Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Chartist rallies in Clerkenwell leads to fighting with police

For several days from the 29th May 1848, 1000s of supporters of the chartist movement assembled on Clerkenwell Green. A general order to police to disperse all chartist meeting led to fighting in the area, which spread to others areas of London…

Chartism, the world’s first mass political working class movement, demanded universal suffrage for all; i.e. the extension of the vote to all workingmen (although there was a vocal female element within Chartism). There were two wings of Chartism: physical force Chartism, which was ready to use insurrection if all else failed to achieve its goals; and the moral force wing, which put its trust in the fact of having right on its side and advocated the peaceful use of political activity as its preferred method.

Chartism emerged at a time when the labouring classes were still in the process of being formed into an industrial proletariat; the combination of artisan craftsmen and a mass of un- and semi-skilled labour were all being reshaped by forces such as de-skilling, an increased division of labour and factory production methods.

The two wings of Chartism reflected changes in the earlier and later periods of working class formation, self-organisation and political expression. In the earlier period, from the 1780s to the 1830s, the physical force aspects were to the fore. As previously described, in the Gordon Riots of 1780 the London Mob of slum dwellers and dissatisfied apprentices ruled the city for several days, finally defeated by Army guns and blades as the Mob attempted to storm the Bank of England. Clerkenwell’s New Prison was stormed, the prisoners released and it was then burned to the ground, as was Newgate. There were numerous riots, violent strikes and attempted insurrections throughout this period, strongly influenced by the1789 French Revolution.

From the 1830s onwards, independent working class political organisation began to replace the earlier spontaneous violent outbreaks and became the dominant form of struggle. The failed great syndicalist union movement of the 1830s had revolutionary goals to abolish (or at least ‘level’) class society through workers mass action, but it was intended to be achieved through an entirely peaceful withdrawal of labour. This domestication corresponded more to the moral force philosophy of the other wing of Chartism.

Clerkenwell Green and the Chartists

Clerkenwell was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London and Clerkenwell Green was a central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and frequent clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force.

Clerkenwell was a major stronghold of Chartism from the late 1830s on. In 1837-39: Chartist mass meetings were held on the Green; a local Chartist division met at Lunt’s Coffee House, at no. 34 Clerkenwell Green.
The London Democratic Association was established in 1837 with its main strength in North and East London. They held regular meetings in the area. Though part of the broader Chartist movement they were closest to the physical force Chartists of the North; their membership cards bore the motto ‘Our rights – peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’.
In 1840: Chartists protested here in solidarity with the imprisoned insurrectionaries of the Newport Rising and abortive revolts planned for northern cities.

Local sections of the various attempts to form united Chartist organisations also existed in the area, eg of the Metropolitan Charter Union in 1840, and the national Charter Association in 1841-2. These organisation were however, either shortlived or had lttle real significance in the capital, though London Chartism was becoming strong in the 1840s after a period of fragmentation.

Clerkenwell Green was one of the centres of large Chartist meetings in the tumult of August 1842, when mass strikes in the north and agitation in London seemed likely to break into wider revolt.
Chartist meetings were banned on the Green after this.

The last major period of Chartist activity was in 1848, in Clerkenwell as elsewhere. The build-up to the planned handing in to parliament of the third great Chartist petition involved a reviatlised Chartism all over he country. On April 10th 1848, a mass rally on Kennington Common in South London was intended to be the launch for a procession to Westminster; however, the government was afraid this would be the spark for revolution. Revolution was breaking out or brewing all over Europe at the time… The government planned ahead, brought in 1000s of troops and police to guard the capital, and enlisted thousands of the upper and middle classes to help out as special constables. They fortified buildings and bridges and prevented the Chartists from crossing the Thames into the City and Westminster, having banned the procession. The Chartists most prominent leaders backed down from confrontation, though many Chartists were up for it.

Far from being the end of Chartism, as orthodox histories often relate, April 10th did not see the end of the tensions and possibilities for the movement; London was gripped with the potential for revolt, and mass meetings were held around the capital’s open spaces and meeting grounds into June. The wave of revolts and radical movements sweeping Europe was both an inspiration to many workers, and a caution to the state, which came down hard on any demos and meetings as it had on April 10th. But rallies, marches and agitation continued into the Summer.

For instance, several days of fighting between Chartists and police took place in Clerkenwell, from 29 May 1848, lasting possibly up till June 4th.

Following Irish revolutionary John Mitchel’s sentencing of fourteen years transportation for allegedly plotting an uprising in Ireland, various Chartist and Irish groups organised a meeting and procession at Clerkenwell Green, London, on Monday 29 May 1848 to “demand from the Queen his release”

Following the meeting, the speakers organised the crowd to march through the streets, encouraging others to join in. Numbers of the marchers were reported to have been carrying ‘bludgeons, pitchforks and other dangerous implements’. However, a ‘strong body of police prevented the march from continuing to Buckingham Palace – the demonstrators then headed
back to Finsbury Square, where the leaders informed the assembly that they would
meet again on Wednesday.

The following day, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner issued a notice declaring all “assemblages and processions are illegal, and will not be allowed … all necessary measures will be adopted to prevent such processions taking place, and effectually to protect the public peace, and to suppress any attempt at the disturbance thereof.”

However the Chartists defied the ban by meeting at Clerkenwell Green again the following day. The Morning Post reported that by nine o’clock the area was densely crowded. This time the police did not even allow the gathering to form into a march, but started to disperse the crowd.

It was suggested in newspaper reports that there were ‘no known Chartist leaders at the assembly’ and that the large crowd of about 2,000 people had engaged in stone throwing, “running in different directions and shouting”. Although part of the crowd did disperse under pressure from the police, some activists called on people to stick together, that they could oppose the police; some asserted that the military would not hurt them.

According to the Morning Post (politically, a paper very hostile to Chartism) then declared that the actions of these “deluded people’ left the police with no option but to use their truncheons indiscriminately to clear the Green, which was still occupied by a ‘few men, women, and children, [who] were removed only by violent measures’.

Police tactics definitely outwitted the marchers. The police were hidden nearby and had plain-clothed observers at the assembly to report on any disorder, which helped the police time their intervention. Information had also been received that Chartists would meet at their several lodges and rush out to form a procession. But the police (amply furnished as usual with the informers and spies sent in to radical movements) had lists of the locations of Chartist meeting places, and a number of plain-clothed officers were stationed to watch them. Reserves of special constables and the City police were concealed nearby as backup.

On the 31st May, a crowd gathered again on the Green. According to one report: “in the absence of the conveners of the meeting, who had abandoned it in the face of immense police precautions, “a singular looking being with long hair, a profusion of beard and that ‘air distraught’ which is generally supposed to mark a child of the Muses” shinned up a lamp-post, and harangued the mob.

“When he had finished speaking, sections of the crowd began to make those desperate rushes, first in one direction and then in another, which generally precede a riot. At this critical moment a strong body of the police entered the Green from the east, and forming a line across the open space, swept the people at once and without opposition into the narrow streets and alleys opening from Clerkenwell Green on the west. Strong Parties of police were then placed at all the entrances to the Green and sections were sent to clear the several streets in the vicinity.”

On the 2 June 1848, The Morning Post declared: “owing to the admirable arrangements of the police, no processions were allowed to take place.”

On the following day, the provisions utilised by the authorities were re-stated: “the instructions given to Superintendents are that no processions are to be allowed, and if may are attempted, they are to be broken up at all hazards.”

The policy of the Whig government seemed to be to allow public rallies, up to a point, but to give the police their head to prevent any marches or demonstrations, anything that seemed potentially more threatening than speechifying. Processions continue to be banned.

Here is an account by James Cornish, a Clerkenwell policeman; referring to action against Chartists on one of these days, (though not sure which day, it might have been June 4th, given the reference to Victoria Park, see below).

“The Metropolitan policeman of the 1840s was a strange-looking individual. I wore a swallow tailed-coated suit with bright buttons and a tall hat. The hat was a fine protection for the head and saved me from many a Chartist’s bludgeon. It had a rim of stout leather round the top and a strip of covered steel each side. Then I had a truncheon, a weapon that was capable of doing a lot of execution and gave a good account of itself in those rough and dangerous times…When the Chartist agitation was at its worst I was stationed at Clerkenwell…in those days there were fields about and many open spaces. Clerkenwell was generally a rustic sort of suburb. There were of course great numbers of the working classes who listened readily enough to what agitators had to say about wrongs of which a lot of people knew nothing until attention was drawn to their existence. Stormy meetings were held everywhere and the police were nearly run off their legs in trying to keep order…Those were rougher, harder and coarser times and where in these days many arrests would be made, we in the ‘40s used to brush the mob off the streets and out of the way, the chief thing was to get rid of them…The rioting in London took the form of running fights between the Chartists and the Guardians of the Law, and the man who wanted excitement could get plenty of it at a very cheap rate. Every policeman became a target, and the way some of us got struck proved what first rate shots the Chartists were.

The weapons that were mostly used in the beginning were bludgeons and stone and bricks…as for the Chartists’ bludgeons they got them easily enough from trees and fences…a stake of this kind was about the only stake most of the rioters had in the country!

A famous battleground was Clerkenwell Green and another place I remember well was Cowcross Street. There was plenty of open space on the Green for fighting and many houses in which the Chartists could hide and throw things at us. Day after day we came into collision with them… One day the Chartists seemed to have vanished mysteriously and only two or three police were left to guard the Green. But that was merely a blind. They swooped down on us. By the time reinforcements arrived…the Chartists were giving us a thoroughly bad time. It turned into a massive battle that extended to neighbouring streets, into houses and onto roofs.

Truncheons were useless against the defenders of the roofs but we made good use of them in clearing the streets…there was a terrible to-do that day and I have often thought that I should like to see a picture of the street as it looked when sticks and stones and bricks were flying and police and Chartists were struggling furiously for mastery…we cleared the streets at last leaving many an aching bone and sore head.

Then a message was received to go to Victoria Park “to the relief and rescue of ‘N’ Division’ who were besieged in the church there.” A busy day for Clerkenwell’s coppers.”

Clerkenwell local Dan Chatterton, a Chartist at the time, and later a well-known secularist, republican and communist orator and writer/publisher, participated in these events in his youth; he later wrote he was badly injured during these clashes.

The fighting between Chartists and police spread to the East End. On Sunday June 4th, in Bonners Fields, Bethnal Green, a large Chartist meeting was scheduled, (in preparation for a protest march hoped to be the successor to April 10th). By eight in the morning approximately 300-400 people had gathered. As speakers addressed the crowd the meeting was broken up by mounted police with drawn swords, whose presence and precipitate action did little to calm an already agitated assembly. At least two policemen were attacked in Virginia Gardens during the afternoon in a revenge attack.

In  London Fields, on the same day, a potential Chartist meeting was prevented by a large body of police under a superintendent and two inspectors.

The Chartist leaders had planned to keep up the pressure after April 10th by holding more mass demos and marches, but the Home Office ban, and police willingess to crack heads, left this strategy on tatters by June 4th. The movements more prominent spokesmen and moral force representatives lost their hold on some of the more radical elements at this point. It was clear that moral force methods were not working. A dedicated number of Chartist activists began to meet to plot more direct action – in short, an uprising. An ‘Ulterior Committee’ was formed and began meeting regularly to co-ordinate efforts towards revolt…

… to which we shall return another day…

Today in London’s unruly history, 1848: a Chartist riot in Camberwell

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

The Chartists are usually quoted to be the’ first national movement of British working class’: they aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, excluded from the vote or political process. Although many of their leaders nationally were of middle class (or even aristocratic) origin, (actually in London they tended to be more artisans or working class) they were a hugely broadly based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot —To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament—thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although many did not advocate the vote for women, others did, and female democratic associations formed a part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters,and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London in the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1842, and then in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third petition. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ‘48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

Chartist Riot?

In March 1848 this climate led to a riot after a Chartist meeting – which seems to mainly ended in some opportunist looting…

A week after 3 days of riots in newly opened Trafalgar Square in early March, another Chartist meeting was convened, on Kennington Common for 13th March: on the platform were a number of the Chartist leaders. The authorities had taken extensive precautions and troops were under orders to be called out, if necessary, with General Brotherton in command, and the mobilisation of police totalled an extraordinary 3,88i, including eighty mounted men and one hundred in plain clothes, in the vicinity of the Common; 1,141 on the Surrey side of the bridges; and the remainder in reserve.

In the event, no obstruction was offered to 400 or 500 men who about noon – for which time the commencement of the proceedings was announced – departed, so the Camberwell Division of Police later reported, on a signal being given ‘by raising a Pole’. The band took in their Route the most retired arid unfrequented byeways supposed for the purpose of’ avoiding the observations of’ the Police and Special Constables until they reached Bowyer Lane where they commenced an attack upon the small Shop Keepers by breaking their Windows and in some cases forcing down the Shutters and carrying away a quantity of their Goods.

The shops rifled in Camberwell consisted of a pawnbroker’s, three boot and shoemaker’s, a tailor’s, a clothes shop, a confectioner’s, baker’s, broker’s and three general dealer’s. The looters were armed with ‘staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions’, including palings. One of the shoemakers told them:—I am a poor man; if you want something, don’t come to me” – 1 said 1 was no maker of laws, I had nothing to lose, and begged them not to distress me.’ He persuaded fifty or sixty to pass on, but when the main body came up they beat in his shop-front arid removed 162 pairs of boots and shoes, worth £35 16s. The principal target was the premises of a pawnbroker and silversmith. His shutters and doors were attacked with ‘Hatchets Hammers Shovels and other offensive and dangerous weapons’ to cries of ‘Hurrah for Liberty’ and ‘Come on, my brave boys, we’ll have our liberty’;”” and ‘watches were thrown into the street over the heads of ‘the people’. He estimated his loss at upwards of £900, including as it did 200 watches and 170 rings.

The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Several witnesses identified among the leaders Charles Lee, a gipsy (not apprehended until a year later), arid David Anthony Duffy,a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about without shirt, shoe, or stocking’. (Benjamin Prophett, known as’Black Ben’, was another ‘man of colour’ and seaman.)’ Eighteen men, of’ whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. The ages of all twenty-six (including Lee) are known: only ten were aged twenty or over (Prophett at twenty-nine was the eldest) and the youngest were three thirteen -year-olds. The Camberwell police superintendent dismissed the offenders as: ‘All Labourers and Costermongers’; yet of the twenty-five tried in 1848 a substantial number had trades, even though most of them were still in their teens. The occupations were: four labourers, three seamen, one fishmonger, costermonger, hawkboy, errand boy, brickmaker, ginger beer maker, bonnet box maker, baker, carpenter, bricklayer, sealing wax maker, glass blower, printer, tailor, currier, shoemaker, twine spinner (rope-maker), and brushmaker (and seller of ‘brooms and brushes).

Although the Camberwell riot was of short duration it was intense and also of historical importance, for it contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848 in London” and it was upon 8 and 10 April that the minatory sentences were imposed upon the rioters. It has, however, been overlooked by virtually all historians – and others. The Northern Star did not carry a report of either the riot or the resultant trials. Mayhew mentions the pillaging of a pawnbroker’s shop but assumes that it took place on 10 April (while his collaborator John Binny transcribed the autobiographical narrative of Charles Lee after his return from transportation for life).

The participation of black radicals in the riot is interesting: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Carribbean. Cuffay was prominent in the April 1848 Kennington meeting, and was then arrested in August of that year, accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

There’s a post here on Benjamin Prophett’s transportation,

Chartists in Camberwell

Camberwell had by 1848 become a stronghold of Chartism in South London. Chartists we know of include John Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, a local agent selling tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP TS Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker in Edinburgh and Camberwell; he married a Soho baker’s daughter and, with her dowry, bought a baker’s shop in Camberwell; he was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’;  and ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist until rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop in 1848’. We have to wonder if this wrecking was the same riot of 13th March above?
Johnston left in 1848 for Chicago, Illinois, after labouring work in New York and Philadelphia. Lived and worked in Chicago till 1890, when he died. (Autobiographical Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Scotchman (Chicago, 1885)

John Simpson, mentioned above, was also a subscriber to the Chartist land Plan: a list of those who subscribed a little money to the Chartist Land Company, Feargus O’ Connor’s scheme to settle workers on land to make them self-sufficient. O’Connor was undoubtedly the most influential Chartist leader in the 1840s; but his grand scheme failed (after attracting thousands of poor subscribers). After some years of propaganda the Chartist Co-operative Land Society (later the National Land Company) was founded in 1845. O’Connor’s vigourous propaganda work collected a mass of subscribers and donations, and in 1846 “O’Connorville” was founded at Heronsgate, near Chorleywood, northwest of London. Other estates were bought and let out in smallholding to subscribers picked by ballot. But by the end of 1847, the financial difficulties facing the scheme and the incompetence of its directors, became obvious. In 1848 a House of Commons Committee reported that the Company was illegal, its finances in a state of chaos, and its promises impossible to fulfill.

Other Camberwell Land Plan subscribers included

  • John Cheshire, of James St, Camberwell New Rd,
  • Richard Ackenhead, who lived in Arms place, Coburg Rd, and also (later) in St Marks Place, Kennington, was a cordwainer
  • William Clipsham, a joiner, of Nelson St, Spilsbys, Camberwell
  • William Cook, a labourer, of 5 Westmoreland St, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • William Coombes, 9 Regent St, Camberwell, a labourer
  • George Cooper, a labourer, also of Regent St
  • Daniel Dempsey, labourer, 12 Regent St Camberwell

Regent St seems to have been a Chrtist hotspot

John Counningham, Susanna Cotts, James St, Camberwell, and William of the same name – brothers?

  • William Greengrass, labourer, James St Camberwell New Rd

(Again, James Street a sounds a very radical place…)

  • George Richard Day, a law clerk, 1 Surrey Place, Camberwell
  • Baziel Fisk, shoemaker, 1 Tangue Place James St Camberwell New Rd
  • Thomas Heath, joiner, Portland St Camberwell
  • John Keen, tailor, 13 Neat St, Coburgh Rd,Camberwell
  • John King, waiter, 15 Neat St
  • Edward North, carpenter, Windham Rd, Camberwell

who may have been same as Edward North, who lived in Bereford Place, Wyndham Rd, Camberwell, but later listed as a hawker…

  • James Rhodes, dairyman, Southampton St, Camberwell
  • George Rutherford, 3 Pitt St, Camberwell

(There’s also a George Rutherford listed in Wyndham rd as a labourer…)

  • John Wilkins, baker, 1 Acorn Place Camberwell

There’s an interesting pattern tho if you look at where these addresses mostly if not all are – all north of Camberwell Church Street, probably poorer housing then as it is now, if you compare it to what lies south of Church Street. Check out Booth’s Poverty maps and you can see that class-wise, Church Street/Camberwell New Road broadly marked a boundary, delineating something of a north-south wealth divide in Camberwell.

 

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.
”

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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Today in London’s penal history: the Fleet Prison finally closes, 1844.

The Fleet Prison, the first purpose-built gaol in London, stood for around 700 years on the banks of London’s the Fleet River. It went through several incarnations. The first Fleet prison was built in early Norman times, on a tiny island in the River Fleet, just outside the walls of the city of London, the river providing a protective moat for a square tower. It was, like the Tower of London and the many castles that dominated the English landscape, a visible symbol of the power of an aristocracy and monarchy which had dispossessed the existing population and ruled by force and by threat of force.

Later, when this first Fleet Prison fell into disrepair, in the 14th century, it was rebuilt where Old Seacoal Lane (a short alley off Farringdon Street) now runs.

This immediate neighbourhood was famed for centuries for a concentration of prisons: Ludgate, the Fleet, Newgate, the bridewell, Giltspur St Compter, were all in a relatively small area inside the City wall, and outside. In fact some of them had begun life in the wall, as two of the City Gates, Ludgate, and Newgate) already strong fortified points, so ideal for holding offenders… Some of them were outside the City walls, because building land was less of a problem, and people didn’t want prisons next door to them. Also to cope with fact that cons used to leg it out of City to escape jurisdiction… Near to liberties and rookeries too? But the clustering of communities of the excluded: foreigners denied entry to the city, the poor and outcast, workers I dirty and anti-social trades, which lined the Fleet river, in the dubious and debated authority between London and Westminster, may also have had its impact: prisons developed where they could directly overawe the people who they existed to control, where hauling someone off may have been a shorter journey. But the various prisons also housed offenders against the myriad different and often mutually hostile jurisdictions and courts which then judged offences ranging from debt, through heresy and political subversion, pissing off the powerful, to murder and robbery. However, imprisonment was in itself for many years not a punishment; prisons were often holding cells while waiting for court lists to get round to you, when you would be sentenced to either death, a fine, a visible period of public humiliation of abuse, banishment, and later on transportation to penal colonies. Or, occasionally, got off. If you were imprisoned for debt, however, locked up on the compliant of whoever you owed money to, you could languish there until your debt got paid. Which it might never be.

Once a City of London Prison, by the late fourteenth century the Fleet held prisoners from Westminster courts such as Common Pleas, the Exchequer and the Kings Council and Chancery. It also held people who owed money to the king, or had crossed him.

The Prison’s Keepers were royal appointees. It was often a hereditary position, very profitable, with lots of money to be extorted from inmates, so was much sought after (generally obtained by payment of a large bribe). Warders below the Keeper also bought their positions from the ranks above them (a low-ranking position cost £20, then a fortune, in 1558), as they could also make a mint by selling every conceivable service or commodity to prisoners. The screws received no wages, so had to extort every penny they could from those they guarded. Inmates with cash could obtain reasonably comfortable quarters, have good food and drink brought in; those convicts who couldn’t pay found themselves in the coldest, dampest cells, supplied with the roughest food etc.

Like all prisons, the Fleet was hated by the London poor. On 13th June 1381 the prison was burned to the ground by revolting Kent peasants and London rebels, after they’d released all the prisoners. After the rebellion the Fleet had to be rebuilt.

While the vast majority of its guests were poor and mostly forgotten, the Fleet did house some notables. In the era of dissent leading up to and through the English Civil war, the Fleet held inmates locked up for their political beliefs. From 1638 to 1640, John Lilburne, radical Puritan activist and later Leveller leader, was held here, having been arrested for helping to publish and distribute puritan books attacking the state-sponsored Anglican Church. His then mentor William Prynne was also a guest here. While held in irons Lilburne sent a challenge to Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud to debate with him the issues that had got him nicked. At Whitsun 1639, Lilburne sent out an appeal to his fellow apprentices, in the form of a pamphlet thrown among holidaying apprentices in Moorfields, asking them to a campaign for a public trial for him… As a result they marched to riot outside Lambeth Palace in support of him, attacking Archbishop Laud.

The Fleet later held Leveller leaders and other political prisoners during the English revolution. The poet John Donne was also imprisoned there, on the petition of his father-in-law, who he had neglected to ask permission from before marrying his daughter.

In 1666, like most City prisons it burned down in the Great Fire.

Most prisons were hothouses for disease and ill-health, being overcrowded, cold, damp and neglected. Those on the banks of the Fleet River were, like many of the buildings on its banks, heavily affected by the river’s dank and polluted flow. The only viable local sewer, a dumping ground for the animal carcasses of Smithfield and the foul chemicals of tanneries and dyers vats, the Fleet was not a healthy neighbour. (The ‘moat’ around the first prison building became so clogged with carcasses you could allegedly walk across it).

Filth, disease, torture and daily extortion in the Fleet Prison led to a petition to parliament for relief of debtors held there. In 1691 Moses Pitt published The Cry of the Oppressed during his incarceration here (the authorities tried to suppress the publication). One abuse he complained of was the unique right of creditors to apply to have prisoners transferred to the Fleet from other prisons. The Fleet was the most expensive debtors prison to be held in; Fleet screws would routinely bribe creditors to provide fresh pickings for them in this way.
Pitt’s pleas changed nothing, for thirty years later things were running much the same. At least one Keeper, Thomas Bambridge in the 1720s, was so blatantly corrupt and sadistic that he was officially accused of extortion, and that he had “arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt”. The authorities may have been more worried that he had taken money to allow escapes and even provided a special door for the purpose! Also that a couple of his victims weren’t poor nobodies: Sir William Rich, unable to pay for better conditions in the jail, was threatened with a poker, then shackled and thrown into a freezing hole above an open sewer. Robert Castell, scholarly author of The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, was forced to sleep in a sponging-house where smallpox was rife, even though he begged the Warden for mercy, and died as a result.

In the ensuing outcry, a parliamentary Committee was appointed in 1729 to investigate what was going on in the Fleet. The Committee laid before the House a catalogue of brutality, incompetence and corruption. It was admitted by Bambridge’s predecessor ‘that so many prisoners had escaped, during the time he was warden, that it was impossible to enumerate them.’ Healthy women had been forced into smallpox wards; casual cruelty was an everyday occurrence. When the Committee moved on to look at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, they found things to be much the same. Investigating the overall management of London’s prisons, they uncovered a Byzantine web of lets and sublets, transfers of ownership and corrupt charities.

The Prisons Committee had been painted at the Fleet by a rising young artist called William. Hogarth. Hogarth’s sketch caught the moment when Bambridge was brought face to face with his accusers.

Bambridge was tried but acquitted, leading to such strong anger that parliament framed an act to sack him. But despite the horrific descriptions of torture and brutality they took no action. Not even the Prisons Committee could break the inertia of the House of Commons. The hours of evidence and cross examination, the long reports to Parliament and stories in the press, still didn’t result in a Prison Reform Act. (Bambridge, incidentally, cut his throat in his Chambers at Paper Buildings on Fleet Street in 1741. So something good came out of it.)

As with all London prisons, inmates continued to struggle against its conditions, via escapes, rebellions and protests. In June 1731 “the prisoners in the Fleet Prison caused a riot and insulted the keepers… they alleged they were ill-us’d and stood up for their rights and privileges.”

On 6 June 1780, the Fleet was stormed by the Gordon Rioters, and all the inmates freed – bar some who asked politely for time to get their stuff together and find somewhere to go, having been inside for years. To give them time, the crowd decided not to burn the prison that day, but came back the next day instead! A fire engine that arrived to put out the flames was also set on fire. A witness, George Sussex, imprisoned for debt, said later that he observed a man in the gallery of the prison pouring a flammable liquid onto the floor and another man in a sailors jacket setting it alight; in about two minutes the gallery was aflame from end to end. However a company of Light Dragoons arrived and opened fire, (killing up to a hundred rioters according to one source, but only one, according to another?!). Passing rich folk in coaches were stopped and money demanded from them – in the Fleet Market, the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother, was held up and robbed as the Prison burned.

Though it was rebuilt after 1780, conditions didn’t substantially improve… Reformer John Howard condemned it as crowded and dirty;

he was surprised by the scandalous neglect of all discipline, and the shameful violation of all morality.   ” They also play in the court,” he says, “at skittles, mississippi, fives, tennis, and other games ; and not only the prisoners : I saw among them several butchers and others from the market, who are admitted here, as at any other public house. The same may be seen in many other prisons where the jailer keeps or lets the tap!  …Besides the inconvenience of this to prisoners, the frequenting a prison lessens the dread of being confined in one. On Monday night there was a wine club; on Thursday night, a beer club—each lasting usually till one or two in the morning. I need not say how much riot these occasion, and how the sober prisoners, and those that are sick, are annoyed by them. “Seeing the prison crowded with women and children, I procured an accurate list of them, and found that when there were 243 prisoners, their wives and children were 475.”

The Liberty of the Fleet arose from the late fourteenth century, when prisoners could get the day out if they posted bail or were accompanied by a warder (obviously for a fee…) This grew into a custom that instead of residing in the cells, prisoners could take lodgings in neighbouring houses, on a kind of semi-parole, so long as they paid the Keeper. This Liberty grew to be a mile and a half across; both in and around the prison, many people sheltered from creditors, who were legally barred from pursuing them there; if you had some cash you could live it up, with sports, games, drink etc. In 1820, inmate Robert Mackay became world rackets champion.

For a while the Fleet also gave its name to marriages. People could get married in the Fleet – the advantages being they were cheap, and could be performed at any time, without banns or licenses, and without a clergyman. This was especially useful for women friends of sailors; a wife could receive his wages if he vanished or died, where an unofficial companion couldn’t. Women also married insolvent debtors here, to clear their own debts. The only feasible kind of wedding for much of the London poor, with useful economic advantages, the institution was hated and denounced by the authorities, and was abolished in 1753.

As all London prison held radicals and rebels, especially in the in first half of the 19th century, radical ideas also spread within them. So on occasion in the Fleet – (probable) spy and promiser of money (that usually never materialised) to radical causes, Pierre Baume, wrote to Robert Owen in 1827, telling him he was preaching Owen’s socialist ideas in the Fleet Prison (where Baume was temporarily detained for debt…).

Pressure for reform of the grim and corrupt prison system in the late 18th and early 19th century gradually led to more critical views of jail regimes. Reform was proposed to both improve prisoner’s lives, but also to try to institute a more rigid and sobering ethos that would reduce re-offending by upgrading the morals of inmates, and separating people, under tighter and surveillance and control. New pentitentiaries and prisons were planned and built, along these lines, in London’s then outer suburbs (slightly further from the public gaze) – Brixton, Pentonville, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs (three of which remain in use today) and at Millbank.

Gradually the older prisons were closed down; the fact that they stood in areas of the city now becoming prime real estate may have also been an impetus. The Fleet Prison was ordered to be closed in 1842 during prison reforms, including the ending of imprisonment for debt, and the building was finally demolished in 1846.

On the site of the old prison, the Congregational Memorial Hall was built, which was to become an important venue for London’s left and trade union movements…

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Today in London’s radical history: Chartists hold mass meeting, John Street, Fitzrovia, 1848.

The John Street Institute was founded by utopian socialist and patron saint of the co-operative movement, Robert Owen in 1840, and became the main centre of Owenite activity in London between 1840 to 1858. It stood in John Street (now renamed Whitfield Street), off Fitzroy Square, in London’s Fitzrovia.

The Institute was nicknamed the Infidel Hall, out of resentment at its anti-religious lectures, by the London City Mission Magazine. It became a meeting place for radical workmen, Chartists, socialists, atheists, deists and other radicals…

A well-known rendezvous for Reformers in the middle years of the century was the John Street Institution, situated near Tottenham Court Road. It had been a chapel, I think, but was then leased by the followers of Robert Owen. Lectures were given there; meetings were held there; classes were conducted there. A more useful centre of social and political activity did not exist in all London. The platform was perfectly free. Chartism, Republicanism, Freethought, Socialism-all sorts and conditions of thought could be expounded in John Street if capable exponents desired to expound them. I had heard Mrs. C. H. Dexter lecture there in 1851 on the Bloomer costume, and in the Bloomer costume. There also, five years later, I heard the venerable Robert Owen, then a patriarch of eighty-four. The subjects discussed were of the widest and most varied character-social, political, religious, literary, scientific, economical, historical. And the lecturers who discussed them were as varied as the subjects-Thomas Cooper, Robert Cooper, Samuel Kydd, Dr. Mill, Dr. Sexton, Iconoclast, Henry Tyrrell, Richard Hart, Joseph Barker, Brewin Grant, George Jacob Holyoake, and many another whose very name is now forgotten. Of all the able men who endeavoured to enlighten the public from the John Street platform not one survives save George Jacob Holyoake. When the lease of the institution expired, a source of real light and ventilation expired also.” (William Edwin Adams)

The Social Institute was opened in February 1840 as the hall of the London branch of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, as the Owenite Association of All Classes of All Nations had now become. The branch had formerly met at 69 Great Queen Street. Around the country there were twenty or so of these buildings, more usually known as Halls of Science, which were built in the early 1840s to serve as the focus of propaganda activity of the mainly working class branches. Their function however was largely superfluous after 1842, when the ‘missionary’ aspect of the Owenites had been abandoned.

The exterior of this building was carried out in the plain stucco typical of era, projecting forward was a porch with square columns. Inside was a large hall, fifty feet square, equipped with a church-like organ and galleries. 1,100 people could be accommodated. Its cost was around £3,000.

Congresses of the Owenite Rational Association were held here in the early 1840s… (and Owenites were still holding Congresses here in 1857).

Later the Institution also became a meeting place for the Chartist movement. Chartists were holding regular meetings here by 1848, the year the Chartists held a national convention here, attended by 49 delegates, and including a mass meeting on 21st March, in the lead up to the final mass demo to hand in the third Chartist Petition on 10 April.

A National Assembly of Chartists was also held at John Street from 1 to 13 May, in the aftermath of the failure of the petition.

The Chartist movement was undergoing its last significant crisis, as some leaders bottled the implications of their bluster and rhetoric – but others plotted revolution. The ‘Ulterior Committee’, the secret Chartist group planning an uprising, also met here, as they moved around trying to avoid police spies, on 14 June 1848… 14 were present, with Peter McDouall in the chair… Allegedly, at this meeting, detailed plans were made for an insurrection to start the following weekend: “A map of London was produced, and different plans of attack formed” Barricades were to be erected from the Strand near Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill, from Cheapside up St Martins le Grand and Aldersgate Street to the Barbican, across Saffron Hill to Hatton Garden and St Giles Church, Drury Lane, Russell Street and Covent Garden back to the Strand. Theatres and public buildings to be set fire to. Pawnbrokers and gunshops plundered for arms. Barricades also across Waterloo Bridge to Kent Road. Police station there to be attacked and march by troops on London intercepted. Could rely on 5000 armed Chartists plus 5000 Irish.”

However, that same day the committee dissolved itself, apparently having become aware that had been compromised by spies. Plans were revived in July and August, but the spies were still deep in their midst, and arrests on 16th August curtailed the intended rising…

After use by the Owenites ceased in 1858 the John Street building came into commercial use and mostly seems to have been used for performing arts – the famous small person ‘General Tom Thumb’ was apparently ‘on show’ here at one time. By 1914 the building (since 1867 known as 40 Whitfield Street) was the Albert Rooms dance hall. The old Institute is believed to have been demolished in the 1980s. A smallish office block is on the site.

Thanks to Keith Scholey’s research for this post. 

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Today in London radical history: the legendary Communist Club starts life, Soho, 1840.

The Communist Club was essentially a political social club, primarily for German émigrés, which, under a variety of names, operated out of various central London premises during the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Left personages of the era had some association with the Club, but the most important was Karl Marx. The Club formed an important institutional link between Chartism, utopian socialism, the First International, early anarchism, the Social-Democratic Federation (the first socialist group in Britain) and the new wave of ‘pure’ Marxist socialism of Edwardian times (the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party). The Club also formed an important connection between the British and Continental European (German, Russian) socialist movements.

The Communist Club started life as the Deutsche Demokratische Gesellschaft (German Democratic Society) founded on 7th February 1840 by seven members of the Bund der Gerechten (League of the Just) including Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll and Heinrich Bauer.

The League of the Just itself had been formed in Paris in 1836 as a split consisting of the “most extreme, chiefly proletarian, elements of the secret democratic-republican Outlaws’ League, which was founded by German refugees in Paris in 1834” (Engels). Originally democratic-nationalist in ideology, under the influence of Wilhelm Weitling the League of the Just soon became utopian socialist.

Schapper and Bauer had been exiled to London after having been arrested following an insurrectionary action in Paris in May 1839.

According to Schapper “…the founders of this society decided to make education the foundation of their movement and not to let themselves be guided by leaders…” This was a reaction to the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1830s, which were blamed on the lack of political education of the working class, which had left it open to opportunistic leaders.

The Club was also a front for the secret League of the Just, serving as a recruiting ground and propaganda vehicle.

Until the early 1880s) the Society was known by a rapidly changing variety of different but similar names. However, the most fitting and commonly used name was the Deutsche Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (German Workers Educational Association). The DABV rapidly became the main organisation of the German workers in London, its numbers rapidly grew from not more than 30 members before 1844 to around 500 by February 1847. The Association acted as an educational and social club for German workers, of which there were then many in the capital, many exiled leftwingers. In 1845-46 business meetings were held on a Sunday, political discussions (e.g. reading and commenting on contemporary political and philosophical literature) on a Tuesday night, with Saturdays reserved for cultural activities – such as song and dance – and classes in elementary education (e.g. English lessons). There was also a choir and a library, and leftwing newspapers could be read in the reading room. Literature, mainly socialist and communist, from Switzerland, France and Belgium, was also sold. In the autumn of 1846 the Club acquired a press for printing announcements of meetings and the like, and the following year had the intention to produce a journal provisionally entitled Proletarier.

However, many of the club membership were more interested in the practical benefits than the politics (this dynamic was to increase over the years).

Initially utopian socialist ideas, primarily those of Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling, predominated. Gradually utopianism was replaced by a more class conscious approach. By December 1844 the Club was pressing atheism, opposing nationalism and had generally grown far more radical.

The Association met in the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street from 1840 to 1846. Merging with French exiled groups, the Association became more cosmopolitan; Engels remembered the clientele including “Scandinavians, Dutch, Hungarians, Czechs, Southern Slavs, and also Russians and Alsatians” as well as “a British grenadier of the Guards in uniform”.

After Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, in the summer of 1847 it was reorganised as a democratic propaganda society and renamed the Communist League. It was for this organisation that the famous Communist Manifesto was issued. The reading and adoption of this probably happened in the upstairs room of the Association premises in Drury Lane (rather than the Red Lion as indicated by Liebknecht and others).

Correspondingly the open social club was renamed the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (Communist Workers Educational Association), de-emphasising the Germanic element. Engels noted that its “membership cards bore the inscription all men are brothersin at least twenty languages, even if not without mistakes here and there”. Germans, however, remained the largest section of the Association.

After the 1848 revolution in France many exiles returned to Germany where the League played a significant part in the struggles of that year, but with the defeat of the 1848-9 uprisings, most gradually drifted back to London. Marx and Chartist socialist Ernest Jones lectured to the club at this time.

The German Workers Educational Association is believed to have supplied the choir which sung at the foundation meeting of the International Working Men’s Association (the famous First International) on 28th September 1864 at St Martins Hall, Long Acre. However the DABV did not formally affiliate until 10 January 1865. At this time the DABV was meeting at 2 Nassau Street, Soho (now Gerrard Place off Shaftesbury Avenue), the tavern of Heinrich Bolleter. Members of the Association who were on the General Council of the First International included Schapper, Bolleter, JG Eccarius and Friedrich Lessner (the latter two tailors associated with Marx).

Although clearly the German element was dominant, internationalism was not dead; the DABV taking an active part in commemorations held for the 24th June 1848 massacres in Paris.

On 15th December 1868 the General Council of the IWMA reported that the membership of the DABV was now 1,800.

The next that is heard of the club, once more known as the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein, is in the late 1870s, when it seems to have been part of what was known as the Social Democratic Club. This ultimately consisted of five sections of various nationalities.

The English section, originally known as the English Revolutionary Society, had been formed on the initiative of Frank Kitz during the summer of 1877. Charles Murray, a longtime acolyte of Chartist Bronterre O’Brien, and Johann Neve were also present. By November the group was known as the Social Democratic Club and was meeting at the Grafton Arms in Fitzroy Square. It had now acquired ‘international’ sections, the German section apparently being the CABV. The emphasis appears to have again been on the Communism rather than the Germanity of the group. Around 1878 the Social Democratic Club took premises in 6 Rose Street, Soho (now Manette Street). The building was demolished for the 1929 extension of Foyle’s bookshop.

Important practical work of the CABV at that time included involvement in a masons’ strike, raising money for the strikers and ensuring that imported German masons understood the situation and left the country. The Rose Street premises was used to house fugitives from the German Anti-Socialist Laws: “The club was crowded with refugees; our hall at times resembled as railway station, with groups of men, women, and children sitting disconsolately amidst piles of luggage”.

The CABV had extensive contacts with the English socialist movement at this time. These include Joseph Lane’s Homerton Socialist Society which was then affiliated to the CABV. This later became part of the Labour Emancipation League, which later merged into the Socialist League. Rose Street holds a particular place in the history of British Marxism, as it was here that the first meeting which was to lead to the formation of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain) took place. On 2nd March 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation.

As well as the social democrats the CABV was extensively linked to the anarchist movement at this time, being involved in the ‘Revolutionary Congress’ of 14-19 July 1881; the organising committee of this included Sebastian Trunk representing the CABV. Although designed to unite anarchists and socialists, it essentially became an anarchist affair. More importantly the CABV subsidised Johann Most’s Freiheit, a German language paper issued from 1879 to 1882.

The club split between anarchists and social democrats. The anarchist section associated with Most stayed in Rose Street, while the Social-Democrats moved to 49 Tottenham Street as the Second Section of the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein. The Second Section prefix was soon dropped, afterwards there being no more name changes (although the short English version – the Communist Club – became used in common parlance.) The anarchists later moved to Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place as the International or German Club. The premises here were the scene of a police riot on 9 May 1885.

In its final phase the Communist Club was less of a political body and more of a social club. Frank Kitz disparaged it as a mere West End dining room, but it remained an important focus of Left wing life in the capital. Several aged radicals lived close by, including Lessner at no. 12 Fitzroy Street around 1888, and William Townshend, veteran O’Brienite, who lived at the Club’s premises at no. 49 Tottenham Street. The Club band was particularly noted and performed at many left wing events.

The Club retained its importance as a venue for lectures and events. Friedrich Engels, George Bernard Shaw, Keir Hardie and William Morris all spoke at no. 49. One of the most notable was the Sixth and final Annual Conference of the Socialist League, (William Morris’s semi-anarchist split from the SDF) held at the Club on 25th May 1890. This Conference saw the ousting of William Morris and marked the beginning of the transformation of the League into an anarchist group. 49 Tottenham Street is still standing.

In 1902 the Communist Club moved to 107 Charlotte Street. Shortly thereafter Stalin and Lenin visited. This was probably in connection with the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This took place at a variety of locations. The first London sitting took place on 29th July 1903 at the “English Club” in Charlotte Street.

After 1900 the SDF renewed its acquaintance with the Communist Club. In 1903 the delegates to the Annual Conference were formally welcomed as guests to the club. This was made a festive occasion with songs and speeches – in effect the Conference’s ‘social’. The Conference had been marred by the expulsion of several leading impossibilists (anti-reformists) and shortly after the Socialist Labour Party was formed.

In April or May 1903 this newly Party held its first meeting in London at the Club; as were future SLP conferences. The SLP is most known because of its contribution to the foundation of the Communist Party. This was far from its roots, which lay in the industrial unionist ideas of Daniel De Leon.

The other Impossibilist party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, also a split from the SDF, was also greatly connected to the Communist Club. The Club was the first headquarters of the SPGB (June 1904 to September 1905) and other meetings were also held here.

The Communist Club would have been severely affected by the First World War, when most German nationals returned to the Fatherland to fight or were interned. Its end came shortly after the war.

In most sources it is stated that the Club was closed down after police raids in 1918. However the SPGB was still holding meetings here in late 1919 (which were recorded in the minutes as taking place in the Communist Club). Weller gives the date of closure as 1920. Secretary of the Communist Club during its last six months of existence was Harold Edwards. Born in 1900, this young anarchist, a friend of Errico Malatesta, dropped out of political activity in the 1920s to become an antiquarian bookseller.

The premises continued to be used as a meeting place until at least 1922. The building was destroyed by bombing during the 1940-41 Blitz.

Finally the existence of the International Socialist Club during the early 1920s should be noted. Based at 28 East Road, off City Road, this was promoted as the successor to the Communist Club and was the venue of a number of important meetings connected with the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, including the second day of the Unity (Foundation) Congress.

This is an excerpt from The Communist Club, by Keith Scholey, published by past tense. 

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

Today in London’s radical history: Bethnal Green Chartists in court, for assembling, illegally, armed, 1840.

In 1839-40, the Chartist movement reached its first great peak of strength. Building on decades of agitation for constitutional and political reform, emerging from the ruins of earlier political groupings, but adding in the massive experience of the struggle against the stamp tax on the cheap press, the beginnings of large-scale trade unionism, and the birth of the co-operative movement, Chartism was bringing together millions of working class people to demand a voice in the decision making processes – the vote. Monster rallies took place of thousands, mass agitation was drawing in recruit and spreading ideas in the cities and countryside, a huge petitioning effort was underway to show Parliament the strength of the feeling across the country. To many the pressure for change seemed unstoppable.

But in the wake of the rejection of the first Chartist petition by Parliament in July 1839, the outright refusal of the ruling elites to consider further reform, pressure began to build within Chartism for achieving results by other means. Chartism had inherited from earlier reform movements an inherent division, between those who thought campaigning and mass demonstrations, petitions and ‘moral pressure’ from below could bring change – and others who felt their rulers based their control of society of force, and would not give up even a share of it without being forced themselves. The latter, a substantial minority, were strengthened by the refusal of the state to compromise with polite Chartist petitioning, and also by the rhetoric of Chartist leaders who talked a good fight when they really were not prepared to rise in arms…

After the petition was rejected, plans were set in motion for a Sacred Month, the ‘Grand National Holiday’ of William Benbow revived – a General Strike, in effect. Although agreed and even launched, many Chartist leaders were scared by the implications of leading such a movement, and back-pedalled. The strike fizzled out. In the wake of this the ‘physical force’ Chartists began working in earnest to plan for uprisings to overthrow the government that held them down, going beyond demanding a the vote to conceiving of a working class that could take power itself, in its own interests, dispossessing the classes that lived on their backs. This manifested in the Newport Rising of November 1839, when South Wales Chartists launched a revolt, intended to be part of a wider revolutionary attempt. The revolt was put down and its leaders tried for treason.

But even as the trial of John Frost and the other Newport leaders ended with sentences of death and transportation, in early January 1840, plans for uprising were still being hatched in the north of England. Revolts were planned in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford, but were either foiled by the authorities (often with the help of spies) or failed to gather the support needed. And there were spirits abroad in London, too, willing to arm with the aim of overthrowing the hated government:

“In the metropolis, too, the work of disaffection was apparent. Repeated meetings took place, and schemes of the very worst character were devised; and, on Tuesday the 13th of January, the government received private information that an insurrection was to break out on that night or on the following morning, and that the firing of London in various parts was to be the signal for a general rising throughout the country. Orders were in consequence instantly transmitted to the Horse Guards, for the preparation of a sufficient force to repel any treasonable attack which might be made; and here, as well as at all the barracks in the vicinity of the metropolis, and at the Tower, the whole of the men were put under arms. The metropolitan police-force and the city constables received orders to be ready for immediate action, and the London Fire-engine Establishment — a body of most enterprising and active officers — formed into a fire-police, was placed in readiness to employ their exertions to assist the municipal authorities to suppress the supposed intended conflagration.

            The alarm, which was necessarily spread through the metropolis in consequence of these warlike preparations, however, turned out to be without cause; for although on that night a very large meeting of Chartists took place at the Hall of Trades, in Abbey-street, Bethnal-green, there was no attempt at violence. The conduct of the speakers at this assemblage, indeed, sufficiently showed the extremes to which they desired their followers to go; and a subsequent meeting on the following Thursday proved that they were not quite so harmless as their apologists would have had it supposed. At this convention, held, as it was announced, for the purpose of discussing the existing state of the working-classes throughout the country, upwards of seven hundred persons attended, the majority of whom seemed to be individuals of low rank. At nine o’clock the committee came upon the platform, when Mr. Neesom was called to the chair. After the chairman had detailed the objects for which the meeting had been called, Mr. Spurr, who had on a former occasion taken an active part in the discussions, rose to propose the first resolution. After a few preliminary observations, he contended that the only way to preserve the peace was to be prepared to wage war; and in support of such an assertion he thought it would be well deserving the attention of the meeting to bear in mind the words of a celebrated person, “to put their trust in God, and keep their powder dry,” which was received with loud cheering. On silence being restored, the speaker was about to proceed, but a body of police appearing at the door with drawn sabres, caused the greatest possible confusion. The chairman entreated the meeting not to be disturbed, as it was held on constitutional principles, but in order not to give their enemies an opportunity of succeeding, he hoped there would be no breach of the peace committed. The police then, having blocked up every avenue leading to the room, prevented all present from retiring, and proceeded to search their persons. Daggers, knives, sabres, pistols primed and loaded, and other weapons of an offensive character, were taken from many of them, while upon the floor were discovered others of a like description, evidently thrown away by their owners in order to enable them to escape detection. Twenty-one of the persons who were taken into custody on this occasion unarmed, were detained in the Trades Hall, and eleven others, upon whom pistols and daggers had been found, were removed to safe custody, in order to await their examination before the magistrates. Upon subsequent inquiries taking place, several of them were discharged, while, however, others, with new prisoners subsequently secured and identified as parties to the meeting, were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey Sessions, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.” (The Newgate Calendar).

Chartist would of course continue to agitate, strike and plot revolution for several more years… But if 1848 has often been seen as the highpoint, the moment when radical change could have come, it is possible that in 1839-40 the moment was in reality even closer. Sadly, general strikes, insurrections, plots for uprisings, armed meetings, failed to achieve a working class seizure of power 176 years ago…

But hey, there’s still time…

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

Today in London radical history: Chartists rally on Kennington Common, 1842.

On 22nd August 1842, 40,000 Chartists defied a ban to rally on Kennington Common & fought police who attempted to clear them.

In 1842, a series of wage reductions in factories around North Staffordshire and Manchester sparked a sudden and widespread movement of strikes and demonstrations. The widespread distress and poverty force on thousands of workers enraged a wide swathe of the north in late July and early August. Strikes brought factories to a halt in Staffordshire and Lancashire, Manchester; mass meetings were held on the moors, and huge processions of workers carrying banners and bludgeons to defend themselves. These became flying pickets, spreading the strike from mill to mill and factory to factory (in some places the movement is known as the plug riots or plug plot as sabotaging workers pulled the plugs from boilers to prevent steam pressure being raised). The movement radiated out like wildfire. On August 12th, a meeting of delegates from 358 factories meeting in Manchester, escalated the strike wave to a new level when the vast majority voted to expand the aims of the strikes beyond the purely economic, to stay out until the Charter, the demand of the Chartist movement for political reform, was achieved. The movement spread into Yorkshire. It seemed for a few days as if the abortive Grand National holiday or Sacred Month that had failed to launch almost exactly three years before in 1839 was beginning for real…

As the government began to panic, they started to move contingents of troops north to repress the growing movement. But although the centre of the battle was up north, and Londoners were not joining the strike, they were far from passive. On August 13th columns of soldiers were marching to Euston station to be shipped off to the industrial battlegrounds; they were booed and hissed by gathering crowds in Regent Street. This kicked off a week of Chartist inspired-disturbances in the capital.

On the 14th, more demonstrations were held to boo further troop movements troops. The following day, the angry crowds became so dense around Euston, soldiers were charge ordered to charge and disperse them.

On the 16th, a mass chartist meeting was held in Stepney in solidarity with plug rioters and other northern comrades. On the 18th another mass Chartist meeting held was held on Islington Green, which developed into a march to Clerkenwell where there was fighting with police who tried to disperse them: “this same assemblage of persons… paraded the town in procession till one in the morning, and listened to speeches of the most atrocious and treasonable character.”

On the 19th, the police had been given “positive orders… not to allow any Mob, as Night approached, to enter London”… As Home Secretary Sir James Graham wrote to the Duke of Wellington: “In London the excitement is increasing; and we have been determined not to allow an adjourned meeting to assemble this evening at Islington, in consequence of the proceedings of… last night.” A large Chartist rally, Clerkenwell again ended in tussles with the cops, despite the police guarding all entrances to Clerkenwell Green and two magistrates walking about with copies of the Riot Act; such great numbers gathered that they were able to break through the police lines and remained in possession of the Green till late, though no meeting was held.

Other meetings at Lincolns Inn Fields, and Great Queen Street, saw similar scenes: speeches were delivered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at 10.00pm, and when police attacked them, the crowd marched to Covent garden and fought police In Bow Street. Several policemen were beaten before the crowd drifted off.

The weekend was quiet, but on Monday August 22nd, two monster Chartist rallies were called, to meet on Kennington Common in South London, and at Paddington in the west of the city. After several days of disturbances, the authorities were intensely nervous. Troops were moved to Kensington Common from the army barracks at Hounslow, and from Woolwich Barracks to Clapham Common, in readiness for use against demonstrators in the event of more disturbances. “Every wall, public building &c. [was] thickly studded with Proclamations, Cautions &c. emanating from the various authorities, strictly prohibiting public meetings, &c… London may be said to be under police, if not under military law.”

By the Monday afternoon, crowds ‘very numerous, very gay’ assembled on Kennington Common. “The whole appearance of the scene was rather of a gay and festive kind, and quite different from that which the gatherings of the fierce democracy at Islington, Clerkenwell and Stepney exhibited.” Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor turned up but decided not to speak as he was bound over to keep the peace, and legged it (his instinct for self-preservation was always keen). 15 minutes later, as the meeting started, police swarmed onto the Common, some mounted, led by the Commissioner Richard Mayne, scattering the demonstrators off the Common. The crowds remained in strong possession of the surrounding streets, and skirmished with the ‘blue lobsters’ for hours, but the meeting had been halted, without calling in the military. At Paddington, police fought a three-hour battle to clear the area around the railway station; a third impromptu rally at Clerkenwell Green broke out into fierce fighting in which the police were overwhelmed.

However, after the 22nd, the Chartist disturbances in London subsided. A large rally on the 23rd at White Conduit House in Islington passed off peacefully. Most significantly perhaps, was that no strike wave had developed in London inspired by the northern outbreak (though it was said that 600 builders working for Cubitts had struck).

The strike wave in the north continued for several days and erupted into fighting in many places, but the question of whether the aim was political reform or immediate wage rises began to divide the movement in places. The army shot several people during riots in Halifax and Preston, and the arrest of a large crop of Chartist and strike leaders eventually drove the workers back to work.

More on the 1842 General Strike:

Catherine Howe, (2014). “Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis”. Breviary Stuff, London, UK. 

Mick Jenkins (1980). The General Strike of 1842. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 

And on the London disturbances of August 1842: David Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in radical history: as the Chartist Convention ends, 1842, the second great petition is carried to Parliament.

The Chartist movement collected three great petitions for reform of the voting system, to be handed into Parliament. The second was presented to Parliament in April 1842.

To some extent, the petitions represented the efforts of the ‘moral force’ wing of Chartism, the side of he movement that concentrated on lobbying, attempting to persuade the ruling elites that the working classes should be admitted to the party. Trouble was, the ruling classes responded with contempt and force. After the initial rebuffs of the first petition, elements among the Chartists who felt they could only achieve their aims by seizing power came briefly to the fore, But the insurrections and mass strikes planned and even launched in 1839-40 came to nothing or were easily defeated. Hundreds of leading Chartists were jailed and some transported.

In the early 1840s the moral force faction, through the National Charter Association, attempted again to divert the energies away from uprisings to putting pressure on Parliament with another petition. From across the country, the Chartists collected an impressive 3,317,752 signatures for the “National Petition of the Industrious Classes” – more than twice the number who had signed in 1839. And this from an adult population of just under 10 million people.

The final preparations for its petition to Parliament, by the radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, were made at a convention which gathered on 12 April 1842 at the same venue as its 1839 precedessor.

R. G. Gammage (in his History of the Chartist Movement, 1837-54) described the collecton of the signatures:

“Meanwhile the Executive were directing the attention of the country to the subject of another petition for the Charter, and they submitted a draft of the same for adoption. This second Petition did not, however, stop at the Charter; but, as well as stating a host of grievances, prayed for a repeat of the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland. Here again was a bone of contention. A portion of the Scottish Chartists were opposed to the introduction of any other subject into the Petition than the Charter, and a controversy on the subject took place between Dr. M’Douall and John Duncan, one of the best and ablest of the Scottish Chartists. The majority, however, went with the Executive, and the signing of the Petition proceeded very briskly. A Convention was appointed to sit in London for three weeks, for the purpose of superintending its presentation. It consisted of twenty-five members, whose names were as follows:–Abraham Duncan, E. Stallwood, James Leach, J. R. H. Bairstow, C. Doyle, W. P. Roberts, George White, Feargus O’Connor, N. Powell, R. Lowery, James Moir, S. Bartlett, William Beesley, J. M’Pherson, G. Harrison, P. M. M’Douall, Morgan Williams, R. K. Philp, Ruffy Ridley, W. Woodward , J. Mason, William Thomason, Lawrence Pitkeithly, J. Campbell, and J. Bronterre O’Brien. It will be seen that only six out of the twentyfive were members of the first Convention. This body met in London on the 12th of April, 1842, and received the signatures to the National Petition, which in the aggregate were stated to amount to thirty-three thousand.”

“The Petition was presented to the House of Commons by Mr. Duncombe on the 2nd of May, on which occasion there was a large procession, which left the Convention Room and proceeded through several of the principal thoroughfares to the House of Commons. The authorities had strictly ordered that no vehicles should pass along the thoroughfares, so as in any way to interfere with the procession, which order was rigidly enforced. The concourse of people assembled on the occasion was immense; many strangers being present from the country to witness the proceedings. Duncombe presented the Petition, which was wheeled into the House, and stated the purport of its prayer; he then gave notice of a motion that the petitioners be heard at the bar of the House, through their counsel or agents, in support of the allegations which the Petition contained. When Duncombe brought forward his motion there was the usual quantity of speaking. Macaulay was the great opponent of the motion. He stated that he had no objection to any one point of the Charter but universal suffrage, which he described as amounting to nothing short of the confiscation of the property of the rich. He uttered during his speech the most unfounded and abominable calumnies against the working class. Duncombe’s speech was noble and manly, and elicited the warm esteem of men of all parties; but no amount of good speaking was sufficient to draw forth a response from the House of Commons, and only fifty-one members, including tellers, were found to vote in favour of his motion. That House was too cowardly or too callously indifferent to the condition of the people, to consent to meet the veritable representatives of the suffering poor face to face, and listen to an exposure of their wrongs from those who were best qualified to make it. Duncombe declared that so much was he disgusted with the conduct of the House of Commons, that if the people ever got up another petition of the kind, he would not be a party to their degradation by presenting it…”

The rejection of the second petition effectively left the Chartist movement in the doldrums, nationally. However, it is a mistake to see the movement in that way, historically. While the grand spectacular moments of Chartism may have failed to achieve their stated aim, the value of the movement was the part it played in the building of a sense of class interest, in the cultural and social life that ran parallel and reinforced the political activity, the self-education and… The grassroots of Chartism was a vital stage in the evolution of a self-created class identity and awareness. These developments left long legacies in the working class, and particularly among the radicals, which outlasted the movement’s short history, and left hollow the mockery of the parliamentarians who met the Chartist petitions with derision.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: sacred socialist James Pierpoint Greaves dies, 1842.

James Pierrepont Greaves, a merchant draper, from Merton, became convinced that he had a spiritual mission in life to share his commitment to the love of God with others. In 1818, he joined Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss educational reformer, then established at Yverdon, where he taught English. There he met fellow socialist Robert Owen.

He founded a philosophical society in 1836, the “Aesthetic Society”, which met for some time at a house in Burton Street in Camden. His educational experiences gradually led him to his unconventional philosophical views. “As Being is before knowing and doing, I affirm that education can never repair the defects of Birth”. Hence the necessity of “the divine existence being developed and associated with man and woman prior to marriage”. He was a follower of Jacob Boehme and influenced by German transcendentalism. He was also influenced by Thomas Taylor, William Law and the philosophy of neoplatonism. Greaves worked with Charles and Elizabeth Mayo to found the Home and Colonial School Society in Gray’s Inn Road in 1836. This teaching institution was dedicated to Pestalozzi whose educational ideas ignored the idea of rote-learning. The new organization included a model infant school where these ideas could be developed.

Greaves opened a freethinking school on Ham Common, southwest of London, July 1838. Discovering that Bronson Alcott had already had a similar school in Boston, USA. Greaves was sufficiently impressed to open a correspondence with Alcott and to name his school fafter him. Greaves had adopted the ‘vegetable diet’ in 1817; the school used it from the outset.

In 1841 the school was re-invented as ‘A Concordium, or Industry Harmony College’, still in Alcott House. The earliest confirmed use of ‘vegetarian’ was in the April 1842 issue of their new journal, and used in a way which showed that it was already familiar, at least to readers of that journal.
In July 1842, Bronson Alcott arrived from America to stay for four months, and when he left at the end of September he took two members of the Concordium with him to found a short-lived community near Harvard called Fruitlands. He was joined there by his family, including his 10-year-old daughter, Louisa May Alcott (later a famous author) and they continued to follow a wholly plant-food diet.

The Concordium developed into a sort of utopian community, with gardens, a playground, lawns, walkways, arbours and a summerhouse. Possibly influenced by Cabet and other French Utopian socialists, its residents called themselves followers of ‘sacred socialism’, and lived a spartan life of raw veggie food, celibacy, mesmerism and phrenology. Phew! They set up a proto-vegan society-type organisation. It broke up largely because the members objected to a diet of raw vegetables during the winter months, though I’m sure the ban on sex and constant head-examining played its part! Chartist communist John Goodwyn Barmby lived there for a short time. Alex Campbell, an Owenite socialist, left Ham around 1843 to found Concordium 2, at nearby Hampton Wick.
Socialist guru Robert Owen visited Ham three times; it was a convenient distance from London and socialists appreciated it as “salubrious and picturesque”. The river provided a delightful way of travelling, especially if accompanied by a choir. In 1840, with a coach load of followers, Owen delivered a lecture on Ham Common attacking marriage and proposing easy divorce. Even worse, he seemed to be undermining all social order when he also contended that people were not responsible for their actions anymore than a tumbler could be blamed for being filled with dirty water rather than clean. The Home Secretary, alerted to Owen’s notoriety, had sent spies to report on his lecture and in the House of Lords, Bishop Phillpotts of Exeter, who had already attacked Owen in the House, denounced it as a “most horrible and demoralising discourse”.

James Pierrepont Greaves died on 11th March 1842 at Alcott House. The school survived until 1848.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online