Today in London radical history, 1821: A meeting founds an Owenite Community in Clerkenwell

In the early 19th century, factory owner and social reformer Robert Owen developed a broadly Utopian utopian socialist philosophy. Owen came to influence an increasing number of followers and successors, especially among the growing working class and artisans. Owen’s ideas theorised a radical reform of society, along the lines of co-operation of those producing goods by their labour, from which they would benefit collectively, rather than the fruits of their labour merely enriching the capitalists, while the producers lived in poverty.

Owen and those influenced by him – often labelled Owenites – directly led to the development of the cooperative movement, although by the later nineteenth century, co-operative production had largely been replaced by co-operatives at the point of consumption…

Many Owenites were also involved in early trade unionism, and in political movements for reform (though Owen himself took a dim view of political organising).

The Owenite movement also undertook several experiments in the establishment of utopian communities organised according to communitarian and cooperative principles. One of the best known of these efforts, which were largely unsuccessful, was the project at New Harmony, Indiana, which started in 1825 and was abandoned by 1829, which Owen himself was closely associated with.

More on Owen’s ideas here

In the 1820s, London became a stronghold of Owenism, which flourished among the capital’s artisans and the growing working classes.

One early Owenite project was a short-lived commune, generally known as the Spa Fields Owenite Community.

The community was established in a number of properties at around Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, just to the north of the City of London. The community was based on Owen’s cooperative ideas, but was the immediate brainchild of Scotsman George Mudie (b. 1788), whose main claim to fame was his invention of the word ‘Owenism’ for the collection of co-operative ideas centred on Owen’s theories.

On 22 or 23 January 1821, a group of printers met at Mitchell’s Assembly Rooms, London, to discuss Mudie’s proposals for a community, and at this meeting a committee was appointed. The following day a constitution was drawn up stating that ‘The ultimate object of this Society is to establish a Village of Unity and Mutual Co-operation, combining Agriculture, Manufactures, and Trade, upon the Plan projected by Mr Owen of New Lanark’. The co-operators met thereafter at the Medallic Cabinet, 158 The Strand, to raise money. The plan was soon formulated to create a “Co-operative and Economical Society” of 200 families.

Mudie had almost simultaneously launched an Owenite journal. ‘The Economist’, partly to sell to raise funds for the new community. In the first issue, issued on 27 January 1821, a Prospectus for the proposed community was published, noting: ‘The great majority of the members will continue at their present employments—each male member paying one guinea weekly to the general fund’, for which he would receive board and accommodation for himself and family, sickness benefit and a share in communal property and capital. In the second issue of The Economist it was announced: ‘Poverty must continue, while Production is confined within the bounds of Consumption.’

The new Co-operative and Economic Society went on in the third issue of the Economist to discuss the merits of barter as a means of matching up people’s wants with supply of goods, but it was argued that considerable saving in expenditure would be forthcoming in the proposed community, as goods could be bought at wholesale prices. Each member was to contribute towards shares in units of five shillings and ‘to facilitate the distribution of goods, and for other social purposes, as many of the members as can conveniently quit their present residences, do live as nearly as possible together, in one or more neighbourhoods’.

The male members of the Society had to contribute a guinea to the central fund. There would be a communal kitchen and dining hall, plus there were plans for a school as well. The committee calculated that the community would save around £8,000 per year through its own manufacture of various items that it would use. Mudie believed that the community would be able to become independent. A London builder submitted plans for communal premises, and a lawyer, who was also a member of the Co-operative and Economical Society, advised that the co-operative body could come
within the provisions of protective legislation for friendly societies.

During this period the chairman was George Hinde and one prominent member was the printer Henry Hetherington, active in the ‘war of the unstamped’ and later publisher of the Poor Man’s Guardian, an influential radical unstamped newspaper. However, “disillusionment soon set in at the lack
of progress-a letter from ‘A Few Co-operative Economists’ pointed out that ‘four strangers who jointly bought a sheep at Smithfield had done more than all the meetings during the course of twenty
issues of The Economist.’

By November 1821 a commune had been established in houses at the corner of Bagnigge Wells Road (now Kings Cross Road) and Guildford Street East (now Attneave Street), Clerkenwell. The inhabitants became known as the Spa Fields Congregational Families. 21 families lived in a community, pooling resources and wages, ran a printing press (on which the Economist was printed) , and had a mini-health care system.

Unlike most other Owenite communes the residents, who were typically artisans such as cobblers and haberdashers, did outside work and did not work on the land.

Domestic arrangements were communal and the establishment included a hall used for eating and other activities. Rents were fixed-room charges were to range between two and four shillings weekly, including taxes and the use of dining room, stores, kitchen. Members decided, however, not to pool their incomes. A scale of weekly expenses was drawn up with maintenance for a man and wife at 145 5d; single men would also be obliged to pay 145/5d — the same charge as for a married couple-
because of the ‘communal value of a wife’s industry’.

Other features included a school, dispensary and a cooperative store, from which it was intended to set up a store from which the public were to be allowed to buy goods,

The women worked from 6am to 8pm, and the children were also kept busy “without a moment’s intermission”. The community advertised various services that they would provide, such as cobbling, painting, haberdashery, etc., and they also announced that they would be opening a school run on approved Fellenbergian lines.

The community also set up a “monitor” system whereby each monitor looked after one person and acted as his “confessor”. This was a typically Owenite feature – part of the personal monitors’ role was to admonish ‘bad behaviour’, ie enforce moral codes of behaviour…

The small size and the reduced degree of separation from the outside world were not strictly in keeping with Owen’s own views on such communities: he tended to favour larger communes, and a more detached approach from society.

Some indication of the range of skills of this small group of London co-operators is given in a notice inviting orders for work in ‘carving, gilding, and for boots and shoes, gentlemen’s clothes,
dressmaking and millinery, umbrellas, hardware (including stoves, kettles, etc), cutlery, transparent landscape window-blinds, and provisions’.

The community ran from 1821 to 1824. But George Mudie found himself working very hard to maintain the community, and this affected the quality of his paper, the Economist, and his other job as editor of the Sun [not the scum-sucking Murdoch rag of today, an earlier radical paper.] The publication of the Economist ceased in March 1822 and the community continued for another two years.

The commune was said to have ended when Mudie was forced to leave or lose his outside editorial job, so it seems to have relied heavily on Mudie’s organisational ability to hold it together.

The reasons for its demise are not known. Robert Owen himself had no direct involvement in the Spa Fields Community. Mudie later criticised Owen, alleging he had failed either to back the experiment, or even undermined it, which Mudie suggested had caused its eventual failure. He felt Owen had grown arrogant and refused to tolerate anything but slavish obedience, and had become sidetracked by abstract philosophical questions and attacks on religion… “Even if I had not differed from some of your tenets as to religion and morals and even if I had not been too practical a man for the waste of time consumed in never-ending metaphysical disquisitions and discussions …I was, and am, too
much of a politician not to be aware, that the utmost result of your ‘Views and objects’ would only be the institution of a sect… and even that has not yet taken place; while the cause of co-operation, if it has not been entirely ruined, has been retarded by your mischievous efforts… Now, Sire, and believe me that it gives me real and heartfelt pain to speak thus plainly to one whom I once fervently admired, esteemed and loved—I well knew, what indeed you will find, if you enquire, is well known to every man of any intellect, who has ever been closely connected with you, or who has closely observed your tactics—I well knew that you will act only with blind worshippers.”

Mudie continued to give weekly lectures in London on the subject of co-operation, and later immersed himself in another community, at Orbiston, Scotland, run by Abram Combe, but could not agree with Combe and also left this community after a year or so.





Spotlight on London’s historical anarchist spaces: Centro Iberico

Centro Ibérico was an important meeting space and community centre, run by anarchists in London through the 1970s and early 1980s. It became a focal point for an international class struggle based anarchist movement, and an organising centre for supporting anarchist and other political prisoners through the Anarchist Black Cross.

The origins of the Centro as an anarchist space can be traced to a meeting between Miguel Garcia Garcia and Stuart Christie in a Spanish prison…

“My first meeting with Miguel García García took place in the mid-1960s in la primera galleria of Madrid’s Carabanchel Prison. He was in transit to another penitentiary and was in what was known as ‘periodo’ – a fortnight of sanitary isolation, ostensibly to prevent or limit the spread of disease. I was the practice nurse (practicante) for the 7th Gallery, a position that gave me the run of most of the prison and allowed me to liaise with comrades in different wings, especially
with isolated transit prisoners or prisoners in solitary confinement.
Miguel passed through Carabanchel on a number of occasions over the years, going backwards and forwards between penitentiaries and Yeserias, Spain’s main prison hospital in Madrid.

Miguel and I struck up a close relationship, one that was to endure for a decade and a half until his death in 1981. What particularly impressed me about him on our first meeting was his undoubted strength of character — forged by his experiences in the Resistance as an urban
guerrilla and ‘falsificador’, and in Franco’s prisons — and the extraordinary quality of his spoken English, a language he had acquired entirely from English-speaking prisoners. No other political prisoners I came across during my three years imprisonment in Franco’s jails had
Miguel’s mastery of language, or his skills as a communicator. Our conversations centred on how to expose the repressive nature of the Francoist regime and raise the profile of Franco’s political prisoners in the international media, something I was in a position to do given my
relatively privileged position as a foreign political prisoner and the access I had to the outside world through my by then extensive network of friendly functionaries in Carabanchel itself.
In 1967, following receipt of a personal pardon from Franco, I was released from prison and, on my return to Great Britain, I became involved with the resuscitated Anarchist Black Cross, an anarchist prisoners’ aid organisation. The focus of our activities was international, but Franco’s prisoners were, naturally, because of my history and the continuing and intensifying repression in Spain, top of our agenda. The case of Miguel Garcia Garcia, one of the Anarchist Black
Cross’s most prominent correspondents, was one that we regularly pursued with the international press and through diplomatic channels.

Released in 1969, after serving twenty years of a thirty-year sentence (commuted from death), Miguel came to live with me in London. It took him a little time to acclimatise to the profound social and technological changes that had taken place in the world since his arrest as a young man in the Barcelona of 1949, changes that were even more profound in the ‘tolerant’ and ‘permissive’ London society of 1969. In fact, so great was the trauma that he literally was unable to speak for some months. The shock of his release had triggered a paralysis in some
of the muscles in his throat, and, through Octavio Alberola, then living under effective house arrest in Liege, we arranged for him to see a consultant in Belgium about his condition.

The time with Octavio was well-spent and brought him up-to-date with what was happening within the European movement and the role of the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement, which operated under the banner of the Grupo Primero de Mayo, a continuation of the clandestine anarchist Defensa Interior (DI), which had been tasked with the assassination of Franco.
The First of May Group had recently emerged from the sabotaged (by Germinal Esgleas and Vicente Llansola) ruins of Defensa Interior (DI) as an international, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist revolutionary organisation, structured to carry out spectacular direct actions. It
took its name from the first operation carried out on 1 May 1966 when members of the group kidnapped the ecclesiastic adviser to the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, Monsignor Marcos Ussia. Soon the group began taking in a much broader area of attack targeting, in particular, the US and European governments for their complicity in the imperialist war in Vietnam.

Back in London, mainly with the moral and financial support of comrade Albert Meltzer, my co-editor of Black Flag and the driving force behind the revived Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), Miguel entered into a dynamic new phase of his life as the International Secretary of the ABC and a pivotal figure in the libertarian resistance to the Franco regime. With Albert he embarked on lengthy speaking tours of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, West and East Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and Italy, talking to a new generation of radicalised young Europeans about anarchism, international solidarity and, of course, the need to confront tyranny with practical cooperation and direct action.

It could be said that the result of one of Miguel’s early talks — in a crowded meeting room at the offices of Freedom Press in London’s Whitechapel High Street in February 1970, shortly after his arrival in Britain — was to give rise to the so-called Angry Brigade, Britain’s first urban guerrilla group. Miguel’s voice was still weak so I had to do much of the talking for him, but as the evening wore on and the story of his adventures and deprivations at the hands of the Francoist authorities unfolded, that and the fact that his revolutionary spirit and determination remained clearly undiminished, it was clear he had made a deep emotional impression on the fifty or so young people in the audience. Here, in front of them, in person, was someone who had been in direct confrontation with a fascist state, who had been totally involved in resistance struggles, and who had paid a heavy penalty. Nor was it a purely historical struggle. Franco remained in power and a new internationally coordinated anarchist action group, the First of May Group, was carrying on that struggle.

At Freedom Press that February night in 1970, the significance, the importance of the First of May Group, and the tradition it — and Miguel — sprang from, was not lost on the people crammed into the small room to hear Miguel Garcia’s story. Among those present were some of the core activists later convicted in the historic ‘Angry Brigade’ trial: John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Anna Mendelson.

Miguel’s flat in Upper Tollington Park, near North London’s Finsbury Park, soon drew visiting anarchists from all over the world. It also began to attract police attention once Miguel launched (with Albert’s help) the Centro Ibérico and International Libertarian Centre in London…”
(Remembering Miguel Garcia by Stuart Christie)

Around the time Miguel Garcia came to London, a group of Spanish Communists, who had been running a meeting place in a parish church hall in Holborn, styling it the Centro Ibérico, moved out to bigger premises and changed the name (According to Luis Monferrer Catalán the space they set up was the Centro Machado in 1968 in Notting Hill Gate).

Miguel started a new Centro Ibérico from the church hall, the Parish Hall of Holy Trinity, Kingsway (directly opposite Holborn station) and also launched an International Libertarian Centre, “a cosmopolitan venue that became a magnet for anarchists everywhere; it
had been many years since there was such a thing as an international anarchist club in London, and its success was entirely due to Miguel’s powerful personality… it was an added bonus that we retained the old connections with visiting Spanish workers that the CP had carefully built up…” (Stuart)

“I warned him about the problems of serving drink there, pointing out the acting minister was Dr Donald Soper, famously an advocate of total abstention. He belonged to the neighbouring Methodist centre and was standing in for the Anglican vicar, who had the usual small
congregation. Miguel assured me, “I know priests. You don’t have to tell me, a Spaniard, about these holy fathers, as they call themselves. I will offer him a glass of wine and he will agree to everything”.
Fortunately Dr Soper never came to the hall while we were there, possibly having other things to do on a Sunday, so this interesting theory was never tested.
The last of Spain’s exiled confederal families gathered there. They had made themselves quite an interesting community in London, keeping together like an extended family. The majority had settled around Portobello Road, Notting Hill, where the original CNT-MLE offices had been, though with the growth of families they extended to the suburbs.
The “Centro” was able to put them in touch with a new generation arising in Spain and with Resistance activists, but the ghost of the years of ossified bureaucracy and passivism had not finally been laid, here or elsewhere.
The hall became popular with the Spanish community generally, resident and visiting, and Miguel made them so much at home that we had to have two halls, one Spanish-speaking and the other a babble of tongues. The Spanish accepted the fact that it was an anarchist centre, even those who had grown up under Franco who tried to obliterate the memory of anarchism and the Basque and Catalan tongues. It would have made [Franco] sick to hear anarchism expounded not only in English and German, which he wouldn’t have minded on the grounds they deserved it for permitting heresy, but in Castilian, Catalan, Basque and even Galician, the
language of his native province which, incidentally, he hated most of all.”

Visiting speakers included Jose Peirats, the historian of Spanish anarchism, author of The CNT in the Spanish Revolution who gave a lecture in June 1971 in the parish hall to 200 people: “The libertarian [movement] was well represented (some 150 or so of those present) ranging from exiles of thirty years – and their children and grandchildren – to immigrant workers and students, visitors on a temporary basis and new exiles. The rest of the 200 included some communist critics.”
(Black Flag, v.2, n.6, June 1971)

“Before long we were having separate meetings for gallego (Galician) speakers. When it was proposed, I remember telling them in my usual rambling way about Lloyd George at the Versailles conference who had read, or glanced at, a scientific article asserting the Galicians
were the same people as the Welsh. He opposed the retaining of Galicia by Austria saying he objected to “his Welsh people” being under the domination of “Huns” not realising Galicia in Spain was not Galicia in Austria/Poland. An American woman who happened to be present told me afterwards that her parents had fled from Roznow (in the other Galicia) and Lloyd George’s mistake ruined thousands of lives when Poland took over from Austria, which made the anecdote less amusing.
Another casual visitor wanted to know more about the Angry Brigade, almost as soon as that expression was heard. It was hard to answer his questions, even if I hadn’t suspected he was a police agent. Like many of an authoritarian frame of mind, he thought it a centrally directed
conspiracy, and that I was a sort of PRO to its Central Committee. He actually used terms like “political wing of your armed struggle”. Miguel said to me in Spanish, “Ask yourself. Who would want to know so much?”
The visitor reddened and I suppose he understood. Would a spy have blushed? But he never commented. It didn’t matter because all I knew and had to say was already expressed
in the pages of Black Flag, and occasionally picked up by the mainstream press. From the tenor of his questions the inquisitive visitor sounded more to me like an emissary from the IRA or Sinn Fein trying to pick up allies — the “troubles” were just re-re-starting. When he did refer to Ireland he referred to the danger of fascism, and the Nazi-clerico-fascist groupings in what he called the Free State (an expression only used by diehard Republicans or diehard Tories, neither of whom recognised the legitimacy of the Republic). According to him, only our co-operation with nationalism in the North could prevent the spread of fascist nationalism. I didn’t agree with Miguel that we were dealing with a police spy or agent-provocateur but the political
argument sounded dodgy.
Another not particularly welcome guest was a young German who came just as I arrived, from working late on Sunday, to help with the sweeping-up after the meeting and who, between discarding his cigarette ends on the floor while I was doing it, raved at me for my alleged support of the Baader-Meinhof ‘Gang’ of which he knew only the reported press garbage.
At first patiently (for me anyway) I told him he failed to understand the clash between anarchists and Leninists that was going on in Germany.
(“But I am a German, of course I know what is happening in my time” — “I bet your father never said that ” — “Ah, you are a racialist”). Somewhat hot and impatient with clearing up his dog-ends after a day’s work and answering tired old pacifist cliches I finally shouted “Piss off” and
chased him out. Ted Kavanagh commented drily that it was a very witty reply and restored my good humour, but the outraged student went away to denounce me in a pacifist paper as a “middle-aged, middle-class man who only believes in violence”. To be considered “middle-class” by an earnest student when you’re pushing a broom after him would excuse a
belief in violence, even if it left one or two more besides.
On the other hand there were so many wonderful people who came along that it would be impossible to try to mention them all. I felt proud to have gained so much respect and affection which more than compensated for the hatred I seemed to generate from those outside of the movement and class for which we fought.
Amongst the activists were some Irish Anarchists trying to build up a class struggle movement in Ireland and get away from the old routine of workers in the North fighting each other for the slums and routine jobs, and in the South yielding to apathy. They did great work for the Black
Cross for prisoners abroad, but soon after brought down on their heads the full vindictiveness of the Republic for daring to try to break the mould of Irish politics.” (Albert Meltzer, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels)

The Anarchist Black Cross had been set up in London in the late 1960s, by Stuart and Albert, to offer practical support for the many anarchist comrades who had been arrested in Spain, resisting the Franco regime; usually charged with “banditry and terrorism”. Groups like Amnesty International would not support these activists as they were engaged in active ‘violent’ class struggle, and Amnesty’s policy was, and generally remains, to decline to defend those accused of crimes of violence, whether they committed them or not. This meant they defended those innocent of fighting the State and only those victimised for their innocuous beliefs were helped. This included editors and publishers, scientists and philosophers, but never workers. The
Communist Party raised large amounts for their own members through various front organisations but the resistance, certainly in Spain, was out in the cold.
The Black Cross publicised the cases of Spanish anarchist prisoners, and supported them and their families financially; later, its activities spread around the world, and ABC groups sprang up all over the place over the next 40 years… It continues today.

In July 1972, Black Flag reported “Over the last four weekends we have met comrades from France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Canada, U.S.A., Jamaica, Australia, South Africa and even some from London… We are doing our best to transform the Centro Iberico meetings into an international centre which will have its own premises… also a place where, separately, Spanish immigrant workers can meet.”

Haverstock Hill

Albert Meltzer, striking a pose in the Centro 1976.

In June 1973, the above desire for their own premises was made concrete: the Centro Ibérico moved to a large basement, at 83a Haverstock Hill, near Chalk Farm, Camden. To this important space came many extraordinary people, including survivors from innumerable political upheavals.

“… The printing press [on which Black Flag and other anarchist material was printed] was used by Ted Kavanagh and Anna Blume in a huge basement at Haverstock Hill, [after the demise of the Wooden Shoe bookshop], which otherwise was the rehearsal room of a pop group. The
group were on a weekly rent from the bookmaker’s shop above, replacing a religious youth group (from a neighbouring church or synagogue, I do not know which). Their leader/parson/rabbi or whoever was concerned had leased it from the shop above when it was a greengrocer’s and the basement was virtually uninhabitable. They repaired it well but when the shop changed hands to become a bookmaker’s the guru opposed both change
of user and the betting licence. As Mammon won, they either went or were evicted and the pop group took over. After a year or so it found itself no longer in harmony with the scene and Ted was left on his own.
Without notifying the landlord of change of plan and letting him think it was still the same pop group (he never appeared), we made it into the new International Libertarian Centre/Centro Ibérico, an anarchist club to which came wonderful young people from all over the world as well as survivors from innumerable political upheavals….” (Albert Meltzer)

Social gatherings were held on Saturdays and Sundays. Veteran anarchist insurrectionary, artist and performer John Olday launched a regular cabaret night: “John Olday’s Anarchist Cabaret opened with a swing at the International Libertarian Centre with three performers putting over a strong political cabaret act – with strong overtones of Berlin of the twenties – supported by others; with added support in the next cabaret a fortnight later (they are taking place alternate Saturdays). Still in its early stages and bearing marks of improvisation, the political comment in song is making its impact and despite some weaknesses may develop into the nucleus of what we hope will be Anarchist Theatre…” (Black Flag v.3, n.9 [March] 1974)

Emilienne Morin and her daughter Colette Durruti, 1973.

Visitors included the Spanish militant and historian José Peirats, and Emilienne Durruti, partner of Buenaventura Durruti. Another regular at the Centro Ibérico was ETA leader Pedro Ignacio Pérez Beotegui, also known as ‘Wilson’, who was involved in the planning of the December 1973 assassination of Franco’s protégé and deputy, prime Minister Carrero Blanco.

“When the centre had established contacts in Spain, one of the most pressing demands upon it was for contraceptive fitting or abortion. It was illegal in Spain, and pregnancy for unmarried girls was a disaster. As soon as the sexually liberated got in touch with an organisation
fighting oppression, that was the first thing they asked of it. We had to accede to the demands of a steady trickle of young women who turned up at the door, with the fee for an operation and the return fare, nothing more. They never realised they had also to pay a doctor’s
fee, nor had they reckoned on the extra few days’ stay required. It became a standard requirement for the Centre to find a room, and raise the extra fee, and it was embarrassing for me that I always needed to take them by car and arrange matters with the clinic. The receptionist never said anything, but I wonder what she thought seeing me coming in
week after week with a different senorita.
At one time Miguel approached a socialist feminist group to see if they would co-operate, as they had many resources we lacked, as well as access to funding. They were most hostile. They claimed we were encouraging private medicine. I do not know if they expected the young
women to wait until Spain had a National Health Service, defiant of the Catholic Church into the bargain, but it would have taken a lot more than nine months, and the penalties they faced for motherhood were severe.”

Miguel Garcia was the heart of Centro Ibérico; according to Stuart Christie the Haverstock Hill space was “entirely [Miguel’s] creation and he spent his whole time nurturing it, cutting himself off from any paid employment, even though he was well past what should have been retiring age anyway.
Through Albert, however, he did extract a small pension from the British government.”

Albert Meltzer chatting in the Centro, 1975.

[Miguel] had a way of making you think that. He turned the basement into an internationally
known place to go if you needed help in London; somewhere to find a welcome, food, a bed for the night, or a place to squat. He also brought people together from all over the world, becoming the birthplace for many affinity groups that were active in Central and South America, and Europe.
In 1970-71 Albert was working in Fleet Street as a telephone reporter/copy-taker for The Daily Sketch, a right-wing British national tabloid newspaper, and after much discussion and argument — and believe me Miguel could be extremely argumentative and pugnacious — Albert finally convinced Miguel to write his memoirs. And so it was that the typescript of what was to become Franco’s Prisoner was hammered out between Miguel and Albert and typed up in a disused back room of one of Britain’s foremost Conservative populist newspapers — and paid for on the time of Associated Newspapers.

Miguel Garcia chatting in the kitchen at the Centro, 1975. He wore that pyjama jacket in the style of a housecoat or smoking jacket!

The book, Franco’s Prisoner, was published in 1972 by the Rupert Hart-Davis publishing house, [which had originally commissioned Stuart’s book The Christie File, but reneged on the contract at the last moment because of the allegedly contentious nature of the material.]
As well as providing wide-ranging advice from abortion to legal aid to squatting, Miguel played a key role in many of the international defence campaigns run by the International Anarchist Black Cross at the time, including those of Julian Millan Hernandez and Salvador Puig Antich in Spain, and Noel and Marie Murray, two members of the Dublin Anarchist Group sentenced to death in Ireland for their alleged part in killing an off-duty Garda officer during a bank robbery in Dublin, in 1975.

Salvador Puig Antich had been a regular visitor who accompanied Albert and Miguel on some of their speaking tours around Britain. Returning to France in August 1973 to take part in a conference of young activists to set up the anarchist defence group known as the MIL (Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación), Salvador Puig Antich was involved a series of
spectacular bank expropriations across Catalonia and Southern France. In September 1973, however, Puig Antich walked into a police ambush in Barcelona’s Calle Gerona in which he was wounded and a Francoist policeman was shot dead. Puig Antich, 25, was garrotted in Barcelona’s Modelo prison on 2 March 1974.

After the military coup in Argentina on 24 March 1976, Miguel persuaded a lot of people to ‘lose’ their passports so that comrades fleeing to escape the Junta could adopt a temporary identity change. In June 1976 he installed a printing press in the basement at Upper Tollington Park, on which he printed a number of anarchist books in Spanish, including Anarquismo y Lucha de Clases (the Spanish translation of Floodgates of Anarchy, written by Albert Meltzer and myself) that he distributed in Spain. As well as printing identity documents, he also got together a group of young Spanish comrades in London to produce their own anarchist paper Colectivo Anarquista.”

In the late 1970s Miguel returned to his native Barcelona where he fulfilled one of his life’s ambitions – to open his own bar. La Fragua, a former forge at No 15 Carrer de la Cadena in Barcelona’s Raval District… As with the Centro Ibérico, La Fragua became a Mecca for anarchists and libertarians from all over the world…


Phil Ruff, who was centrally involved with Centro Ibérico, has sent us an account of the centre at Haverstock Hill:

The Centro

I first heard about “The Centro” – Centro Ibérico/International Libertarian Centre – when it first opened in June 1973, through an announcement in Black Flag. I was still living in Birmingham then, but was already in contact with Albert Meltzer (1920-1996) and Miguel Garcia Garcia (1908-1981), because the Birmingham Anarchist Group was very active in the campaign of solidarity with the new wave of anarchist resistance (MIL-GAC) in Catalonia. The Centro was really Miguel’s baby, but Albert paid all the bills and usually carried the can too!

Phil Ruff in the kitchen at the Centro, 1976 with a copy of Marcus Graham’s Man! (Cienfuegos Press, 1974).

The Centro occupied a large basement underneath a bookmaker’s shop at 83A Haverstock Hill, London NW3, half-way between Belsize Park and Chalk Farm tube stations. The front door was just round the corner in Steele’s Road. When you opened the front door there was a small room to the left, where John Olday (1905-1977) lived in bohemian squalor. To the right a steep flight of stairs dropped down to the basement premises. At the bottom was a large room used for meetings, film-shows and for a brief period John Olday’s “anarchist cabaret”. Parallel to the stairs, abutting the meeting room, was a smaller room which housed an offset printing press belonging to Ted Kavanagh, an Australian comrade (born in Melbourne, 1936), on which he printed Black Flag. Between the print room and the stairs was a short passage leading to a small kitchen, facing the meeting room. The Kitchen opened out on one side to a tiny courtyard and outside toilet. The wall opposite the courtyard was used to display anarchist papers and a few books. At the far end of the room was a low counter, behind which sat Miguel Garcia and a gas cooker, on which Miguel would whip up delicious paella. Miguel also dispensed red wine and cans of beer to customers, though never actually bothering to acquire a drinks licence.

As the name suggests, the Centro was a focus for visiting activists from Spain and Portugal, the older generation of CNT exiles in London who had taken part in the civil war, and a steady stream of women seeking abortions unavailable in Franco’s Spain and people needing a place to stay or wanting advice on squatting or finding jobs. Miguel helped unmeasurable people in this regard. The “International Libertarian Centre” bit of it covered everybody else; not just British anarchists but comrades from all over the world, becoming in the process the birthplace for many affinity groups that were active in Central and South America, and Europe.

My first visit to Haverstock Hill was not long after the Centro opened. It was a film night, showing a British film “Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition” (Maurice Hatton, 1970), starring a pre-Sweeney John Thaw as a sex-mad Trotskyist struggling to come to terms with the May ’68 uprising in Paris. The place was quite crowded for that; a mixture English, French, Spanish, Argentinean, Italian, German and Danish comrades.  It wasn’t always like that though. After I moved to London in the summer of 1974 (aged 22), I accompanied Miguel on endless trips from Finsbury Park to Haverstock Hill, almost every night until it closed in September 1976, to open up the Centro so that someone would be there if anyone dropped in. Often it was just me and Miguel looking at the paint peel off the walls and having a drink, but if someone did drop by Miguel would immediately make them welcome, cook up a paella, and start weaving his magic. He was without doubt a great communicator and would have made a wonderful hostage negotiator. Everybody left the Centro feeling they were Miguel’s best friend, and ready to slay dragons.

Stuart Christie (1946-2020) and Brenda Christie (née Earl, 1949-2019)

The Centro also provided a venue for meetings of the Black Flag group, which when I joined it in 1974 consisted of Albert Meltzer, Miguel Garcia, John Olday, Ted Kavanagh, Lynn Hudelist, Iris Mills and Graham Rua (a New Zealander, Graham died on 14 January, 2020), plus Stuart and Brenda Christie, who were living then in a flat near Wimbledon Common under Brenda’s maiden name as “Mr and Mrs Earl”. Stuart’s acquittal in the “Angry Brigade” trial in December 1972 was bitterly resented by Special Branch, and they vowed to get him by fair means or foul.  Also, a failed attempt by Spanish and French police to implicate Stuart in the 1974 abduction of a Spanish banker in Paris by the GARI, in solidarity with anarchist prisoners in Spain, meant that a lot of police attention, as well as interest from several European security agencies, was focused on what went on in the Centro. Ted and Lynn took this as good reason to move to Australia and open a bookshop. And around May 1975 Stuart and Brenda also deemed it prudent to move out of London, opening a tea-shop in Yorkshire; followed not long afterwards by Iris Mills and Graham Rua, who moved up to Huddersfield. The Black Flag group in London was reduced to Albert, Miguel, John Olday and myself. John fell out with Miguel shortly afterwards and retreated upstairs to his tiny room to concentrate on his idiosyncratic bulletin, “Mit-Teilung”. From then on the bulk of the editorial work fell to Albert and myself; sending copy up to Stuart and Brenda (“Marigold”), who between them took care of the typesetting, layout and despatch.

One funny incident at the Centro, after Stuart and Brenda had departed to Yorkshire, involved Jaime Pozas de Villena (died, 14 Feb. 2017), a leading figure in the “ácratas” student revolt (1967-1969), First of May Group and CNT, who had been in prison with Miguel Garcia and Luis Edo.  I arrived to find him with his trousers down, in a distressed state, injecting himself in the bum with penicillin. He and several other young dudes had all unfortunately been struck down suddenly by a dose of the clap – contracted it was said from the same young lady! She was later exposed as an informant for the Spanish Embassy in London; one of the more unconventional means of targeting the Spanish resistance! Miguel was doing his best to supply wine and sympathy, but he obviously thought it was hilarious.

Other groups often rented the meeting room in the Centro. One was called Solidarity for Social Revolution (a split from Solidarity I think – someone with a better memory and more interest in leftist esoterica than me will know all about this). My only interest was that among the people who turned up to the meetings were two veterans of the Communist Party in the old Jewish East End, Joe Jacobs (author of Out of the Ghetto, 1978) and his pal Arnold Feldman, who invariably escaped to the kitchen to swap tall stories of bygone struggles with Miguel over a few glasses of wine. Another memorable character who often dropped in with Albert Meltzer was Joe Thomas, “Father of the Chapel” in Fleet Street and a copy-taker on The Guardian, who for years was the lone ranger of Council Communism in London. One afternoon Joe got into a long conversation with Albert and a vibrant French lady of a certain age about Spanish labour struggles. After the French woman eventually left to catch her train, Joe turned to Albert and remarked in awe that the lady seemed to know a lot about the Spanish anarchists. Albert erupted into fits of laughter – she should do, he said, her name is Emilienne Morin – she used to be married to Buenaventura Durruti!

Steele’s Road: Phil Ruff outside the almost historic front door to Centro Ibérico, April 2018.

The Centro was eventually forced to leave Haverstock Hill in September 1976 after the landlord, who owned the betting shop upstairs, wanted to turn the basement into a swish gambling club. I remember him coming down the stairs to conduct negotiations with Miguel, with a huge minder in tow, who looked like an extra from central casting for a remake of The Krays, whom he introduced politely as his “lawyer”! He received poetic justice in 1979, when the gambling club was raided by plain-clothed detectives of the anti-terrorist squad investigating the “Person Unknown” case. The bouncers on the door, thinking the cops were rival villains, turned the raid into a full-scale brawl; an interesting indication of how quickly police intelligence falls out of date. The anarchists were long gone!

Afterwards we moved briefly to a dreary church hall in North London before transferring to a classroom in a squatted former school at 421 Harrow Road – but it was never the same after leaving Haverstock Hill.

Miguel eventually moved back to Barcelona to open an anarchist bistro (La Fragua) in the historic Barrio Chino, but kept-on his flat in Finsbury Park as a refuge. He died of TB in a London hospital in December 1981 and was cremated in Muswell Hill.
Philip Ruff

Philip Ruff is the author of “A Towering Flame: The Life & Times of the Elusive Latvian Anarchist Peter the Painter” (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2019). Available from:


John Olday performing at his “anarchist cabaret”. Philip Ruff: “I have absolutely no idea how that grand piano ever got into the basement down the Centro’s steep stairs!”

Postscript: According to Albert Meltzer, “we lost the old Centre in Haverstock Hill… through the carelessness of John Olday. He returned to Germany from Australia, where he promoted gay cabaret of the German Twenties type, and found to his surprise that in his twenty years absence from the anarchist scene the Springer Press had made him famous. The opening of the German police files from Bismarck to Hitler, had encouraged academics to write about the German movement they had previously ignored. Olday was cast as the link between the old and the new on the basis of being the only German they knew, by reason of his copious if little known writing, who would fill the gap between the anti-Nazi resistance and the renaissance after the war.

He accordingly found entertainment work in Germany, even on the nonconformistic gay scene, utterly impossible and came to England. He had a small amount of cash which soon ran out (for some reason he could or would not take the pension or social security to which he had to be entitled) and contacted me to see if I could help. I put him up in a room of the Haverstock Hill club, explaining it was officially uninhabitable because of the rats in the cellar. When the landlord found out he was living there, because of his complaints to him about the rats, we all got evicted. The landlord was outraged to find we had been running a club, because of the profits he realised he was missing, and once we were out applied for a licence ostensibly in the name of what he thought was an “already running Spanish club”. As it was at the height of the “Persons Unknown” case it got raided a few weeks later by police looking for arms, surprised to find cigar-smoking punters playing baccarat instead.”

The Centro Iberico squatted school in West London

Other spaces became the focus for the small groups of class struggle anarchists around
Black Flag and ‘Anarchy’ magazine… A London anarchist centre was planned and eventually opened in Wapping, as the Autonomy Centre. Meanwhile, in Brixton, the former Sabaar
Bookshop was squatted again and re-launched as the anarchist 121 Bookshop.

Centro Ibérico itself continued to meet weekly for a while at the Community Centre, Archway Rd., London N19 (a converted church directly opposite Highgate Tube).

Then (as Phil Ruff says above) it was later set up in West London, at 421 Harrow Road alongside the canal, in a former school. It was occupied sometime around 1977 – that year, Miguel Garci wrote about the activities there in Black Flag: “[…] The CNT locals are mostly open all day, but particularly frequented in the evenings. Each union is producing its own bulletins, in addition to which some produce newspapers, as well as the national and regional newspapers. Then too there are numerous local publications of the grassroots type – for this purpose as many offset lithos and especially duplicating machines as possible are needed. There are many comrades who learned to use a litho thanks to the Centro Iberico in London: supplying lithos and duplicators will help preserve that traditional diversity of publication that always characterised our movement in Spain – and keep alive our many years of international co-operation.” (Black Flag, v.5, n.2, 1977)

Events held here included a centenary commemoration of the birth of Joe Hill, on 7 October 1979, and an Anarcha-feminist conference in December 1979, according to notices in anarchist mags of the time..

“An anarchist feminist weekend is planned for December 7, 8, 9 at the Centro Iberico, 421a Harrow Rd, London (Westbourne Pk nearest tube) for women only. There will be workshops on: video, self defence, ‘creative destruction”, as well as discussion workshops on internationalism, on ‘living and work situations‘ and others. Poetry, films and other entertainment are also planned, and a creche, food and accommodation are available. In conjunction with the weekend there will be an open discussion with both men and women on ‘Sexism in the Anarchist Movement‘ on Saturday, 8 December, 7 pm, at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London W Cl . This is seen as an attempt to discuss the problems of sexism through direct contact with men and women, rather than dealing with it in a separatist way. Refreshments, a film show, and anarchist feminist literature. Women attending the Centro Iberico workshops over the weekend should bring sleeping bags.” (Freedom, November 1979).

Another event held at the Harrow Road Centro was ‘Beyond the Bullshit’, an anarchist weekend of discussion, debate and education, which took place in mid-June 1982, organised largely by the collective running the 121 anarchist centre in Brixton. Workshops were held on anarcho-syndicalism, anarcha-feminism, organising protests, self-help, solidarity and more… Around 150 people attended. Read a report from Freedom anarchist newspaper.

After the demise of the short lived Autonomy Centre in Wapping, the Harrow Road Centro hosted the anarcho-punk gigs by the Mob, Conflict, Poison Girls and the Subhumans, as well as industrial art-performance posers Throbbing Gristle), which had been held at the Autonomy Centre… Gigs ended in 1982 sometime, possibly when the building was evicted?

“The Spanish anarchists lived in the classrooms upstairs and allowed us to convert a former assembly room downstairs into a performance space. A stage was built using old cookers from the kitchens covered with carpet retrieved from skips. Although the Centro was evicted at the end of 1982, for a few month during the spring and summer it  was used once a week for anarchist punk gigs.”

There’s lots more on the punk gigs at the Harrow Road Centro on the Kill Your Pet Puppy site, and some photos here and here

Until recently graffiti of the First of May anti-Franco anarchist group (who were closely linked to the Angry Brigade) could be seen on the wall of the school on Portobello Road.


Dedicated to the memory of Miguel Garcia Garcia, Albert Meltzer and Stuart & Brenda Christie

Miguel Garcia leaving the kitchen at the Centro, 1976.

Related items worth a read

Miguel Garcia’s Story, edited by Albert Meltzer and published by the Miguel Garcia Memorial Committee in association with Cienfuegos Press, 1982.

Remembering Miguel Garcia, Stuart Christie.

Franco’s Prisoner, Miguel Garcia Garcia.

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, Albert Meltzer.

There’s a list of events at the various incarnations of the Centro Ibérico gleaned from the anarchist press put together by the Kate Sharpley Library.