An ode to Limehouse

What is it in the air in Limehouse? Today it may be home to more lofts, designers and 4x4s than almost any other bastion of the bohemian bourgeoisie, but this east London neighbourhood has in the past 150 years given birth to three campaigns that have aimed straight for the hearts and minds of liberal Britain and changed the landscape of the country in the process.

It was the Limehouse declaration, as this week’s pictures of the remaining members of the Gang of Four reminded us, that launched the SDP in 1981. It began: “The calamitous outcome of the Labour party Wembley conference demands a new start in British politics”. Depending on who you believe, it ended either in the triumphant realignment of British politics which produced Tony Blair, or it kept the Tories in power uninterrupted for another 16 years.

The gang conducted their business at David Owen’s house because William Roger’s wife wouldn’t let them meet at hers. At the time, the fact that Sir Ian McKellen lived next door to Owen was of little political significance. But when, in December 1987, the Tories put the notorious section 28 in their local government bill, that all changed. The gay community responded to the legislation with a new articulacy, determination and effectiveness. McKellen, meanwhile, stepped into the full glare of the lights and became a theatrical knight out, so to speak. When a group of us founded Stonewall – its aim to achieve equality for lesbians and gays – we wrote its manifesto, yes you’ve guessed it, in the house next door to Owen. We jokingly called it the second Limehouse declaration.

The first draft of our intentions was headed “The Politics of the Achievable”. “There are three phases to political campaigning” we wrote. “The first is action on the streets. The second is a mainstream campaign to bring the issues on to the general political agenda. The third is a more behind- the-scenes establishment group to negotiate the settlement of the issue. The new campaign is emphatically a second/third phase organisation”. We committed ourselves to legislative and social equality, and although we set no end date, most of us have been staggered at the speed of our progress.

Quite what Dr Thomas John Barnardo would make of the success of his Limehouse-inspired achievement 140 years on, we can only guess at. In 1867, barely a few hundred yards from the Narrow Street homes of Owen and McKellen, Barnardo opened his first East End juvenile mission – “The Earnest School”. It was the start of his crusade “to rescue children from the streets”. Shameless use of photographs of destitute youngsters, which he sold in packs of 20 for five shillings or singly for 6d, each with titles such as “Once a little vagrant – Now a little workman”, plucked at the hearts of the wealthy. Today, Barnardo’s is the UK’s leading children’s charity at work in more than 370 centres in the UK. Passion must be in the water in Limehouse.

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