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Oxford Local History Pages - The Cutteslowe Walls

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This Account of the Cutteslowe Walls is taken from: The Cutteslowe Walls a study in social class by Peter Collison published by Faber and Faber in 1963.

Tear Down the Walls

Abe Lazarus
Description of Abe Lazarus
by Olive Gibbs

Three young dons: R H S Crossman, F A Pakenham and Patrick Gordon Walker were prominent in the left-wing movement in Oxford and Crossman and Pakenham were members of the City Council.

When the walls at Cutteslowe were built in December 1934 they pointed out the weakness of the Council. If the Council had allowed them to be built it was open to the charge that it was favourable to the demands of private property owners and against the needs of working-class tenants. If the Company had built the walls against the Council's wishes - ashas been shown above - then it revealed the Council to be incompetent.

The plight of the Cutteslowe people also aroused widespread sympathy and indignation and the walls were also a potent symbol of the class divisions in society as well as an actual measure of class segregation.

The residents at Cutteslowe were strongly of the opinion that the walls should be taken down. The fences which preceded them were frequently breached by Cutteslowe people bent on reaching the Banbury Road by the shortest and, in their view, the right and proper route.

In October 1934, 134 people from the Cutteslowe Estate signed a letter to the City Council protesting against the closure of the roads. A committee was formed to act on behalf of the estate. However, in the early days of the dispute most of the initiative and leadership against the walls came from the Communist Party and Abe Lazarus aka Bill Firestone.

Abe Lazarus was a member of the Communist Party and the Transport and General Workers' Union who became prominent in Oxford as an organizer of the strike at the Pressed Steel factory in 1934, He had been called Bill Firestone in recognition of his earlier success as leader of a strike at the Firestone Rubber Company. He was a natural speaker and leader as well as having a humourous and attractive personality. At the conclusion of the Pressed Steel strike he decided to stay in Oxford to help organize other working-class movements and he was prominent in City affairs for a number of years.

The walls attracted his attention because problems of housing were at the forefront of both national and local politics and a campaign at Cutteslowe could be linked with a protest about rents and other housing matters being organized among the tenants of the Florence Park Estate. This private housing estate was built in 1934 by N Moss and son, a firm of builders with which a City councillor, Mr F E Moss, was connected.

A joint committee was formed representing both the Cutteslowe and the Florence Park residents and when the latter published a pamphlet they included, among other things, a protest against the Council's approach to the problem of the walls.

This committee also organized a successful protest meeting in April 1935 when 1,200 people attended a meeting at the Town Hall after marching in protest from their estates. This meeting, presided over by Patrick Gordon Walker, demanded that "immediate steps be taken by the City Council to remove the obstructing walls at Cutteslowe" and determined that "such evidence of class snobbery is an immediate insult to the whole working class."

Abe Lazarus had been able to discuss the walls with Sir Stafford Cripps who lived at Filkins, a village a few miles away from Oxford. Cripps believed that the walls were illegal obstructions which could properly be removed. The Communist Party distributed a leaflet on the day after the Town Hall meeting which announced that the walls would be taken down on the afternoon of Saturday May 11th and invited volunteers to come forward to help in the demolition. It promised that the demolition would be accompanied by the playing of a band and celebrated afterwards by a dramatic performance given by the Workers' Theatre Group on the Cutteslowe Green. It was signed by Bill Firestone.

Saturday, May 11th 1935 was warm and sunny and a crowd of some 2,000 gathered on the Cutteslowe Estate. Undergraduates were especially prominent, some wearing red shirts and others fancy dress. A band played on the green and a procession led by a bagpiper toured the estate. The Oxford Red Players then performed a pantomine on the history of the walls. Local celebrities were caricatured and Bill Firestone presided as the Good Fairy.

Oxford Mail report on Demonstration at the Cutteslowe Walls

Oxford Mail Report 11th May 1935

After the performance, Abe Lazarus and a companion shouldered picks and approached the walls. They were barred by an Inspector backed by a row of constables. The inspector announced that anyone attempting to pass would be arrested but that this would not be for attacking the walls - which was the legal challenge Lazarus was seeking - but for assaulting the police. After pleading in vain to be allowed to attack the walls without assaulting the police the demonstrators retired and Abe Lazarus climbed a tree to address the crowd before it dispersed.

Apart from a futile attempt by two undergraduates the demonstration marks the end of all attempts on the part of the tenants and their sympathisers to remove the walls by direct action. The failure of the demonstration confirmed the tensants in a decision already taken: to reject the leadership of the Communist Party and a policy of direct action and to continue the campaign on more orthodox and non-political lines. This had been initiated at a meeting of tenants held on May 3rd, eight days before the demonstration at which Mr H Ibson was selected to replace the former secretary and other officers together with a large committee were appointed including a chairman, Mr A Hathaway. At a general meeting of tenants on May 10th Mr Hathaway declared their independence of all political bodies and explicitly dissociated them from the threat to remove the walls by force. The Council was informed that only letters bearing Mr Ibson's signature were to be considered as coming from the tenants' organization.

Demonstration at the Cutteslowe Walls

Demonstration at the Cutteslowe Walls on 11th May 1935

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