Newham, London: The Land Grabbers of Plaistow

A portacabin stands in the foreground, behind which is a high rise building and a series of trees. A large photographic image covers the wall of the portacabin, depicting the Plaistow land grabbers in their Victorian clothing.
  Photographic mural depicting the Plaistow Land Grabbers at Abbey Gardens today Courtesy of Somewhere

When

July – September 1906

Where

Newham, London

In mid-July 1906, a group of unemployed men occupied a patch of wasteland in Plaistow,  protesting against their lack of employment. They made a temporary settlement which they called Triangle Camp and created a garden they would work themselves. They painted a question on the wall which read ‘What Will the Harvest Be?’

Unemployed men squatted on a piece of empty land to prove that [they] really wanted to work…

Artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, creators of project What Will the Harvest Be?, 2009

Ben Cunningham, a member of the Social Democratic Federation and a councillor, was one of the group’s leaders.

Continually for many years, and more especially during the last few months, I have had this cry ringing in my ears – men whom I know, often with large families, saying to me when I met them, ‘Cannot you do something for us, Ben?’ or ‘When are you going to find us some work?’

Ben Cunningham, leader of the Land Grabbers of Plaistow, 1906

Donations of money, food, seeds and plants were received in support of the protesters’ cause. However, on 1 August a court ordered them to leave the land, which they had occupied for less than a month. Four thousand supporters gathered at the site, and when a council official asked the land grabbers to leave, he was asked for a donation (which he gave). He then left.


The protesters were eventually evicted on 4 August with Cunningham carried off shouting, ‘The land was for the people!’. The camp was dismantled and some of the men moved to a neighbouring site. Those who attempted to reoccupy the site were chased off by the police.
Police and local council officials were sent to stop the Land Grabbers from trying to return to the site in early September. Again, Cunningham was carried off. He said he was prepared to go to prison for the cause, claiming the council could not prove that they owned the land. He was imprisoned for returning to the site.

Cunningham was released in mid-October, promising not to reoccupy the land. Later, he appeared on stage at the Bow Palace theatre and music hall, to re-enact the land grab for local audiences.

What Will the Harvest Be?

Slogan painted by Plaistow Land Grabbers, 1906

Inspired by the protest of the Plaistow Land Grabbers, in 2009 artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie worked with the Friends of Abbey Gardens and Newham council to create a communal harvest garden and art project on a waste site. They titled their project What Will the Harvest Be? as a homage to the question posed by the protesters. The Friends of Abbey Gardens still run the garden for the local community.  

Flower and vegetable beds are shown in the foreground, behind there are trees, some low houses and a high rise building to the left hand side.
What Will the Harvest Be? at Abbey Gardens in 2009.
Courtesy of Somewhere

What Will The Harvest Be? Was a Somewhere project by artists Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope initiated by the Friends of Abbey Gardens and commissioned by Newham Council through Modus Operandi.

The project was developed with the support and vision of the Friends of Abbey Gardens (FOAG) and funding from the London Development Agency, Arts Council London and Newham Councillors Local Fund. The initial stage of the project was supported by the DLR art programme.

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