines drug dealer who profits off the vile abuse of children and the misery of others. The vast majority of Blackbird Leys residents are good, decent people, but unfortunately, the lumpen, anti-social minority receive most of the attention. Yet things were not always this way, as the following article explains, and there is no reason on earth, that we couldn’t and shouldn’t work together to isolate the selfish few for the benefit of the rest of the community.
Rebels, orphans and freedom fighters
From the moment the first housing was occupied in Blackbird Leys (then Cowley) at the tail end of 1958, our estate has been home to people from a wide variety of backgrounds who have come together as one community.
Some of the first residents to arrive came from established, tightly-knit communities in the city centre as casualties of what town planners dismissively labelled ‘slum clearances’ as well as from temporary housing at the abandoned army barracks at Slade Camp.
Others came to the area to work at the Cowley car plant from rural Oxfordshire, a county steeped in rebel history. They included some whose recent ancestors had faced the hangman or transportation to Australia for their activism. Otmoor, just seven miles from Blackbird Leys, had witnessed a major rebellion in 1830-31 over attempts by the University and Clergy to enclose the moor where the fiercely independent local villagers grazed their geese and livestock. This revolt saw inner city residents and rural communities work together against the common enemy, culminating in a successful skirmish at St Giles’ Fair where soldiers were forced to free Otmoor rebels they were attempting transport to Oxford Prison. A number of other nearby villages, including Nuneham Courtenay (three miles south of BB Leys), were involved in the ‘Captain Swing’ movement. Swing activists organised against the tithe system, which required payments to support the established Anglican Church; Poor Law guardians, who were accused of abusing their power over the poor; and rich tenant farmers who had been progressively lowering workers’ wages while cost cutting through the use of agricultural machinery. The Captain Swing disturbances represented the largest episode of political unrest in English history, with more than 3,000 cases of arson, attacks on authorities and machine-breaking across 45 counties. 644 activists were imprisoned, 505 transported to Australia, and 19 were executed.
Unemployed workers also made their way to Cowley and Blackbird Leys from the former industrial heartlands of Britain and Ireland, together with a number of proud Caribbeans answering the call for workers in ‘the Motherland’. Others found themselves in the city after being evacuated as children from London during the Second World War. These were joined by Italian and German internees who remained in East Oxford after being released from Slade Camp, and by orphans and foundlings from Nazareth House who had been shown the door upon reaching adulthood. A number of heroic Polish soldiers who fought with the allies against Nazism, before becoming exiles following the Stalinist occupation of their homeland, also settled here. In addition to these early Blackbird Leys and Cowley residents, came many individuals from other parts of the world, such as the lady who married an Oxford man and later moved with him to the estate, following a love-at-first sight encounter with her future husband when he was posted to her small village in Malta as a sailor in the Royal Navy in WW2.
The Fighting Spirit of East Oxford
The fighting spirit of East Oxford’s industrial working class can be traced back three decades before the bulk of Blackbird Leys was built – to 1934, to be precise. This was the year that saw the first strike for union recognition at the Pressed Steel factory (on the edge of what was to become Blackbird Leys). Pressed Steel supplied car bodies to Morris Motors, whose owner, William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) dominated the political landscape. Morris was fiercely anti-union. He was also a close friend and an early financial backer of Sir Oswald Mosley, the soon-to-be infamous leader of the British Union of Fascists. Morris funded Mosley’s first fascist party and showed his enthusiastic support when the BUF leader held meetings in Oxford City Centre.
Cowley soon expanded from a small village into a vast industrial centre and the population increased accordingly, through the influx of workers from depression-hit areas of the UK who came to seek work at the booming car plant. A number of the largest group of these impoverished migrants had made their way on foot and bicycle from the South Wales coalfields, where miners and their families were literally starving to death. The former miners’ brought with them a strong sense of industrial and community solidarity, born of the experience of working underground where their lives literally depended on each other. This soon pitched them at the forefront of the battle to improve wages and conditions at the Cowley car plant.
Pressed Steel Strike
The Pressed Steel Strike broke out on Friday 13th 1934 as a result of night-shift workers discovering that they had been underpaid, bringing to a head simmering tensions over piece-work wages. Workers pitched tents in Jonson’s field opposite the car factory where they received support from the family that ran Johnson’s Cafe. A young communist firebrand named Abe Lazarus arrived to help out (disregarding the lack of interest from the party leadership) and soon won the hearts of local people. Lazarus was born in London’s East End to Jewish and Irish parents. He had recently earned the nickname Bill Firestone through his involvement in a famous strike at the Firestone tyre factory in London. As he was facing police charges over picketing activities during the London strike (that were later dropped), he adopted the name Bill Firestone to avoid arrest when he first arrived in Oxford. The Pressed Steel strike was victorious with the factory management conceding to the strikers demands delivering a return to work with a guaranteed basic hourly rate, no victimization and full union recognition. Abe Lazarus/Bill Firestone, who had taken a job at the City of Oxford Motor Services (Oxford Bus Company), remained in the city, where he played an enthusiastic part in local working class campaigns, for a number of years. For some time, Abe lodged in Garsington Road, Cowley, (ironically facing the spot where the Nuffield Needle, a monument to his nemesis, now stands). At its peak, Abe’s Transport & General Workers Union, became one of the strongest industrial unions in the UK, with Cowley playing a major part in its success.
Both Abe Lazarus and a number of Welsh Cowley workers were at the forefront of the early resistance to fascism in the City, having played a pivotal role in crushing a meeting of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists at the Carfax Assembly Rooms in 1936. The Blackshirts were supported by local dignitaries from the University and local industry, including William Morris (who sat in the front row). While Cowley car and bus workers proudly took a stand against right-wing extremism, the elite openly paraded their support for fascism. At the time, in addition to the BUF, Oxford University had both German National Socialist and Italian Fascist societies.
As well as courageously fighting against Mosley’s Blackshirts, two Cowley based men, Alfred Smith, a Morris Motors worker, and Victor Claridge, a builder’s labourer, joined the thousands of working class volunteers who travelled to Spain with the British Battalion of the International Brigades to oppose General Franco’s fascist coup against the democratically elected Socialist government. Alfred, who had a metal plate in his head from the First World War, was 47 when he left for Spain – much older than most volunteers. Victor Claridge had previously travelled to Canada and the USA and received weapons training in the US National Guard. Like many US International Brigade volunteers, he had also been active in the Industrial Workers of the World – a militant industrial union in the USA that organised amongst low-paid, often immigrant labour. IWW members famously stood up to employers and their militia, and took up armed defence against attempts by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate its members. Claridge had been deported from the USA to the UK in 1930. In Spain, he was wounded at the Battle of Jarama (Feb 1937) and, after recovering, fought in the Battle of Brunete five months later, before being repatriated back to England for health reasons in October 1937.
The Longest Day
In World War 2, Cowley also played a proud part in one of the truly monumental episodes in the international fight against fascism. Slade Camp was used to train soldiers for ‘Operation Overlord’ (D Day), planned for June 6th 1944. ‘D’ Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who were based at Cowley Barracks, played a pivotal role in the success of the largest military operation in UK and US history.
D Company, a special unit of volunteers which was formed two years prior to D Day, was commanded by Major John Howard, who, unusually for an officer, came from a tough working class background and, prior to enlisting, worked as a beat copper on the streets of Oxford. Howard became great friends with the unit’s oldest Lieutenant and fellow Cockney Den Brotheridge. Both came up through the ranks. Both commanded deep respect from their men (at least a dozen of whom had lied about their age to enlist). Stephen E. Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers and Pegasus Bridge, paints a telling picture of the close relationship between officers and men, away from the gruelling discipline of the daily fitness regime necessary to produce such an elite squad: ‘Brotheridge stood out from the other officers. He played the men’s game, soccer, and as a former corporal himself, he had no sense of being ill at ease amongst the men. He would go into their barracks at night, sit on the bed of this batman, Billy Grey, and talk soccer with the lads. He got to bringing in his boots along and shining them as he talked. Wally Parr never got over the sight of a British lieutenant polishing his boots himself while his batman lay back on his bed gassing on about Manchester United and West Ham and other soccer teams.’
The specially created Airborne Division of the Ox & Bucks were tasked with ‘Operation Deadstick’, which entailed landing Horsa gliders behind enemy lines a few minutes after midnight on D Day, capturing two vital bridges to help secure Sword Beach from German heavy armoured divisions, and preventing the British 6th Airborne Division from being cut off from the rest of the Allied Armies. The Cowley-based unit, with the assistance of the heroic French Resistance, were the first soldiers to set foot on French soil on D Day. Den Brotheridge was the first man to lose his life. A few hours later, more soldiers from the Oxon & Bucks regiment landed by sea on the beaches of Normandy to play their own valiant role in the successful operation to liberate Europe from Nazi control. Cowley men attached to 249 (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Battery of the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, were also the first allied soldiers to enter and liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945.
Back home, the Cowley car plant was adapted for war work and Cowley Airfield (now the park at Blackbird Leys Bridge) became the HQ of No 1 Civilian Repair Unit, where 100s of damaged aircrafts, including Battle of Britain Hurricanes and Spitfires, were repaired.
So next time you pass over Blackbird Leys Bridge as the youngsters below are kicking a ball around on Cowley Airfield, spare a thought for the British and Polish fighters whose sacrifice won the Battle of Britain. When you pass by the Car plant think of the struggle and solidarity of those early workers, and their hunger march to Oxford from South Wales. When you approach the Nuffield Needle, think past the official history of William Morris, the great philanthropist, and dwell for a while on his fascist sympathies and on the fighting spirit of the young Abe Lazarus who opposed him. When you look at the factory from the ring road, remember those brave young men who trained for D Day at the Slade Camp and on the hills of Shotover, and while travelling out of Blackbird Leys, remember the villagers who risked the hangman’s noose or transportation to prison slavery in the blazing Australian sun, to stand up for their collective dignity.
This is just a summary of some of the proudest moments in our local working-class history and in time, we plan to focus on some of these particular stories in more depth. We would be happy to hear from residents that feel they may be able to add to our knowledge through their own research or family memories.
Whether you’ve lived in Blackbird Leys all your life or you’ve just moved to the area, if you share our interest in improving our community, please get in touch. It’s time to take inspiration from the past and pull together to take our communities back.
Blackbird Leys Community Spirit is a new organisation committed to promoting working-class pride, dignity and self-respect and to bringing together like-minded local residents.
Founding members of BBL Community Spirit include former members of the Blackbird Leys Independent Working Class Association, who have years of experience at the sharp end of community activism. The BBL IWCA was a grassroots organisation active on the estate from 1999 until it’s disbandment in 2017. The IWCA is best known for its high-profile community campaigns, most notably against drug dealing, and its youth work with the IWCA Athletics Club.