Plaistow land grabbers dig in

Men standing on the waste ground which became known as "Triangle Camp" with Cunningham on the left w

Men standing on the waste ground which became known as "Triangle Camp" with Cunningham on the left wearing a white hat - Credit: Archant

Gardeners have been cultivating Newham’s soil for generations, whether in one of the borough’s parks, in their gardens or in an allotment.

For some green-fingered folk the planting of cabbages, beans and brussels sprouts has even been an act of protest.

In July 1906 a band of men led by Benjamin Cunningham, a coal trader and councillor, occupied a piece of wasteland in Plaistow to protest against a rise in unemployment following the Boer War.

Cunningham was moved by the plight of the working man and angry about how those who wanted to work were described as idle scroungers.

So with a group of men aged between 25 and 66, he set up a work camp on a patch of ground owned by the West Ham Corporation between North Street Passage and St Mary’s Road. They started to dig the soil and sow seeds in triangle shaped beds.

It became known as “Triangle Camp” with the slogan “What will the harvest be?” daubed in white paint across a rear boundary wall.

Plaistow’s land grabbers soon set up their own “Triangle Hotel”, a makeshift tent to house the novice gardeners – many of whom were middle-aged with families to feed and support.

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A camp flag was raised and a band was set up with the men and supporters entertaining themselves with sing-alongs.

Their cause gained the backing of hundreds of people including the local MP Will Crook, playwright George Bernard Shaw and Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines. All were united in support of the men – who would work a full shift to show their willingness to work – donating food, seeds and money.

“As a protest it was quite a spectacle. The men were creative and imaginative and made the protest fun,” said the University of Stirling’s John Field, author of Working Men’s Bodies.

West Ham Corporation, the council at the time, viewed the men as squatters and through the courts a notice was served telling them to get off the corporation’s land. When it was delivered, Cunningham set fire to it.

Ratcheting up the pressure, the corporation sent in its own officers led by George Blain, who actually gave money to the men when he arrived.

The second attempt was thwarted when 3,000 supporters turned out to block the eviction. But a third attempt succeeded after the council’s officers and police arrived in even greater numbers.

Cunningham and some of his followers were put in prison for contempt of court. By August 4 the protest was over.

The leader and his men knew a spectacle would gain their cause more attention. Mr Field says: “He seemed to have had a touch of the Ken Livingstone about him. He seems to have had a sense of drama which gave the protest wider appeal. And afterwards he went on stage at the Palace Theatre in Bow to reenact the story. It was pretty popular, running for several nights.

“It’s one of the few protests at the time which took on the view the unemployed are scroungers. Most work camps were set up for the unemployed and not by them as with the Plaistow land grabbers.

“The problem wasn’t that they were idle. It was the lack of jobs.”