We Remember: John Olday, gay anarchist revolutionary, artist, insurrectionist…

John Olday (1905 – 1977), born Arthur William Oldag, was an anarchist revolutionary, artist, cartoonist and writer, active in Germany, France and Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and resided in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. Returning to London in about 1970, he remained active in anarchist groups until his death in 1977.

Accounts of his life below are reprinted from a Freedom anarchist newspaper supplement, September 1977, and added to from some sources elsewhere…


JOHN OLDAY, proletarian revolutionary and artist, has died in London at age 72, his much-abused body failing to support his still fertile, rebellious mind. His fighting record began as far back as 1916, when he was but one of the starving women and children of Hamburg, Germany who exploded in savage bread riots as the Kaiser strode toward defeat and ruin in the First World War. The 1918-1919 sailor-worker revolt followed, in which John, at the age of 13, served as an ammunition feeder for a Spartakus machine-gun post where all were killed but he, though he was captured and nearly executed. In the early ’20s he took part in mass expropriations, joined and was expelled from the Communist Youth, fought in the abortive worker uprising of 1923 in an Anarcho-Spartacist guerrilla unit, and was an agitator in the French-occupied Ruhr.

Born Arthur William Oldag, illegitimate son of a German mother and Scottish father, John became an important cartoonist and expressionist artist under that name in Weimar Germany. He renewed his guerrilla activity shortly before the Nazis took power, producing, then a powerful series of anti-Nazi cartoons and slogan stickerettes which were miniaturised and secreted into booklets of official postage stamps distributed throughout the Reich.

Between 1925 and 1932 in fact, he had not been involved in revolutionary activity at all, concentrating on furthering his career as an artist. This was to stand him in good stead later when, returning again to activities with the Spartacist group in the early 30s, he continued to pose as a crazy homosexual artist, but using his position among the intelligentsia and upper-class Nationalists to gather information which he passed on to the underground. He was even able to continue with this dangerous game after the Nazis came to power by doing a deal with them (they wanted to show the world that satirical cartoons could still appear in Germany) – until the price became too high and he had to get out. In 1938 he escaped a Gestapo trap and fled to England, where he published Kingdom of Rags, an anti-fascist documentary illustrated with the horrifying sketches he had brought from Nazi Germany.

Receiving financial backing from an anti-Chamberlain faction in Parliament, Olday (his new underground name) co-ordinated from London and Holland the sinking of a Nazi munitions ship, murdered a Jewish renegade working for the Nazis in Antwerp, parlayed with dissident German Communist exiles in Paris, and wrote the script for an appeal to the German workers to sabotage the Nazi war machine which was read over Radio Strassbourg. Olday’s wife, Hilde Monte, for whom a memorial museum in Israel is named, was an anti-Nazi Jewish resistance fighter who, along with John, did much of the groundwork for the 1939 Munich Beer Hall bomb explosion which nearly killed Hitler. She was shot by the SS in 1944 on the Swiss border while on a resistance mission.

With the outbreak of war, refusing to work for British intelligence or to mute his call for class war, John was press-ganged into a British Army punishment corps from which he deserted. Until 1944 he remained underground in London, editing and cartooning the anarchist War Commentary and circulating clandestine soldiers’ letters among British troops, Calling for revolutionary anti-militarism and the formation of worker-soldier councils, which were beginning to have effect in war industry and various war theatres, this effort brought the wrath of the Government and the imprisonment of anarchist militants,

Olday’s drawings gracing the cover of WW2 anarchist journal War Commentary

The IWW in the USA came strongly to the support of Olday on his arrest and trial in 1944-45. John had worked closely with IWW seamen in the underground fight against the Nazis, and maintained contact with Hamburg through the war via Scandinavian Wobbly seamen shipping into Nazi Germany. His powerful drawings from the March to Death collection were featured in the Industrial Worker regularly during the war, along with letters, poems, and reviews of his work. Released from prison in 1946, Olday was thrust back into a military punishment unit. There he organized German POWs into the Spartakusbund, Gruppe Bakunin, the direct heir of the Anarcho-Spartacists of 1918-40. On their return to Germany, these young revolutionaries established 60 Spartacist groups, primarily in the East Zone. They were liquidated to the man by the Stalinist secret police in late 1948,

Released, Olday worked for a time with the anarchist Freedom, then emigrated to Australia, where he became the most notorious artist and cabaret performer of the ’50s, Returning to Germany in the late ’60s, he worked with student and gay-liberation groups, then went to London to work with Freedom, followed by Black Flag, before founding his own International Archive Team.

These last two years John was a member of the IWW General Defense Committee. Though a councilist to the end, his firm advocacy of the IWW-GDC in Mit-Teilung (the German-English newsletter he produced);  his contact with dissidents and prisoners in Germany, Italy, France, and Japan; his translations of IWW and GDC material into German for our new members there; and his striking drawings and cartoons, featured in the Industrial Defense Bulletin, were a tremendous aid to the IWW.
He was a fighting rebel to the last.

Footnote: The above tribute to John Olday is taken from The Industrial Worker (July 77)… Incidentally the army unit, the Pioneer Corps, is not a punishment corps as Gary describes it, but a corps which does the labouring work for the fighting units.

Recollections of the Wartime Years

THOUGH I had not seen, nor been in touch with, John (‘Jo’) Olday for the past twenty-five years at least, news of his death filled me with sadness and a feeling of personal loss and I can only explain this by saying that not only did we have a close and positive friendship for a number of years but that, certainly in the 1940s, his personality was such that once having met him it would have been difficult ever to forget him.

I just cannot recall how and when we met. We started to publish his cartoons in War Commentary in 1942 (signed XXX and not in his name – the triple X would seem to be a Germanic tradition, for Max Nettlau did likewise in his unsigned articles in Spain and the World) and I do know, from personal involvement, that he was ‘on the run’ for almost two years before being picked up in December 1944. I assume he had joined the army as a volunteer and that we met at the Freedom Press offices in Belsize Road, Swiss Cottage, London in 1942.

Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943

However, what I am not vague about are the army leaves he spent with Marie Louise (Berneri) and me in our flat in Chalk Farm (London) and what good company he was. He was also the ideal guest: you never felt that you had to entertain him or minister to his needs (he was an excellent cook who, from his experience of living in post-World War 1 Germany, excelled in the art with our basic wartime rations). As soon as he came through the door (in uniform, with pack and rifle !) he became part of our household, a small detail which I feel is worth mentioning, because Jo was a complex personality-on the surface the bohemian, the artist, the romantic, but underneath the disciplined, neat and tidy person. He was no Soldier Schweik; his uniform was immaculate as was all his equipment, his boots as polished as he was trim, pink and streamlined physically; his gestures and gait reminded one of a dancer, light and svelte. He was more at ease squatting on the floor than seated in a chair. He was a chain smoker and went for spirits, with a preference for rum. He talked about other drugs that he had taken but never produced any in our company.

To my mind Jo above all wanted to be a successful artist as opposed to a political cartoonist-and to the extent that he never achieved public recognition for this he failed. He also wanted to be a successful writer and playwright. To these ends he was always seeking for a dedicated band of followers to stimulate and support his artistic bent.

Being homosexual, it was a succession of young males who stimulated his undoubtedly great talent but in due course abandoned him to make their own way and mostly not in the anarchist direction. And then suddenly in the ‘fifties one learned that Jo had emigrated to Australia !

Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943

Whether he joined the British army in the first place to fight the Nazi regime, I don’t know and cannot recall any discussion on the subject. However when he contacted us he was obviously in a strongly political anti-war phase and there were at no time any differences between us on the question of opposition to both sides in the military struggle. Thinking back, I am amazed that his decision to desert the army came so soon after his contact with the FP group. He had come on a long leave and was staying with Marie Louise and me at the flat when he announced his decision. It meant that he would have to change his identity, dispose of his uniform and weaponry and find somewhere to live and an Identity card in order to eat and move around-and of course money. All the necessaries were found for him and at the latter stages of his two years on the run a sympathetic employer whose name I think was Griffen, in the engineering spare parts business, gave him employment. But before that, apart from a few of us who had made ourselves responsible for him, he had the unstinted support of that delightful, lovable, interesting and eccentric old lady, Winifred Smith, a New Zealander who though brought up in the strict traditions of her time and married to a parson, had seen the Rationalist light in her fifties with such force that not only had she succeeded in liberating herself from the tentacles of the Church but, more important, had persuaded her husband to abandon his calling. No mean achievement and a victory for women’s lib. But Jo was more than her match ! She loved his gentle bullying and provided us with the wherewithal to pay his rent and more besides, as well as contributing to Freedom Press funds.

Jo could well have seen the war through in his hideout but for a blunder which not even an amateur revolutionary would be expected to make. He had been offered a big office typewriter which he needed in connection with his propaganda to the armed forces. In order to save a taxi fare he hired a handcart and collected the machine and trundled it across London… in the middle of a war! Needless to say, he was stopped and asked for his papers. The police were less concerned that he might be a deserter than that he had stolen the typewriter. They took him into custody, checked on his Identity Card and found that it belonged to someone in Southend who had reported its loss ! So began weeks of drama with Jo refusing to reveal his identity either to the police or at his appearances in Court. For us to make any moves on his behalf would have only provided clues as to his real identity and it was obviously his wish not to say who he was (though it was of no real assistance to him since it meant that he was duly remanded in custody after each appearance in Court). However we did try to cover up his traces so far as War Commentary (which the Freedom Press group was publishing every fortnight) was concerned, assuming that our readers included the Special Branch.

This meant continuing written features by Olday such as From the Ranks and a regular strip cartoon depicting a trio of Schweik-like soldiers and their apparently ‘irresponsible’ pranks in case the diligent Special Branch sleuths might link their absence with the man without an identity in Brixton. It was a good comrade from the West Country, Ron A, who produced the fake strips which were so good that not even Sherlock Holmes, let alone our Whiteheads and Joneses of the SB, would have had his suspicions aroused !

Jo’s undoing was a chance encounter in Brixton Prison with a Special Branch officer who remembered having interviewed him when he came to to this country in 1939. Once his identity had been established the spiteful magistrate made him pay for all the ‘trouble’ he had caused and sentenced Jo, in January 1945, to one year’s imprisonment for ‘stealing by finding’ an Identity Card, a ‘crime’ which was normally awarded a month’s imprisonment.
On his release from Brixton after serving eight months of his sentence the Military Police, needless to say, were waiting for him outside the gates and whisked him off to the Prestatyn Depot of the Pioneer Corps where, after being held for several weeks under arrest, Jo was charged as a deserter and brought before a Court Martial. In spite of his anti-Nazi record in Germany, and the time spent in prison in connection with the Identity Card charge, he was given a two years Detention Sentence.

Fortunately the Freedom Press Defence Committee which had been set up following the arrest of four members of the Freedom Press early in 1945 was not wound up after the Old Bailey trial in April of that year but was enlarged in scope and renamed the Freedom Defence Committee, publishing its first Bulletin in July. Herbert Read and George Orwell were chairman and vice-chairman respectively, George Woodcock secretary and Tony Gibson its treasurer. I say fortunately because at that time the only other organisation allegedly concerned with civil liberties was the NCCL (National Council for Civil Liberties), then, unlike now, a Stalinist-dominated set-up which had, among other things, refused to defend the four anarchists on trial because by 1945 our Stalinists were more pro-war than the military and for them all those who opposed it were ‘fascists’.

The Freedom Defence Committee made representations to the War Office on two occasions as well as publicising the case. When it seemed that nothing was moving a letter was received at the Freedom Defence Committee in April 1946 from the War Office informing them that our comrade had been ‘released on suspended sentence’ having served only three months of a two-year sentence.

This was the second success for the FDC in a matter of two months, the first being the even more ridiculous case of Philip Sansom being called up for medical examination for Military Service the moment he was released after serving a nine months’ sentence for ‘conspiring’ with his comrades to seduce soldiers from their allegiance, etc. …! On January 10, 1946 he was sentenced to six months for refusing to attend the ‘medical’. By the second week in February he was released, thanks to the FDC’s uncompromising campaign and the support received from the then Manchester Guardian and the late Daily Herald (sadly transformed over the years from Lansbury’s radical Herald that devoted an editorial to the threatened deportation of Malatesta in 1912, to Murdoch’s girlie Sun of today that exposes everything other than inequality and injustice), not to mention a number of journals and an editorial comment by that notorious political fence-sitter the late Kingsley Martin in the New Statesman !

And when they were both released we had a memorable welcome-back party in Tom and Elizabeth Earley’s flat in Bloomsbury which for me, a reluctant party-man, will rank with Lilian Wolfe’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Tom and Joan Currie’s home, Tony Gibson’s fiftieth birthday party, the first Anarchist Ball in Fulham Town Hall and, much earlier, the social at Conway Hall in the ‘forties when we hired the large and small halls (as well as the kitchen) and packed the building in a Friends of Freedom Press Campaign to raise funds for War Commentary and our publications.

Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943

For that Social the walls of the Hall were lined with drawings and collages by Jo illustrating Freedom Press’s publications and activities over a period of sixty years. They represented weeks of patient, dedicated cutting and pasting and arranging. Most of it was done at Jo’s West London hideout, on the floor, the artist in his socks, sustained by tobacco, alcohol and simple food (uncooked bacon sandwiches were a favourite but he eschewed all salads). Some comrades may recall those collages and posters which alas have completely disappeared as have the originals of his cartoons in the course of Freedom Press’s many moves over the past thirty years.

I feel competent to write about only a very few years of a relatively long life (Jo was 72 when he died) and certainly a very full one. He has himself provided us with his Memoirs describing both a childhood spent in post-World War 1 Germany and his anti-Nazi activities in Hamburg up to 1938 when, feeling his arrest was imminent, he decided to leave the country and to this end rightly made use of his dual nationality to obtain a British passport which in the event stood him in good stead. ‘Slowly the train moved out of the station and gathered speed. I was safe !’ – the last sentence of Kingdom of Rags , John Olday’s autobiography, published by Jarrolds in 1939. It is an interesting, personally revealing document.

As I have already pointed out, I know nothing of the past twenty-five years which included his emigration to Australia where he lived with his adopted son (this was news to me). When we met him in 1942 he told us that he had married Hilde Monte, a typical hard line German Marxist intellectual, in order to provide her with British citizenship, but in the years of our association with Jo she was just one of a group publishing a very serious Marxist magazine, the title of which I cannot recall though I am almost certain that it was published from an address in Soho Square, London.

Olday’s first contribution in the February 1942 issue of War Commentary was a typical horrific, macabre, drawing, the figures were not real, they were ballet dancers, just as was the skeleton soldier in the March 1942 issue. It is really only in 1943, after he had deserted the army, that one has an awareness of the political cartoonist. I think I am right in suggesting that the inspiration, the ideas, for the outstanding cartoons and drawings in War Commentary and The March to Death from 1943 onwards came from Marie Louise Berneri. Many of his drawings illustrated editorials written by her and which she had discussed with him. She also edited a feature Through the Press and from the accumulated material came the plan for the production of John Olday’s outstanding collection of drawings, The March to Death .

Published in May 1943 by Freedom Press in the middle of a fratricidal war, it exposed the hypocrisy of the whole enterprise by quoting from the most respectable sources (on the left hand page) and illustrating them on the facing page with John Olday’s telling cartoons. The first edition of 5,000 copies printed on our old machine in the building facing our present premises in Whitechapel was soon sold out and another 5,000 copies run off and disposed of by the end of the war. Thinking of the difficulties we have experienced since the end of World War II to persuade booksellers to stock FP literature, I am still amazed by the sales through booksellers made by our two ace ‘salesmen’, Laurie Hislam (tragically killed in a motor accident less than ten years ago) and Philip Sansom.

At that time there were no Alternative booksellers, We sold to W H Smith and Boots and other wholesale and retail booksellers. I suspect that among bookshop managers at the time there was a high proportion of pacifists. [Probably – but also they were only too pleased to have anything to sell from their half-empty counters !]  After the war he reverted once more to the macabre. His collection of lithographs The Life We Live the Death We Die was not our cup of tea but we published it to please him as we felt such a gesture to him was called for, especially in view of the great success of The March to Death. But it was the end of his collaboration with Freedom Press and the beginning of a new phase in Jo’s tormented life.

Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943

He secured a basement flat in the Westbourne Park area in London where in due course he held an exhibition of his work which did not however include his political cartoons. At the time he became very friendly with Charles Duff (author of the Handbook on Hanging) and his wife Peg. They did a lot for him with introductions to Charles’ innumerable friends and acquaintances and by their warm hospitality, and encouragement in his artistic endeavours.

Jo was much too complex a personality ever to be a happy man. I am not even sure that he was specially concerned with being ‘happy’. But I am sure that his attitude to life affected his potentialities as an anarchist propagandist. But then I am not sure that he ever saw himself as such ! Having expressed my doubts may I add that I still think that The March to Death is one of the most telling pieces of anarchist anti-war propaganda. And that I still recall Jo in those exciting and challenging years of the early 1940s as the most loveable and reliable of friends and comrades.

LIKE Vernon Richards, my working association with John Olday was exclusively during the latter end of the war. In 1944 I was living in a ramshackle studio in Camden Town, situated in a quiet enclave behind a church and reached by a short leafy lane. The other studios were occupied by middle-aged artists who quietly got on with their work, minding their own business, while the war thundered on around them. It was an ideal place to have a clandestine press, and soon after I was invited to join the Anarchist Federation I was asked if a certain comrade could come and live with me. I sometimes think that it was my tenancy of the studio that led to my invitation to join the closed membership of the AF in the first place!
The certain comrade was John Olday, then a deserter from the Pioneer Corps, whose marvellous cartoons had inspired my own poor efforts, but whose identity had until then been a complete mystery to me.
The articles and cartoons that John was at that time contributing to War Commentary were the public tip of the iceberg of work he was doing, for he it was who was building up the network of contacts that we had with soldiers, sailors and airmen in barracks, army camps and airfields around the country
Every serving member of the forces who wrote in for literature received, in due course, a copy of John’s Forces Newsletter which spelt out in greater depth and detail the subversive anarchist anti-war message.
These newsletters were produced on the kitchen table in the studio. Drawings were reproduced on a small, neat lithograph stone which John brought out from under the bed once a month, and collated together with duplicated sheets. None of the casual visitors who came to the studio from time to time had any idea of the seditious material that flowed out from there to about 200 members of His Majesty’s forces, for the work was produced as quickly as possible and all traces cleared away immediately it was finished.
This was why, in fact, very little of it could be used by the Special Branch when they attacked Freedom Press in the Autumn of 1944. I had left London at the beginning of October on the book-selling four mentioned by VR which took me all over the country. When I returned in the middle of November, the balloon had gone up in all directions. The threatened split in the movement had exploded in bitterness and violence; John Olday was in custody – but still not identified – and Freedom Press offices and the homes of several comrades had been raided. Including my studio in Camden Town where, thanks to John’s meticulous destruction of all the traces, no evidence of the Forces Newsletter were found. Indeed, the clever Special Branch seem not to have associated him with that address at all – or surely I would have been charged, when they finally caught me, with harbouring a deserter ?
However, as VR explains, the connection with Freedom Press was finally established, and it was John’s wish at that time to be called as a defence witness at the Freedom Press trial.

In his own words, his intention was ‘to use the court as a platform of aggression, profess responsibility for the seditious propaganda and, so to speak, openly declare war on war’. But we all thought otherwise. None of us ever thought of ourselves as martyr material and held that all of us were more use to the anarchist movement out of jail. In a document I have in which John Oiday speaks of himself in the third person, he writes: ‘The accused comrades kept him deliberately out of the trial, to spare him harsh and long sentences, They themselves got nine months each. Jo never forgave them for having missed the opportunity to defy and denounce the Government in the spirit of traditional anarchist anti-militarism.’

As it was John got 12 months in another court for ‘stealing by finding’ an identity card to be followed by another two years’ sentence in detention barracks (the notorious Stake Hill) on his being handed back to the army.

He did not serve much of this second sentence, but before his release he made many contacts among German prisoners of war on which he was to build the network which became the Anarcho-Spartakusbund, Gruppe Bakunin, in East Germany. He claimed a network of 60 groups, which eventually felt strong enough to emerge in the Communist East German state (against his advice) -and were promptly liquidated.
(Philip Sansom)

Unfortunately the anarchist movement in Germany was depleted by war and emigration. Those who had survived the repression and the concentration camps were physically and mentally at a low ebb. In this context the noted German anarchist Rudolf Rocker began to advance the idea that anarchists should participate in all forms of “mutual aid” which included the reformist unions, municipal administrations, and decentralised small industrial and consumer cooperatives.

John Olday was one of the harshest critics of this line, saying that this was a reformist road and that Rocker had forgotten the revolutionary ideas of the anarcho syndicalist FAUD. He was one of the first to revive the old revolutionary slogan of All Power to The Workers and Soldiers Councils.

Against Rocker’s call for a Libertarian Federalist Alliance Olday advanced the idea of a Spartacist Alliance, on anarchist-communist principles, which united anarchists, council communists, and other anti-authoritarian socialists. He built up a network of sixty groups, mostly in East Germany. This included the Proletarischer Zeitgeist group in Zwickau. However in 1948 the East German secret police moved against these groups and smashed them.

Olday’s Information Bulletin now only appeared in small numbers. He changed the title of the bulletin from Anarchist to Council Anarchist, but the repression in East Germany and the poor state of the movement in West Germany saw Olday suddenly stop all anarchist activity. Without the driving force of Olday, the network faded away.

At the beginning of 1950 Olday emigrated to Sydney.

John Olday meeting South Australian Attorney-General, C D Rowe at the Immigration Week arts and crafts exhibition in the Adelaide Town Hall, 1956.

There he undertook work with a group of Yugoslav anarchist exiles in contact via the network. He then moved to Adelaide where he continued his artistic and cultural activities. There he worked as an attendant at an art gallery.

From there he moved to Melbourne where he got a job as a hospital worker and continued his artistic-cultural-political activities. From there he returned to Sydney. John’s time in Australia enriched the counter-cultural scene there with his adult education classes, mime shows, recordings, radio broadcasts and exhibitions and his advocacy of gay liberation.
(Nick Heath)

His later criticism of the Freedom Press tactics at the trial seems not to have taken account of the fact that if we had allowed him to play the self-sacrificial role he wanted, he would certainly have gone to a civilian prison for a very long time and his future work among German POWs would have been impossible, while much of his later work in Germany would have been much more difficult, too.

John Olday was always very much a ‘loner’. In the strict tradition of the him by his years in the anti-Nazi underground-his attitude even to his conspiratorial underground anarchist-a role, after all, imposed upon closest comrades was always the very sound one of ‘what you don’t need to know you don’t need to know !
He was absolutely dedicated to his work, and especially to the work which he saw as something that only he could do. As in others we know in and around the anarchist movement, this can make for intolerance and certain difficulties in common work ! But John could maintain friendship and indeed, as his Australian years showed, could express his many talents in writing, drawing and painting in channels unconnected with ideological revolutionary activity. I write ‘ideological’ as I am convinced that the cabaret and theatre work which John carried on in Sydney was subversive in its own way-after all he had learned that art in the cabarets of Hamburg in the twenties and thirties !
Around such characters, myths are bound to accumulate, and I am not putting him down when I say that John Olday himself was not entirely guiltless of allowing his own view of events to colour his recounting of them. How could it be otherwise, when so much of his kind of work had to be unrecorded and underground? But for John the function of the myth was for inspiration, not glorification to inspire others, not to build up his own cult of the personality. And for an artist-and artists are notoriously egotistical !-this was the measure and the strength of his anarchism.
(Philip Sansom)

Armed struggle…

BY 1974 John Olday was one of the legends of the anarchist movement; and justifiably-for his periods of direct action were during some of the most terrible and excited periods of the century: the Germany of the Spartacists and Noske’s Freikorps, the Social Democrats’ republic and the period of Hitler’s rise to power through the betrayals of the left and the opportunism of international capitalism.

For John the answer was always armed struggle, since the anarchist movement is by definition committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. He saw individualism and “anarchist-pacifism” as bourgeois infections of the movement, but was at the same time aware that armed struggle when utterly divorced from a general class struggle could degenerate into mere terrorism.

Apart from a brief, and completely casual meeting in Australia, around 1957, my first real meeting with John was when Albert Meltzer brought him to the basement at Hemmingford Road where I was printing the current issue of Black Flag. Few people carry their years so lightly – John was at that time about 68, a slight but wiry figure, polite, at times almost courtly, and as we subsequently discovered possessed of an extra-ordinary capacity for work. He contributed articles and cartoons to Black Flag, the IWW Defense Bulletin, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with comrades and groups across the world. Towards the end of 1974 he established the International Archive Team (1.A.T.) with the object of disseminating news and information within the movement. We were mainly concerned with those divisions within the international movement that tended towards legalism and economism and therefore diluted the revolutionary struggle, Personally I believe that he placed an excessive value on armed struggle as a single tactic, although this was preferable to those who elevated their tactical disagreement into a matter of principle.

He did valuable work in establishing contacts with comrades throughout the world and there are many who will remember his quiet astuteness and his powerful compassion. I mentioned before his, in my opinion, over-emphasis on the single tactic of armed struggle; he might well be right, but I am fairly certain that anyone who lived through the destruction of the revolutionary left in Germany without being cowed or participating in the sell-out that the CP dignified by the name of Realpolitik might have felt as he did. Those who remember our joint criticism of RAF and 2nd June Movement in Germany will know that his support for armed struggle could be critical. And he was quick to detect and condemn revolutionary elitism and vanguardist gestures.

John performing his anarchist cabaret at Centro Ibérico anarchist centre, Haverstock Hill, North London, mid-1970s

After the turbulent events of our wartime collaboration and separation, I saw little of John before he went to Australia, and indeed very little until two months before he died, I paid one visit to his cabaret when the Centro Ibérico was in Haverstock Hill and found it rather sad. One does not have to think in terms only of what is ‘fashionable’, but at least any form of self-expression must relate to styles and attitudes of its timè to strike home. Sadly, he hadn’t forgotten the cabarets of Hamburg either!

One day last February, Ted Cavanagh, who had been working with John on Mit Teilung phoned me to say he was very ill. Having fallen out with all the other anarchists he had worked with here in London he was very much on his own. Gary Jewell had been staying with him from Toronto, but was having to go back. Could I do anything to help?

I went round to his flat in the seedy area off the Harrow Road that he had always liked and was shocked to see the frail white-haired invalid who opened the door. He could hardly walk and had difficulty even in talking but he was still writing-feverishly, as if he knew he hadn’t much time. He said he was glad to see me and said he was sorry about a rather frosty meeting we had had two years before. I don’t think he knew it, but he was in the terminal stage of cancer and all he could eat, he said, was smoked salmon, Stylish to the end! I obliged by getting him some, and fortunately a young Japanese comrade, Kori Yoro, turned up who was a great source of comfort and help to him. But all he wanted to talk about was his work. He was producing page after page of minute writing an autobiography in detail going right back to his earliest revolutionary days in the Spartacist uprising in Germany. But other work as well-a dissertation on Oriental and Occidental Objections to Anarchism and the work which Gary Jewell mentions on the 1918-23 revolts in Germany: Spartacus and Insurgent Anarchism, defending a revolutionary tradition in Germany.

I have received from Gary the first draft of the first part of this last work. The last paragraph of the introduction reads: ‘I am fully aware of the subjectivity of my recollection. If this book helps to remove misinterpretations and dissolve old animosities, still recurring in the circle of the new generation of revolutionists, I shall consider myself amply rewarded.’

‘…a most gentle man’

JOHN OLDAY had already entered the world of legend when I met him. One knew the drawings and one knew the books and one assumed that he belonged to that elusive heroic past. It was when I began to receive his unsolicited letters that I was aware that here was a man active, cheerful and witty and I looked forward to the answers to my own letters. We met for the pub crawl and there within his flat was the documented wealth of his amazing life. The drawings, the cartoons, the books and the gramophone records all marked with his brilliant talent.

He spoke of pre-nazi Germany, of the world of the political cabaret, of the poet beaten and broken in the first of the Nazi concentrations camps shuffling back into the defensive world of the German militant left that sought a refuge in John’s cabaret. And of that dying tortured world John recorded in firm swift brutal lines the agony of those hours. And we went for our pub crawl from one side of London yea even to Earls Court and John Olday tall and slim, with his white hair streaked with grey, clad in his tight fitting blue jeans loped along beside me with the grace of a young lightweight boxer and always he talked and I listened to political history made manifest to the artist who had had to practise his art one step ahead of the political police in country after country.

The artist is beholden to no man for in those few square inches he stamps his credo and his conscience for all men to bear witness and no-one, be they editor or subscriber can tarnish the visual image. He can only be rejected and in that act of rejection lesser men become that much less and what they offered in exchange is the forgettable dross of history. Turn the pages comrades and it is only the work of the artist that lives in those grey columns be it a week or a century ago. John gave much to us and the tragedy, for us, is that the brilliance of his pen was allowed to lie idle on the unmarked paper. Time will judge John Olday’s work and judge it well and history will ask who broke the pen and why. Of my life I shall remember him with pleasure, a most gentle man, witty and soft spoken, kind in his dealings with me and always blue jeaned, grey haired loping along London’s nighttime pavements.

I had the honour of working with John during January and February of this year in London. He was dying, and a weaker man would have surrendered to death; but he kept fighting and producing in spite of incredible pain and dire poverty. IWW Toronto will soon follow our publication of his polemic on guerrilla warfare, Trotz Alledem (‘In Spite of All”) with an important historical work, Spartacus and Insurgent Anarchism’: The 1918-1923 Revolt in Germany. Other material, including drawings and lumpenproletariat poems, also will appear.
John, you tough, querulous old bastard: farewell,
With much love





Spotlight on London’s historical anarchist spaces: Centro Iberico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haverstock Hill

Albert Meltzer, striking a pose in the Centro 1976.

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

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

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

Emilienne Morin and her daughter Colette Durruti, 1973.

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

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

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

Albert Meltzer chatting in the Centro, 1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Centro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Ruff is the author of “A Towering Flame: The Life & Times of the Elusive Latvian Anarchist Peter the Painter” (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2019). Available from: https://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/philip-ruff-a-towering-flame/


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

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

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

The Centro Iberico squatted school in West London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Miguel Garcia leaving the kitchen at the Centro, 1976.

Related items worth a read

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

Remembering Miguel Garcia, Stuart Christie.

Franco’s Prisoner, Miguel Garcia Garcia.

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, Albert Meltzer.

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

Today in London radical history, Ambrose Barker, secularist & anarchist, dies, 1953

Ambrose Barker, 1859-1953

Ambrose George Barker was born and brought up in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, near the town of Northampton. His father had been a Chartist and had helped set up a cooperative shop and bakery in the village. Barker remembered his father taking ‘a party of Radicals to Northampton to support Bradlaugh at the hustings in October 1868’. Charles Bradlaugh was the leading figure in the National Secular Society (NSS) and MP for Northampton, though he was repeatedly denied access to the House of Commons as being a non-believer, he refused to swear on the bible, and was imprisoned in Parliament for continually trying to take his seat without swearing…

Bradlaugh had been a great figure of inspiration for Barker in his youth. Another formative influence on Barker was James Watson, radical printer and publisher, fighter in the unstamped press agitation and leading member of the National Union of the Working Classes.

At the age of 19 Barker moved to Leyton in east London in 1878 to become an assistant schoolmaster and joined the NSS.

The National Secular Society concentrated on religion, but its members were renowned for their ‘advanced’ views on all the leading questions of the day, closely associated with every species of metropolitan Radicalism. NSS groups were involved in demonstrations in Hyde Park against royal grants in 1875 and against war during the Eastern crisis [1878-80: this was also the agitation that drew William Morris into the radical movement] In the late 1870s, the secularists formed the backbone of the Radical-Republican cause, especially attacking the monarchy, hereditary privilege and class oppression and in London secured wide general support among the working men’s clubs.

But the Secularist movement became increasingly split, between those who wanted to concentrate on religion and those who wanted to take a wider interest in other social issues, and were moving away from the Radical movement and its alliance with the Liberal Party, and towards socialism. Bradlaugh’s Radical politics were limited, and he attacked socialism. In some parts of the Secularist scene, questioning or disagreeing with Bradlaugh was tantamount to heresy (ironically!)

In 1880, Barker openly opposed Charles Bradlaugh’s support for the Coercion Bill, allowing for greater repression of the burgeoning republican movement in Ireland. He recalled: “One can well imagine our joy in the election of Charles Bradlaugh for Northampton and the great satisfaction generally that a great majority had overthrown the Tory government in 1880. But that satisfaction was soon to be shattered. Reaction had ruled so long that great things were expected of the Radical-Liberal Government. But the people were soon to be disillusioned. They were looking to the Government to bring forward social reforms, instead of which a most stringent Coercion Bill for Ireland was introduced.”

Ambrose Barker attacked Bradlaugh in print and proposed a motion condemning him but could find no seconder. This came on top of discussions within the Stratford Branch which had been going on for some time over the question of whether religion alone or the wider ‘social question’ should be their central concern. The majority favoured ‘this worldism’ and the more narrowly secularist members left, taking the name of the branch with them. The remaining ‘this worldists’ formed themselves towards the end of 1880 into the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club. Barker became secretary to the club,

The 1880 split left Jesse Locks, local NSS president, an Owenite, (who had been nicked for speaking on secularism. And previously in the Stratford branch of the IWMA) and other internationalist socialists on the other side, in alliance with mostly liberals. There was still a certain respect for Bradlaugh, even in anarchist circles, for his stand against religion: witness the presence of the banner of the Brighton Anarchists at Bradlaugh’s funeral in 1891.

The new Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club openly adopted socialism, and Barker became their secretary. The Stratford Club was a pioneering influence in the emergence of a socialist movement from the diverse, fertile, but often politically contradictory, working men’s club and radical milieux in the 1880s. A development chronicled most analytically by Stan Shipley in his Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London.

In fact Barker wrote that the Dialectical Club’s founding “marks the inception of the Socialist movement in East London”. The Club met at the Telegraph pub, in Leyton Road. The driving forces were Barker, Tom Lemon (later of the Social Democratic Federation), & George Lofts. The club also held open air meetings at Mile End Waste.

“We now commenced our propaganda work in dead earnest” Barker wrote “For myself I lectured on ‘Labour’, ‘Social Democracy’, ‘The French Revolution’ and many other subjects.” One lecture he gave – on ‘Government’ – was, he claims, “the first lecture of the kind in East London or for the matter of that in London itself on the basis of anarchism. I said ‘Governments were popularly supposed to be for the protection of the people. A knowledge of the past and the bitter experience of the present seemed to point out that it was against rather than by Government that protection was necessary’.”

“The lecturer,” reported the Radical of February 19, 1881, “argued that people made a great mistake in looking to Government for help. It had always been the destroyer of independence.” Speakers and writers were invited to the club and included James and Charles Murray, Frank Kitz, Dan Chatterton, and Miss Le Compte, the American delegate to the International Congress. Later on, in April 1882, Kropotkin was also to speak at the Stratford Club on ‘Russian Exiles’: “It is generally thought that Kropotkin first came to England in 1885. But that is not so. He first came in 1882. he met a few comrades at the Patriotic Club [a very influential radical Club based in Clerkenwell Green]. I had a conversation with him and induced him to give a lecture at Stratford. He came with Tchaikovsky and we had a crowded meeting…”

Barker also belonged to the International Club in Rose Street, Soho, where comrades such as the brothers James and Charles Murray were able to pass on the message from Chartist days. The Murrays had been longtime comrades of the ‘Chartist schoolmaster’ James Bronterre O’Brien, who spread socialist ideas in the Chartist movement, and whose ‘Eclectic Club’ in Soho and National Reform League formed a link between Chartism and the late socialist groups, as well as being a core of the London section of the First International and lying at the heart of a network on London radical clubs. The Murrays went on to help found the Social Democratic Federation.

The first propaganda defining itself as anarchist that had any effect within the socialist movement came from America with Tucker’s paper Liberty. Joseph Lane seems to have been the first to procure copies of it and introduced Ambrose Barker to it, in late 1881. Barker became a regular subscriber and started a correspondence with Tucker. Tucker was a Proudhonist and committed to a society based on small proprietorship. However, Tucker had a keen sense of the right of the oppressed to struggle against oppression and gave space to anarchist communist views.

In 1881, Ambrose Barker helped Joe Lane found the Labour Emancipation League, a militant organisation which developed a widespread indoor and outdoor propaganda for revolutionary socialism in London.

In 1881 John Most was prosecuted at the Old Bailey for an article in the anarchist paper ‘Freiheit’ (published in London by German exiles from political persecution) on the execution of Alexander of Russia. A committee, of which Barker was chairman, formed for the defence and it issued a weekly paper in defiance, ‘The English Freiheit,’ which contained in the first number a translation of the article for which Most suffered 16 months imprisonment, and was sold outside the Old Bailey while the trial was proceeding. It ran to seven or eight numbers and then succumbed for want of funds.

In 1884 the Labour Emancipation League effectively merged with H. M. Hyndman’s organisation, the Social Democratic Federation. Comrade Barker was a friend of William Morris, and when that body seceded from the Social Democratic Federation in late 1884, Barker joined Morris and Joseph Lane, as well as Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, in the new organisation.

The Socialist League had formed a branch in Stratford by 1886 (presumably Barker was involved), and held open air meetings in The Grove (Grove Street), Stratford. Like many local socialist groups, they had repeated troubles with police harassment, especially after the West End riots of February 1886. Open air meetings were regularly attacked by the police and speakers nicked. On 30 May 1886 ten people were arrested during a meeting at Grove Street, Stratford, for obstruction. On 5 June 1886, William Morris gave an open-air speech in support of the Stratford Branch of the SL at Grove Street. There was an audience of about three hundred. The police did not interfere this time. On 12 June 1886, however, Charles Mowbray and Joe Lane were arrested for speaking in Grove Street.

Barker appears to have left the Socialist League around the same time as Joseph Lane, at the end of the 1880s. By 1895 he was active in the Anarchist Communist Alliance, along with James Tochatti and L.S. Bevington. (read more on Tochatti in our radical history walk around Hammersmith.

Walthamstow anarchists were also said to have worked with local socialists in a ‘free speech fight’ in Epping Forest (possibly the arrests on Wanstead Flats in 1891-2).

In 1892, Barker became the secretary of Walthamstow Workingmen’s Club, a post he held until 1950. As secretary, Barker was involved in the 1892 Leyton Lammas riot, when the Walthamstow Working men’s Club was one of the organising centres for the tearing down the fences and uprooting the rails at the unpopular enclosure of parts of the Leyton marshes; a later account gives his name incorrectly as Aubrey Barker. Barker was secretary of the Walthamstow Workingmen’s Club until 1950 and wrote a history of it.

Barker was also later active in the Walthamstow Anarchist Group, which existed by 1907, and around 1910-11 was holding three or more weekly outdoor meetings. This group were enthusiastic debaters and visited local branches of the Social Democratic Party (formerly the SDF) and the Independent Labour Party. They were present at the inaugural meeting of the Socialist Society in nearby Leyton, formed from a SDP branch expelled for anti-parliamentary views.

Between 1910 and 1914 he was also associated with the Walthamstow Syndicalists, who met in the Walthamstow Workingmen’s Club, (founded 1892 and still exists). Another local syndicalist was Guy Bowman, who was involved with syndicalist pioneer Tom Mann in the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, & in publishing leaflets urging troops not to fire on strikers (as was done in the Welsh coalfields in 1911). Mann and Bowman were jailed for 6 months for this activity.

According to Albert Meltzer: “Many of the Walthamstow Syndicalists were in the Horse Transport Union, an anarcho-syndicalist union (not a breakaway from the T & G, but a forerunner) which decayed with the trade itself”.

Continuing in anarchist activism, in 1930, Barker was a founder member of the London Freedom Group. With other veterans like George Cores and John Turner, he had demanded that Tom Keell hand over the running of the by then nearly defunct anarchist paper, Freedom, to them. They were finally able to restart Freedom in 1930. However the British anarchist movement was in deep decline by then, and it was only able to appear until 1933, in difficult circumstances. These circumstances forced it to reduce its size in 1932. Around this time, Ambrose became active in the National Secular Society again, and his partner Ella Twynan, also an anarchist, wrote several pieces for them. She was involved in the anarchist and anti-militarist movements. During World War I she had been one of the international delegation which went to Sweden to discuss international socialist opposition to the war.

In 1938, Barker penned a pamphlet on Henry Hetherington, 1792-1849: founder of the Poor Man’s Guardian, and pioneer in the freethought and working class struggles for the freedom of the press. E.P. Thompson interviewed Barker for his book on William Morris in the 1940s.

Barker died on February 14th 1953. Ken Hawkes of the Syndicalist Workers Federation wrote, in their paper Direct Action, in March 1953:

It is with great sorrow that we record the death, on Saturday, February 14, of our grand old comrade, Ambrose Barker. He was 93, and died at his Walthamstow (London) home of bronchitis contracted during the fog last December…

His activity in the working class movement was never relaxed. A schoolmaster, he was an able indoor and outdoor speaker. In 1929, when “Freedom” (not connected with the present journal of that name) was restarted by the London Freedom Group, he became its editor.

On his 90th birthday, I and another comrade spent the evening with him and his companion, Ella Twynam, at Walthamstow. During the two hours that we were with him he brought to life the story of his part in the working-class struggles of more than 70 years. We asked him what he thought of the Labour Government. “£1,000-a-year men – all of them,” he answered, “they’re doing the Tories’ work well.”

During the latter years of his life, Comrade Barker’s main activity was in the peace movement, but he always remained an Anarchist and revolutionary. His body was cremated at Golders Green on February 20, following a secular service conducted by his old friend, Mr. Percy Turner.

After Barker died, Ella Twynam was involved with the NSS to a greater extent but came to the first meeting of the “Cuddon’s” Group, which later became seminal anarchist paper, “Black Flag”. It was she who suggested the name “Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan review” after the paper published in 1861 by Ambrose Cuddon, jun., who she claimed was the first self declared anarchist in Britain. A direct connection with the Chartist and Luddite movements, he welcomed Bakunin to London.

Lots of this post was garbled from writings by Nick Heath and Albert Meltzer.



Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.


The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

Today in London’s anarchist history, 1993: Leah Feldman, veteran of the Russian Revolution, cremated

A Rebel Spirit (obituary of Leah Feldman)

Albert Meltzer

Leah (Leila) Feldman, who was cremated at East London in the presence of some fifty comrades from DAM, ABC, Black Flag and the feminist movement, on January 7th 1993, was a history lesson in herself. She merits more than an obituary.

She was born (she always said) in Warsaw around 1899. Her British passport says she was born in Odessa, but in view of her problems through life, she must have had many occasions to “change” birthdays, names, birthplaces and nationalities. The problems faced by a woman just in travelling independently in the old days were immense, apart from her anarchist activities. While she was still a schoolgirl she become interested in anarchism (her mother used to hide her shoes so that she could not attend meetings, then illegal). Finally she ran away to her sister in London to earn her own living at the sewing machine.

Working in the sweatshops of the East End, she become active in the Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement that flourished at the time and vanished. She was possibly the last survivor of that Jewish workers’ movement. When the Russian Revolution was thought to have come about and the army was in rebellion the overwhelming majority of Russian Jewish male anarchists, who had resisted conscription up to then, joined up to return to Russia. The women Anarchists had a more difficult problem – many with husbands or companions who were able to go back, arranged to follow later but that was the last they heard of their menfolk, overtaken by the triumph of Bolshevism. This Jewish (in the sense they used, neither racial nor religious but language) anarchist movement, gradually dwindled away over the years. A few remaining males survived until the early fifties, and the women, often married into English dockers’ families, ended with Leah so far as this country is concerned.

Leah, however, independently made her own way back, a tremendous task. Viewing Russia from the train, a comrade jestingly remarked she was like Madame Butterfly watching for her lover (we played “One Fine Day” at her funeral, and also Paul Robeson singing the equally appropriate “Joe Hill”). Unfortunately it was no fine day and Leah, as a working woman, was one of the first to see what would be the effects of Bolshevism, something one [none] of the intellectuals who visited could see.

She attended Kropotkin’s funeral, the last permitted anarchist demonstration before the long dark night (they stole the flowers from Lenin’s tribute in the House of the People, but all those paroled from prison for the day returned to jail).

Leah left Moscow to join Makhno’s army in the Ukraine (perhaps that was when she decided she was born in Odessa), which fought into the last against Tsarism, Bolshevism, the Social Democratic oppression and foreign intervention. She was one of a number of Jewish Anarchists who were living testimony to the lie started by the Soviet historian Yaroslavsky and accepted by academics universally (including many encyclopaedists copying each other) about Makhno’s pogroms. Though she did not actually fight, as a few women (who could ride horseback) did, she joined the train that followed the army and prepared clothes and food for the orphans and strays they picked up everywhere. For the rest of her life she was to follow the pattern of behind-the-lines support for revolutionary action.

When the army was defeated, Leah took advantage of one ‘privilege’ offered to women – she changed nationality by a formal marriage to a German anarchist, and left the country. They did not meet again. She made her way to Paris and then back to London. She still wanted to travel and was involved with the Anarchist movement in many countries. She was however tied by her German “marriage” once she had left Russia, but was later free to contract another formal marriage to a British ex-serviceman, named Downes. In a deprecating obituary in ‘Freedom’, which takes into account only her selling of ‘Freedom’ during and a few years after the war, it is said he was her lover. This is rubbish. He was a derelict, like many wounded old soldiers after 1918, found for her by Charles Lahr and paid £10 for his services, lent by the Workers’ Friend group and repaid by Leah over a period. (Typically, Charlie joked that to find a real husband would cost a lot more). They never met again until Leah found by official communication her ‘husband” was in a geriatric hospital and she used to visit with presents of tobacco. When she was abroad, Polly Witcop (sister of Milly Rocker and Rose Witcop) undertook the visits for her.

Leah visited both Poland and mandated Palestine once she was a British citizen, working her way to both places. In Palestine she organised a federation of Anarchists, mostly old friends from the old country. One surprise was her old friend Paula Green, who had been pressurised into marriage in Russia, so had decided on an atheistic Socialist-Zionist with whom she was in love. Forced into exile he had obviously chosen (Ottoman) Palestine. Paula knew he was into active Socialist politics but thought it as impossible he would ever be in government as he thought her ideas impossible. Green changed his name to Ben Gurion, and after 1945 become Prime Minster. His wife did not leave him but did not take part in any public activities, and the whisper in Socialist-Zionist circles was that she was mad and could not be taken on an official platform. (‘Because he becomes the baker do you have to be the baker’s wife?” Leah asked her back in 1935, ten years before Paula faced the final humiliation as Premier’s wife though a still believing if passive anarchist, getting the reply, with a shrug, “So what do I get but the smell of the bakery?”).

Eventually Leah decided there was nothing she could do in Palestine and returned to London at the end of 1935 when I met her for the first time. She helped raise finance for the German sailors who organised a resistance group in the thirties, and took a tremendous part in activities for the Spanish movement when the civil war broke out. I used to go to her flat in Lordship Park (Stoke Newington) and hump great parcels of food and clothing which she had collected from her fellow fur machinists. She could never understand why I could “only raise pennies among my friends when she raised pounds” and never appreciated I was still at school, which for some obscure reason I was somewhat abashed at mentioning in then mostly ageing anarchist circles.

She took part in the selling of “Freedom” after the war and still thought of it as Kropotkin’s paper until her death, but a lot of people made that mistake. She could never understand in later years why they persistently ignored her except when she gave them money, and never visited her when she was ill, but the truth was they resented her criticism that Kropotkin intended it for the Anarchist movement not for a few cronies of one man who had seized control. When “Black Flag” come along she supported it equally always saying to me, “How is it that the people in this group are so different from the Freedom Group?” – I always answered “Because they’re Anarchists” but I fear she didn’t want to hear that.

Leah was associated with Spanish women anarchists in a joint working collective of different Anarchist women in Holborn (London) with Marie Goldberg, Suceso Portales and others, ever since 1939. How, with the confusion of tongues, broken English, Yiddish, Polish, bits of French, Spanish and Catalan, Indian-English of one and broad Scots of another, plus the total lack of verbal communication of two Cypriot women, one Greek and the other Turkish, they could ever have understood each other was a mystery to many, but they made up for it in volume, and maybe that’s how new languages are born. (The postman once said to me on the stairs, ‘I can never work out what nationality those ladies are – they told me they come from somewhere in Anarchy but Christ knows where that is.”) Leah had to give up work when her eyesight went after an operation (she was blind in one eye thereafter and increasingly so in the other),

She wanted to give aid to the Spanish Resistance in spite of all, and during the turbulent sixties, with the International First of May Movement, helped in taking care of the armoury, even taking it with her luggage into Spain. She was known affectionately by Catalans, always prone to giving nicknames, as “la yaya (granny) Makhnowista”.

In her seventies she revisited Warsaw in a vain attempt to find her relatives. A Polish journalist took her round as she refused to believe everything and everybody in the ghetto had vanished. “Maybe the neighbours know something,” she said and they had to show her visual proof that the neighbourhood had been flattened, the Polish inhabitants dispersed and scarcely one of the Jewish residents remaining anywhere in Poland other than those who had come in after the war. Presumably this episode appeared on local TV or radio as the journalist took enormous trouble in convincing her of the reality.

Her last years were sad. Not only were all her family and early friends dead, there was nobody left to whom she could even talk in her own language. She still supported anarchist meetings and went on holiday independently but in the last years of her life accompanied by Margaret, Jessica, Peter, Terry from Black Flag. One of us used to take her to the annual Anarchist Book Fair whenever her health permitted – she always sat at the Freedom Press stall in the hope of meeting some of the people she knew in Freedom who only appeared on the scene that day of the year, if at all, stubbornly refusing to admit it was now quite a different ball game.

As she got increasingly deaf and almost totally blind, she had to surrender some of her cherished independence and allow people to do things for her. She became paranoiac, argumentative and even aggressive in her nineties, after a series of horrendous street accidents, feeling her best friends were trying to kill her by driving cars or motorbikes straight at her, The fact that these dedicated young people still persevered week after week looking after her, being fond of her, and remembering all she had done in the past, says a lot for them especially, in addition to those already named, the feminists Ann and Cathy, and DAM people like Ken and Helen.

George Cores said that “most of the work that was done (in building the Anarchist movement) was due to the activities of working men and women, most of whom did not appear as orators or writers in printed papers”. Cathy and Margaret, and our late comrade Leo Rosser, obtained in a series of interviews, and a video, notes of her life which have been transcribed but are voluminous though chronologically jumbled. We hope that these can be edited into a coherent volume, which will be well worth publishing, far more so than the oft-repeated hagiographies of the ‘secular saints’ of the movement in the past. [Not sure is this ever got done? -Past Tense ed.]

Nicked from KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 4, 1993.

There’s a short interview from 1985 with Leah here (conducted by Black Flag’s Leo Rosser, another we’ve lost…)


An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online


Today in London anarchist history, 1999: the 121 Centre evicted, Brixton

It was twenty years ago today…

… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…

Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on your the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…

After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999, when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.

One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.

The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.

Olive Morris, who had been a member of the UK Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton.

Liz Obi relates: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out.”

Olive breaking into the back of 121 makes the cover of the Squatters handbook…

The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.

“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).

Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory

Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.

Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.

Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)

After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).

Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.

So the building was empty again, but not for long.

Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.

Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121, notably the occupation of Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.

During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).

Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. 3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).

Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.

Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).

Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…

But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being

  • Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
  • the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/other class struggle prisoners;
  • the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London, then to the US),
  • South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
  • the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
  • South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
  • Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…)
  • anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe

Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the London end of radical internet pioneers the European Counter Network… the list goes on.

And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).

And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…

As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The first Queeruption was held here…

The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk supposed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters!). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (I came from Sweden and you were closedetc), calls to revolt and general abuse.

Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…

In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived: “TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement and up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of 121, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999…

We know the police took an overt interest in 121. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).

121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.

“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”

The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?

Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.

One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.

As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.

All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.

There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.

The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.

The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.

For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)

In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.

A 121 street party in Chaucer Road down the side of the building, 1999

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.

Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…


Dedicated to

Olive Morris,
Leo Rosser,
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Jill Allott,
Nikki Campbell,
Asti Albrecht,
Maggie Marmot,
Mick Riddle
Albert Meltzer
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all

no longer with us, and we miss them all.


Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015



Today in London policing history, 1984: cops raid anarchist 121 Centre, Brixton, looking for guns…

121 Railton Road, Brixton, South London – through the 1980s and 90s one of London’s most active anarchist squatted spaces. Brixton anarchists had occupied 121 Railton Road in late 1980; some local anarchos had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address. But 121’s history goes back to 1973, when local Black Panthers Olive Morris and Liz Obi squatted the flat above the launderette there…

When Sabaar moved to funded rented premises in Coldharbour Lane, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre. The run-down building on the corner of Chaucer Road was to become a legend, both locally and worldwide, as a  bookshop, meeting space, cafe, office for numberless subversive projects, late-night club, and much more. Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121 (notably the occupation of Greater London Council-owned Kilner house, in Pegasus Place, Kennington Oval, in October 1980).

To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take several blogposts… Just some of the most significant being Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper; the Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for years), a support group for anarchist, and other class struggle prisoners; the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London), South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement; the London end of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp; South Wales Miners Support Group, during the ’84-’85 Strike; Brixton Squatters Aid and their newspaper Crowbar; the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…  Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax; radical womens mags Shocking Pink and Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; the list goes on.  As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The bookshop was sometimes famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk s’posed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (“I came from Sweden and you were closed”), calls to revolt and general abuse.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which was viciously racist and anti-squatter… Local cops had recently supported Lambeth Council’s eviction of 6 squatted houses in Effra Parade, just round the corner, where several 121ers and friends lived. Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived.

Let the collective tell the story:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of ours, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Lambeth Council are in the process of taking us to Court to evict us after we have been in occupation for 3 and a half years. The case will probably be up late September or October.


  1. Because we don’t conform… we don’t want to wait 10 years for a shitty flat when hundreds lie empty. We’re not amused by Milton Keynes, the SAS, pin‑up girls, Lady Di or Dallas. We organise to help ourselves without being controlled by anyone.
  1. Because we bring out uncensored news and information, that you’d never see on television or in the press.
  1. Because we support the miners in their heroic class war against the rich scum who live off our backs.
  1. Because they need a scapegoat, And its easy to slander us as ‘criminals’, and the raid as not ‘political’ when a “Firearms” warrant is used. Its easy to attack people if they can be divided off, isolated from others be they blacks, gypsies, foreigners, anarchists… we threaten that process with our solidarity.
  1. Inspector Speed who was supervising the raids has said ‑ falsely ‑ in the past that we were a drink and gambling club.

Such police clearly want us out of Brixton.

Our only “crime” is to seek freedom. The police attack us because we produce papers have cafes, housing aid, jumble sales and benefits for local causes and the miners. Because we oppose authority, government, imposed power groups and the ruling class in every way we can.

Probably you don’t support our politics, but you cannot support police terror tactics either. It takes all sorts to make up a Community and we are here to stay. Police attacks are used first against ‘minority’ groups … Tomorrow it could be YOU who wakes up to see the Thatcheroid Daleks bursting into your bedroom with guns and axes!

We should also like to protest the continuing harassment of local black youth and squatters, as well as people collecting for the miners by the police. Maybe they are trying to provoke us so they can try out their latest riot gear, as they nearly did on THURSDAY 16th August 1984 in Railton Road, at 5 pm.


And here’s an account of one of those nicked in the accompanying raids on a nearby squat:


There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed them, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms!

Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house.  – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? –Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Clipping on the raid, from Monochrome, 1984

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing. They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the 121, as he basement was put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dak, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999… This time it was 150 armed police who swarmed on the bulding, early in the morning, to ensure the 121 was eradicated.

We know the police took an interest in 121; we know the mail was examined in Herne Hill sorting office before it was delivered to us. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in. But we’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

An ex-121er

Today in London rebel history: John Rety, poet, anarchist, publisher, chessplayer, dies, 2010

On February 3rd 2010, anarchist, poet and publisher John Rety died, aged 79.

Born Reti Janos to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, his political views were shaped by his childhood experiences. His grandmother escaped a pogrom in Serbia by swimming across a river with her children strapped to her back, while following the outbreak of war, John’s family knew life as Jewish people was going to become extremely tough.

His father Istvan, a theatre director, was interned on an island in the Danube, which also held sporting events and John, aged 12, snuck onto the island on the pretext of watching a football match. Instead, he spoke to his father through camp fences, and persuaded him to escape. Istvan did get out: he and his wife Ilona spent the war in hiding. In the last years of the war as a young teenager John ran errands, taking packages around, later saying that he assumed it was for the anti-nazi resistance!

John’s grandmother had been looking after him during the war years, but she was later imprisoned. On the day the war ended, she approached a guard and said he could now put down his rifle and take off the fascist armband he was wearing. In response the guard murdered her.

Aged 16, John wrote a play about war and how adults had a lot to answer for – a theme John spoke about in the last year of his life, in a radio interview, saying: “War is devastating, first and foremost, for children. They do not understand why their parents have gone berserk.” 

The play was performed on the steps of the Budapest parliament – a dangerous thing to do. He fled Hungary, apparently just a step ahead of the authorities. He arrived in London in 1946 and got a job as an apprentice for a publishing house.

He published a novel aged 21, called Super Sozzled Nights, and hung out in Soho, then teeming with a bohemian culture that sparked many creative and radical projects.

It led him into the magazine trade, and he founded the Soho underground paper, Intimate Review, with contributions from young writers including Doris Lessing, Bill Hopkins, Laura del Rivo, Frank Norman, Alan Owen, Cressida Lindsay & Bernard Kops. Réty was the first to publish Colin Wilson. The Intimate Review largely circulated among the customers of the coffee houses that were appearing in Soho. It was a parish magazine, a gossip sheet for a bohemian, literary in-crowd that attracted contributions from many coming names. John would hawk copies on weekend evenings to cinema queues.

The former Guardian journalist Harold Jackson, co-editor of the Intimate Review, recalled Rety’s astounding ability to persuade eminent people to contribute to the magazine for free. “Our covers,” he said, “were regularly produced at very short notice and for no money by Feliks Topolski. Ralph Steadman’s work appeared from time to time.”

When Intimate Review was forced to fold due to a threatened libel action, Rety started other papers – including the Cheshire Cat and Fortnightly. Then, as Private Eye began to take over his readership, he took the editorial chair of the anarchist paper Freedom for a couple of years.

John met his partner Susan Johns in 1958. They moved into Robert Street, Regent’s Park and scraped a living by putting on a jazz night at a Soho basement bar, and then ran a second-hand furniture store in Camden High Street, Here, I think John met local squatters and got involved with supporting squatting around Camden and Chalk Farm. Resistance to the powerful property magnate Joe Levy in Camden Town ended in his own family’s eviction and loss of home and livelihood.

John was a member of the radical anti-nuclear group the Committee of 100, and his politics were anarchist – although he said it was his own form of anarchism, as he found tracts on anarchist theory so badly written he could not make head nor tail of what they were going on about. He had a low opinion of the anarchist classics “with the exception of Kropotkin, who could write, and Malatesta, who could argue…. Bakunin, I could never understand what he was going on about.”

In the Sixties, he took on the editorship of anarchist magazine Freedom. As a Freedom co-editor (1964-1969), John radically broadened the political and cultural reach of the paper.

Anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls one incident: “In the late ’60s, I chanced to hear the Duke Ellington Band play on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (with singer Dakota Staton) as a tribute to Martin Luther King. I was delighted that Freedom published a piece I wrote about this free spontaneous event, and utterly dumbfounded when the next time I met John he launched a fierce attack on me for endorsing the ‘cult of personality’ [surrounding Martin Luther King Jr].” 

Fellow anarchist poet Dennis Gould remembers: “John’d be chatting away and then he’d confront you with a question, a challenge. Which I could never answer!” 

John was said to have been “one of the first to burst through the heavy police cordon surrounding Grosvenor Square at the anti-Vietnam War rally in front of the US Embassy in October 1968” and was among 13 protestors who soon after held a 13-day fast there… For may years he was a regular at Speakers Corner.

At the end of the 1970s, John worked for the Student Community Housing (SCH) as a roofer. This was cut short when he fell and fractured his arm. The accident prompted him to enrol in a City and Guilds art course.

Camden Council offered a semi-derelict building at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, to the SCH; the keys were handed over to the place that so many people associate with John. It was in too poor a state of repair for the SCH to take on there was no gas or electricity, but John and Susan liked it and moved in. They founded the Torriano Meeting House, and began to put on events, notably poetry readings.

It is impossible to articulate the depth and range of events that have been held at the Meeting House, and the causes that have found a hospitable base there.

The readings were an astonishing success, drawing in poets and public from all over the country. Many paid tribute to him in a festschrift, Torriano Nights (2009). Stephen Spender & Adrian Mitchell were among the hundreds of poets who performed there.

The most important of these were the Sunday evening poetry readings which began with aspiring versifiers spouting their own work, often at considerable length. But Rety, who had a quick temper and a ready laugh, was a strict master of ceremonies.

When contributions from the floor were no good, he would shout out in his Mitteleuropean accent that the writers should read more good poetry if they wanted to avoid writing rubbish, and remind objectors that if Shakespeare walked in he would have to wait two hours for a hearing. After the interval an invited guest, who occasionally was Sir Stephen Spender, Dannie Abse or John Heath-Stubbs, would read and be heard with respect. The result, it was said, was an atmosphere resembling the start of an Aldermaston march and a tea party given by Brendan Behan’s mother.

John’s ability to charm support from unlikely sources never deserted him. Camden council contributed £10,000 a year to support the Torriano Meeting House. When, eventually, funding cuts forced them to withdraw the grant, the council offered Rety an Epic (Eminent Persons in Camden) award. Typically, he indignantly refused, regarding it as a bribe to stop him complaining about the loss of his grant.

In 1987, he founded the Hearing Eye Press, this time with financial assistance from the Arts Council of London. For the publication of his celebratory volume, In the Company of Poets: An Anthology Celebrating 21 Years of Poetry Readings at Torriano Meeting House (2003), he found support from the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is a collection starting with Dannie Abse and proceeding, via John Arden, through names including Oliver Bernard, John Heath-Stubbs and Dilys Wood. Rety’s own work was modestly absent from the book. Hearing Eye Press ultimately published over 150 books.

This did not exhaust his amazing energy or his proselytising zeal for poetry. He became poetry editor of the Morning Star and edited an anthology of the work appearing there, Well Versed, with a foreword by Tony Benn. This was popular enough to go into a second edition. It is frequently asserted that the Morning Star saw a rise in its readership due to the verse Rety published there.

An originator of the idea of poetry on the London tube – although he did not sit on the panel that eventually implemented it – he later extended that idea to the telephone with a Dial-a-Poem service with British Telecom. At 25p a minute, the line received 750 calls in its first week of operation in 1988, and seemed on the route to success until Rety fell out with BT, “as so many do”, he stated happily. He did not win his arguments over presentation, and a percentage for the poets, and the venture sputtered out.

When the land rights group The Land Is Ours occupied a derelict plot owned by Guinness in 1996, and turned it into an experiment in sustainable and cooperative living (calling it “Pure Genius”), John described the South London site as “anarchy in action”, saying that, as a participant, he had “now seen anarchy in practice and, so far, it works.” (Freedom, 18 May 1996)

Watch video of John talking about his early political influences


This post was cobbled together from a variety of sources… We also remember John, mostly from meeting him wandering around the Anarchist Bookfair, ranting… carrying armfuls of poems and papers…


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London publishing history: Johann Most arrested for celebrating the assassination of the Tsar, 1881.

“CHARLES HAGAN (Police Inspector). On 30th March, at 4.45 p.m., I went to the house of Most in Titchfield Street—I saw him in the printing-office at the back of the yard—I asked him if he was Johann Most; he said “Yes”—I told him in English that I was an inspector of police, and had a warrant for his arrest…”

Something of the history of the nineteenth century German anarchist newspaper Freiheit has already been recounted in a previous post. We briefly mentioned editor Johann Most’s 1881 nicking, for writing an article celebrating the assassination of the tyrannical Russian Tsar Alexander II.

Today is the anniversary of the police raid on the Freiheit offices and Most’s arrest. Below we reprint the text of his jubilatory editorial…

“At last! “Seize on this one, seize on that one, “‘Some one, nevertheless, will reach thee.’—C. BEEK.

“Triumph! Triumph! the word of the poet has accomplished itself. One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe, to whom downfall has long since been sworn, and who therefore, in wild revenge breathings, caused innumerable heroes and heroines of the Russian people to be destroyed or imprisoned—the Emperor of Russia is no more. On Sunday last at noon, just as the monster was returning from one of those diversions which are wont to consist of eye-feastings on well-drilled herds of stupid blood-and-iron slaves, and which one calls military reviews, the executioner of the people, who long since pronounced his death sentence, overtook and with vigorous hand struck down the brute. He was once more on the point of drivelling about the ‘God’s finger,’ which had nearly saved his accursed life, when the fist of the people stopped his mouth for ever. One of those daring young men whom the social revolutionary movement of Russia brought forth, Risakoff—with reverence we pronounce his name—had thrown under the despot’s carriage a dynamite bomb, which effected a great devastation on the conveyance and the immediate neighbourhood, yet left the crowned murderer to pray uninjured. Michaelovitch, a princely general, and others at once fell upon the noble executor of the people’s will. The latter, however, with one hand brandishes a dagger against the autocrat’s face, and with the other hand guides the barrel of a revolver against the breast of the same. In an instant he is disarmed, and the belaced, betufted, and by corruption eaten through and through retinue of the Emperor breathe again on account of the supposed averted danger. There flies a new bomb neat this time. It falls down at the despot’s feet, shatters for him the legs, rips open for him the belly, and causes among the surrounding military and civil Cossacks numerous wounds and annihilations. The personages of the scene are as if paralysed, only the energetic bomb-thrower does not lose his presence of mind, and is able safely to fly. The Emperor, however, is dragged to his palace, where yet for an hour and a half he is able, amid horrible sufferings, to meditate on his life full of crimes. At last he died. This in reference to the simple state of facts. Instantly the telegraph wires played up to the remotest corners of the earth to make the occurrence known to the whole world. The effect of this publication was as various as it was drastic. Like a thunderclap it penetrated into princely palaces, where dwell those crime-beladen abortions of every profligacy who long since nave earned a similar fate a thousandfold. For three years past has many a shot whistled by the ears of these monsters without harming them. Always and always again could they indemnify themselves in princely fashion for the fright endured by executions and regulations of the masses of all kinds. Nay, just in the most recent period they whispered with gratification in each other’s ears that all danger was over, because the most energetic of all tyrant haters—the ‘Russian Nihilists ‘—had been successfully exterminated to the last member.

“Then comes such a hit! William, Prince of Prussia, the now Protestant Pope and soldier Emperor of Germany, got convulsions in due form from the excitement. Like things happened at other Courts. Howling and gnashing of teeth prevailed in every residence. But the other rabble, too, which in the other various countries pulls the wires of the Government mechanism of the ruling classes, experienced a powerful moral headache and melted in tears of condolence, whether it consisted merely of head lackeys on the steps of an Imperial throne or of Republican bandits of order of the first class. The whimpering was no less in France, Switzerland, and America than in Montenegro or Greece. A Gambetta carried through the adjournment of the Chambers, and thereby put an insult on France from which even Austria was saved by the then President of the Reichsrath. Public opinion is startled, and seeks in vain for the reasons of such a miserable attitude. One thinks of diplomatic motives and the like, but one misses the mark. Much, perhaps, may indeed have contributed here snd there which resembles mere political hypocrisy. In the main the grounds lie deeper. The supporters of the ruling classes see just in the destruction of an autocrat which has taken place more than the mere act of homicide itself. They are face to face with a successful attack upon authority as such. At the same time they all know that every success has wonderful power, not only of instilling respect, but also of inciting to imitation. From Constantinople to Washington they simply tremble for their long since forfeited heads. This fright is a high enjoyment for us; just as we have heard with the most joyful feelings of the heroic deed of those social revolutionaries of St. Petersburg who slaughtered the tyrant on Sunday last. In this time of the most general humility and woe, at a period when in many countries old women only and little children yet limp about the political stage with tears in their eyes, with the most loathsome fear in their bosoms of the castigating rod of the State night-watchman, now, when real heroes have become so scarce, such has the same effect on better natures as a refreshing storm. Let some say behind our backs we are carrying on a ‘game with Nihilists’; let others blame us as cynical or brutal; yet we know that in expressing our joy at the successful deed we were disclosing not only our own feelings, but were also giving utterance to what millions of men, down-trodden and tyrannised over, thought with us when they read of the execution of Alexander. To be sure it will happen once and again that here and there even Socialists start up who, without that any one asks them, assert that they for their part abominate regicide, because such an one after all does no good, and because they are combating not persons, but institutions. This sophistry is so gross that it may be confuted in a single sentence. It is clear—namely, even to a mere political tyro, that State and social institutions cannot be got rid of until one has overcome the persons who wish to maintain the same. With mere philosophy you cannot so much as drive a sparrow from a cherry-tree any more than bees are rid of their drones by simple humming. On the other hand, it is altogether false that the destruction of a Prince is entirely without value because a substitute appointed beforehand forthwith takes his place. What one might in any case complain of is only the rarity of so-called tyrannicide. If only a single crowned wretch were disposed of every month, in a short time it should afford no one gratification henceforward still to play the monarch. Moreover, it is certainly a satisfaction for every right-thinking man when such a capital criminal is done away with—i.e., is punished according to his evil deeds. It does not occur to the jurists of civil society to hang no murderer or to lock up no thief because it is proved that these punishments do not remove murder and theft (both institutions of this society) out of the world. When one has entirely to do with such a subject as Alexander Romanow was, then one must accept his destruction with double satisfaction. If one could believe newspaper writers, then one must, according to their chatter, take it that the exterminated Czar was a real pattern of benevolence. The facts prove that he belonged to the worst doers of abominations that have ever disgraced humanity. Some 100,000 men were banished to Siberia during his reign, dozens were hanged after they had suffered the cruellest tortures. All these victims the Russian Crown Moloch claimed only because those concerned were striving for the improvement of society, wishing for the general welfare, perhaps had only passed on a single forbidden book, or written one letter in which a censure on the Government was expressed. Out of the war abominations which this tyrant conjured up we take but one scene from the last Turkish war. Alexander was celebrating his name-day, and wished a warlike spectacle. He ordered a storming of Plevna. The generals ventured to call to mind that such an one would not only fail, but would cost an enormous number of men. In vain! The order stood good, and in order to witness the slaughter with more gratification the tyrant caused a special stand with a kind of Imperial box to be erected for himself, whence he might watch the storming without himself falling into danger. The result corresponded with the predictions of the generals. The storming was repulsed, and 8,000 dead and wounded covered the ground outside the walls of Plevna. But the ‘little father’, as the despot by preference caused himself to be called, had amused himself cannibalistically. All petitions, all wishes for the introduction of ever so slight reforms which were almost daily laid at his feet, he only answered by fresh meannesses of an Asiatic Government barbarism. Genuine dragonades followed every warning or threat, attempted but unsuccessful attacks on his person increased his baseness to the monstrous. Who is scoundrel enough really to bewail the death of such a beast? But it is said, ‘Will the successor of the smashed one do any better than he did? We know it not. But this we do know, that the same can hardly be permitted to reign long if he only steps in his father’s footsteps. Yes, we could actually wish that it should so happen, for we hate the hypocritical, mock-liberal monarchs no less than the despots sans phrase,’ because the former perhaps have still greater power of retarding the development of civilisation than the latter. In addition, the persistence of the new Czar in the old principle of government must forthwith double and treble its enemies, because in Russia there are a number of people of that sort which has believed in the Crown-Prince legend usual in all countries, and at all times, according to which the successor spoken of only awaits the moment when he may be able to pour over the people a whole horn of plenty, full of blessings. All these enthusiasts are forthwith converted when they see that the new ukases smell as much of Russian leather as the old. Meanwhile be this as it may, the throw was good, and we hope that it was not the last May the bold deed, which—we repeat it—has our full sympathy, inspire revolutionists far and wide with fresh courage. Let all think of Herwegh’s words—

” ‘And where tyrants still exist ” ‘Then let us boldly seize them, ” ‘We have loved long enough, ” ‘And we wish at last to hate.’ “

The Russian government applied pressure on the British authorities to arrest Most (the German government was already on their case about him and his propaganda) and Most was arrested and prosecuted. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

In solidarity, a short-lived English-language anarchist paper also entitled Freiheit was published, reprinting an English translation of Most’s article, but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Socialist Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held. The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech (although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial recommended mercy to the Jury, “in consideration of this being the first paper of his which had such matter in it,” hilariously adding, “being a foreigner, and probably smarting under some wrong, real or imaginary.”

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until they did it again, publishing an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was again raided and its plant seized. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where it continued under Most’s editorship until a few years after his death in 1905.

Read an account of Most’s Old Bailey trial


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

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Today in London’s radical history: Jewish anarchist club opens in Jubilee Street, Whitechapel, 1906.

“The Jubilee Street Club played a great part in East End Jewish life because it was open to everyone. Anyone could use our library and reading room or join the adult education classes without being asked for a membership card…” (Rudolf Rocker)

In the late nineteenth century, a powerful Yiddish speaking working class movements evolved among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. It can be traced back the establishment of the area’s first Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry.

It was against this background that Der Arbeter Fraint (The Worker’s Friend), the Yiddish language anarchist paper, started out in 1885, initially representing all strands of socialist opinion, though it soon became associated with anarchism. More on the history of Arbeter Fraint here

Der Arbeter Fraint was instrumental in the development of an independent Jewish labour movement, one of the largest sections of which took on a strongly anarchist character. The group around Der Arbeter Fraint was associated with a number of meeting places in Whitechapel – the international club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, and most famously the anarchist club in Jubilee Street.

In 1906, the Arbeter Fraint group realised a long time goal by establishing The Workers’ Friend Club at Jubilee Street in Whitechapel (the building has since been demolished – it’s now under Jarman House). In the following years the Workers’ Friend Club, along with the Yiddish anarchist papers, achieved popularity well beyond the Jewish anarchist scene.

“The club had a main hall that could hold 800 people, and a number of smaller rooms and halls. One hall on the ground floor was used as a library and reading room. A smaller building adjoining the club served as the editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint.” (Rocker)

The opening night, 3rd February 1906, was packed – hundreds attended, and large numbers were locked out as there was no more room. “Almost every Jewish trade union in the country had sent us messages of congratulation. There were also messages from Malatesta, Louise Michel and Tarrida del Marmol. I was reading out the messages when a storm of cheering and clapping cut me short. Peter Kropotkin had arrived. His doctors had warned him not to appear at any more public gatherings, because of his heart. But this was an occasion from which he felt he must not stay away.

I begged him not to speak. He waved me aside. He spoke for over half an hour…” (Rocker)

The club was destined to play a central role in the political, social and intellectual life of the Jewish east End for a decade. It had an educational programme including English classes and lectures in history, literature, and sociology. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist who by now was at the heart of the group, spoke regularly. Rocker’s view was that workers who could think for themselves were in a much better position to combat their bosses, and escape the clutches of political parties and religious leaders, which exploited the ignorance and apathy of the masses.

Cultural activities were a major part of the Club’s appeal, “in a world where there was a thirst for modern culture alongside a deep attachment to tradition.”

However, the lack of an official membership, while allowing a freer access to many, did have its drawbacks, as it “made it impossible for us to sell drinks in the club, from which most of the other clubs got the greater part of their revenue. For the law restricted the sale of intoxicants in clubs to club members. We sold only tea and coffee and food. So we had to fins other ways of meeting our running costs.”

Rocker recalled that the groups who met there regularly included trade unions, the Jewish Workers’ Circle (an important workers society), a Russian Social Revolutionary party branch, and English anarchist groups.

Descriptions of the Jubilee Street Club can also be found in police records, this time because suspects and witnesses of the 1911 Sidney Street gunfight frequented the club. Nicolai Tockmacoff was a seam-presser born in Moscow who was interviewed by the police. He played the balalaika at the Workers Friend:.

“I used to go to the [Workers’ Friend] Club for entertainment and theatrical performances… There is a hall there and refreshment room for tea and coffee. Anyone can go in. There are all sorts of people there, English and Russian… There is a library which anyone can go into… There was a Lettish [Lithuanian] Concert on one occasion… Men and women go to the Club to borrow books.”

William Fishman’s oral history interviews provide other glimpses of the Club. Millie Sabel recalled her kitchen duties, preparing gefilte fish, chopped liver and pickled herring, and that Lenin would drink Russian tea when he came by. Rose Robins recalled synagogue-going Jews on days of fasting sneaking into the Club to eat the extra food the Club had to prepare on holy days .

On the one hand the club was very much based in the mass movement of the East End, but it was also frequented by the celebrities of the left. Anarchist guru Kropotkin spoke at its opening night. Among those who hung out at the Club were Tsarist secret agents, future Soviet ministers (such as Chicherin) and terrorists (including the Latvian revolutionaries involved in the Siege of Sidney Street). A non-Jewish anarchist close to Rocker, John Turner, leader of the shop assistants’ trade union, took the young Guy Aldred (then writing for anarcho-syndicalist Voice of Labour paper, which Turner edited) to the Jubilee Street Club, where Rocker asked him to speak one night when Kropotkin couldn’t make it. Ironically Aldred used the occasion to criticize Kropotkin for abandoning revolutionary Bakuninism and becoming a respectable suburban intellectual – which didn’t go down well with the Club regulars.

The Club was also a centre of Yiddish culture: the Yiddishists and cultural nationalists Chaim Zhitlovsky and Ber Borokhov both spoke there; many of the great Yiddish poets read there. Fishman records that there was a great deal of interaction between the Jubilee Streeters and Poale Zionists (labour Zionists) in the years after the 1906 tailors’ strike: people like radical Zionist journalists Kalman Marmor and Dr Wortsman.

The Arbeter Fraint group was throughout its existence very much involved in the struggles of the Jewish tailoring workers, in their strikes, struggles against sweating and other poor working conditions. Wages and working conditions in the East End clothing industry were much lower than in the rest of London. In 1889 and 1906, huge strikes that united 1000s of East End tailors saw mass solidarity; but a 1912 strike in both East and West End tailoring ended with victory on all fronts, largely due to Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group’s activities. The groups was also central in organising solidarity for dockers’ strikes, especially in 1912, where Jewish workers supported dock families facing starvations and took over 300 dockers children to be looked after in Jewish homes.

The strong Jewish labour and anarchist movements faced immediate repression when World War 1 broke out. The Arbeter Fraint group opposed the war from the start. The Jubilee Street Club was forced to close down. Rudolf Rocker was arrested in December 1914, and spent the war in internment camps.

In the meantime Der Arbeter Fraint continued to publish, maintaining its anti-war stance, until July 1916 when it was finally suppressed by the state. Rocker moved eventually to the USA, where he became influential in the Jewish anarchist movement there.

If you want some seriously inspiring reading, check out:

The London Years, Rudolf Rocker.

East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William Fishman.

Citizenship and Belonging, Ben Gidley


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