How the Isle of Dogs 10 day revolution gained global attention and forced Tower Hamlets Council to recognise the plight of 10,000 islanders.
Walking down Westferry Road in the Isle of Dogs, known locally as “the island” since the 19th century, it is hard to imagine that this was once a site of revolution. But on 1 March 1970, Ted Johns, a Labour Councillor, and hundreds of supporters marched down this road and barricaded it, along with the road bridge over the entrance to the West India Docks.
Traffic was halted and people were prevented from entering or leaving the island, except for those going to the hospital. As the barricades were erected cutting the island off from the rest of London, freedom songs were sung, and it was announced that the Isle of Dogs was now an independent state.
Johns and his supporters were demonstrating about Tower Hamlets Council’s neglect of the Isle of Dogs over a period of years. When interviewed about this at the time, Johns explained the reasoning behind the revolution:
‘The idea is that the Senate Leaders on the Island have decided that in view of the fact the authorities have ignored the problems of the island for many years, that they would take over the Island in effect and could take over and run the island.’
The actions taken on that day were extreme, but the people’s grievances were not unfounded. For years the residents of the island had been trying to get Tower Hamlets Council to improve the services on the island.
‘Tenant leaders over the years have been writing letters, sending deputations, receiving visitors from outside, telling us what’s going to be done, but it never is done,’ said Johns.
Johns and his freedom fighters complained that there were not enough shops, healthcare facilities, schools, and transport. The island was served by a single bus route to get to and from the island. Children as young as five were being made to leave the Island to attend school. Promised road improvements never took place, despite fatal accidents.
Johns and his fellow campaigners had carried out this act of protest in order to shine a light on the neglect Tower Hamlets Council had shown to the islanders for years.
What they did not plan for was for this act of civil disobedience to capture the attention of both the national and international media, who descended on this forgotten island and dubbed Johns the President of the Isle of Dogs and his council flat in Skeggs House, Government House.
The nation’s interest in the independence movement was so great that on 2 March 1970, Johns was smuggled into Broadcasting House to be interviewed by Jack De Mario for BBC Radio 4.
Johns now unexpectedly had the nation’s ear and used this opportunity to make clear to all that he was no extremist, but the people of the Isle of Dogs have realised their power and they would not be afraid to wield it to get what they needed from now on.
‘Quite honestly today we’re going to let traffic through on the island and off, this is going to be an open day. We are going back to normality. But what we are telling the authorities, as we’re telling everybody, in fact, is that this is our island and we live there and we can take it over at any time.’
Despite Johns’ deep commitment to improving living conditions on the Isle of Dogs, he did appreciate both the humour and absurdity in the way events were unfolding.
‘The thing is that we have deliberately set out with a sense of great humour.’
I think people are laughing and I don’t think they are laughing at us, I think they are laughing with us,’ said Johns.
You can see what life was like in an independent Isle of Dogs from this news report.
The people of Britain were not alone in their fascination with President Johns. The island had also been featured in Pravda, a Soviet newspaper. The Soviet reporter Uri Gorestov was in sympathy with the island’s new Citizen Council as it was clear to him that the ‘proletariat working class are being neglected.’
The level of deprivation of the Isle of Dogs was made clear when Gorestov said: ‘I would not like to live there, neither I think, would the members of the Greater London Council.’
Some may have viewed the islanders as proletariat brothers in arms and others saw them as a ‘jolly joke’, but there were many others who were neither supporters nor amused.
Some local women complained that Johns had made them a ‘laughing stock of the country’ and another described Johns as ‘a complete idiot.’
John’s fellow Labour councillor Bill Willson, who was opposed to independence, described the situation as ‘poppycock, quite honestly it’s poppycock.’
On 9 March, an official Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was issued and two Prime Ministers were elected, John Westfallen and Ray Paget.
Both Ministers were well acquainted with life on London’s Docks as one was a lighterman and the other a stevedore; both of these occupations connected to the area’s historic shipping industry.
Yet only eight hours after this proclamation some residents were signing ani-independence petitions and calling for the outside intervention of Bob Searle, who spoke on behalf of Ian Mikardo, the Member of Parliament for Poplar.
Searle expressed his concerns about the UDI:
‘I think that many of the older people who really don’t understand the situation are genuinely frightened that the borough council will not supply the facilities to which they’re accustomed.’
‘If they go on as they are now there will be a distinct division in the island, it may lead to a punch–up and bloodshed and that is something we don’t want.’
The tension on the island was indeed rising, but the risk the Citizen Council had taken had in fact paid off. Demands had been made to both Tower Hamlets Council and the Prime Minister and they had finally been heard.
The Council acknowledged that the island’s isolation was a problem and put forward a plan to address the islander’s concerns and promised to get to work in a matter of months.
On 10 March, the Citizens Council welcomed Tower Hamlets Council’s plans for investment and improvement and with this, just ten days after the barricades first went up, the independence of the Isle of Dogs came to an end.
Although independence was short-lived, the island’s defiance paved the way for other protests including an assault on the Greater London Council headquarters, during which goats and other animals were set loose in the corridors of County Hall. A similar assault on parliament was defeated close to the House of Commons, where Johns and his colleagues were arrested, though never charged.
On the day independence was declared on the island, the power of the average person was felt and as promised by the authorities the the Isle of Dogs saw a huge influx of investment due to the Canary Wharf development. The development brought with it many benefits, unfortunately these where not enjoyed by the local population, many of whom where moved to Beckton where they had to rebuild their lives.
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