From Magna Carta to Malcolm X: sites that shaped British civil rights

UN year of Covid has pushed civil rights into the spotlight as never before. As fundamental freedoms to go outside and gather have been suspended, people have nonetheless taken to the streets to protest against racial inequality e il denial of Britain’s history of slavery, and to demand safe streets for women – and even the right to protest itself.

With the country slowly easing open following the winter lockdown, it feels an appropriate moment to look at travel through the prism of civil liberties, with a tour of the UK milestones on the road from feudalism to freedom. If you’ve ever wanted to pay your respects to Emily Pankhurst or the activists who helped propel racial equality laws through parliament, point your compass to these civil rights landmarks.

Anyone who thought women’s rights were done and dusted will have had a stark awakening in recent weeks. Manchester-born Emmeline Pankhurst may have set the dominos tumbling for women’s emancipation, but there are clearly major battles still to be fought. Nevertheless, this feels an apposite moment to revisit Pankhurst’s remarkable life.

The activist’s Manchester home at 62 Nelson Street now houses the excellent Pankhurst Centre, where visitors can perch in the parlour that hosted the first suffragette meeting. A short hop north on Peter Street, the Manchester Free Trade Hall was where the suffragette movement took its first piece of direct action, disrupting a Liberal election meeting in 1905. Pankhurst stands in statue form nearby in St Peter’s Square, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

Rather amazingly, it took until 2000 for the right to roam to be formally enshrined in law, but the movement to reclaim the countryside was kicked off by a brilliant piece of civil disobedience on the slopes of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. quando 400 ramblers and members of the Young Communist League trespassed on private grouse shooting land on 24 April 1932, it set the snowball rolling for the creation of Britain’s first national park and the foundation of the Pennine Way.

Today, the best place to start rambles on this wave-like ridge of exposed grassland is Edale. Come by train to minimise your carbon cost and get advice on routes at Edale’s turf-roofed Moorland Centre.

With its chocolate-box straggle of thatched houses, the sleepy Dorset village of Tolpuddle may not look like the setting for momentous events, but it was here in 1834 that six local agricultural workers created a “friendly society” to protest the lowering of wages. They were deported to Australia for their pains. The Tolpuddle Martyrs galvanised the movement for worker’s rights – even today, the Trades Union Congress hosts an annual bash in their honour every July.

Swing by, and you can pause under the sycamore tree where the rebels (who were pardoned in 1836) reportedly declared their secret oath, and drop into the free Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum to learn more about this landmark event in the rise of the trade union movement.

London was the beating heart of LGBTQ+ culture and protest long before gay rights made it on to the statute book. Gay clubs known as molly houses thrived as early as the 1720s in the streets around Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, but queer life continued to be perilous in the capital even after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967.

Soho’s Old Compton Street has celebrated many LGBTQ+ milestones, from the launch of Stonewall to gay marriage, but it’s also worth taking a stroll around Highbury Fields in the borough of Islington. Qui, the UK’s first gay rights demonstration pushed police harassment of the queer community on to the front pages in 1970 (look for the triangular plaque on the Bowlby Centre near Highbury Corner).

The significance of Malcolm X’s 1965 trip to Smethwick, just outside Birmingham, is often overlooked. Four months after a general election in which the Conservative MP won the seat with an openly racist campaign, and just nine days before Malcolm X was assassinated in New York, he visited Marshall Street, investigating claims of segregation in the Smethwick’s pubs and attempts to block non-whites from buying houses. The trip by the Muslim minister and human rights activist helped put segregation in the UK centre stage as the 1965 Race Relations Act was debated by parliament.

Today, visitors can celebrate how much Smethwick has changed at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (Sikh temple) on the High Street, named as one of the country’s 10 most important faith buildings by Historic England in 2018. Follow up with a pint and a blistering chana masala at the nearby Red Cow, one of the area’s growing number of Punjabi-owned Desi pubs.

Bristol has a long history of rebellion, from the 1831 Bristol Reform Riots to the toppling of slaver Edward Colston’s statue in 2020. But I’d single out a less-well-known act of resistance: il Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, when the Caribbean community shunned buses run by the Bristol Omnibus Company in protest at a bar on black drivers and conductors, starting a ripple that helped write the Race Relations Act into law.

Tip your hat at the plaque marking the event in Bristol bus station, then stop for a drink at the (since reformed) Bay Horse pub at Lewins Mead – boycott organiser, Paul Stephenson, famously refused to leave in 1965 after being refused service on race grounds – and contemplate the journey so far and the ground still to cover.

We tend to think of civil rights as a modern invention, but the UK has a long history of constitutional leaps forward. Magna Carta comes to mind, but an arguably more far-reaching document was the 1689 Bill of Rights, given royal assent by newly arrived Dutch-English monarchs William and Mary, which enshrined a prototype right to protest and transferred power from the palace to parliament.

The original document is in the archives of the Houses of Parliament, but you can gain a glimpse of not-your-average-monarchs William and Mary at Kensington Palace (entry £17), repurposed by Sir Christopher Wren as the couple’s London residence. Note the bust of philosopher John Locke, whose writings provided the impetus for William and Mary to sign away their privilege.

During the Highland Clearances, an estimated 70,000 Scottish tenant farmers were forcibly removed from their traditional family crofts, but some fought back. Residents of the Braes on the Isle of Skye burned their eviction notices in 1882, triggering a pitched battle with police officers – the Battle of the Braes – which swelled public sympathy for the crofters’ cause. Nel 1886, the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act was passed, guaranteeing security of land tenure for crofting families.

With B&Bs conveniently located in the village of Camustianavaig, the Braes today is one of Skye’s calmest corners, within striking distance of the Cuillin hills but with its own lovely walks up 424m Ben Tianavaig, offering dramatic views across Loch Portree. Keep your eyes peeled for seals, sea eagles and dolphins cavorting in the bay.

When King John of England was forced to agree to his barons’ demands set out in Magna Carta in 1215, it was the ember that started an 800-year-long conflagration of royal powers and privileges. For the first time, limitations were placed on the absolute power of the crown, and authority was invested in the people, though only as far down the social hierarchy as England’s nobility.

King John rode out from his castle at Windsor to seal the charter on the water meadows at Runnymede (free), now beautifully maintained for walkers by the National Trust. Alternatively, head to Salisbury, where the most immaculately preserved copy of the charter is displayed in the 13th-century Chapter House at Salisbury Cathedral (by donation).

Britain’s 19th-century Chartists didn’t achieve the same revolutionary transformation as their ideological precursors in France, but almost all their demands – universal suffrage, secret ballots, access for all to seats in parliament – later made it into law. The so-called Plug Plots of 1842 spread the agenda of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s labour”, as workers literally pulled the plugs on the boilers powering factories from Staffordshire to Lancashire.

Relive the plots in Preston, where cotton mill workers took to the streets before a deadly confrontation with police and soldiers outside Preston Corn Exchange – an event commemorated by the Preston Martyr’s Memorial on Lune Street. Nearby, Preston’s covered market occupies the site of Chadwick’s Orchard, where strikers gathered before their incendiary march from factory to factory.

The right to speak your own language is something most of us take for granted, but it wasn’t always that way in Wales. It took decades of protests and campaigning for the Welsh language to gain official recognition. The then Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans even threatened a hunger strike to pressure the government into launching the first Welsh-language TV station, S4C, which it did in 1980.

Take a drive between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen to revisit some of the most audacious pieces of direct action by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society. Aberystwyth’s Trefechan bridge was the site of the group’s first public sit-in in 1963; three ambitious protesters scaled the Preseli TV mast in 1971, and returned in 2011 to climb the nearby mast at Carmel to demand continued support for Welsh broadcasting.

The right to live free from violence is perhaps the most fundamental human right, but it can’t be summoned into existence with the swish of a pen. When the Peace Bridge opened in Derry in 2011, it became a powerful symbol of former adversaries finding common ground. The bridge links unionist Waterside and nationalist Cityside, and its two sloping pillars represent the coming together of the two communities.

Derry still has reminders of the Troubles – the Bloody Sunday memorial, the Free Derry murals – but the bridge over the Foyle is a monument to a different future, most obviously at New Year when the bridge erupts into a rainbow of fireworks. Or, when lockdown ends, join the crowds crossing for the Foyle Maritime festival (usually in July) or the City of Derry jazz festival in May.

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