Harry Dorrell (B.1903): Politics, Protest & Class

‘All it meant then and will mean again, and it is with me stronger than our defeat at the hands of shabby men.’ (52)

http://the-east-end.co.uk/the-sidney-street-siege/
An image taken during the Sidney Street Siege – featuring Churchill. 

 

Harry had a keen interest in politics, particularly in work place politics such as trade unions. The presence of politics is evident in his memoir from the very start when his brothers dared him to throw a lump of coal at the leader of a campaigning procession (Mr. Charrington), during the regular Sunday procession condemning ‘the demon drink’ (4) and encouraging ‘the virtues of abstinence’ (4). This also brings up the issue of class. Harry says Mr. Charrington was brave to condemn alcohol in Bethnal Green because ‘he was attacking the only warm and comforting and besotting means of forgetting the abject poverty and degradation’ (4). We can see here the idea of alcohol as a necessity in working class lives, and this is something that Mr. Charrington and people outside of the life of poverty could not understand.

Harry also witnessed The Sidney Street Siege, when police were brought into the East End to arrest two Latvian revolutionaries; an event that generated controversy that would live on in the history of the East End. As a child Harry ‘waited excitedly with the excited crowd for the gun to fire’ (12). When it did not he got bored and went home. However, looking back on the event when writing the memoir he brings up ‘the sheer idiocy of bringing the artillery to break the siege’ (12) because the repercussion from the huge ‘cannon’ (12) ‘would have shattered all the windows in that street at the very least’ (12). This suggests that the effects the siege would have on the community on and surrounding Sidney Street were not considered. Harry touches on the unstable nature of history with his comments on the siege because the people involved were reported as ‘supposed desperadoes, or revolutionaries, or burglars, according to the mixture of reports remaining confused to this day’ (12). We can see from this that the motivations of the men were never quite clear. From my own searches it seems that the most recent explanation of the events is that two or three of the men responsible for the Houndsditch Murders, an attempted burglary that ended in death, were reported to be hiding out in Sidney Street. 200 police officers cordoned off the area, and later The Scots Guard were sent in by Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time. From a modern perspective the response of 200 police officers to two or three men seems excessive. This may be one of the reasons the event sparked a major political row, particularly over the involvement of Churchill.

Throughout his life Harry was a member of different unions such as ‘the Warehousemen and Shop Assistants union’ (40) and later the ‘Tobacco Workers Union’ (47) (TWU). He also published a discussion sheet called ‘The Wessex Bulletin’ (62) for Left Book Club members. He was a part of a few strikes which were generally lost because they ‘overlooked the subservience of the employees who, though they had everything to gain, failed to support the strike’ (48). Although it is true that the workers had everything to gain from the strikes, they also had a lot to lose if they lost their jobs as a consequence, as Harry, Harry Dove and Bert Franklin did.

Harry also gives us a first-hand view of the General Strike (1926) in his memoir, although his account is a little unclear. He says ‘we believed we would win. We trusted the trade union leaders’ (51) and goes on to talk about ‘betrayal’ (52) and ‘incompetence’ (52) from TUC leaders who went ‘grovelling and pleading with Stanley Baldwin’ (52) to get them ‘off the hook of their own devising’ (52). Harry says that ‘the despair and frustration of those days’ (52) ‘could only be experienced, not written about’ (52). Harry felt that the results of the strike harmed the trade union movement and that ‘that harm has taken a couple of generations to work through’ (52). Even after all that time it still held great significance to him. He says ‘what stays with me most is the memory of that sunny May Day and all it meant then and will mean again, and it is with me stronger than our defeat at the hands of shabby men.’ (52)

 

Dorrell, Harry, ‘Falling Cadence: An autobiography of failure’, TS, pp.161 (c.97,000 words). Fragment published in the POEU Journal, Aug 1983. BruneI University Library. AWC- 2:0231

For footage of the Sidney Street Siege visit http://www.britishpathe.com/video/london-sidney-street-siege

http://the-east-end.co.uk/the-sidney-street-siege/

Rumbelow, Donald. The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street. Stroud: History, 2009.

 

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