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The Stepney School Strike of 1971

August 16, 2011
by the gentle author

Forty years ago this Summer, eight hundred pupils went on strike in Stepney, demanding that their teacher, Chris Searle, be reinstated after the school fired him for publishing a book of their poetry. At a time of unrest, following strikes by postmen and dustmen, the children’s strike became national headline news and they received universal support in the press for their protest.

More than two years later, after the parents, the Inner London Education Authority, the National Union of Teachers, and even Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, came out in favour of Chris Searle, he got his job back and the children were vindicated. And the book of verse, entitled “Stepney Words” sold more than fifteen thousand copies, with the poems published in newspapers, and broadcast on television and read at the Albert Hall. It was an inspirational moment that revealed the liberating power of poetry as a profound expression of the truth of human experience.

Many of those school children – in their fifties now – still recall the event with great affection as a formative moment that changed their lives forever, and so when Chris Searle, the twenty-four-year-old student teacher of 1971 returned to the East End to recall that cathartic Summer and meet some of his former pupils, it was an understandably emotional occasion. And I was lucky enough to be there to hear what he had to say.

I grew up in the fifties and sixties, failed the eleven plus and I hated any kind of divisiveness in education, I saw hundreds of my mates just pushed out into menial jobs. So I got into a Libertarian frame of mind and became involved in Socialist politics. I was in the Caribbean at the time of the Black Power uprisings, so I had some fairly strong ideas about power and education. Sir John Cass Foundation & Redcoat School in Stepney was grim. It was a so-called Christian School and many of the teachers were priests, yet I remember one used to walk round with a cape and cane like something out of Dickens.

The ways of the school contrasted harshly with the vitality and verve of the students. As drama teacher, I used to do play readings but I found they responded better to poetry, and I was reading William Blake and Isaac Rosenberg to them, both London poets who took inspiration from the streets. So I took the pupils out onto the street and asked them to write about what they saw, and the poems these eleven-year-olds wrote were so beautiful, I was stunned and I thought they should be published. Blake and Rosenberg were published, why not these young writers? We asked the school governors but they said the poems were too gloomy, so they forbade us to publish them.

I showed the poems to Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Stepney, and he loved them. And it became evident that there was a duality in the church, because the chairman of the school governors who was a priest said to me, ‘“Don’t you realise these are fallen children?” in other words, they were of the devil. But Trevor Huddleston read the poems and then, with a profound look, said, “These children are the children of God.” So I should have realised there was going to be a bit of a battle.

There was even a suggestion that I had written the poems myself, but though I am a poet, I could not have written anything as powerful as these children had done. Once it was published, the sequence of events was swift, I was suspended and eight hundred children went on strike the next day, standing outside in the rain and refusing to go inside the school. I didn’t know they were going to go on strike, but the day before they were very secretive and I realised something was up, though I didn’t know what it was.

I didn’t have an easy time as a teacher, it was sometimes difficult to get their interest, and I had bad days and I had good days, and sometimes I had wonderful days. Looking back, it was the energy, and vitality, and extraordinary sense of humour of the children that got you through the day. And if, as a teacher, you could set these kids free, then you really did begin to enjoy the days. It gave me the impetus to remain a teacher for the rest of my life.

I tried to get the kids to go back into the school.

Tony Harcup, a former pupil of Chris Searle’s and now senior lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield University, spoke for many when he admitted, “It was one of the proudest days of my life, it taught me that you can make a stand. It was about dignified mutual respect. He didn’t expect the worst of us, he believed everyone could produce work of value. He opened your eyes to the world.”

During the two years Chris was waiting to be reinstated at the school, he founded a group of writers in the basement of St George’s Town Hall in Cable St. Students who had their work published in “Stepney Words” were able to continue their writing there, thinking of themselves as writers now rather than pupils. People of different ages came to join them, especially pensioners, and they used the money from “Stepney Words” to publish other works, beginning with the poetry of Stephen Hicks, the boxer poet, who lived near the school and had been befriended by many of children.

“Stepney Words” became the catalyst for an entire movement of community publishing in this country, and many involved went on to become writers or work in related professions.“The power to write, the power to create, and the power of the imagination, these are the fundamentals to achieve a satisfied life,” said Chris, speaking from the heart, “and when you look back today at the lives of those in the Basement Writers, you can see the proof of that.”

The story of the Stepney school strike reveals what happens when a single individual is able to unlock the creative potential of a group of people, who might otherwise be considered to be without prospects, and it also reminds us of all the human possibility that for the most part, remains untapped. ” I just want to thank the young people that stood up for me” declared Chris Searle with humility, thinking back over his life and recalling his experiences in Stepney, “How could you not be optimistic about youth when you were faced with that?”


Returning to the East End forty years after the school strike, teacher Chris Searle reads one of the original poems from Stepney Words,”Let it Flow, Joe.”, with some of his former pupils.

A current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, entitled This is Whitechapel contains publications by the Basement Writers and  it runs until September 4th.

You might like to read about

Stephen Hicks, the Boxer Poet

and King Sour DA MC, Rapper of Bethnal Green.

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Tony permalink
    August 16, 2011

    Nice piece about Saturday’s event, thanks for helping spread the word about these events. All the best, Tony.

  2. August 16, 2011

    Seems like a whole different world back then, when kids would take to the streets for the right to be poets. A very fascinating story.

  3. Alan permalink
    August 16, 2011

    It was different, but it wasn’t that nice. A bombed and bulldozed East London was facing the closure of the docks as strikes divided the nation and gangs still roamed the streets – except they were skinheads. Sir John Cass was no Grange Hill either, but Chris Searle, as the Gentle Authors describes, made many of his children feel like they were valued, for what they were and what they might become – so they paid him back.

  4. jeannette permalink
    August 17, 2011

    this, and boxing clubs, is the answer, as we have discovered here in america, where most youth crime takes place between the end of school and the arrival home of one’s single parent, female, from the job to which she commutes up to four hours a day on unreliable public transportation.

    where there is midnight basketball (indoors, so the gangs — we have real ones — don’t shoot you), and after school programs for kids, crime drops precipitously.

    god bless.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/12/riot-predict-trouble-not-over?INTCMP=SRCH

  5. Joan permalink
    August 17, 2011

    I was really surprised to see the date on this piece as I remember the strike very well, despite being only 7 at the time. I suspect that that is because we lived next door to John Cass school and I remember my parents (especially my dad, having been educated by Christian brothers in Ireland) being scandalised by the ‘goings on’ at the school. My mother would tell you that because of unruly behaviour at the school we couldn’t have milk delivered (it was supposedly thrown off the balconies by kids riding the lifts in the lunch hour), but this may well be urban myth. I only know that if my children (and my sons are at a wrongly ill-regarded community comprehensive in the East End) came across a teacher like Chris Searle (and I suspect that the legacy of teachers like him means that they do) I would be delighted. And I do remember as a rebellious teenager (horrified now to realise what I put my parents through!) being very proud and informed about the radical tradition of the East End. Having the dockers’ leader Jack Dash living upstairs in our flats meant that there was no way that I could remain ignorant!

    There are, of course, many individuals seeking to make opportunities available for youngsters in our areas. The last few weeks have seen my children attending – free of charge – London Borough of Newham summer schools. They’ve had a week of poetry, a week of chess and this week are buzzing with an introduction to philosophy. I know that Tower Hamlets runs a similar scheme.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  6. Tony permalink
    August 17, 2011

    Interesting post from Joan which mentions Jack Dash (above). Jack Dash was, I believe, very supportive of Chris Searle’s efforts at publishing the children’s poems in the first place, and he later turned up to at least one of the Basement Writers’ public events at the Half Moon Theatre in 1974 when he treated us to some of his own verse.

    As Alan says in his post (above), the strike wasn’t so much about poetry, it was about repaying and defending someone who had got into difficulty for valuing and respecting us, the so-called ‘fallen children’. It’s rather an old fashioned word, but it was an act of solidarity.

  7. Joan permalink
    August 17, 2011

    That doesn’t surprise me about Jack Dash, Tony. He was a man with a very real hinterland. I remember him exhibiting his paintings in the Whitechapel Open Exhibition. My mum and dad – the latter formed by Catholic anti-Communism, were very respectful of Jack Dash despite their very different politics. He lived on the 15th floor and we lived on the 13th until being rehoused to a low rise flat when I was 16. I’m sure that without all those lift conversations about the importance of working class education I wouldn’t have gone to university and got a PhD in politics.

    Gosh the Half Moon theatre – that brings back memories, at least in its Mile End incarnation. All the McGann brothers in Yakety Yak in particular. I feel sad every time I pass it now that it’s a Weatherspoons.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  8. Alan permalink
    August 18, 2011

    Chris encouraged me to draw cartoons too Joan, and I ended up doing the programme for Yakety Yak!

  9. Joan permalink
    August 18, 2011

    Alan, just in case you don’t know, your programme can be seen online:

    http://www.mcgannlibrary.org/bb/viewtopic.php?p=1122&sid=012dab2752c12a49eed01c672351e7a4

    Happy memories!

    Joan

  10. Roger permalink
    August 19, 2011

    Gosh, when you look at pictures like this you are really surprised at how quickly the demographics of the area have changed.

  11. August 19, 2011

    Saturday was a specially nostalgic day for me, being asked to take part was a pleasure, seeing so many familiar faces from the past. I remember the march in the local papers, it made a big impression on me then, little did I know how later it would also change my life, what wonderful memories it brought back.
    Seeing the film of ’84 made me smile, and of course as all Basement meetings ended up, in the pub. thank you Chris Searle for enriching my life.

  12. August 23, 2011

    I really love your blog … You achieve a social historian’s perspective in many of your posts, while others are simply amusing — your cat — or pleasing … as you teach me more about the East End of London.

    Thank you very much.

  13. Ree permalink
    September 5, 2011

    One of the best London blogs I’ve come across… Endlessly interesting subjects…

  14. Mo C permalink
    January 31, 2012

    I went to the school but left to start work a year before this happened. It was a good school but the headmaster was very set in his ways. If he thought poems were bad because of certain words then he had to be very narrow minded. It nearly destroyed a very good teacher.

  15. Rivonia permalink
    March 17, 2012

    Joan,
    You knew Jack Dash. Do let me know more. I am fascinated by him, not least since I am descended from dockers. I am also a long-time member of the TGWU (now Unite) and I have a keen interest in labour and social history.

  16. Dave Bishop permalink
    July 22, 2012

    I am presently researching a book on the Sir John Cass strike (with the full co-operation of Chris Searle) and would welcome any memories, quotes, pictures, information etc. from anybody involved in the strike who may be able to help me with my project. I am also looking to reproduce some of the poetry from “Stepney Words” and am looking for pupils who originally had their work included in this to give me permission to use some of their poems at the end of the new book. Please contact me if you can help in any way. All contributions will be acknowledged and included upon publication.

  17. JONATHAN SMITH permalink
    October 23, 2012

    FOND MEMORIES OF CHRIS SEARLE AT LANGDON PARK SCHOOL IN POPLAR AFTER HE CAME FROM ST JOHNS CASS WHERE I WAS REFUSED TO GO BECAUSE OF MY RELIGION IN THOSE DAY HE WAS MY FORM TEACHER GIVE HIM MY KIND REGARDS ALTHOUGH IAM 50 NOW I STILL REMEMBER HIM
    IT TAKES ME BACK TO THE ANNEX
    WHAT AGREAT TEACHER

  18. Dave Bishop permalink
    November 29, 2012

    Hello Jonathan,

    I spoke to Chris on Monday night and he remembers you very well indeed and asked me to send you his regards & best wishes. If you or any of Chris’s old friends or pupils would like to see him again, I have arranged a get together/re-union for him to come back to the East End (he lives in Sheffield now) and meet up with you all once more and this takes place this Friday 30th November at the Queen’s Head Public House, 8, Flamborough Street, Stepney, London E14. 7LS starting at 7.30pm till around midnight.

    There is a free buffet and a souvenir brochure has been printed for the night.

    Hoping for a really good turn out as Chris is looking forward very much to seeing as many of you there as possible and it looks like it will be a great night for sure.

  19. December 15, 2012

    We had areunion a couple of weeks ago and wow what a night ….
    40 odd years on and we all met up a most endearing night and to see our fantastic teacher CHRIS SEARLE again was well worth turning up ….Chris your speech was from the heart and made a few cry …we hold you in GREAT ESTEEM..and on a personal note ….
    THANKS FOR REMEMBERING ME…hahaha

  20. Donna Howson permalink
    November 27, 2013

    I was a pupil of Mr Searles back at Sheffield Earl Marshall School.
    He was one of my best head teachers.
    He alway’s opened his office door to anyone when ever they needed to talk, he was never judgemental and alway’s understanding.
    I remember having my peom put into one of Mr Searles book’s and I don’t remember ever feeling as proude as I did the day the book was presented to me.
    It would be nice to see all old teacher’s especially Mr Searle he is an inspiration and credit to what was a run down school.
    The school now is like a prison compared to the atmosphere the school held when Mr Searle was there.
    Thankyou Mr Searle for believing in your pupils of Earl Marshal School Sheffield.

  21. November 4, 2015

    Dear All,

    I am currently a member of staff at Sir John Cass Redcoat School, and we are in the process of organising an event to mark the schools 50 years anniversary next year (2016).

    If you are a past student or teacher of the school, please complete the alumni contact form on the link below. (Please include in the comments if you were a former teacher or student).

    We would love to hear from you, and will keep you updated with details about the celebration events.

    We would be most grateful if you could pass the message on to any former colleagues/ school friends.

    http://www.sjcr.net/our-school/alumni-association.html

    Many Thanks

  22. jonathan smith permalink
    April 9, 2016

    HALLOO DAVID JUST POPPED ON HERE WHAT BROUGHT ME WAS THE OLD MAN ALIVE Program FROM THE E 1 FESTIVAL WHERE I WAS BORN AT STEPNEY
    SO FOND MEMORIES I HOPE YOU ALL HAD A GREAT NIGHT REMEMBERING CHRIS TEACHING SUCH A SHAME I MISSED IT ITS NOW 2016 WHEN I WROTE ON HERE I BELIEVE IT WAS 2012
    I HAVE SUCH GOOD MEMORIES OF CHRIS BEING MY TEACHER HIM TAKING US TO I BELIEVE ITS WHERE HE MUM DAD CAME FROM MANNING TREE OR MISTLEy UP IN THE SUFFOLK COAST ON A OLD Thames SAILING BARGE CALLED THE SIR ALAN HERBERT THAT WOULD BE REALLY INTERESTING TO HAVE LOOK AT THE PROGRAMMED FROM THE NIGHT IF YOU COULD SEND ME ONE OR I CAN LOOK ON LINE
    IF MY MEMORIES IS RIGHT CHRIS WAS MARRIED TO PEARL AFTER ALL THESES YEARS MY MEMORIES IS STILL GOOD ALTHOUGH MY WIFE MIGHT DISAGREE
    MY EMAIL IS
    jsmit322@ford.com
    i have worked at ford dagenham for approx 30 years
    i would dearly love to hear from Chris catch up with him ps tell him he should have taught me grammar as my daughter said dad wheres your full stops
    jonathan smith aged 54
    what age is mr searle he beard white or grey from the pictures

  23. PAT KIRKHAM permalink
    May 9, 2017

    an old friend of Chris’s from Leeds and later …looking to get in touch after 19 years teaching in New York
    also another old friend of his from Leeds – Martin Kenworthy- is now a neighbour of mine in Leicester!!

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