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

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