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Our inspired Schools and Community Learning programme delivers a range of workshops and projects using the unique and fascinating collections found within our world-renowned Bishopsgate Library. Our workshops are suitable for learners of all ages and are used by wide variety of audiences from primary school pupils to pensioners.

Our regular blogs will demonstrate how our Schools and Community Learning programme encourages discovery and enquiry amongst our wide-ranging participants.


Culture and arts, heritage and history, ideas and independent thought all come together in our exciting events programmes. You can enjoy talks, walks, discussions and debates, or one of the many concerts that take place throughout the year.

Our regular blogs will give an added insight and perspective into our dynamic programme with content from speakers at our events.


Situated in a Grade II* listed building, Bishopsgate Library’s beautiful reading room is a peaceful place to study that is open to all; a calm oasis amid the bustle of Spitalfields and the City. In our dedicated Researchers’ Area, you can consult our renowned printed and archival collections on London, labour, freethought and Humanism, co-operation, or protesting and campaigning.

Our regular blogs will provide a new way for you to engage with the library collections and services, new acquisitions, activities and future developments.


Our comprehensive range of short courses offer you the opportunity to discover, discuss and be inspired in a welcoming environment. Our courses are conveniently designed to take place throughout the day, including lunchtimes, after work and at weekends. We have five course strands, Arts and Culture, Words and Ideas, Languages, Performing Arts and Body & Exercise to choose from.

Our regular blogs will provide up-to-date news and information.

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Between 1981 and 1986, Ken Livingstone led the most experimental, controversial and influential city governments in modern British history. Author Andy Beckett uncovers the forgotten triumphs and  disasters of Livingstone's Greater London Council in his book 'Promised You a Miracle'. The following is an extract from the book: 

Protest badges from the 1980s

Of all the risky experiments in early 1980s Britain, cultural, economic or political, one attracted particularly wide derision. On 17 February 1982 the usually polite Guardian published a mocking three paragraph item about ‘a new wheeze’ from the spectacularly unpopular, seemingly doomed political curiosity that was Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. ‘This is a Womens [sic] Committee,’ explained the unnamed journalist, ‘which will monitor all council activities to check that they are looking at things from a woman’s as well as a man’s point of view.’ The report continued even more condescendingly: ‘Sexism – albeit of a cheery and trivial sort still lurks at County Hall . . . Valerie Wise, one of the councillors most enthusiastic for the scheme, wants “a committee that is going to be able to interfere with every decision of the council”.’

By 1982, for journalists, even some Guardian ones, feminism was an old story. Women’s Lib, in its modern British incarnation, had been going for a dozen years now. Some veterans of the struggle were slipping away to do other things, like Anna Coote with her new television career at Diverse Production. Meanwhile even feminists with fresh campaigning ideas, such as the peace camp at Greenham, struggled to get the attention of the media and Britain’s overwhelmingly male politicians sometimes, even, of the ideologically curious and unusually gender conscious Livingstone himself. ‘We had no proposal for the women’s committee in the 1981GLC manifesto,’ he told me, despite the document’s hundreds of pages and wide-ranging ambitions. ‘We had a proposal to set up an ethnic minorities committee, and on the back of that, people like Valerie said we should do something for women. So it was an afterthought.’

In February 1982 Wise was twenty-seven. She had been a GLC councillor, her first elected office, for barely a year. Tall and slightly gawky, her narrow face dominated by her trademark circular, thick-rimmed glasses, she spoke in a youthful, upbeat, slightly grating voice, with non-London tinges to her vowels (she had also lived in the Midlands and the north). She was still in awe of her mother, Audrey, a political prodigy herself who had been a prominent feminist from the late 1960s onwards, and a stubbornly outspoken left-wing Labour MP in the late 1970s. ‘I feel very privileged to have been the daughter of Audrey Wise,’ Valerie said, with oddly stiff affection, when I interviewed her in 2013. Two walls of her living room were given over to volumes of Hansard covering her late mother’s years in Parliament.

Socialism was the prime political faith passed from mother to daughter. ‘I’ve called myself a feminist for some time, but coming to the GLC has meant my first contact with the women’s movement,’ Valerie admitted to the feminist magazine Spare Rib in July 1982, two months after the women’s committee had officially started work. Her frankness was either naive, faux-naive, or immensely self-confident – or most likely a mixture of all three. ‘It’s been an amazing learning process for me, and I hope that’s going to be mutual.’

In 1982 Livingstone’s GLC badly needed a new purpose. ‘What we’d really wanted to do was build housing and modernize the transport system, and those we were blocked on,’ he told me. The council’s attempt to revitalize the capital’s economy and make it more socially just, through the Greater London Enterprise Board, was proceeding modestly at best. Livingstone was trying to wean himself off giving endless provocative quotes to hostile journalists, his original approach of leadership by outrage having proved increasingly counterproductive. The euphoria of the precocious London Labour left’s seizure of the GLC in 1981 – ‘London’s Ours!’ – seemed very distant a year on. As two of the many young, questing left-wing thinkers and activists who joined the Livingstone administration, Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright, wrote in the slightly chastened 1987 book they co-edited about their experience, A Taste of Power: ‘No one in the GLC thought we were creating socialism now.’

This GLC rethink was part of a wider retreat by the British left from 1982 onwards, as Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy began to lose momentum after his failure to win the Labour deputy leadership, and Thatcherism finally started to create a new economy as well as destroy the old one. But if ‘Red Ken’ had given up on building socialism in one city, his GLC still had enough power, money and chutzpah for a different radical project. 

This was a new relationship between the state and the citizen, and between the increasingly disparate groups of citizens in London. It would have implications for the whole of Britain. And it would rival, and in some ways undermine, the psychological revolution being driven through by the Thatcherites.

The idea of the women’s committee had crystallized during 1981. When Wise arrived at the GLC, she knew a lot more about politics and bureaucracies than her innocent manner suggested. She had worked for her mother Audrey in Parliament. She had also worked for a groundbreaking group of union shop stewards at the military-industrial conglomerate Lucas, who sidestepped the company management to develop worker-designed green technologies and other non-military products. Finally, during her curries in Tooting with Livingstone and Michael Ward, she had helped arrange the left’s seizure of County Hall.
When she became a GLC councillor, Wise told me briskly, ‘Because of my involvement with the Lucas shop stewards, I became vice-chair of Mike Ward’s industry and employment committee straightaway. Industry and employment were key parts of our manifesto. It was one of the most important GLC committees.’ She nodded with satisfaction. ‘I was in the right place at the right time.’

At industry and employment she became interested in how the GLC might alter the London economy to better suit women. She told Spare Rib that she ‘tried meeting regularly with women[’s groups] outside the GLC but . . . it just didn’t work. The only way to get a proper strategy, to ensure things happen, is by a committee.’ Otherwise, ‘You get swallowed up by the system . . . becoming “the statutory woman” on things . . . just a front.’ She wrote a proposal for a women’s committee. She remembered, ‘I went to Ken, and he was very receptive. I put it immediately to the Labour Group [of councillors].’ She smiled: ‘It was hard for them not to agree to it, given that there was already an ethnic minorities committee.’

You can hear Andy Beckett in conversation with Ken Livingstone in Red Ken's GLC: Loonies or Visionaries? on Thursday 8 October.

As home to many of the archives for campaign and radical groups we are keen to explore protest and campaigns past and present.

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Colin Clews looks back at LGBT life in the 1980s

by Bishopsgate Institute on 16 / 03 / 2015

Colin Clews, author of the popular and informative 'Gay in the 80s' blog takes a look back at LGBT life in the 1980s:

Queer life in the 1980s was an extraordinary mix of progress and setbacks as lesbians and gay men became increasingly visible. The 1982 launch of Channel Four - with its remit to address the needs of minorities – had a hugely positive impact on the representation of queer people. Out and Out on Tuesday offered a magazine-style look at lesbian and gay life: the Corner House was the first attempt at a queer sit-com and two series of In the Pink charted the development of queer cinema.  

And despite the 80s beginning with global protests over the movie Cruising, filmic representations gradually improved. Films like Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (another contribution from Channel Four) didn’t problematise queer people but rather social attitudes towards us.

But as our visibility grew so did the attacks upon us – from the physical to the political. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality’s 1980 report Attacks on Gay People found, for example, that “about one in eight [attacks] leads to the death or disablement of the victim”. A 1984 report by the Gay London Police Monitoring Group (GALOP) documented immense hostility from the police: for example, a man seeking police assistance when a group of men attacked a gay pub, was told, “Well what do you expect? You’re a queer in a queer’s pub. Fuck off before I nick you for being drunk and disorderly.”   

A Victorian law, the Customs Consolidation Act (1876), was resurrected to justify repeated raids on Gay’s the Word bookshop. Countless gay men were arrested for ‘importuning for immoral purposes’, an offence that was created to stop ‘stage door Johnnies’ harassing showgirls as they left Victorian musical halls. Public displays of affection by lesbians and gay men resulted in charges of ‘insulting behaviour contrary to the Metropolitan Police Act 1839.’

With the first UK case of AIDS in 1981 gay men struggled to make sense of this mysterious and deadly condition. Prior to the introduction of HIV testing in 1985, life for many gay men included an anxious daily check for Kaposi’s Sarcoma skin lesions – one of the defining conditions for AIDS. Meanwhile the Press revelled in the notion of ‘the gay plague’, suggesting that we were both morally and medically infectious.

And then the passage of Section 28 heralded the close of the decade.

Colin will be joining Linda Bellos to discuss LGBT London in the 1980s - the media and the 'Loony Left' on Tuesday 21 April.

The Lesbian And Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA) is based at Bishopsgate Institute.

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Peter Tatchell takes a look back at the struggles of the LGBT community in the 1980s in advance of our event, Pride and Prejudice on ThEquality Now March 1992ursday 8 November:

The 1980s were a period of intensified homophobia, sanctioned from the top echelons of society: the government, church, police and tabloids. It was open season on queers.

The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was at war with the LGBT community. She launched a series of homophobic and sexist moral crusades under the themes of “family values” and “Victorian values”.

Labour councils that supported local LGBT communities with funding and the use of council premises for events were denounced by the Tories. The LGBT community became a political football. Homophobia was stirred up and exploited by the Conservatives. They appealed to the bigoted vote - and won it.

On top of all this, the AIDS epidemic was demonised as the “gay plague.” It was manipulated to blame and vilify LGBT people - and to justify increasing homophobic repression. The Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton, abused gay people as “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making.” Police operations and arrests intensified.

At the 1987 Tory party conference Thatcher attacked the right to be LGBT; suggesting there was no such right. The following year, her government legislated the notorious Section 28, which banned the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities; leading many authorities to impose self-censorship to avoid prosecution.

By 1989, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting same-sex behaviour was almost as great as in 1954-55, when male homosexuality was totally illegal and when the country was gripped by a McCarthyite anti-gay witch-hunt.

This homophobic repression was the making of the LGBT community in Britain. It mobilised people as never before. The 1988 London Pride parade was double what it had been in previous years (an increase to 30,000 marchers).

Act Up London, Stonewall and OutRage! exploded into existence and began the successful fight back that led to a rapid decline in arrests for consenting homosexual offences and a decade later to the wave of LGBT law reform from 1999 - 2010. It proved to be the biggest, fastest, most successful law reform campaign in British history.

Peter Tatchell

You can hear Peter talking more on this subject at our Pride and Prejudice event where he will be joined by Lisa Power MBE ( Terrence Higgins Trust) and Michael Cashman (Labour politician, founder of Stonewall). The event will be chaired by Dr Matt Cook (Birkbeck University of London).

In advance of our event The Legacy of the Iron Lady: Are we all Thatcher's Children? on Tuesday 13 November, we invited former Labour MP Clare Short and Mark Field MP to tell us what they think the impact and legacy of Margaret Thatcher was on Britain.

Clare ShortClare Short in her words:

I am one of those, I have found there are many, who avoided watching the recent film about Mrs Thatcher because we did not want to be touched by the plight of a poor old lady, when we remember the harm she did to so many people.

In my old constituency of Birmingham Ladywood, we saw terrible rise in unemployment and had riots in 1981 and 1985, quite unlike anything that had previously happened in my lifetime. I also remember people coming to see me at my advice sessions and weeping over the poll tax bills that they simply could not pay.

But it is said that Mrs Thatcher considered her greatest achievement to have been Tony Blair, or new Labour more generally, and I think that would be a reasonable claim. Inequality in Britain increased massively in the Thatcher era and this was not reversed by new Labour in power. Britain is now one of the most unequal countries in the OECD and the 3rd worst in social immobility. It also shares with the US the distinction of having the highest share of low-paid employees in the workforce at 20.6%.

This means that the country I grew up in and gave me my life opportunities and values has gone. It also means all those unhappy things that highly unequal countries experience, more crime, mental illness, drink and drug addiction, teenage pregnancy etc etc. It isn't all her fault personally; neoliberalism is the zeitgeist. But it is what she did to the country and I think she made it a lesser place.

Mark Field MPMark Field MP in his words:

I was a grammar schoolboy in the 1970s and I vividly recall being repelled by the politics of envy and the class war rhetoric of that period. Britain had become complacent about its place in the world and was being left behind. Energy crises, rising inflation and untamed unions dogged successive governments. The Winter of Discontent left rubbish uncollected and coffins unburied, provided the iconic images to accompany this sclerotic era.

The 1979 election represented a real crossroads moment. Against a backdrop of paralysis, Margaret Thatcher presented a distinctive and radical offering to the electorate. For those who now bemoan her as a divisive politician, they might well recall the divided and dysfunctional country she inherited. By the time she left office, she had restored a sense of confidence in our nation and Britain was a more exciting, prosperous and dynamic place.

Mrs Thatcher understood aspiration in a way that the modern Conservative Party perhaps has not. She encouraged individual share ownership, the buying of council houses and liberalised the domestic economy so that people felt freer to set up businesses. She led the world on privatisation and actively encouraged competition.

Politically, she changed this country beyond recognition. Whatever her detractors say, Mrs Thatcher was chosen democratically by Britons in three consecutive elections. Not only did she effectively leave the Labour Party out in the cold for eighteen years but she forced it to accept the need to change fundamentally by adopting some of the economic principles to which she so passionately adhered, giving birth to New Labour.

In my own constituency of the Cities of London & Westminster, Mrs Thatcher’s most notable legacy is in the liberalisation of the City following the 1986 Big Bang of financial deregulation, something that is now being regularly held up as the cause of the 2008 financial crash. Doubtless with hindsight, some of those changes would have been designed differently. However it was the combination of Big Bang with a new tripartite system of regulation, excessively loose monetary policy and the consequent expansion of credit and overleveraging of households and governments that contributed to the bust. Mrs Thatcher was a crusader for tight monetary policy and abhorred debt.

If twenty-first century Britain is a portrait of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, it has only shades of the Iron Lady.

Clare Short and Mark Field MP will continue this debate in The Legacy of the Iron Lady: Are we all Thatcher's Children? on Tuesday 13 November. Also taking part in this discussion will be author and journalist Owen Jones and chair Aditya Chakrabortty (The Guardian)