‘Our history is the history of waves of migration’

Sean O’Donovan, a Labour councillor for Tottenham Hale ward, reflects on the borough’s history of migration and solidarity

Haringey immigration
Credit: Daniel Schludi

In a time when Tottenham, and particularly my ward of Tottenham Hale, is going through so many changes, it is vital that we record the history of the people who live here: capturing memories before it is too late, honouring the past but reminding ourselves that struggles for justice continue.

Our history is the history of waves of migration, both internal and external. The first mass arrivals in the early 1900s
in Tottenham were from the East End of London. Working-class men and women, Jewish and Irish people who had escaped persecution and poverty came to work in the factories of Tottenham Hale. In that harsh time of unending toil in factories, lack of food and decent homes, we saw the roots of our solidarity, our welcome to others and our fight for justice. It is that people’s history which is often unrecorded.

There is a rich history here of struggle by local workers. In 1906, Tottenham and Edmonton women from the
Eley Brothers factory went on strike against appalling health conditions and poor wages. They joined the newly formed National Federation of Women Workers.

During the depression of the 1930s, Tottenham people founded a very active local branch of the National Unemployed Movement. One of their tasks was to arrange large-scale food collection and distribution – something that is echoed today in our foodbanks. When in 1935 the Football Association (FA) ordered that a swastika flag should be flown over White Hart Lane during the England-Germany game, the people of Tottenham marched with their Jewish friends against fascism. It was a working-class young lad, Ernie Woolley, who climbed up to pull down the swastika. His name among many others should be remembered.

In the 1930s, the British Union of Fascists was active. In many areas of London, opposition was organised by representatives of numerous political and community organisations. Tottenham’s Marie Coghill recalled: “We
went to their meetings and gave out leaflets telling people how the fascists […] wanted to blame bad working conditions on immigrant workers. In those days it was the Jews.”

When the blackshirts planned to march on Cable Street in 1936, Jewish people, Londoners and Irish dock workers came together to stop them. Many were from Tottenham, and Mrs ‘Mitch’ Mitchell was one of them: “We from Tottenham had a very good contingent fighting the blackshirts […] there was solidarity among the people.”

After the war, fascist activity led to the formation of the 43 Group of Jewish ex-servicemen and women resolved to take action. Some of the key battles took place in Tottenham. In 1949, Moseley’s Union Movement planned to march from Dalston to West Green Road. Thousands of local anti-fascists, including the heroes of the 43 Group, gathered in Tottenham, and a bus was used to block the road. The police recognised that the fascists could not reach West Green and they were corralled behind Tottenham Town Hall. I’m sure to their disgust, if they had known, the fascists ended up defeated in the space now occupied by the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. No parasán – they did not pass!

Bruce Grove Museum and many other local history groups have done an amazing job recording the history of Tottenham, and I am indebted to them. However, there are still so many untold stories. Did your parents or grandparents live in Tottenham or work in the factories around Tottenham Hale? Did they
take part in community and trade union struggles, fight against fascism and racism, fight for the rights of women
and the unemployed? Equally important, do your family have stories of those acts of kindness and solidarity which made life bearable? How did your family manage in the bombing raids of the war and the rationing after?

The People’s Art and History Gallery planned as part of the new development around the Berol Pencil Factory in Tottenham Hale is somewhere this people’s history can be celebrated.

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