Today in mystic socialist history: the Fellowship of the New Life formally founded, 1882.

The Fellowship of the New Life was formally founded in 1882. It would go on to produce a much more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Founded by Thomas Davidson ( in 1882-3, as a “society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform”, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland.

Davidson, a talented and brilliant scot from poor background, was a terminal wanderer, who founded other similar societies, (eg in New York); but couldn’t settle anywhere. He had difficult relations with people, was inspiring but hard to communicate with him, and seems to have had little time for anyone who disagreed with him…

An interesting character, among other ideas he thought virtue should be evaluated and celebrated; that anyone who hadn’t educated themselves to be a profound thinker “is still a slave to authority and convention, a mere play actor in life, bound to play a traditional, unreal part, without any of the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

He basically believed in the essential divinity of all things, including human life. These ideas seem to echo 17th century ideas more than anything, especially the ranters: Davidson even fixes on the same phrase ‘glorious liberty’ (originally from the Bible, Romans 8:21) as the ranter Jacob Bauthumley: “God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the Sons of God’

The Fellowship was founded in his Chelsea rooms around September/October 1882,

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” On top of this, aims were further clarified:

“Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.

Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.”

Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

From its birth, though, the group was divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: would it be practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Edward Carpenter, author, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, teetotaller, and campaigner for homosexual equality, came to be associated with the Fellowship.

From 1888 to 1889 Carpenter lived with Cecil Reddie, a Ruskin-inspired educationalist; they and the Fellowship planned the pioneering and progressive Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire, which opened in 1889.

According to Edward Carpenter: “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’, ‘Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Anarchism over breakfast

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house at no. 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury: ‘Fellowship House’ set up around 1890.

A leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union and the radical feminist Freewoman discussion circle.

One of the most active and vigorous of [the Fellowship]”, she helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment.”

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening. Sounds like fun ????!!! Discussions over Vita Nuova had though caused much internal dispute among the New Lifers in 1882-3, to the point that it was not formally adopted as the manifesto.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and an “elderly and quixotic” Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks… She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.”  
However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Despite Edith’s ideal, did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Author Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In her story Attainment, Lees portrayed life at Doughty Street in fictional form, as ‘Brotherhood House’. Despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.”

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living. In reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’, she afterwards asserted that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment’ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: “I dare now,” she says, “to live out what is real within me.”) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women. (Ellis himself was largely impotent until the age of 60, when he discovered that only the sight of a woman pissing turned him on. Better late than never. )

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (according to Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

The Fabian Society

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (Its not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, its easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians, although Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks, and that the Fabians have created a mythology around themselves and their history which inflates their impact…

The original Fellowship, changing its name to just the New Fellowship, enjoyed a new lease of life around 1889/ 1890. In 1889 they issued a journal, ‘The Sower’, later ‘Seed Time’, printed by a ‘saintly’ Tolstoyan ‘anarchist’ William Frey (Originally Vladimir Geins), a Russian former aristo and general! who later emigrated to New York, becoming a leader of the ‘New Odessa colony’. Frey was a veggie humanist who influenced communal living ideals in New York and possibly founded a Russian commune in Kansas.

According to Seed Time the group was holding lectures weekly, (at Doughty St?) alternately theoretical and practical (still never nailed that dual nature eh?).. examples of the subjects being ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’. The Fellowship was still in existence until at least 1896.

Both Seed Time and the groups activities could not have survived if not supported (presumably financially) by William Morris, Ramsay MacDonald, and other luminaries. Morris was a huge influence on the Fellowship, as he was on the early Fabians.

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Today in London history: riot against enclosure of One Tree Hill, 1897… and open space under threat in Croydon…

Today we remember how, 120 years ago, South Londoners saved one open green space and re-opened it to the public… while in another South London borough, Croydon, green spaces are at risk of being sacrificed to development.

One Tree Hill, in South London’s Honor Oak, had always been an open space, a traditional gathering spot for locals, more recently for recreation. ‘Rolling down One Tree Hill’ is referred to in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Sorcerer’ as a disreputable Victorian pastime!

The Hill marked the on the border of the two parishes of Lewisham and Camberwell (previously it also marked the boundaries of the counties of Kent and Surrey). Many visitors also came to enjoy the view of London from the Hill, easier in those times as the hilltop was less wooded.

Such a spot, a distinctive hill, especially marking a boundary, tends to gather myths; some historians used to assert that One Tree Hill was the spot where Boudicca’s rebellion was crushed in battle by the Romans (somewhat dubiously; the battle probably took place in the midlands). Queen Elizabeth I was also supposed to have drunkenly knighted the ‘one tree’, or Oak of Honour that gives the hill (and Honor Oak) its name.

A number of old footpaths ran across the hill, from Forest Hill to the Brockley Road and Peckham Rye.

“A Spirit of Unrest”

In Autumn 1896 One Tree Hill was suddenly enclosed by a golf club, who had bought if from the previous owners, and erected a sixfoot fence around it! Locals were understandably annoyed. A local “Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee” was formed, which met from August 1897 in the Samuel Bowley Coffee Tavern,

Peckham Rye. twenty-three original members rose to about one hundred and fifty, including members of the Camberwell and Lewisham local Vestries (precursors to today’s Borough Councillors). They got support from the Commons Preservation Society, and began a laborious process of collecting evidence about traditional access to the Hill, whether there were any traditional common rights etc.

Unfortunately this process did unearth the fact that despite what was widely claimed, One Tree Hill had never been part of Sydenham Common, kyboshing any claim for common rights there.

Meanwhile regular public protest meetings, in Spring-Summer 1897, many held in the open air on Peckham Rye. But according to committee member Councillor John Nisbet, “a spirit of unrest, at what was termed the slow methods of the Executive, began to show itself amongst a small section of the members…”

At a meeting of the Committee, a resolution to defend the hill by pulling down the fences was defeated. But in late August, the Golf Club prosecuted two lads who had broken down part of the fence and ‘trespassed’ on the hill, and children who wandered through a broken section to pick flowers were also attacked by a fierce guard dog belonging to a security guard watching the grounds.

Further failed attempts to get the Committee to authorise direct action against the fence led to a resolution at a mass meeting on October 3rd on the Rye, which condemned the Club’s prosecution of the two ’trespassers’, who had just been convicted & fined and voted for the removal of the fence the following Sunday.

On this day, October 10th, supposedly as many as 15,000 people assembled at One Tree Hill; after apparently waiting a while for an appointed demolisher to arrive, a section of the crowd in Honor Oak Park pulled down parts of the fence. The crowd then rushed onto the hill from Honor Oak Park and Honor Oak Rise. “The hill was soon covered with a disorderly multitude, and it was quickly found necessary to reinforce the police who had been posted to keep order.” Some of the crowd attacked the house of the grounds keeper, (he of the vicious dog), and only the arrival of more cops kept the rioters at bay. The more constitutional element attempted to take control, starting a meeting and denouncing the “unseemly and riotous conduct taking place…an appeal was made for quiet and more orderly conduct…the crowds, after singing ‘Rule Britannia’, dispersed …”

Although the Protest Committee disassociated itself from the violence, two former members, Ellis and Polkinghorn, who had left the Committee, frustrated with its slow progress, and three friends, publicly went to pull down a section of fence at Honor Oak Rise, on

October 16th, stating they’d been instructed to do so on behalf of the public (which seems a reasonable defence!) Their names and addresses were taken – the Golf Club promptly sued them in the High Court for trespass.

“A Lurid Glare upon the Upturned Faces”

The following day, Sunday October 17th, a very large crowd gathered, obviously expecting trouble. Estimates vary from 50,000 to 100,000 people present., which may be slightly exaggerated. They were faced by 500-odd police, some mounted, patrolling the hill, who fought off several attempts to demolish the fence and rush the hill, mostly at the south side, overlooking Honor Oak Park. At least 12,000 people were said to be hemmed in here, many of who stoned the cops, charging them several times and being charged in return. “Late in the day a furze bush was fired, and this cast a lurid glare upon the upturned faces of the packed mass of onlookers.” Ten people were nicked, two of whom got sent down for a month, three for fourteen days and the rest fined.

The following Sunday, the 24th, thousands again gathered at the Hill, though there was no trouble.

The Protest Committee condemned the rioting, issuing appeals for order. They maintained the way forward lay in its inquiries into rights of way over the hill, and in its attempts to persuade the Camberwell & Lewisham Vestries that the enclosure should be reversed. The Committee’s investigations had revealed several rights of way across the hill: at an inquiry in January 1898, the Joint Committee of the two vestries voted to go to court to challenge the enclosure.

They sought advice from the Commons Preservation Society. This process dragged on, into 1899; meanwhile the Golf Club had obtained a court judgment for trespass against the five members of the “One Tree Hill Commons Rights Defence League”. The South London Press called these men “the extremists – the irregulars – of the one Tree hill Movement…” and claimed that the more respectable committee had refused to let them see any of the evidence they had collected, to help in their defence.

Over the next few years, though the riots never revived, the process of negotiating for a sale of the hill ground on, with Camberwell Borough Council putting pressure on the owner of the Hill, J. E. Ward, to sell the land. Ward dug his heels in, asking for a huge amount for the land. Eventually the London County Council stuck a clause in their 1902 General Powers Bill, for a compulsory purchase – leading to the Hill being bought for £6,100 in 1904, and re-opened to the public.

In 1997, a hand-crafted centenary bench was put up to remember the anti-enclosure protests, though it has since vanished.

It is still a very lovely open space now, definitely worth a visit/picnic, with its occasional great view of London through the trees that have grown up since the enclosure riots. In the spirit of the miscreants who rolled down the hill and the anti-enclosure irregulars who ripped up the fences, it was from here that the Association of Autonomous Astronauts tried to launch their independent ventures into space in 1999.

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This text is an excerpt from Rights of Common: The Fight Against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill, published by past tense.
Available from our publications page 

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The story of how One Tree Hill was kept open is not just of historical interest… because the struggle against enclosure and the destruction of open space in South London is hardly a dead issue.

Public services today are stretched to breaking point by financial austerity, (imposed ideologically to take back as many resources as possible from all to aid the push for them to be sold to private interest). Local authorities everywhere are debating what to cut. One area under increasing threat is open green space; allegedly expensive to maintain. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase.

At the same time, pressure for building of housing in London is also ramped up to eleven, driven by a housing shortage created by the destruction of social housing, a financial bubble based on property prices, and the lop-sided UK economy’s obsession with London. Although thousands of private flats and houses have been built, most people can’t afford them. But the money awash in construction, twinned with a focus on regenerating some areas (code for moving working class people out and middle class people in) had led many London councils into alliances with property developers, and to making deals to build everywhere they can, usually with a net reduction in social housing. These pressures have led the capital to a powderkeg situation, and upheavals and rebellions among both social and private tenants are increasing.

Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

Close to where locals defended One Tree Hill in 1897, South London’s Croydon Council are facing pressure from a government-appointed inspector to deregister many open spaces in the borough, which many see as a step towards reducing longstanding protections which prevent them being built on.

Long years of struggle produced some statutory legal protection for commons, greens and woods, and many other bylaws and designations of scientific interest etc have helped keep green places from destruction. But this can be swept away…

The Local Plan, which has gone through numerous drafts and changes since work began on it in 2012, was reviewed by the government-appointed inspector at an inquiry earlier this year. His findings have been put out for consultation.

Among the amendments the inspector has recommended to the Local Plan is to take away protection from more than 70 of Croydon’s parks and open spaces, including many areas that like One Tree Hill, were once part of the Great North Wood. According to the inspector, they are just not “special” enough.

The council had proposed designating a raft of parks and open spaces with a new planning status, “Local Green Space”. But the inspector was unimpressed with the case made by the council for many of the parks and spaces, including Rotary Field, Purley, Biggin Wood, Addiscombe Railway Park, Millers Pond, Coulsdon Coppice and even All Saints churchyard in Sanderstead.

The inspector has thus drawn a red line through all these open spaces, and many more, to the consternation of residents’ and friends’ groups. They fear that without some form of planning protection, it will be all too easy to bulldoze their park for the next batch of flats.

It may be that Croydon’s own somewhat inconsistent attitude had confused the inspector, Paul Clark. The council has encouraged one developer to build on a section of Queen’s Gardens, in front to the Town Hall, in the redevelopment of the Taberner House site. Queen’s Gardens is the only green, open space in the town centre.

A neglected scrap of playing fields at the bottom of Duppas Hill Park also looks like it will be built on for a school and housing, while the green acres of playing fields at Coombe Woods have been recommended for bulldozing to make way for a selective free school.

A consultation over the inspector’s proposals and the Local Plan has just ended, so it remains to be seen what happens next. But this pressure is likely to be seen elsewhere, as open space is seen as less of a priority than housing, and the vast profits to be made therefrom. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

It may seem like parks, and other green spaces are givens; things that can’t be taken away. But what seem like certainties can be lost before we realise. Look at way social housing have been dismantled over the past 30 years. In the 1960s council housing was taken for granted as a right by millions: it has been reduced to a last resort, which current government proposals could sweep away. Or the way the NHS is being parcelled up into private providers… there are many who see green space as a luxury and something that can be got rid of or at least shunted off into the hands of some quango… Whatever gains we have, whatever we win, whatever rights we enjoy, came from long generations of battling  – the moment we stop, rest on our laurels, powerful forces start pushing back against everything we have won.

ruggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth
taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting
communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.
What are we going to do in response?

Read more on the Croydon Plan here and here

Get involved to defend open space:

Open Spaces Society – Founded as the Commons Preservation Society in 1865; the CPS played a huge part in legal actions and campaigning to preserve green space nationally, and was instrumental in the passing of legislation to protect commons. The Society today remains committed to defending open space, footpaths and rights of way. http://www.oss.org.uk

National Federation of Parks of Green Spaces  a UK network of area-wide Forums. We exist to promote, protect and improve the UK’s parks and green spaces by linking together all the friends and users Forums/networks throughout the country. http://www.natfedparks.org.uk/

The Land Is Ours – campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone. http://tlio.org.uk/about-tlio/

The Land Justice Network (formerly Land for What?) is a network of groups, individuals and networks who recognise the need to change the way land is owned, used, distributed and controlled in the UK. https://www.landjustice.uk/

The Ramblers – ‘Britain’s walking charity, working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure’. http://www.ramblers.org.uk

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An entry in the
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Today in London radical history: John Goodwyn Barmby founds the Communist Propaganda Society, 1841

John Goodwyn Barmby was a utopian communist, influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen and the early 19th century French Utopian socialist theorists, who launched propaganda organisations to spread these ideas, as well as founding his own communist community in west London. He is often associated with the growth of socialist and utopian projects during the rise of Chartism.

Barmby was born in Suffolk in 1820. He had no formal school education but read widely, and deciding to not pursue a profession, but to follow a career of social and political radicalism. He was reputedly addressing small audiences of agricultural labourers when aged sixteen.

He founded the East Suffolk and Yarmouth Chartist council in September 1839, and in December was elected delegate to the Chartist convention. He was re-elected in 1840 and 1841, though by this time, he was moving away from political radicalism towards the promotion of a communal organisation of society. He became a correspondent of the Owenites’ New Moral World, where he wrote on language reform and the ideas of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, and held conversations with some followers of Gracchus Babeuf. In 1840 he visited Paris with a letter of introduction from Owen, to study the French utopian socialists an their ideas; he claimed to have originated the English term ‘communism’ at this time. Barmby became impatient with the imperfectly purist tone of the Owenite movement. He and his wfire Catherine became ardent propagandists for a new society.

On 13th October 1841, Barmby founded the Communist Propaganda Society (also known as the Central Communist Bureau) to spread the idea of communal living and the re-organisation of society along communist lines. The organisation’s HQ was at 77 Norton Street, Portland Place, between 1841 and 1843.

Barmby designated 1841 Year 1 of the new communist calendar. Sadly this penchant for grandiose sounding organisations and self-important declarations was not generally born out in reality…

Barmby also founded the Universal Communitarian Association shortly later – how many members this or the Communist Propaganda Society had is unknown.

He also launched two journals, the monthly Educational Circular and Communist Apostle in 1841, and the monthly Promethean, or, Communitarian Apostle, which promoted rational marriage and universal suffrage. He lectured at a ‘Communist Temple’ at Marylebone Circus, Marylebone.

The Promethean was launched in January, 1842. The name is significant both of Barmby’s debt to the radical poet Shelley, and because of the place occupied by Prometheus in the radical thought of the time. Prometheus was the redeemer of man through knowledge, the hero who braved the wrath of obscurantists and gods to bring man his heritage that was deliberately withheld. Like Owen, Barmby believed that there was no obstacle but ignorance.

The four issues of The Promethean contained articles by Barmby on a quite extraordinary variety of subjects: one series on Communism, another on Industrial Organisation, An Essay Towards Philanthropic Philology, advocating a universal language, The Amelioration of Climature in Communalisation, on the effect of human activity on climate and the prospect of climate control in the future, and Past, Present and Future Chronology. An Historic Introduction to the Communist Calendar. The Promethean was, however,not a great success.

Out of this activity and through his contact with James Pierrepont Greaves, founder of the Ham Common utopian community, Barmby established the Moreville Communitorium at Hanwell in 1842. which featured such excitements as a diet of raw vegetables, daily hot and cold baths and a rigid teetotal regime. `

Greaves and he published the New Age, or, Concordian Gazette.

The following year, Barmby issued a Communist Miscellany, a series of tracts written by himself and his wife, and founded the weekly Communist Chronicle, which also supported the German communist Wilhelm Weitling.

Thomas Frost described Barmby at this time as ‘a young man of gentlemanly manners and soft persuasive voice, wearing his light brown hair parted in the middle after the fashion of the Concordist brethren, and a collar and necktie à la Byron.’

Barmby was also described as “a Christ-like figure, with blonde hair down to his shoulders; together the young couple walked the London streets with a cart from which they dispensed tracts and harangued passers-by.
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The Moreville Communitorium was renamed the Communist Church by 1844. Barmby conducted a propaganda tour in the north and midlands in the winter of 1845–6 and forged links with the Dublin sect of White Quakers. In 1845 he combined with Frost to revive the Communist Chronicle, for which he translated some of Reybaud’s ‘Sketches of French socialists’, and wrote a philosophical romance entitled The Book of Platonopolis, which sought to fuse utopian fiction and modern science. However, Frost soon tired of Barmby’s sectarianism and separated from him in 1846, to establish the Communist Journal.

Frost’s competition with Barmby destroyed both journals but Barmby continued to proselytize in Howitt’s Journal, and contributed to the People’s Journal, Tait’s Magazine, Chambers’s Journal, and other periodicals. In 1847, he lectured at the Farringdon Hall, Poplar, London, and in July he convened a meeting at the John Street Institute in support of the Icarian settlements in Texas. It was probably to his friendship with W. J. Fox MP that Barmby owed his introduction to Unitarianism, following his post-1848 disillusionment with communism. After his return from revolutionary Paris, where he had gone in 1848 as Howitt’s representative and as the envoy of the Communist Church, he was successively minister at Southampton, Topsham, Lympstone, Lancaster, and Wakefield. He was one of the best-known ministers in the West Riding of Yorkshire and held his post in Wakefield for twenty-one years from 1858, leading the Wakefield congregation which included the industrialist Henry Briggs. He was also secretary of the West Riding Unitarian mission.

But Barmby always retained his liberal political convictions, and was closely involved in the Wakefield Liberal Association from 1859: and in 1867, he organised a large public meeting there in support of parliamentary reform and joined the National Association for Women’s Suffrage. Barmby was a member of the council of Mazzini’s International League and also supported Polish, Italian, and Hungarian freedom.

He died in Suffolk on 18th October 1881.

Some of this post was lifted from here

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Today in London history: a somewhat xenophobic riot, Haymarket theatre, 1738.

“Monday 9. Was a great Disturbance at the New Theatre in the Haymarket, where some French Players newly arriv’d from Paris, attempting to act the Comedy of L’Embarras des Riches, met with such rude Treatment, and were so interrupted with hissing, catcalling, ringing small Bells, knocking out the Candles, pelting, & notwithstanding the Guard of three Files of Musqueteers that they were forced at last to quit the Stage with Precipitation. The French Ambassador left the House at the Beginning of the disturbance; the Haymarket was full of People, and the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to Pieces.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, October, 1738)

London in the middle of the eighteenth century was a relatively cosmopolitan city, and that a significant number of non-native Londoners were Protestant refugees or of Huguenot ancestry. Many of the trades catering to the culture of affluence were practiced by crafts-people from the continent, including the wigmakers whom the letter writer threatens to unleash. The writer’s true feelings are revealed in the comment about French people in London making a fortune now that there was peace. There was obvious bitterness about the state of affairs that saw peace benefiting Britain’s enemies, even if they were immigrants to the country.

A vivid example of this bitterness is seen in the riot that greeted a French Company at the Little Haymarket in 1738. The riot occurred at an auspicious time. There was a growing discontent with the policies of Robert Walpole’s administration that had failed in the early 1730s to implement a highly unpopular excise scheme. By 1738 there was much opposition to the country’s foreign policy; in particular, the administration’s ambivalent relations with Spain. In March 1738 there were debates in the House of Commons over how to deal with Spanish naval activities in the Atlantic and Caribbean and in May parliament took steps to strengthen Britain’s naval squadrons in opposition to Walpole’s policy. Within a year, the failure of the Convention of Prado (an unpopular initiative to begin with) to stop Spanish incursions against British shipping, would lead Walpole to reluctantly declare war on Spain.

More directly associated with theatre, there was significant opposition to the Licensing Act of 1737, passed by the administration of Robert Walpole. While the Act was not universally decried, it did put people on the alert for abuses. There were substantial concerns about freedom of speech and what the act might bode for the liberty of the press.

The actual effects of the Licensing Act upon London theatres were immediately discernable. Two plays were censored, and two theatres, Goodman’s Fields and the Little Theatre in the Haymarket were closed down.  One consequential effect was an increase in the level of unemployment in the theatre. Moreover, unemployed English actors had been imprisoned for debt. In the midst of these developments came the news that a French company was being granted a license to perform at the vacant Little Theatre in the Haymarket. The company in question, led by Francisque Moylen, had arrived in London in early October 1738 and numbered some seventy persons. In the press the connection was made immediately between the official sanction of the company and the recently enacted prohibitory power of the administration through the Lord Chamberlain’s office. A correspondent to the Daily Advertiser remarked that it “seem[ed] to be a little unnatural that French Strollers should have a Superior Privilege to those of Our own Country.” A piece in the London Evening Post continued the attack.

With this sort of pre-publicity, it was not surprising that the theatre was extremely crowded when the Company eventually appeared on Monday, October 9th. Benjamin Victor, a theatrical writer and occasional administrator, arrived early and had a place “in the Centre of the Pit.” Victor provides an extremely vivid account of the evening’s events. Amongst the audience members assembling in the pit, he noted there were the justices

DeVeil and Manning, two Westminster magistrates. Justice DeVeil had been prominent during the Footman’s riots at Drury Lane theatre the previous year.

As was often the case with an evening’s theatrical entertainment, people began gathering in the house several hours before the performance was scheduled to begin. “The Leaders, that had the Conduct of the Opposition” were in the pit and “called aloud for the Song in Praise of English Roast Beef, which was accordingly Sung in the Gallery by a Person prepared for that purpose.” The whole house joined in on the choruses and “saluted the Close with three huzzas!” Whether or not everyone present actually sang, as Victor claimed in his rather enthusiastic eye-witness account of the events, others reported that there was a remarkable sense of unanimity amongst the audience. This is not something that was often a part of theatre riots. In most theatre riots there were divisions along class lines, attenuated by the tripartite seating arrangements. Very often sides were aligned according to the theatre section in which they sat. However, that was not the case on this occasion.

“Never appear’d at any Theatre a greater Unanimity,” wrote the correspondent for the London Evening Post.

At this point, with the play still some time off, Magistrate DeVeil decided to cal1 this exuberant display on the part of the audience a riot and made preparations to read the Riot Act. However, in the close quarters of the theatre auditorium his judgment was immediately disputed, and a public discussion was “carried on with some Degree of Decency on both Sides” as to whether or not this was actually the case. DeVeil then explained that he was there by the King’s command to maintain the monarch’s authority and was backed by a Company of guards, waiting outside the theatre. While no doubt DeVeil was concerned with the rapidly escalating demonstration, and was anxious to exert some sort of authority over the situation, these were the wrong words to use under the circumstances. Victor noted however, that there was a reasoned response from the audience to “these most arbitrary Threatenings” and “Abuse” of the King’s name. Purportedly they replied back to DeVeil:

That the Audience had a legal Right to shew their Dislike to any Play or Actor; that the common Laws of the Land were nothing but common Custom, and the antient Usage of the People; that the Judicature of the Pit had been acknowledged and acquiesced to, Time immemorial; and as the present Set of Actors were to take their Fate £rom the Public, they were free to receive them as they pleased.

There are a variety of important eighteenth century themes woven into this response. At the heart of the issue was the belief on the part of the audience that they had a legal right to show their displeasure based on principles of common law and precedent. Once again we see the idea of judgment as being a right and responsibility on the part of the audience. The ‘rule of law’ was a cherished idea in the minds of Englishmen and central to their political identit~.)~L egal matters were the subjects of much interest for the contemporary observer, including questions about the status of common law versus parliamentary statute.

This initial interaction between the magistrate DeVeil and the audience was a detailed example of the bargaining that was involved with’ the reading of the Riot Act in the confined, well lit theatre space. In outdoor demonstrations the Riot Act was sometimes read in absentia and was not guaranteed the same degree of focus as it was most times in the theatre. The confines of the auditorium made the reading of the Act even more theatrical than was the case outdoors. This is not to Say that negotiating didn’t take place outdoors, but that inside the theatre the process was enacted in a place that was constructed for performance. On this occasion Victor was able to pin down accurately the essentials of the bargaining that took place.

This initial encounter between DeVeil and the audience was only the beginning of a series of statements and counter statements from both sides in the dispute. Moreover events soon overtook the discussion. Near six o’clock, just prior to the beginning of the performance, the honoured guests of the evening arrived, including the French and Spanish Ambassadors with their wives, and Lord and Lady Gage as well as Sir T- R- (possibly Sir Thomas Robinson), who “all appeared in the Stage Box together!” Very soon after their arrival the stage curtain was raised, revealing several files of Grenadiers, with fixed bayonets , bracketing the performers onstage. “At this the whole Pit rose, and unanimously turned to the Justices, who sat in the Middle of it, to demand the Reason of such arbitrary Proceedings?” Again the justices were caught in the spotlight.

They claimed to know nothing about the troops being called onstage. Outraged members of the pit insisted that Colonel DeVeil, who earlier had acknowledged that he was their commanding officer, should order the troops off the stage. He quickly acquiesced and then disappeared.

With the troops routed, volleys of sound, both vocal and instrumental, greeted the initial dramatic performance. The level of noise drowned out any spoken words and a grand dance of 12 men and 12 women was begun. However “they were directly saluted with a Bushel or two of Peas, which made their Capering very unsafe.” The entertainment, Arlequin Poli par L’Amour was then attempted, but that, too, was impossible above the noise.

Finally magistrate DeVeil again made his presence known, standing on his seat in the pit, motioning for silence, and making the following proposal to the house:

“That if they persisted in the Opposition, he must read the Proclamation; that if they would permit the Play to go on, and to be acted through that Night, he would promise, (on his Honour) to lay their Dislikes, and Resentments to the Actors, before the King, and he doubted not but that a speedy End would be put to their acting.”

The audience replied “No Treaties, No Treaties!” indicating their impatience with diplomacy.

DeVeil then ordered the Guards to be readied and proceeded to ask for a candle to read the Riot Act. Victor suggests that DeVeil was only stopped by the reasoning of an individual close by him in the pit, who warned that the appearance of soldiers in the pit would lead to violence and the loss of life. Turning ”pale and passive,” DeVeil heeded the proffered advice. The performance onstage was restarted, but the uproar in the house resumed as well, and soon after the resumption of the programme, the French and Spanish ambassadors left amidst cheers from the house. Eventually, after the audience’s repeated insistence, the great curtain was finally brought down and the performance was over .

During the course of the riot inside the theatre, there had been little violence, either against the theatre property, or between individuals. Victor points to this with pride in his closing remarks on the riot. He was informed by a “Person of Distinction” that his name was seen on a list “lying on the Table of a great Duke” of individuals opposing the French players. When asked about it, Victor replied “that as the Opposition was conducted without Mischief” he was “honoured by being in that List.” Outside the theatre was a different matter. The torch of protest was passed, so to speak, and “the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to pieces” Furthermore the Spanish ambassadors, having been driven from the house, had the traces to their coaches cut.

In this instance, Victor no doubt summarises the spirit of many of the protesters, comparing the event to the heights of Britain’s military greatness: “I will venture to Say, that at no Battle gained over the French by the immortal MARLBOROUGH, the Shoutings could be more joyous than on this Occasion.” While Victor’s hyperbole situates the riot in the context of Britain’s conflict with her traditional enemies, France and Spain, the riot had also been a successful skirmish against the administration and a government that would pass a law so contrary to the spirit of British freedom as the Licensing Act.

As has been noted above, during the French Strollers riot there was a strong spirit of common cause among the various sections of the audience and the demonstration was a cooperative effort between the pit and the gallery, with the elite in the boxes offering little support to the French performers. The combined wrath of the audience was directed at a very select target, one in absentia, an administration that had exerted itself in a significant restrictive manner regarding the stage.

It was directly prompted by the Ambassadorial parties and their hosts, the soldiers onstage and Justice DeVeil, and finally by the blatant unfairness of a French Company being allowed to perform when the administration was preventing and indeed imprisoning English actors, even though only for debt.

(from GENTLE RIOTS? THEATRE RIOTS IN LONDON, 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie)

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

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