Today in London’s radical history: Brotherhood Church finally closes its doors, 1934.

On corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, on Islington’s border with Hackney, where a block of flats now stands above a Tesco Express, there once stood a church, for a few years one of North London’s leading socialist and anti-war spaces…

According to Ken Weller:

“The Brotherhood Church was founded in 1662, as an independent congregational chapel. In 1862 it moved to Southgate Road; at this time it was a conventional chapel, although it had some fairly radical connections. In 1892 the Reverend Bruce Wallace became the Minister. Wallace was a Christian Socialist. In 1887 he had founded the socialist paper Brotherhood at Limavady in Northern Ireland, in which he developed the ideas he was later to put into practice.

When Bruce Wallace took over he renamed the Southgate Road Chapel the Brotherhood Church, and it rapidly became the centre of a whole range of radical and socialist activities. The Brotherhood Association, the Church’s ‘political’ wing, had about 15 branches by the turn of the century, mostly in London but one or two elsewhere.

There were also several associated churches, for example those at Croydon, Harrow Road, Forest Gate and Walthamstow (It’s possible that the Walthamstow Brotherhood Church was connected with the Walthamstow Free Christian Church. whose minister, Reg Sorenson played an important part in the movement opposing World War 1 in North London). Also connected with the Church was the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust which operated several workshops and shops, of which at least one, the shop at 37 Newington Green, seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War. In the 1890s, the Croydon Brotherhood Church was the main publisher of Tolstoy’s social writings; its minister.J. C. Kenworthy was also a well known anti-War campaigner.

About the turn of the century, the Brotherhood movement spawned a number of communities in the countryside where members lived together. There were four of these in Essex alone, and while many were relatively short lived, one at least, ‘The Commune’ at Stanford-le- Hope, was in existence until the Second World War. ‘The Commune’ and some other Brotherhood-connected groups seem to have played quite an important part in the informal network helping ‘dodgers’ on the run. After the end of the War ‘The Commune’ provided a recuperative haven for a number of anti-War activists, notably Reg Sorenson and Fenner Brockway and their families.

The politics of the Church were basically christian socialist and pacifist – a number of its members were Quakers. There was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current and William Morris was an important influence.

The Church had strong links with the socialist movement, exemplified by the record of one of its prominent members, H. A. Barker.

Barker also illustrates how, whenever you look at the wartime radical movement, you have only to scratch the surface to find strong connections with previous radical waves embedded within them. Barker (1858-1940) was a Trustee of the Brotherhood Church for its last 30 years. A builder by trade, he was born in Shoreditch and seems to have lived in the general area all his life; as a boy he had been confirmed at the Southgate Road Chapel before it was taken over by Bruce Wallace. Barker was a pioneer socialist. He was probably a member of the Labour Emancipation League, a forerunner of the SDF, and he was certainly a very early member of the latter. In December 1884 Barker left the SDF with the Socialist League split, and he became a very active member of the new body, of which he eventually became National Secretary between 1886 and 1888.

In 1888 Barker left the Socialist League with a number of other members who objected to the growing anti-parliamentarianism of that organisation, and he helped to found the Labour Union, a short-lived socialist group which played a prominent part, with H. A. Barker much to the fore, in the industrial struggles in North London in the 1889-1890 period, notably the successful and pretty violent strike of coal porters at the St Pancras Arches complex in July and August 1889, which led to the formation of the Coal Porters’ Union. The Labour Union was also heavily involved in a disastrous strike of postmen at Mount Pleasant and other local post offices in July 1890, which was completely smashed by the authorities.

Barker went on to play a leading part in the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and he was a member of its first executive. He was an active member of the Brotherhood Church from its formation until its closure.

A notable event at the Church under Bruce Wallace was the Congress there in 1907 of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which was attended by virtually all the prominent figures of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Party (Among those present at the Brotherhood Church on this occasion were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Gorky, Zinoviev and Rosa Luxemburg).

In January 1911 the Church was taken over by F. R. Swan, who got the job with the help of the Reverend R. J. Campbell of the City Temple. Campbell had been Secretary of Finsbury ILP. Swan had lost his previous living because of his support for Victor Grayson, the successful independent socialist candidate in the Colne Valley election of 1907. He was a member of the ILP and had joined the staff of the Daily Herald virtually from its foundation.

Under Swan’s ministry the Church became even more explicitly political. Its service took the form of a reading from the Bible – in accordance with a clause in the Church’s trustee agreement – readings from other books, the singing of songs from the Labour Songbook, and a speaker. Among the huge number of speakers before the War were Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.”

During WW1 the Church was one of the main North London centres of anti-war activity, on socialist-pacifist grounds, but opening its doors to anti-war activists of other stripes too, such as the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East London federation of Suffragettes/Women’s Suffrage Federation/Workers Socialist Federation (our Sylv and friends liked to change the moniker of their crew more often than Karl Marx changed his razor blades).

Various elements of the Brotherhood Church movement seemed to have played a very significant part in the informal networks helping men on the run from the authorities and dodging conscription during the war.

As recounted last week on this blog, several anti-war meetings here were attacked by ‘patriotic mobs’, often composed largely of soldiers, and not uncommonly stirred up by the police and Special Branch.

“Perhaps the peak of the Brotherhood Church’s involvement in the anti-War struggle came in July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church.

This meeting took place on July 28th. There were about 250 delegates including a number of servicemen. There had been some attempt to keep the venue of the meeting private but even so the authorities were well prepared. Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, noted in his diary on 27th July in relation to the meeting:

They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged for the Daily Express to publish the place of the meeting and strong opposition may be expected.

Leaflets were also distributed in the area stating that a pro-German meeting was taking place and that ‘scores of old soldiers and others are going to march to the canal bridge to show these traitors what we think of them’. The leaflets called on the local population to ‘remember the last air raid and roll up’. Part of the job of mobilising the mob was taken on by Horatio Bottomley, then MP for South Hackney, who ran a sort of mini-Tammany Hall locally which had a ‘stable’ of roughs on call.

Long before the meeting was due to start the mobs had begun to gather. It was estimated that they eventually totalled 8,000, many of them in uniform. The leaders of the military contingent seem to have been a Canadian soldier and two Royal Naval Air Service men. Also present were our old friends the Anti-German League. There was also a strong force of police in attendance.

By 3 pm the Church was completely surrounded. At 3.15 a sledge-hammer mysteriously materialised and the front door of the Church was smashed in and the fight started. The delegates who had already arrived were trapped in the small hall at the back. Meanwhile the crowd systematically smashed up the main hall; windows and fanlights were broken and frames ripped out, the furniture was almost completely destroyed, water pipes were pulled out of the walls and the hall was partially flooded.

Bertrand Russell – who was there – described what happened to the trapped delegates:

‘A few people, among them Francis Meynell attempted resistance, and I remember him returning from the door with his face streaming with blood.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused pointblank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everyone had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken women began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested they should defend me. The police merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. ‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an Earl’, she finally cried. At this the police rushed to my assistance. They were, however, too late to be of any service, and I owe my life to a young woman whom I did not know, who interposed herself between me and the viragos long enough for me to make my escape. But quite a number of people, including several women, had their clothes torn off their backs as they left the building.

Another illustration of the violence of the situation and the attitude of the police was what happened to Leonard Howard of the North LHL. With blood streaming down his face he was attacked again and again. He eventually took refuge in a furniture van, and the police finally acted- they grabbed him and threw him back to his attackers…

Needless to say the conference broke up; when John Maclean turned up a bit later all he saw was ‘a howling mob of male and female dervishes’ . Among the consequences of this rather one-sided fighting were numerous injuries, including lacerated heads and serious cuts; one delegate nearly had his eye gouged out by a stick; and a young woman had her throat badly cut when someone in the crowd tried to grab her necklace.

A. M. Barker the 18-year-old son of H. A. Barker – was present at the time and wrote of his experience to me:

But I will tell of an awful scene of a woman being swung around by her hair, the technique of women’s fighting in those days – and which could cause terrible scalp wounds – and a crowd of god knows how many howling ‘do her in’ and horrible language. . . . The next morning I found the Church itself wrecked, a shameful shambles of broken windows, broken down doors, smashed pews, piano, organ, and the floors of the Church almost solid with brickbats. I almost broke down and cried at this terrible shameful sight.

The police arrested only one man – one of the delegates. The excuse given for the police inactivity by the sub-inspector in charge was ‘that to have attempted to arrest anyone would have depleted our force and given them [the rioters] the opportunity of attacking the Church.’ In actuality the role of the police consisted entirely of gently shooing the rioters from the ruined hall after they had worked themselves out – a classic example of low-profile policing?”

The authorities were heavily involved in the attacks on, and harrassment of, the anti-War movement. They were certainly involved – as the entry in Basil Thomson’s diary indicates – in sometimes making sure that potential attackers were informed of the venues of meetings. What happened at the Brotherhood Church was not an isolated event: what happened on a local scale was repeated nationally.

“With the coming of peace the Church continued to function, but it was in severe financial difficulties, having to foot the bill for repairing the damage it had received during the War. It continued to be a centre for a wide range of political activities. For example, the first two conferences of the Young Communist League was held there, and trade union branches, local Labour Parties, the SPGB, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Shoreditch Unemployed all met at the Church. Eventually funds ran out and the Church finally closed its doors on March 18th, 1934. Regular meetings of the congregation continued at the Essex Road Library until the death of F. R. Swan in October 1938; the last meeting was held on January 12th 1939.

After the final closure, surviving members of the Brotherhood Church apparently used to meet in Walthamstow until the early 1960s. But a Brotherhood Church still exists at Stapleton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire. This community is a direct descendant of the Brotherhood community at Purleigh in Essex, which was itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood Church at Croydon.”

On a personal note, your past tense typist, in my wayward youth, met some socialists raised in the Stapleton Brotherhood Community, who were active in my local anti-poll tax group… the spirit lives on… This post is dedicated to John and Bracken x

This post was lifted with some text-slaloming from Ken Weller, Don’t Be a Soldier.

For information on some of the Brotherhood communities see Dennis Hardy, Alternative Communities in nineteenth Century England, 1979.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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