In the early 1890s, Peckham, South London, had an active anarchist group, part of quite a boisterous and prominent anarchist movement in London at that time. The Peckham Anarchist-Communist Group was one of a number of groups of young activists who had broken away from Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and coalesced as anarchist groups in London. The group held open air public meetings, a favourite tactic of the time, every week, on Peckham Park Road.
But in early 1894, the anarchist movement came under severe and sustained attack, in the press, and from the police. The anarchist scene was a diverse mix of class struggle activists, individualists, with a fair smattering of those who believed in ‘propaganda by the deed’, meaning planting bombs, assassination and the like (or blusteringly ranted about such actions)… and a very unhealthy seasoning of police spies, informers and narks. The presence in London of hundreds of exiled anarchists and socialists from repressive regimes in Europe meant that a swarm of police agents from these countries were also nosing around. Prompted by the police, the rightwing press also whipped up a lather of anti-anarchist hysteria, mingled with a good dollop of fantastical allegations, xenophobia and moral panic… All in all a recipe for agent provocateurs, fitting up people for conspiracy to cause explosions, thus generating a lot of paranoia and some naïve behaviour… (much more of this story can be found in The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists, by John Quail, recently republished…)
The Peckham anarchist speaking pitch became one of the first public targets of attack, prompted by the police, and involving reactionary elements susceptible to rightwing provocation… On 15th March 1894, the anarchist meeting was attacked by a crowd of ‘constitutional Peckhamites’, assisted (ie directed) by Detective Sergeant Walsh of CID “who exhibited his manliness by getting behind little boys and pushing them on us… They surged up to the platform and tied to seize the red flag. A fight for possession ensued which ended with the flag being ripped to shreds.”
Alfred Foster, the main speaker, twenty seven years old and living at Commercial Road, Peckham was arrested by P.C. Martin for ‘disorderly conduct by causing a crowd to assemble’. At Lambeth Police Court the following day Foster appeared before Justice Biron. Biron was hostile from the beginning asking “You were making Anarchist speeches?” Foster was ordered to find a surety of £25 to be of good behaviour for six months or go to prison for a month; he stayed in prison for a week till a ‘suitable’ surety could be found.
When the anarchists tried to hold a meeting again on March 22nd,
“an enormous crowd assembled… Comrades Quinn, Banham, Carter and Alsford addressed the meeting which was perfectly orderly for some time, until an organized gang of blackleg gas-stokers and detectives started hooting and pushing, finally breaking up the meeting by force. The police were present in large numbers watching eagerly for the least opportunity for a ‘charge.’ These meetings have now had a drop owing to the fact that local comrades will not turn up and support but the propaganda will be kept up in other ways…”
Nick Heath writes that the Peckham anarchist group “was present for the May Day assembly in Hyde Park later in the year where its black banner was inscribed with the motto: ‘Away with authority and monopoly – We demand free access to the means of life’. However this meeting too was attacked by a gang of toughs, again working with CID detectives and Inspector Melville’s Special Branch. Anarchist speakers like Ted Leggatt, Banham and James Tochatti were physically assaulted.
In all of this the press portrayed the attacks on the anarchist assemblies as a popular response from outraged citizens when it appears that the police instigated and organised these attacks in collusion with reactionary thugs. The account in the Huddersfield Chronicle ‘An Anarchist and his Prupperty” describing the arrest and trial of Foster is particularly shrill and virulent, and this local daily seems to have specialised in anti-anarchist diatribes.
William Hart is of course W.C. Hart who was involved in the anarchist movement for ten years, acting as secretary for the Peckham group and then the Deptford group. He wrote an extremely bitter and hostile attack on the anarchist movement in the 1906 book Confessions of an Anarchist. Interestingly, he describes many cases of provocation in his book including one incident when a close friend of his, an extremely good-natured anarchist sheltered a French anarchist, even pawning his carpenter’s tools to buy food for him. This comrade is almost certainly Foster. The Frenchman attempted to involve him in bomb attacks, writing on his behalf to France to send for bomb recipes. Hart read the letter before it was sent and had it burnt. The Frenchman had gone out in the morning and never returned. Meanwhile the comrade carpenter was under surveillance for several weeks by detectives. Hart wrote that he was told by someone from Scotland Yard that the Frenchman had informed the French police of the arrival of the letter, and they in their turn had informed Scotland Yard (this of course, raises a number of questions about Hart himself and his contacts with the London police).”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online