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Left-wing veteran Tony Benn unveils plaque to 1381 Peasants’ Revolt that saw Highbury Manor burnt down

17 June, 2011

Published: 17th June, 2011
by ANDREW JOHNSON

THE tradition of dissent in Islington bubbled to the surface on Saturday when a crowd of about 200 people cheered as they heard the tale of a banker’s house being burned to the ground.

They were listening to the story of the Peasants’ Revolt, as told by veteran left-wing politician and former Cabinet minister Tony Benn and Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn.

Mr Benn was unveiling a green plaque on the wall of the Highbury Barn pub to commemorate the uprising in 1381 when thousands of peasants, in revolt against high taxes, converged on Highbury and caused mayhem.

The rebels beheaded Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, who was in charge of collecting the poll tax. He was Prior of St John in Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, which was destroyed before the 20,000 insurgents burned his plush home, Highbury Manor, to the ground.

Mr Benn, smoking his trademark pipe and looking sprightly despite his 86 years, climbed onto a bench to make his speech in which he likened the revolt of 630 years ago to current events in the Middle East.

“What happened here in 1381 is what is happening in Egypt today and all over the Arab world,” he said. “People are standing up for their rights. They are not going to be oppressed by dictators. The Peasants’ Revolt was the first of a long series of campaigns to secure freedom and democracy in Britain. We haven’t finished yet. There’s a lot to do.”

He explained how the Peasant’ Revolt was triggered by a freeze on agricultural labourers’ wages. Because the Black Death had killed a huge number of workers, wages were rising at the time.

“In order to stop the wages going up, the government introduced the first-ever pay policy – the Statute of Labourers,” he said. “The government got in an economic mess and so introduced the poll tax, the most unfair of all taxes. Everyone has to pay the same amount so the poor end up paying the majority of it. 

“The Reverend John Ball said at the time: ‘This will not go well in England until all things are held in common. Why should the rich be rich and the poor be poor – where in the Bible will you find the story of a gentleman? Where is the authority for a class-ridden society?’”

He added that the revolt was the first campaign for social justice which secured democracy and fairness, along with the Civil War, the Chartists, the Suffragettes and “the great 1945 revolution”. 

“The great lesson of this is that if you want justice you have to do it yourself,” he said. “You can’t wait for someone else to do it for you. Every generation has to fight the same battles. If you don’t stand up and fight everything will be taken away from you. 

“The Peasants’ Revolt was about the ownership of land. The land was owned in common but then it was enclosed and sold off. The wealth was in the land and that’s why we have the society we have today. Most people sweat their guts out but the wealth is held by a handful of people.”

Earlier, Mr Corbyn had introduced his “old friend” Mr Benn. The MP described the Peasants’ Revolt as part of Islington’s tradition of dissent. 

“Why did the peasants march here?” he asked. “Because they were tourists? Because they hadn’t seen London before? They did it because they were poor and angry at the injustices of the time. 

“They came to Highbury Barn because one of the people who had instituted the poll tax lived here in a big moated house. They thought it was better if he didn’t live in a moated house so they came here and burned it down.

“If you read the history of Islington you can read the history of Britain. Tom Paine wrote the Rights of Man here, and Mary Wollstonecraft the Rights of Woman. The women’s suffrage movement… the dissenters to the First World War met in their tens of thousands in Highbury Park, to ask why should the workers of Great Britain kill the workers of Germany? 

“We owe so much to those who have lain down their lives in struggle so we might enjoy the right to disagree, the right to dissent and the right to change things.”

The plaque is the first of five Islington People’s Plaques voted for by more than 3,000 residents. 

Islington Council’s Labour leader Catherine West was also present. “The Peasants’ Revolt is a famous part of British history but isn’t always recognised as a part of Islington’s history, which is why residents wanted to see it acknowledged,” she said.

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