Today in London riotous history, 1887: police attack demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’

Public meetings held in the open used to be one of the main venues of propaganda and winning converts in the early socialist movement. Local ‘speakers corners’ were to be found in many working class areas, in London’s inner city areas and later suburbs. But larger demonstrations and rallies obviously targeted more central meeting places, nearer to the centres of power of the state. Of these, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park were favourite rallying places in the 19th century, as they still are today.

But the government feared and hated large demonstrations of working class people thronging the centre of the capital, and discussing dangerous and subversive ideas…. The police were regularly ordered to prevent demonstrations and meetings. In the 1850s Hyde Park, in particular Speakers Corner, was the centre of a fierce fight for the right to assemble and speak, a right which was eventually won.

But if Hyde Park was a bit farther from Parliament and power, allowing meetings in Trafalgar Square was felt to be too dangerous, from the 1840s, when it opened, but especially after a mass meeting there in February 1886 led to riots and looting in the West End. In November 1887 government and police determination to keep the plebs out of the Square would lead to a traumatic and violent episode of repression – Bloody Sunday.

Unemployed processions and meetings in Trafalgar Square in October 1887 would again (as In February 1886) led to violent events – but this time, however, the authorities were not about to allow a repeat of the looting and rioting of a year and a half earlier. 1887 was a year of deep recession; large numbers were out of work and in the latter part of the year seasonal layoffs made people’s situation worse.

“Of the misery here in London I do not think even you can form a faint conception” Eleanor Marx wrote to her sister,”Thousands who usually can just keep going at any rate during the first months of the winter are this year starving…”

Groups of unemployed had taken to gathering in the square daily, and had begun to form precession from there, carrying black flags, through the West End, sometimes down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey.

According to socialist leader William Morris’s diary, on October 14th, a Black flag-led procession to the Lord Mayor was dispersed by police; (the same day, a joint meeting in Trafalgar Square protested against the sentence on the Chicago Anarchists).

On October 16th, a Sunday, the unemployed paraded at Westminster Abbey.

Between October 16th and November 3rd, Socialists and the unemployed  met in Trafalgar Square almost every day.

Trafalgar Square had been built in the 1840s, and had been contested by the authorities and radical crowds ever since. But the government and the police now insisted that Trafalgar Square was Crown property and that the right of meeting there did not exist.

On October 17th, another  Unemployed deputation in Trafalgar Square was cleared by charges of mounted police, after a struggle. Socialists spoke to the crowds.

On the 18th, Trafalgar Square was again cleared; there were also disturbances in Hyde Park.

The 19th saw Trafalgar Square cleared by police again.

On the 20th, a deputation went to the home Office, to protest the actions of the police, and to demand a bill to introduce an eight hours working day, measures for ‘outdoor relief’ (benefits) for the unemployed, and public works to employ 10,000 men. A crowd following the deputation was itself attacked by police at Piccadilly.

On 23rd October 1887 400-600 unemployed managed to elude large numbers of police and Grenadier Guards and invade the Abbey demanding charity. Police Commissioner Charles Warren ordered police to detain anyone trying anything similar the following weekend…

On November 3rd,  a meeting of shopkeepers took place at nearby Exeter Hall, protesting against use of Trafalgar Square by the unemployed. As the Illustrated London News put it. “That locality… contains shops and hotels rented at high prices the owners of which must lose a great part of their custom by such occurrences frightening away their visitors at the best time of the day… it cannot be doubted that many families from the country who would spend money on London would be deterred from coming up at the season by fear of annoyance.”

The following day, the police again cleared Trafalgar Square, making two arrests, and seizing a red flag taken.

On November 6th, a meeting in the Square in the morning was banned, but an afternoon meeting allowed.

On November 8th, Police Commissioner Charles Warren issued an order prohibiting all public meetings and speeches in Trafalgar Square, on the grounds that it was Crown property.

This spurred an alliance between elements of the Radical clubs and the socialists. Reynolds News and the Pall Mall Gazette, the leading Liberal-radical magazines of the time, championed the cause of free speech and denounced polices ‘excesses’. William Morris wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette on November 10th, proposing the formation of a Law and Liberty League to defend the rights of free speech.

This was supported by the Metropolitan Radical Association, elements of the Secularist leadership, including Annie Besant, and Irish Home Rule supporters… A call went out, sponsored by the Irish groups and the Radicals, for a large demo to the  Square on Sunday 13th November, to protest coercion in Ireland and the prison mistreatment of Irish MP O’Brien, and to assert the right of free speech and assembly in the Square.

On the  11th, an English Land Restoration League meeting in the Square led to arrests.

On the 12th Police Commissioner Warren announced he had banned the Irish coercion procession from entering the Square the next day. But the organisers planned to go ahead, with a rally to take place in the Square at 4pm.

On the 13th, huge crowds attended the demonstration. Irish Londoners came in their thousands. The SDF, Socialist League and other groups supported several marches assembling at various meetings points, including several in East London. William Morris and Annie Besant addressed one contingent, numbering around 5000 or 6000, which gathered at Clerkenwell green, long a public meeting point for radicals and workers’ protests. There were many red flags and caps of liberty in the Clerkenwell contingent, which numbered “Most of those who joined the Clerkenwell contingent,” recorded a Times reporter, “had the appearance of respectable artisans … in the most cases neatly dressed … they assembled without noise or disorder.”

 

However, the authorities had fully prepared their forces to prevent Trafalgar Square being re-appropriated. Approachable from many directions (especially the east) only by marching in narrow files, far from the working class areas, Trafalgar Square was easily defended in numbers, especially if you seized it in force. Sir Charles Warren had turned the Square into a fortified stronghold by 9 in the morning. 4000 police, 300 on horseback, were supplemented by soldiers – 300 from the Grenadier Guards and 350 Life Guards of the Household Brigade. The main force of foot police and soldiers lined the sunken area of the Square; squads of mounted and foot police guarded every approach. Extreme violence was used to disperse the demonstrators.

The Clerkenwell contingent marched from Clerkenwell Green, along Theobald’s Road, Hart Street, across Oxford Street to Seven Dials: here they were attacked, beaten up and dispersed by the police before reaching St. Martin’s Lane:

“It was all over in a few minutes: our comrades fought valiantly, but they had not learned how to stand and turn their column into a line, or to march on to the front…. The police struck right and left like what they were, soldiers attacking an enemy…. The band instruments were captured, the banners and flags destroyed, there was no rallying point and no possibility of rallying and all that the people composing our once strong column. could do was to struggle into the Square as helpless units…”

Morris himself was in the centre of this group. The Socialist League banner was seized from the hands of one Mrs Taylor who was holding it; flags and musical instruments grabbed and destroyed.

The western contingent had already marched without incident from Paddington and Notting Hill, their flags and banners fluttering and their own bands playing. At the Haymarket they too were stopped and found themselves embroiled in a street melee, attacked by police who had been concealed in the theatres, who were determined to allow no demonstrator near the square. Some marchers did inveigle their way into Trafalgar Square, where a vicious street fight continued all day.

Another march from Rotherhithe and Bermondsey was attacked as they approached the Strand. This section was forced into Wellington Street and into Covent Garden.

An 8000-strong march from South London (uniting processions from Peckham, Bermondsey, Deptford and Battersea) marched over Westminster Bridge and via Parliament Square. They were attacked by Big Ben, the police attacking with their staves and demonstrators using their flag and banner poles, as well as lengths of gas pipe, oyster knives and iron bars  to defend themselves.

Eleanor Marx wrote:

“I have never seen anything like the brutality of the police; the Germans and Austrians, who know what police brutality can be. have said the same to me…. I was in the thick of the fight at Parliament Street, and afterwards in Northumberland Avenue I got pretty roughly used myself My cloak and hat (which I’ll show you) are torn to shreds; I have a bad blow across the arm from a policeman’s baton…”

They fought their way up Parliament Street and around 400 reached the southern end of the Square.

Others of the battered contingents regrouped in the Strand, to be repeatedly baton charged.

At four o’clock, Warren still held the Square but at that moment 400 men led by John Burns (later ILP MP for Battersea) and the socialist MP Robert Cunninghame Graham (North-West Lanarkshire) attempted to march into the Square, and made a strike for Nelson’s Column.

Cunninghame Graham and John Burns were arrested and Graham’s head was cut open.

Both Graham and Burns, surrounded by police and standing still, were violently beaten up by their captors. Graham’s wife noted they ‘stood perfectly quiet to be murdered’ and a witness in the nearby Morley’s Hotel (the site of South Africa House), Sir Edward Reed MP, confirmed the unnecessary force used, which amounted to assault by police officers.

“After Mr Graham’s arrest was complete one policeman after another, two certainly, but I think no more, stepped up from behind and struck him on the head from behind with a violence and brutality that were shocking to behold. Even after this, and when some five or six other police were dragging him into the Square, another from behind seized him most needlessly by the hair… and dragged his head back, and in that condition he was forced forward many yards.” (Sir Edward Reed MP)

At this point 150 Life Guards rode into the Square ,with a magistrate, who read the Riot Act. Soldiers with their bayonets also entered the Square. They were jeered at by the crowd but the soldiers pushed protesters into the police who pushed them back against the rifle butts of the soldiers. Other mounted troops rode up from Whitehall, as police repeatedly charged the southern end of the Square to clear it.

“The tops of the houses and hotels were crowded with well-dressed women who clapped their hands and cheered with delight when some miserable and half-starved working man was knocked down and trodden under foot. This I saw as I stood on almost the identical spot where a few weeks ago the Government unveiled the statue of Gordon. . . . We are so completely accustomed to bow the knee before wealth and riches, to repeat to ourselves we are a free nation, that in the end we have got to believe it.”

“At ten minutes to five,” recorded a Reynolds’s News reporter, “the Grenadier Guards . . . wheeled down into the square . . . with their rifles on their shoulders, their bayonets fixed and twenty rounds of ball cartridge in their pouches . . . in front of the National Gallery they … drove the crowd … on to the pavement. where they came into contact with the police.”

By early evening 200 people were injured, of whom three died, two – WB Curner and John Dimmock – soon after and one – a man named Harrison – a few days later of injuries sustained that day. ‘Bloody Sunday’ had been an unmitigated disaster for socialism and a triumph for police order. 300 were arrested, 126 summarily charged at Bow Street Police Court, of who 99 were jailed. By the end of the resulting trials some 160 people went to prison. Many of those arrested on Bloody Sunday were jailed with hard labour, with sentences ranging from a month up to one year.

The arrested were kept awake all night in police cells as the victorious cops sang repeated choruses of ‘Rule Brittannia’.

The Times, as ever the mouthpiece of law and order, triumphantly celebrated the defeat of the demonstrators:

“Putting aside mere idlers and sight-seers… and putting aside also a small band of persons with a diseased craving for notoriety… the active portion of yesterday’s mob was composed of all that is weakest, most worthless, and the most vicious of the slums of a great city… no honest purpose… animated these howling roughs. It was simple love of disorder, hope of plunder, and the revolt of dull brutality against the rule of law…”

Crucially the paper hit on the central point at issue – control of the central space of the city could not be ceded to working people: “If this meeting had been permitted, no other meetings, even if they had been held day and night, could have been put down.”

For more than a fortnight, Trafalgar Square was in a state of siege; thousands of special constables – middle class volunteers – were sworn in. The struggle again drew Radicals and Socialists together. The Law and Liberty League was inaugurated on November 18th (“the first organisation in which Socialist delegates as such are seated at the side of Radical delegates” was Engels’s delighted comment) and many did good work providing legal aid and looking after the homes and families of those who had been injured and jailed.

Eleanor Marx, W. T. Stead and Annie Besant went bail for many prisoners; the barrister, William Marcus Thompson, known as ‘the People’s Attorney General’ for his legal defence of people arrested in strikes and demos, took on many cases.

John Bums and Cunninghame Graham, M.P., defended by young Mr. H. H. Asquith, were sentenced at the Old Bailey on January 18th, 1888 to six weeks’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly (charges of conspiracy were withdrawn); a stonemason, George Harrison, accused of trying to stab a policeman, was given five years’ penal servitude.

Bloody Sunday wasn’t the end of the troubles in the Square. Despite the traumatic events of the 13th, some among the socialist and radical movements were determined to keep trying to meet and assert free speech and assembly… Other felt this was to provoke further beatings. Animated debate consumed the radical clubs all week, with some of the prominent Radical spokesmen advocating a legal challenge to the Commissioner’s order, rather than another demo; others, including Eleanor Marx, felt further demonstrations necessary, and thought that the police repression was useful, in that it helped some of the Radicals shed illusions about the government and constitutional campaigning. In the event on the 20th, a meeting did take place in Hyde Park, which the Commissioner had undertaken not to ban so long as it came nowhere near Trafalgar Square. Some 40,000 attended. Most drifted away early on (it was an especially cold and gloomy day) – but a large crowd found its way to the Square, where 1000 special constables, and large numbers of police again battered the demonstrators.

As a week earlier, the police violence on the 20th was to lead to death. A workman, Alfred Linnell, maybe attending the demo, but possibly simply a bystander, standing at the corner of Northumberland Avenue, was ridden down in a charge of mounted police. His thigh was smashed; he died in Charing Cross Hospital on December 2nd. The funeral procession of Alfred Linnell on December 18th, organised by the Law and Liberty League and headed by a red banner, was the greatest seen in London since the funeral, in 1852, of the Duke of Wellington. The Square and Northumberland Avenue being forbidden ground, the procession, eventually a mile and a half long and comprising 120,000 people, went from Great Windmill Street via King Street, Covent Garden and the Strand to Bow Cemetery. Three flags flew side by side on the shield surmounting the funeral car: the green flag of Ireland, the crimson yellow and green flag of the Radicals, the red flag of the Socialists. At the graveside, reached at dusk in pouring rain, the Death Song written by Morris was sung.

WB Curner’s funeral in January 1888 also saw a significant turnout.

Bloody Sunday left a long bitter scar in the minds of many radicals and socialists. In the more immediate, it dented William Morris’ belief, for one, of the easy possibility of a mass revolutionary uprising ushering in a social change. While he didn’t abandon his belief in revolution, his vision of how soon it might occur underwent serious revision. Already, earlier in 1887, Morris had been rethinking his belief that social revolution was imminent; Bloody Sunday confirmed that the time was not yet ripe. He began to feel he would not see it in his lifetime. He was depressed and shocked at how easily a co-ordinated body of men could disperse the larger mass of demonstrators, and gloomily recounted the failure of attempts to coordinate people’s fightback on the day. “I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in concert and each knowing his own part…. Sir Charles Warren has given us a lesson in street-fighting.” The authorities’ response had shown the true face of reaction, and against this the workers movement were not yet strong enough.

‘Free speech’ movements in the capital and elsewhere featuring socialist and radical speakers would continue; in contrast to Bloody Sunday, some would ultimately force the police to back off (mainly because the local speakers’ corners were located was in working class areas where the movement was on its own ground, better prepared and outnumbered the police). Fights for free speech would remain a central plank of socialist life, however…

Demos of course still begin and end in Trafalgar Square – and in our own time serious rioting as cataclysmic as Bloody Sunday have taken place. Eg the poll tax riot in 1990 – but his one WE won, on balance…

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There are good accounts of Bloody Sunday in ‘William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary’, by EP Thompson, and the biography of ‘Eleanor Marx’ (Volume Two)’, by Yvonne Kapp.

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London riotous history, 1886: unemployed riot in the West End

On Monday, February 8, (sometimes called Black Monday), the West End was briefly swept by a riot, which began in Trafalgar Square, after two rival public rallies had been held there. The Fair Trade League (a kind of Tory working class front group) had announced they were going to hold a public meeting – in response H.F. Hyndman’s Marxist-jingoist Social Democratic Federation also decided to hold a counter-demo. This was at a time of high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class – the two organisations had very different solutions to the plight of the thousands on the dole… The Fair Trade League was calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. The SDF argued for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Although the Metropolitan Police vaguely recognised that there might be fighting between some of the rowdier elements of both rallies, there was a complacent attitude from the authorities, who allowed both to go ahead without significant police presence.  There had been little serious public order problems in London since the Hyde Park Reform Riots in 1866-7. So both meetings were given permission to meet in different parts of the square; with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, (though a reserve of 563 more cops were standing by). District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old, was in charge, though he may have been somewhat past it – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and wandered into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

The SDF managed to take over the Free Traders platform, where were some fiery speeches from SDF leaders, which led to some fighting in the Square.

One of the SDF leaders, John Burns, allegedly waving a red flag, gave a rousing speech, and was said by a few witnesses which included a phrase that later got him charged for incitement: “Unless we get bread, they must get lead.” Many others, however, later gave evidence that they had never heard this phrase used.

John While, a reporter to the Times newspaper, gave an account of the SSF leaders’s speeches in the Square at their later trial for incitement. His evidence was challenged t the trial, and may have been, er, a load of bollocks… According to While, John Burns spoke first (in a “stentorian voice… which could be heard distinctly at a great distance”): “He declared that he and his friends of the ‘Revolutionary Social Democratic League’ were not there to oppose the agitation of the unemployed, but they were there to prevent people being made the tools of the paid agitators who were working in the interests of the Fair Trade League. He went on to denounce the House of Commons as composed of capitalists who had fattened upon the labour of the working men, and in this category he included landlords, railway directors and employers, who, he said, were no more likely to legislate in the interests of the working men than were the wolves to labour for the lambs. To hang these, he said, would be to waste good rope, and as no good to the people was to be expected from these ‘representatives,’ there must be revolution to alter the present state of things. The people who were out of work did not want relief but justice. From whom should they get justice?—from such as the Duke of Westminster and his class, or the capitalists in the House of Commons and their classes? No relief or justice would come from them. The unemployed too, the working men, had now the vote conferred upon them. What for? To turn one party out and put the other in? Were they going to be content with that, while their wives and children wanted food? When the people in France demanded food the rich laughed at those they called ‘the men in blouses,’ but the heads of those who laughed soon decorated the lamp-posts. Here the leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic League wanted to settle affairs peaceably if they could, but if not they would not shrink from revolution.” The crowd had increased amazingly by this time; I should think there were 1,500 people there—a very large part of the crowd were of the orderly working class who were certainly men out of work, but the large part were very violent in their expressions—the rougher part cheered and applauded the speeches—Burns asked those who were out of work to hold up their hands, and nearly all the hands were held up—then the speaker took up another strain, dwelling on their right to work and their right to live, and warning them not to give ear to the Fair Traders who were having a meeting for heir own purposes; that was the three o’clock meeting—Mr. Champion spoke next—the defendants were in the hearing of each other when they spoke. (Reads.) Mr. Champion “declared that the Government which had now come into power were able in 24 hours, when they thought they personally needed protection from Dynamitards, to carry a measure. Now was needed a measure to protect lives more valuable and of more importance than any of the governing classes, lives which had to be dragged out in miserable homes, and it behoved this Government to set on foot at once remedial measures for the existing state of things. The speaker demanded the provision of work and the enactment of laws limiting labour to eight hours a day, and insisting upon the erection of better homes for the labouring classes at a rent within the means of workers. He also called upon the crowd not to be made the tools of the flair Trade Leaguers, who wished the people to pay more for their food and necessaries of life, in rich men’s interests, and then proceeded to say that if the demands of the workers were not granted the people must be contented to go back to their starvation and to bear quietly in the future, or else they must bring home in a practical way responsibility to those who had made it impossible for something to be done.” Mr. Williams next addressed the meeting. “He now said he was not contented to clamour any more for work, and advised his hearers as men in want of work to regard the position from his point of view. He quoted words from Shelley, ‘We are many, they are few.’ The many were workers in want, the few were owners of wealth. The few were organised, while the many were not organised, and if the many organised and banded themselves together, the wealth of the country would change hands. The people should not care for Liberal or Tory, but should seek to benefit their own class. They must put the fear of man in the hearts of the rich and so obtain what they wanted.” Mr. Hyndman next spoke. “He said the people out of work were asked to be moderate, but how could they be moderate when they were out of work and starving? If the thousands there had he courage of a few they would very soon alter the existing system of things. But what happened? They went away from meetings like that and forgot all about what they had heard. He and his friends would lead if they would follow, and even 500 determined men out of the thousands present could very soon make a change. It depended upon them whether they would drive the middle classes to bay, and if they did they would soon win.” Mr. Burns then spoke again, “he observed that the next time they met it would be to go and sack the bakers’ shops in the west of London. They had better die fighting than die starving, and he again asked how many would join the leaders of the Socialists, a question in reply to which many hands were held up. The men over there, Mr. Burns added, referring to the speakers at the rival meetings, were paid agitators, who were living on the poverty of the working classes. Those whom he was addressing he said pledged themselves to revolutionary doctrines, which elicited cries of ‘No, no.’ He concluded by asking the question, ‘When we give the word for a rising will you join us?’ to which a large number of the audience replied that they would, and almost as large a number declared they would not.” Besides these speeches other speeches were made—Mr. Burns was constantly, waving the red flag—I heard something said which I did not take down; I heard Mr. Burns make one observation which struck me very much, and that was, “We must have bread or they must have lead”—the speaking at that part of the square went on, I think, till about ten minutes past three, as far as my memory will serve; it might have been a little later—at that time I turned my attention to the other meeting—I did not see the end of the meeting at which the defendants were present; the speaking had finished where they were and the people went away, and I went to the Fair Trade meeting at the Nelson Column.”

By this time “the meeting was getting of a changeful character, and the crowd had very much increased—where I was standing the crushing was not felt—the crushing was on the outskirts of the crowd, 50 or 100 feet from me—there was a roar of voices in the distance, but they did not interrupt my hearing—there was considerable noise and crushing in the square—when there was a noise the speaker turned round and stopped and then went on again… when I left Trafalgar Square I left a very large crowd there—the rough element came on the scene then—there was a very large number of real unemployed people there; people of fustian and with stains of labour upon them—the roughs kept very much together, and so did the working class…”

In the event, there was little fighting between the two demonstrations. Instead, large crowds, made up possibly of a mix of the two, ended up rushing through parts of the West End, looting shops, attacking symbols of class power like the posh clubs of St James, and generally ran amok.

A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off to march towards Hyde Park, planning to hold another meeting. The crowd was later described as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. Garbled reports misled the police to believe there was trouble brewing in The Mall instead of Pall Mall, and they panicked the royal family were to be targeted, and reinforcements were sent to protect Marlborough House and Buckingham Palace. Only half a mile away a mob rushed unhindered along Pall Mall and St James’s, smashing the local club windows along the way, provoked when toffs leaning out of the windows shouted abuse & threw stuff out of the windows at the crowd.

Hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club, the marchers jeered in return. In St James St metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. The ultra-Tory Carlton Club windows got put in, as another red flag was supposedly waved on its steps…

Another ‘fiery speech’ speech was delivered opposite the Reform Club, and “three cheers were given for the Social Revolution.” Some posh carriages were also stopped, and stones thrown at the occupants. In Piccadilly people started looting shops, some nicking posh clothes then taking them off to nearby Green Park and Hyde Park to try them on.

When the SDF leaders and entourage arrived at Hyde Park they gave another round of speeches, from the steps of the statue of Achilles, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley Street and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went. “the crowd moved towards Stanhope Gate… through Dean Street into South Audley Street; a lot of windows were broken in both those streets – Minton’s china shop windows were smashed and the goods thrown about…shop fronts were smashed in and a lot of things stolen—I saw a lot of bread and some rabbits, and all sorts of things; I did not notice any jewellery—I went with the crowd across Grosvenor Square into North Audley Street, and saw shops smashed in, and then into Oxford Street, where there were some constables, I do not know how many, but the crowd dispersed…”

Though the SDF had used fiery invective from the platform, there was little real link between their ideas and the rioters more immediate class resentment and willingness to get stuck in, hassle the poshos, and maybe grab a bit of loot into the bargain.

During much of the riot, the SDF leaders in fact tried to persuade the crowd to stop most of what they were doing. They protected a number of MPs and other upper class men who blundeed into the demo and were roughed up or robbed, and blamed anyone breaking windows for bringing the demo into disrepute… This abject behaviour did however get four of the SDF bigwigs acquitted at their subsequent trial

In addition, they, like the authorities, were slightly afraid of what they had partly unleashed:

“The steps taken by the authorities are an eloquent testimony to the alarm created by the riots in the minds of the middle and upper classes. But they had by no means a monopoly of alarm at the moment.   The leaders of the Social Democratic Federation were genuinely afraid of the Frankenstein that had been raised. It was no part of their plan that rioting should take place.”

The rioting in the West End of London, 8 February 1886: Looting shops in Piccadilly, London; from The Graphic, 13 February 1886

At Hyde Park Burns had told the crowd that they intended to submit the resolutions of the meeting to the Government, and asked them if they would be satisfied with that – getting cries of “No!”, “Oxford-street!” and “Shoot the aristocracy!” in response.

But, almost contradictarily, the SDF also clearly let the idea that they had ‘unleashed’ the crowd go to their heads a bit, imagining that this heralded the opening salvo of a popular uprising…

The riot did put the wind up the authorities and many of the upper classes. Although the disturbances lasted only a few hours, and did not herald anything like popular insurrection, or even mass support for the SDF’s socialist program, it did reveal a widespread class hatred and anger that many of the well-to-do were just not aware of.

The following day there was panic in London, as rumours spread that a crowd of unemployed rioters were on their way to Elephant and Castle and Borough smashing shops on their way. Shops were boarded up and extra police sent down the Old Kent Road. A telegram was sent to The Times from the Old Kent Road: “Fearful state all round here in south London. 30,000 men at Spa Road moving to Trafalgar Square. Roughs in thousands trooping to the west. Send special messenger to the Home Office to have police in fullest force with fullest military force to save London”.

There was no 30,000 strong mob. There was a crowd gathered in Deptford Broadway – but no riot. In fact in Deptford the rumours were of a crowd heading towards them from the Elephant and Castle!

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: a plethora charity schemes for the unemployed (including some work for your dole building programs), a determination among some worthy middle class folk to study and understand poverty as a motivator for violent events, so as to head it off in the future, and last, increased repression of socialist meetings and groups. The next few years saw a concerted police attempt to batter socialist meetings off the streets, peaking with Bloody Sunday in November 1887.

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London’s unbrid(al)led herstory: Edith Lanchester sectioned by her family for ‘living in sin’, 1895.

On 25 October 1895, Edith Lanchester was kidnapped by her father and brothers, sectioned, and forcibly incarcerated in a lunatic asylum  – her punishment for announcing her plan to live unmarried with her lover.

Only a couple of weeks ago, an appeal judgment  in the Supreme Court ruled that the 2004 Civil Partnership Act 2004 – which only applies to same-sex couples – is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, a ruling that may open the door for heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships, instead of getting married.

What about those of us who want to continue living in sin?

Cohabiting, living without any formal recognition by church or state, is now much more common, and pretty much accepted in most quarters. But its not quite respectable, and there are plenty of carrots and sticks like tax breaks for married couples, legal problems with inheritance and passportry, that lean heavily on unmarried couples.

Less than a century and a quarter ago, it was enough to get you locked up in an asylum and tortured – if you were a woman. Particularly a socialist and feminist, questioning patriarchal marriage and class society…

Living with a lover/partner and not getting married is of course a practice as old as humanity; marriage may have evolved as a way of celebrating/announcing that you were bundling. But aeons of male domination had certainly overlaid the institution of marriage with the patriarchal meaning – this woman in my property, hands off (to other men), and learn your place, b****.

Most religions reinforced this with violent denunciation of ‘living in sin’ – sex, conception outside of ‘holy matrimony’ were abominations and could get you a one way ticket to Satansville. Sex and sharing of lives outside of marriage, opened up the chances of women and men refusing to submit to control in other areas, for one thing, like obeying lords, kings and bosses. Men also feared that women who refused to be branded as property were emasculating them – for some reason many supposedly celibate churchmen were particularly hot on this.

However, resistance to marriage remained powerful, most especially among the poor. Aristos and royal families used marriage as a currency – posh women were traded, sold, to seal alliances, etc. The high profile nature of upper class relations and the belief in the divine superiority of the ruling elites meant that breeding, bloodlines, purity, and the ceremonial pomp of marriage were essential. Not so much for the lower orders, among whom relations conformed a lot less strictly to church and state diktat. Getting together and living with someone, maybe breaking up, leaving a husband and shacking up with someone else, having several partners, were all very common. Marriage was too limiting in a short-lived world where famine and poverty meant a high death rate; where constant war (and forced impressment of men) could mean a husband or partner were sent off to fight/to sea for years… Where you had to pay the church to get married.

[And abuse, selling of women, violence and adultery, abandonment were common too, just as IN marriage – not to see it through rose-tinted glasses.]

This didn’t mean the laws and conventions on marriage were being enforced – that the unmarried weren’t being lectured, shamed in church sermons, sometimes arrested – they were. But the resistance went on, just because co-habitation fitted with many people’s practical needs and desires.

Puritanism, from the 16th century, campaigns for moral reform, from the 17th, and the growth of capitalism, pushed hard at the social relations of co-habitation, and combined to alter the nature of the family. A woman’s role was to give birth to children, raise them, take care of the home, obey her father and then her husband and all other lawful (male) authority.

By the mid-19th century it was forbidden among polite society to cohabit, although it continued quietly among the labouring families of rural communities and also in the poverty-stricken slums of the big cities.

“Among the middle and upper classes, and the ‘respectable’ working classes who imitated the genteel social habits of the class above them, to openly cohabit was considered to be extremely sinful. The scandal damaged the reputations of both parties, though it was much worse for the women, whose ‘reputation’ would be completely ruined.”

Even some early feminists did not approve of ‘living in sin’ – all the risk and danger (especially the chance of having an ‘illegitimate’ child) fell on the woman’s shoulders. Marriage was thought to protect a woman, give her increased respectability, social standing and security.

Edith Lanchester was a feminist, socialist, a member of the early British Marxist grouping the Social Democratic Federation. In 1896 when she announced she intended to live unmarried with her lover, James Sullivan, her family had her forcibly locked up in a mental hospital. A loud campaign by socialists and freethinkers got her released after 4 days.

Born in Hove, Sussex on 28 July 1871, Edith, often known to family and friends as ‘Biddy’, was the fifth child of a well-to-do architect Henry Jones Lanchester and Octavia Ward.

Edith was part of the first generation of middle class women who broke out of the straits of Victorian social control, refused to be used as a bargaining chip or adornment, who fought to get access to education, to find financial independence, get jobs, have careers, determine their own lives.

After attending the Birkbeck Institution and the Maria Grey training college, she worked as a teacher, then as a clerk-secretary for a firm in London.

But in tandem with gaining control over her own destiny as a woman, Edith also developed a socialist politics – not unusual at that time, when the movements of early feminism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, and others overlapped, influence each other, argued and evolved. Her socialist feminist convictions had led Edith to conclude that the wife’s vow to obey her husband was oppressive and immoral and she did not wish to lose her independence. She was politically opposed to the institution of marriage.

By 1895 Edith was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the early British Marxist organisation. She had developed her freethinking to the point that she was prepared to defy the narrow conventions of her background, when she met and fell in love with James (Shamus) Sullivan, a Irish labourer and fellow socialist; in social terms, someone far enough ‘beneath’ her in class position that even marriage would be considered impossible. Marriage, however, was not on Biddy’s mind…

In 1895 she informed her family that, in protest against Britain’s patriarchal marriage laws, she was going to cohabit with Shamus. This didn’t go down well with her family, who had frowned upon her involvement with the dangerous socialists. This was truly shocking stuff for a wealthy professional family, a challenge to all the respectable values that kept society from falling apart and made Britain capital of the world.

Her family tried every argument to dissuade her from this rash act, including the line that she was devaluing herself as a woman, losing her good name, a respectable woman’s most valuable commodity, and that any children would be illegitimate – considered a shameful and despised state for them. In an attempt at compromise, Edith even offered to change her surname and live abroad, but would not agree to marry.

Unable to change her mind, the Lanchester family resorted to asserting male property rights over the rebellious female. On Friday October 25th 1895, Biddy’s father and brothers invaded her house (in the then working class neighbourhood and radical hotspot of Battersea), argued wither, assaulted her when she tried to physically resist, and forcibly subjected her to an examination by Dr George Fielding-Blandford, a leading psychiatrist and author of Insanity and Its Treatment.

The good doctor immediately signed emergency commitment papers under the Lunacy Act of 1890, on the grounds that she must be mentally disturbed to even plan such a union – if she could not see that living unmarried meant ‘utter ruin’ and ‘social suicide’ for a woman, she was of unsound mind and needed to be locked up for her own protection. For her own protection, Edith’s father and brothers tied her wrists and dragged her to a carriage, in which she carted off to the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.

Dr Fielding-Blandford explained his reasoning to the press:

“Lanchester had always been eccentric, and had lately taken up with Socialists of the most advanced order. She seemed quite unable to see that the step she was about to take meant utter ruin. If she had said that she had contemplated suicide a certificate might have been signed without question.

I considered I was equally justified in signing one when she expressed her determination to commit this social suicide. She is a monomaniac on the subject of marriage, and I believe her brain had been turned by Socialist meetings and writings, and that she was quite unfit to take care of herself.”

Thus showing how social and economic ideas that questioned the existing order were labelled as a mental health problem… An advance on the medieval diagnosis, of oppositional thinking or lifestyle choices being the work of the devil and getting you burnt as a witch or heretic? Possibly. Just not much of an advance.

The abduction also illustrated the fear among traditionalists that social change had eroded the boundaries that maintained society in its ideal state, and that allowing women to get educated, think for themselves and act on their own behalf was a terrible error that was leading to all sorts of newfangled monstrousness. ‘Over-education’ was written on the Certificate as cause of Edith’s madness: women should just not be allowed to learn anything that could distract their pretty little heads from serving men’s needs. Its worth noting that the British Medical Journal and the Lancet both felt Blandford may have gone too far by actually signing a medical certificate diagnosing insanity, but still felt socialism was a dangerous influence on women who they saw as ‘mentally weaker’ than men and thus more easily influenced by mad ideas like equality.

After being imprisoned in the Roehampton Asylum, Biddy was subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse. Tortured.

This forcible abduction caused an outcry. Mr Lanchester wrote to the Times, pointing to Edith’s behaviour as evidence of her madness, and raising the mental instability he claimed was in the family, and her ‘overstudy’ and ‘natural impressionability’. However, if the Lanchester family felt justified in violently sectioning Edith, and that rubberstamping her torture would eventually defeat her plans to bring shame on the family name, they had miscalculated.

The abduction blew up into a national scandal that dominated the press for days. The New York Times reported that the affair had “rivet the attention of three kingdoms” and that “no penny paper had printed less than ten columns on this engrossing subject during the week”.

John Burns, MP for Battersea, (and a sometime socialist himself who may well have known Edith personally) intervened on her behalf. Left-leaning papers Reynolds News and the Clarion supported Edith, the latter asserting that ‘a woman has a perfect right to do what she likes with her own body’.

The Marquess of Queensberry offered Edith his support, of a kind, putting up a cheque for £100 as a wedding present if she would go through the legal marriage ceremony but under protest, and then repudiate the ceremony afterward. He justified this by stating:

“I do this because I wish personally to be associated with what will be a strong protest against our present marriage laws, and should be delighted to give such a brave woman a wedding present.”

[Yes, that Marquess of Queensberry, the one who got Oscar Wilde sent to prison for being gay. A very contradictory character: an outspoken atheist – which got him excluded from the house of Lords –  promoter of working class boxing – virtual inventor of the modern rules – violent homophobe… brutal towards his children and wives… questioner of the patriarchy?!]

Protests against the sectioning and torture of Edith began immediately. Some of her SDF comrades joined with the Legitimation League, an organisation set up to campaign to secure equal rights for children born outside of marriage, and organised a public meeting, where a resolution was passed against Fielding-Blandford, and Lanchester’s landlady, SDF activist Mary Gray, was persuaded to being legal action against Edith’s brother for assaulting her during the raid on her home.

Shamus and a group of SDF supporters sang The Red Flag from outside the asylum’s walls and beneath Edith’s barred window on the evening of Sunday 27th October.

Under Section 11 of the 1890 Lunacy Act, Biddy could be detained for up to a week, but further incarceration would require another certificate. After four days of lobbying, by the SDF, with the help of John Burns, Edith was seen on Monday 28th October by two Commissioners of Lunacy, who proclaimed her sane, although they labelled her ideas “foolish”, and ordered her released. She was let out the next morning. She would never see her father alive again.

Although some of her socialist comrades had stood by her, supporting but her “brave and radical challenge by a committed socialist feminist to the institution of marriage and to late Victorian society’s highly constrained and patriarchal conception of femininity”, other radicals, mostly men, were not so helpful. The SDF in fact shied away from officially supporting her in case she brought them into disrepute (?!) As an organisation the Federation never quite got women’s rights or women’s liberation. SDF activist and Marxist theorist Ernest Bax publicly dismissed Edith’s views on marriage from a bourgeois moralistic standpoint. Independent Labour Party leader and sainted Labour guru Keir Hardie accused her of discrediting socialism, worried that ‘the public’ would associate socialism with sexual immorality.

One socialist who did stand in solidarity with Edith was Eleanor Marx, who had been disgusted by the misogynistic failure of male socialists to support and defend Edith’s position, and had herself struggled to enlighten male chauvinist lefties as to the class dimension of the feminist struggle, and the female element in class politics.

She denounced comrade Belfort Bax in a public letter to an open debate on “the woman question”, but Bax, being scared of Eleanor, declined the challenge. Bax was a repulsive early men’s rights activist, who denounced feminism, thought capitalism was bad largely because it subjected men ‘under the heel of women’. Which shows that an expensive private education and inculcation of bourgeois standards can bring you to ‘socialism’ but it can’t necessarily teach you to look around you and see the world as it is. What a prick.

Eleanor Marx hired Edith as her personal secretary, and sheltered her at her home in 1897 when she gave birth to her first child with Shamus, Waldo Lanchester. Press attention again circled the arrival of this ‘love-child’ of controversial parents.

Other female suffragists also rebelled against marriage. Elizabeth Wolstenholmeinitially refused to marry her boyfriend Ben Elmy because they both objected to the anti-woman marriage laws. They cohabited in secret, but when she became pregnant her suffrage colleagues persuaded them to marry because it would severely damage the suffrage movement to be associated with such ‘immorality’.

But there were Victorians in the upper echelons of life who cohabited, and some who made no secret of it. The parents of prominent feminist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon Bodichon never married, despite having several children (who took their father’s surname). Historians believe this is the reason their children were shunned by their cousins, who included Florence Nightingale.

In spite of the disapproval of bourgeois society and its continuing hold on some of the so-called radical left, and spiting the predictions of the press that he would abandon her and she would end in the workhouse or on the game, Edith and Shamus’ relationship was not a youthful fad – they remained together until his death in 1945. In 1902 Edith gave birth to her second child Elsa. By this time the family were living at 48 Farley Road, Catford.

During World War I, Biddy and Shamus opposed the slaughter, from both internationalist and pacifist principles of Quakerism. Her daughter, Elsa recalled that Biddy and Shamus were “violently anti-war” and that pacifism ‘roared through’ the house.

When their son Waldo was conscripted he registered as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for a year. By 1917 Edith identified politically as a communist, denouncing the ‘socialists’ who had supported the war as ‘practically Tories’ who had betrayed the working class. She remained associated with the Communist Party for a number of years.

The bohemian and freethinking atmosphere that Edith and Shamus were a part of, and the creative and rebellious spirit that had sustained her against her family, passed on to their children.

Upon his release Waldo was supported by his mother to become a puppeteer and weaver. He would become one of the most innovative and well-known puppeteers of the twentieth century.

His sister, Elsa, became even more well-known… a liberated, self-determined and provocative woman, which in itself serves as a further two fingers to the conservative men who locked up her mother. She became a music hall star, singing songs laced with sexual innuendo, then and actress, having trained with dancer Isadora Duncan (but disliked her autocratic and pretentious approach), founded the Children’s Theatre in Soho, in 1918, and later became a Hollywood name… She had her radical moments, too, being a lifelong atheist, a member of the Independent Labour Party after World War 1, and her participation in the London avant-garde dance, theatre, film and performance scenes in the early 1920s. She ran an artistic nightclub, the Cave of Harmony, on the edges of London’s West End, where “Bohemianism, modern dance and musical comedy opened up new identities and spaces for female self-exploration.”

“In 1920 she made her London debut in a music hall act as an Egyptian dancer. About the same time she founded the Children’s Theatre in Soho and taught there for several years. In 1924 she and her partner, Harold Scott, opened a nightclub called the Cave of Harmony. They performed one-act plays of Pirandello and Chekhov and sang cabaret songs. Performances at the Cave were semi-improvised and often included odd ditties such as ‘Rat Catcher’s Daughter’ that Lanchester had dug up out of the magnificent resources of the British Library. The Cave of Harmony became a popular meeting place for London artists and intellectuals, including H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and James Whale (who would direct The Bride of Frankenstein). A local journalist was the first to immortalise the ‘naughty lady’ in song, fatally struck by her bronze hair and her brassy behaviour. His words make one wish to have known her:12 I may be fast, I may be loose, I may be easy to seduce. I may not be particular To keep the perpendicular. But all my horizontal friends Are Princes, Peers and Reverends. When Tom or Dick or Bertie call, You’ll find me strictly vertical!

Simultaneously, Elsa Lanchester joined a group of radical socialists called the ‘1917 Club’ and became something of their mascot. It fixed her image: a bohemian socialist with loose morals, outrageous behaviour, and brightly coloured unmentionables (the famous pink drawers she claimed never to have owned). Geoffrey Dunlap wrote bitterly about her:13 Pink drawers alas — why should her drawers be pink Their colour gives me furiously to think — Pink drawers — and do they never turn red Flushed at their mistress’ sin while she’s in bed. No they are pink, and peonies in their fair hue Their innocence remains forever new.

During a 1926 comic performance in the ‘Midnight Follies’ at London’s Metropole, a member of the British Royal family walked out as she sang, ‘Please Sell No More Drink to My Father’. Elsa closed her nightclub in 1928 as her film career began in earnest. She later noted that art was ‘a word that cloaked oceans of naughtiness’, and she had her share of it, working as a nude model by day and a theatrical impressario by night.” (from Underground London: From Cave Culture Follies to the Avant-GardeJaap Harskamp)

Later Elsa married actor and director Charles Laughton; there has for decades been a suggestion, fuelled by her own writing, that she was his beard, Laughton being at least bisexual and possibly gay, and that the marriage was designed to mask this. This she have discovered after they married, and she wasn’t best pleased to find it out, but tried her best to accommodate him and support him.

(However, other friends of Laughton have contended that these rumours were not true…)

Elsa’s most famous film role was as the Bride of Frankenstein in the classic 1935 film…

Edith Lanchester died in 1966.

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Civil ceremonies, queer marriage legalised, married persons tax breaks – HAH! You can do it if you really want but  – We salute the spirit of Edith Lanchester.

In the USA they have a brilliant holiday. Loving Day, which celebrates the legal fight of a mixed race couple to beat the racist laws against mixed marriages…

We love that, but also suggest celebrating those of us who choose to live and love without submitting to any nonsense from church or state. We don’t need your vows, stamps, or bits of paper to tell us how to freely share our lives. Neither of us obeys or owns the other.

Past Tense would like to humbly propose 29th October as a candi/date when we can hold an annual ‘’Unmarried Love Day’…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London socialist history: Jim Connell, writer of The Red Flag, buried, Golders Green, 1929

The Red Flag

The people’s flag is deepest red
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts’ blood dyed to every fold

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath it’s folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here

It waved above our infant might
When all ahead seemed dark as night
It witnessed many a deed and vow
We must not change it’s colour now

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath it’s folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here

It well recalls the triumphs past
It gives the hope of peace at last
The banner bright the symbol plain
Of human right and human gain

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath it’s folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here

It suits today the meek and base
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe beneath the rich man’s frown
And haul that sacred emblem down

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath it’s folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bare it onward till we fall
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim
This song shall be our parting hymn

Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath it’s folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here

To those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, children of leftwing Labour folk, but drifted into the more narky waters of anarchism, labour anthem The Red Flag used seem a bit representative of the staid and empty claim of Labour to represent the workers, while merrily implementing capitalism, cuts and social control.

But it was once a vital and angry hymn to working class power, that actually meant something…

On 9th February 1929, Jim Connell, socialist and trade unionist, died in Lewisham Hospital. He had suffered a stroke on the steps of the Chancery Lane office of the Workmen’s Legal Friendly Society, where he had worked for nearly 3 decades, a few days before.

Jim Connell had been involved in the socialist movement in Ireland and England for nearly 60 years, from his youth as a dock labourer in Dublin, to his consistent opposition to World War 1 on internationalist grounds.

He is best remembered today for writing The Red Flag, a socialist anthem once sung across many countries in Europe and beyond, and hummed and lipsync-ed by many a rightwing Labour party bigwig, if unwillingly, until nearly twenty years ago…

Jim Connell’s life spans the almost mythological. Born in 1952 in County Meath, in what’s now the Irish republic, to a farming family, he moved with his parents to Dublin in 1867, where he worked at many menial jobs, including on the city’s docks. He had begun to write songs in these days , and continued to do so for most of his life. Although he had briefly flirted with Irish republicanism and claimed to have been a sworn member of the Fenian Brotherhood, Connell soon parted company with nationalism, and became a socialist. This was partly from contact with John Landye, an Irish member of the International Workingmen’s Association, a self-taught lecturer and centre of a group of young activists who went on to form the early Irish socialist movement. Connell was greatly influenced by Landye, and along with other socialists often accompanied him on rambles through the nearby countryside, walks on which politics, religion and science were discussed. These were far from Connell’s only trips to rural areas, for he had learned the art of poaching as a young man, and continued to thieve game from the lands of the rich into his middle age, even when living in London travelling out to the Surrey Hills to bag birds and beasts from posh estates. Why should any unemployed man’s children go hungry, he asked, when game preserves of the rich were all well stocked with hares, pheasants, rabbits, salmon and trout…

Dock work was casual, and known radicals were often shunned by the foremen who gave work out at the start of each day. Connell was blacked in this way, having been marked out by the authorities first as a Fenian. Unable to get regular work, he upped sticks to London in 1875, where he again earned money at many and varying trades.

Connell was not completely self-taught; he had had some schooling in Ireland. But he read vociferously and acquired knowledge all his life, and learned immense amounts about many subjects, which eventually enabled him to make a less manual living.

In London he again became involved in radical meetings, and began to lecture on various subjects, soon becoming well known as a speaker on the game laws, socialism, evolution and Darwinism… He joined the Democratic Federation when it was formed as an alliance of radical clubs, and remained in the renamed Social Democratic Federation for ten years, despite being regarded as ‘very much an individualist’ who chafed under the bizarre autocratic leadership of socialist/jingoist HM Hyndman. Connell also became an Executive member or the Land League of Great Britain, set up to agitate for democratic re-distribution of the land, and was secretary of the Poplar branch for a number of years.

It was in this period that Connell wroteThe Red Flag, in December 1889. Although it was later rumoured that he wrote the song on the overnight train from Glasgow to London, Connell in fact said that he wrote at least the first two verses on a train from Charing Cross to New Cross, in southeast London, near where he lived for many years, after attending a lecture by SDF member Herbert Burrows.

“As I sat down in the train for New Cross something urged me to write a song embodying the spirit of that lecture.”

Connell was immediately inspired by the great London dock strike of 1889, but on a wider level by the struggles of the working class all over the world:

“One thousand eight hundred and eighty nine was the year of the London dock strike. It was the biggest thing of its kind that had occurred up to that date and its leaders: HH Champion, Tom Mann and John Burns aroused the whole of England by the work they did and the victory they won. Not many years previously the Irish Land League aroused the democracy of all countries. I am proud to be able to say that I found the first branch of the Land league that was established in England. This was the Poplar branch and I remained its secretary until the league was suppressed, and was a member of the Executive during the whole of the time. About the same time the Russian Nihilists, the parents of the Bosheviks, won the applause of all overs of liberty and admirers of heroism. Under the rule of the Czar… the best men and women of Russia were reported to Siberia at the rate of 20,000 a year. Young lady students were sent from their classrooms and sent to work in horrible mines, where their teeth fell out and the hair fell off their heads in a few months. Nobody could fight this hellish rule with more undaunted courage than did the Nihilists, men and women. There happened also, in 1887, the hanging of the Chicago anarchists. Their innocence was afterwards admitted by the Governor of the State of Illinois. The widow of one of them, Mrs Parsons, herself more than half a Red Indian, made a lecturing tour of this country soon afterwards. On one occasion I heard her telling a large audience that when she contemplated the service rendered to humanity she was glad her husband had died as he did, the reader may now understand how I got into the mood which enabled me to write The Red Flag.”

Connell finished off the song when he got home, and sent it to Harry Quelch, the editor of the SDF paper Justice, the next day! A few days later, on December 21st, it was published in Justice, under the heading, ‘A Christmas Carol’ (ironic, give the tune it ended up being always sung to…) Within a few days, apparently, socialists in Liverpool and Glasgow were singing the song at meetings, and it has remained a firm favourite of the left ever since.

Interestingly, though, the tune that The Red Flag is sung to is not the one Connell originally wrote the words to. He set the words he wrote on the New Cross train to the tune of The White Cockade, an old air from Ireland, but one AS Headingley, publishing a new version in 1895, changed this, re-setting it to the tune known as O Tannenbaum on Germany, or Maryland in the USA. This is slower than the ‘brisk, martial’ air Connell had in mind, and Connell was understandably a bit grumpy about this:

“There is only one air that suits The Red Flag and that is the one which I hummed as I wrote it. I mean The White Cockade. I mean moreover the original version known to everybody in Ireland fifty years ago. Since then some fool has altered it by introducing minor notes until it is now nearly a jig. This later version is the one on sale in music shops today and it does not, of course, suit my words. I suppose this explains why Adolphe Smythe Headingley induced people to sing The Red Flag to Maryland. Maryland acquired that name during the American War of Secession. It is church music and was no doubt composed, and is certainly calculated, to remind people of their sins and to frighten them into repentance. I daresay it is very good music for the purpose for which it was composed but that purpose was widely different from mine when I wrote The Red Flag. Every time the tune is sung to Maryland the words are murdered… the words are robbed of their proper emphasis and true value and meaning when sung to that air. The meaning of the music is different from the meaning of the words. Headingley may as well have set the song to The Dead March In Saul.

Despite Connell’s objections, The Red Flag, as sung to Maryland/Tannenbaum, became well known as a socialist anthem across Europe and in many other countries.

It became the unofficial anthem of the Labour Party, sung after every Labour Party Conference, and famously, sung by Labour MPs in the House of Commons after the Labour landslide of 1945. Of course, singing about the triumph of the working class and exalting them in speeches while breaking strikes, administering capitalism, accepting peerages and fat quango jobs, launching colonial wars and jailing communists, anarchists and other dissenters held no contradiction for many of the Labour bigwigs, from Connell’s last days when Labour were already becoming a safe party to entrust capital to, to our own day… ‘Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place’ indeed. (Whatever ‘pelf’ is.)

In subsequent years, Jim Connell left the SDF and joined the newly formed Independent Labour Party, and became the longtime secretary of the Workmen’s Legal Friendly Society, which he may have helped found . The Society was set up to give legal advice and aid to injured workers in the wake of the 1896 Workmens Compensation Act, which allowed legal claims from employees injured on the job for compensation from employers. Connell held this position for over twenty years, though he gradually became less involved in left politics.

………………

A few days after Jim Connell died in 1929, his funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium. A number of people followed the hearse as it left his house, singing The Red Flag. At Golders Green, several hundred people gathered, many carrying red flags. Among the mourners were old friends of Connell, including veteran communist Tom Mann, as well as Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala, representatives of the TUC General Council, the Irish TUC and many more. Tom Mann read several of Connell’s songs, and the crowd again sang The Red Flag.

‘It was a very impressive occasion. Just as Jim was no ordinary man this was no ordinary funeral. The service opened in the lofty, ice-cold, red-bricked chapel with The Red Flag. First it was played to the tune of the White Cockade and then to Tannenbaum. A red flag draped the coffin bearing the words Socialism Advances. The chapel was filled. There were bearded stalwarts who had fought many a brave fight. There were frail-looking women with red rosettes. When they were offered song sheets they said: We know The Red Flag, of course we do.” (Daily Herald, 1929)

…………………..

Several years before this, the Labour Party hierarchy had attempted to get rid of the Red Flag. Labour leader and sometime Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald hated the song, and had disliked its author too (Connell apparently felt the same about Ramsay Mac). His and other objections actually led to a competition in 1925, when socialist songwriters were invited to submit more appropriate songs to replace it as the Labour’s official ditty. To the great chagrin of Connell, who waited angrily and upset, only to be cheered up immensely when the two judges appointed to read and give a verdict on the resulting songs submitted ruled that nothing in any way suitable had been handed in. Given the dire state of much lefty songwriting in any age, you can only imagine the quality of the intake… In any case, The Red Flag held its own, to Connell’s delight.

It wasn’t until the sparkly days of 2000 under Blair’s New Labour that the singing of The Red Flag at Labour conference was finally dropped. It did return a decade later.

Does it mean much today? After so many sellouts, imperialist wars, enthusiastic forays into privatisation and so much more?

Perhaps it’s appropriate here to also reprint the words to Leon Rosselson’s Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party (written in 1962)

The cloth cap and the working class, as images are dated.
For we are Labour’s avante-garde, and we were educated.
By tax adjustments we have planned to institute the Promised Land
And just to show we’re still sincere, we sing The Red Flag once a year.  

Firm principles and policies are open to objections;
And a streamlined party image is the way to win elections.
So raise the umbrella high, the bowler hat, the college tie
We’ll stand united, raise a cheer. And sing The Red Flag once a year.  

It’s one step forward, one step back. Our dance is devilish daring
A leftward shuffle, a rightward tack, then pause to take our bearings.
We’ll reform the country bit by bit, so nobody will notice it
Then ever after, never fear, we’ll sing The Red Flag once a year.  

We will not cease from mental fight till every wrong is righted,
And all men are equal quite, and all our leaders knighted.
For we are sure if we persist to make the New Year’s Honours list.
Then every loyal labour peer will sing The Red Flag once a Year.  

So vote for us, and not for them, we’re just as true to NATO,
And we’ll be calm and British when we steer the ship of state-O.  
We’ll stand as firm as them *  
To show we’re patriotic gentlemen *
Though man to man shall brothers be, deterence is our policy.
So raise the mushroom cloud on high, within their shades we’ll live and die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll sing The Red Flag once a year.      

* these two lines sung to tune of “send her victorious, happy and glorious” from God Save the King.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s ?radical? history: the Fabian Society holds its first conference, 1892.

The first conference of the ‘moderate socialist’ Fabian Society was held in Essex Hall, off the Strand, in central London, over the 6th/7th February 1892. That the Fabians didn’t hold another conference for over twenty years suggests the experience wasn’t either useful or comfortable. The first history of the Society was prepared for this conference, by George Bernard Shaw, and later reproduced as Fabian Tract no. 41.

The tone of the conference reflected a growing move away from the socialist groups that the Fabians uneasily co-existed with – speakers were hostile to the Social Democratic Federation and generally anti-Marxist. The main political issue – whether to support only specifically socialist groups – was rejected. The Society’s links to the more mainstream and moderate Liberal Party continued.

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their origins, as a more ‘politically oriented offshoot of the puritan self-improvers of the Fellowship of the New Life.

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

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Eventually joining the Labour Party, by orthodox accounts, the Fabians became a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in the post 1945 ‘Labour landslide’ Parliament, with Prime Minister Clem Atlee, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians.

However, Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks: 10% of the male membership in 1892.

He identifies their main claims to influence as

  • having destroyed the influence of revolutionary Marxism in Britain
  • to have inspired the Labour party
  • to have laid the foundations of the welfare state, or at least municipal reform, through the London County Council.

Hobsbawm dismisses these claims as largely self-mythological.

They didn’t destroy the influence of Marxism in Britain – there wasn’t ever really a substantial Marxist strand in the British socialist movement, compared to explicitly reformist trends.

Neither were they inspirers, or even pioneers of the Labour Party. In contrast to other 1880s-90s socialist groups they in fact opposed the idea of an independent working class party… Only when their other projects failed did they join, not really till the 1910s.

As to the welfare state: they did exercise their greatest influence in drafting propaganda on welfare reform for labour movement, and leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were in regular contact with actual or future policymakers in government, opposition or civil service… BUT while their fact finding etc was respected, their own proposals were rarely adopted, in fact most welfare reforms were implemented in specifically non-Fabian forms… (The left wing Liberal tradition influenced by the ‘Cambridge Marshalians’ and JA Hobson were far more influential in the fundamental Liberal Party 1906 welfare reforms for example).

Even their claims for role in municipal social change are exaggerated.

The Fabians emerged not from the working class or the radical-liberal traditions that dominated nineteenth century left movements, nor adhered to newer ideas like Marxism. They were at odds with most other socialist groups, opposed to even the popular idea of independent working class party, supported imperialism, wouldn’t take position on Boer War, and wobbled on important questions of trade unionism and workers rights etc. They lacked contact with workers; though the Society attracted an inflow of workers in 1892 after the ‘new unions’ upsurge, and many affiliated regional societies formed (which could in theory have formed the nucleus of a socialist party), the leadership blew it or couldn’t have pulled it off, and most of its provincial societies joined the Independent Labour Party, formed the following year.

But the Fabians were equally out of tune with Liberals, though permeation of the Liberal Party was pretty much their policy for years. In fact a substantial anti-Liberal element drove away Liberal intellectuals and economists attracted to them early on, who developed the left wing liberalism that developed the ideas on which social welfare reforms of 1906 and 1911 were based (a strand which also began to reject laissez faire economics); the socially critical, left wing intellectuals like JA Hobson, WH Massingham, who even after the effective demise of the Liberal Party in the 1920s developed social democratic theory: leading on to Beveridge, Keynes, and Marshal.

Fabian membership boiled down into three main groups:

  • members of the traditional middle and upper classes who had developed a social conscience or rebelled against/disliked modern bourgeois capitalism;
  • self-made professionals, and civil servants: including journalists, writers, professional politicos and organisers, managers, scientists… “brainworkers”;
  • independent women, reasonably newly ’emancipated’, often earning their own living, most often as writers, teachers, or typists…

‘New’ men or women, then, rising through social structure, or creating new ones; the new intellectual or literary or professional strata; mostly salaried middle classes, uncommon then but growing rapidly, an administrative, scientific, would-be technocratic elite. This group dominated the Fabian leadership, and Fabian theory; its social composition directly gave birth to the Fabian conception of socialism (especially the Webbs) to be administered by an enlightened professional managerial caste.

By the 1880s a separation between ownership and management was growing in private firms, with a corresponding huge rise in the numbers and importance of professional salaried managers, admin workers; there was also a steep growth in the civil service, journalism, and so on.

The Webbs were keen observers of this, and of the ethos of this emerging ‘caste’, especially efficiency, They thought middle class professionals would play a big part in achieving socialism, bigger in their eyes than workers. Ramsay Mac called for “a revolution directed from the study; to be one, not of brutal need but of intellectual development, to be in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do.”

The Fabian conception of socialism never theorised the working class as the only or even the main agents of change, or based their views on class struggle. In practice they fell back on usual vague ideas of education, progress, enlightenment in all classes, the general growth of unselfishness and social conscience. A vaguely expressed idea of a gradual evolution in rational self-interest and social consciousness among the right sort of people… The middle classes wouldn’t oppose socialism as they would perceive its necessity and reasonableness, and their own self-interest, in such a society, that “this form of social organisation really suited them just as well if not better than the capitalist.”

The Fabians theorised a new society, but based this new society very much on themselves, their actual practice, and sense of their mission, their own importance, their role in this society.

Hobsbawm warns that “No hypothesis which seeks to link ideas with their social background can be proved to everyone’s satisfaction”, but suggests we have to see the Fabian Society “in terms of the middle class reactions to the breakdown of mid-Victorian certainties, the rise of new strata, new structures, new policies within British capitalism: as an adaptation of the British middle classes to the era of imperialism.”

The upsurge in public and private administration, science, journalism, professional writing and statistics/social sciences, from the 1870s on, did mean these people were in new and uncertain social positions, and hadn’t necessarily developed identification with existing structures or classes. There also was hostility and class snobbery from the old political and social upper classes towards salaried professionals, which you can see in the sneering at clerks and socially ambitious bourgeoisie that permeates Late Victorian literature.

As Hobsbawm says “the middle class socialism of the Fabians reflects the unwillingess, or the inability, of the people for whom they spoke, to find a firm place in the middle and upper class structure of late Victorian Britain.”

Which implies alienation, or not fitting in, both discomfort from from their side, and disdain from the existing structures; there may, though Hobsbawm doesn’t say this, also have been a sense of their own importance and abilities and a feeling of being unappreciated, and some element of knowing their own superiority over what they saw as a useless idle rich class.

Despite their origins in the Fellowship of the New Life, and the influence of William Morris on some of their early thinkers, the Fabians came to some radically different conclusions than both their ‘parent’ group and Morris. To some extent, like Morris and his sometime mentor John Ruskin [of whom hopefully more in a couple of days], the core of the Fabians were expressing the mid/late 19th century crisis in the new middle classes, the ‘bourgeois’ alienation from their own existence – but Ruskin and Morris, and their disciples, resolved their dissatisfaction with modern capitalist modes of production by going somewhat medievally-craftsy, while Fabians embraced the social and structural changes capitalism brought, though did see the possibility of a new political order. Certainly William Morris had a vision of really different society socially and economically, while the Fabian vision is not immediately very attractive.

Sidney Webb thought there were no practical reasons (though many historical and social ones) for this new class or caste to adhere to capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety; THEY are crucial to the functioning of modern economy, both in the private and public sector, but neither private enterprise or the profit motive is crucial to THEM or their work…

BUT as Hobsbawm points out, the type of ‘socialism’ they were likely to be attracted to was then likely to aspire towards the technocratic, hierarchical, if meritocratic, based on management by an elite: fulfilling their vision of their own role in current and possible future societies. “So we can confidently predict that… [the manager] will remain for all time an indispensable functionary, whatever may be the form of society.” (from S. Webb, The Works Manager To-day, 1917.) 
This concept of socialism also goes some way to explaining the later enthusiasm of some leading early Fabians, like the Webbs and Shaw, for the Stalinist USSR; Lenin and the Bolsheviks also saw socialism as a question of management by the proper authorities, not of a transformation of daily life organised from below.

All of which does provoke two questions – how much did the Fabians really speak for these castes, and did this sense of not fitting in, or not being appreciated, dissolve over subsequent decades, ie were these groups happier with rewards of capitalism and more integrated later? Clearly only a small minority of these new professional and managerial strata joined the ‘socialist movement’, though others expressed alienation in different ways.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London funereal history: William Curner buried, Brockley, 1888, after being killed by police.

‘ON Saturday, 7th, another Trafalgar Square victim was buried with the ‘honours of war.’ William Curner, member of the Deptford Liberal Club and N.S.S., was at Trafalgar Square, got bludgeoned, arrested, and in the approved law’-n’-order fashion sentenced to fourteen days for doing nothing. The inquest is not finished, and so we do not know all particulars, only enough to make it sure that his death lies at the door of the police. The society to which he belonged gave him a public funeral, in which the Law and Liberty League and Socialist League took part.’ (Commonweal, January 14 1888).

In November 1887, the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League organised a demonstration against ‘coercion in Ireland’ in Trafalgar Square. The day became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after a clashes with police left hundreds injured and at least three dead. (Read a good account of Bloody Sunday.)

Among those who died was a Deptford radical, William Bate Curner. In circumstances similar to the death of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 demonstration, there was a dispute about the cause of his death. The inquest, held at the Lord Clyde pub in Deptford on 16 January 1888 heard that ‘he was stated to have received injuries to the head, inflicted by a policeman’ described as ‘barbarous and cruel’. However a verdict of ‘death from natural courses’ was returned, after medical evidence that he also suffered from heart problems. (Times January 17 1888). As with Tomlinson it is surely hard to believe that the injuries sustained at the hands of the police didn’t contribute to the death, even if there was an underlying health problem.

Curner’s funeral in Brockley Cemetery was a major event, reported in The Times on the 9th January 1888 (although they call him Curwin):

‘The remains of William Bate Curwin, stonemason, of 58, Henry-street, Deptford, who had died suddenly after undergoing a sentence of 14 days’ hard labour for taking part in riotous proceedings in Trafalgar Square, in the course of which he received certain injuries, were interred in Brockley Cemetery on Saturday. The circumstances of the death are forming the subject of an inquiry by coroner’s jury, the case standing adjourned.

The funeral procession reached the cemetery about 4 o’clock. It consisted of a hearse and two coaches and a walking party numbering about 1,000, and was made up of representatives of the Deptford and Greenwich branches of the National League, the Deptford branch of the Social Democratic Federation, the East Greenwich, Deptford, and Woolwich Radical Clubs, the West Deptford Reform Club, the Home Rule Union, &c.

The bands of the local branch of the National League and the East Greenwich Radical Club played the ‘Dead March’. The hearse bore the inscription ‘Killed in Trafalgar Square’. On banners draped in mourning were such inscriptions as ‘Honour to the Dead’ and ‘Assist the Widow. There was a very large gathering at the grave and a number of torches were used while the burial ceremonial adopted by the Secularists was performed by Mr Robert Forder. Addresses were then delivered by Mr W T Stead, Mrs Besant, and Mr J J Larkin, and a ‘Death Song’ having been sung by a Socialist choir, the proceedings terminated’ (Times, Jan 9 1888).

As can be seen from these two reports there is some confusion about the name of the dead man. The Times report of the inquest has the surname Curner, but in their funeral report gives it as Curwin. The former name seems, however, to be correct; genealogy sites have a William Bate Curner in Deptford, but not Curwin. Also the name Curner is used elsewhere – in the Socialist League’s report (below), and in E.P Thompson’s biography of William Morris (Romantic to Revolutionary).

Morris wasn’t at the funeral but he did write the Death Song which closed it – it was first used at the funeral of another of those who was killed in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Alfred Linnell. The line up at Curner’s funeral was quite impressive though. Annie Besant was already well known as a socialist and secularist, and later in 1888 was to play a role in the famous Match Girls Strike. W T Stead was a prominent campaigner and journalist – he was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette at the time.
Robert Forder was secretary of the National Secular Society.

Henry Street, Deptford, is probably now part of Childers Street. Efforts to locate Curner’s grave in Brockley Cemetery a few years ago brought no result: if anybody else knows its whereabouts please comment.

Commonweal, newspaper of the Socialist League, also reported the funeral, on January 14 1888:

“Last Saturday afternoon William B. Curner, who died from injuries received from the conflict with the police on Sunday 13th November, was buried in Brockley Cemetery. The deceased was a Secularist and Radical, and as such occupied a somewhat prominent position in the borough of Deptford, where he resided. The occasion of his burial was marked by a public funeral, and the whole line of route from his residence in Henry Street, Deptford, to the cemetery was lined with sympathetic spectators. Blinds were drawn and mourning borders were displayed from houses, one of the chief. tradesmen displaying over his shop black flags, two with mottoes, ” Honour the Dead,”  and “Let all assist the Widow.” The funeral hearse bore Radical, Irish, and Socialist flags, and also a shield with the inscription “Killed for Trafalgar Square’. A band playing the “Dead March” preceded the hearse, the whole procession to the cemetery being most imposing.

At the grave R. Forder, surrounded by a dense throng of people, among them being representatives of Secular, Radical, and Socialist bodies, read the secular burial service. After which Mrs. Besant made a most impressive speech, in which she urged her hearers not to shrink back from the struggle for freedom in which their brother in the grave had fallen, for in their efforts to make life worth the living some must fall. Let them go from the grave the more determined than ever to carry on the fight for which, he had given his life. Mr. Stead followed with a most fervid speech, and speaking as a Christian at the grave of an Atheist dwelt on the necessity for the sinking of mere minor differences of opinion: the cause of the people was the cause of humanity, and all its lovers would unite for the overthrow of its enemies.

Mr. Larkin then made a brief speech, and the choir of the Socialist League brought the proceedings to a close by singing William Morris’s ” Death Song,” written to commemorate the death and burial of Linnell.

This is the second public funeral that has taken place within a month, the dead in each case being martyrs to the cause of freedom of speech. How many more are to be sacrificed ere “liberty the parent of truth” shall triumph?”

Good question – still waiting on the answer…

The majority of this post was lifted from our good friends at Transpontine (hope they don’t mind…)

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Appendix: William Morris’s Death Song

As noted above, written by socialist poet and artist William Morris, for the funeral of Alfred Linnell. Linnell was not in fact killed at Bloody Sunday, but was beaten by police a week later, on November 20th, in further clashes in Trafalgar Square as radicals attempted to re-establish public meetings there.

Linnell was buried in a huge radical/socialist funeral in December 1887, which tens of thousands attended, and Morris was one of the orators. he later led the crowd in singing the Death Song.

What cometh here from west to east awending?
And who are these, the marchers stern and slow?
We bear the message that the rich are sending
Aback to those who bade them wake and know.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

We asked them for a life of toilsome earning,
They bade us bide their leisure for our bread;
We craved to speak to tell our woeful learning;
We come back speechless, bearing back our dead.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

They will not learn; they have no ears to hearken.
They turn their faces from the eyes of fate;
Their gay-lit halls shut out the skies that darken.
But, lo! this dead man knocking at the gate.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

Here lies the sign that we shall break our prison;
Amidst the storm he won a prisoner’s rest;
But in the cloudy dawn the sun arisen
Brings us our day of work to win the best.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

EP Thompson’s book gives a good account of Linnell’s funeral.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anarchism over breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fabian Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London’s legal history: trial of SDF leaders for incitement to riot ends in acquittal, 1886.

On 8 February 1886 a rally was held in Trafalgar Square, organised by the ‘Fair Trade League’ (a kind of tory front aimed at recruiting the working class), calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. At this time there was relatively high unemployment, due to a trade recession. The radical-cum-Marxist-cum-jingoist Social Democratic Federation resolved to hold a meeting to oppose the rally, arguing for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Workers should join the socialist movement, not the Conservative Party (Unashamedly brushing under the carpet the unpleasant fact that the SDF had taken money from the Tories just the previous year to stand several candidates in the general election, with the aim of splitting the liberal vote).

Both meetings were given permission to meet in different parts of the square; with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, and a reserve of 563 men standing by, and District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old in charge. Walker may not have been up to the task – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and disappeared into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

The SDF managed to take over the Free Traders platform, where were some fiery speeches from SDF leaders, which led to some fighting in the Square. A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off marching towards Hyde Park. The crowd was later reckoned as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. The march took them past various clubs and aristocratic hang-outs, where toffs and club servants slinging abuse & chucking shoes and nail brushes out of the windows out of the windows, led to the clubs being stoned by the crowd in return. The unemployed were hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club and jeered in return. In St James St they metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. In Piccadilly people started looting shops, some nicking posh clothes then taking them off to nearby Green Park and Hyde Park to try them on.

When the SDF leaders and entourage arrived at Hyde Park they gave another round of inflammatory round of speeches, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley St and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went.

In the aftermath of the riot, a public panic swept respectable London; rumours flew on the following day that whole armies of the poor were marching from the East End or Deptford, whole areas of London saw shops putting up their shutters…

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: charity schemes for the unemployed, a determination to study and understand poverty as a motivator for violent events so as to head it off in the future, and last, increased repression of socialist meetings and groups.

Though the SDF had used fiery invective from the platform, there was little real link between their ideas and the rioters more immediate class resentment and willingness to get stuck in, hassle the poshos, and maybe grab a bit of loot into the bargain.

In addition, they, like the authorities, were slightly afraid of what they had partly unleashed: “THE steps taken by the authorities are an eloquent testimony to the alarm created by the riots in the minds of the middle and upper classes. But they had by no means a monopoly of alarm at the moment.   The leaders of the Social Democratic Federation were genuinely afraid of the Frankenstein that had been raised. It was no part of their plan that rioting should take place. What they desired was to discountenance the Fair Traders, and to repudiate their claims to the leadership of working-class opinion.   But they had so roused the indignation of the people that the jeering of the club habitue’s had been like applying a torch to a mass of gunpowder. And there was a very serious danger that the authorities would punish them Messrs. Burns, Hyndman, Champion, and Williams for what was really the fault of the men who assembled in the club windows, and insulted the men in the procession.”

However, the, as ever, slightly myopic government and police, always more afraid of the influence of radical groups than that influence generally warrants, felt it was time to crack down harder on the overt propagandists for socialism.

Four of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, Jack Williams, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The Old Bailey trial lasted six days, from the 5th to the l0th April. Hyndman, who defended himself, said “had it been necessary he could have called hosts of witnesses as to character, and to prove that he was not likely to aid in looting shops. It was unnecessary to do so, because the great social work in which he was engaged would have been greatly injured by such action. “As to their position in the dock, he, with his co-defendants, really felt it an honour, for they appeared as representatives of a great social and national movement. “The real root of the prosecution was that the Government was instigated by the Grand Viziers on the Continent, who thought that too great freedom was allowed to the people of England, and that it might prove dangerous to Continental nations. He had found the condition of the people in this and other countries was worse than that of slavery and savagery, thus proving that there was a deep social question that had to be solved, and it was to help to solve that problem that he and the other defendants had spent their money and leisure.”

Burns added: ” My Lords and Gentlemen of the Jury:  ” As an unemployed worker, and a Social Democrat, I am placed in a somewhat peculiar position in this case. I expected when I was of the age of sixteen or seventeen that, at some time of my life, I should be brought face to face with the authorities for vindicating the class to which I belong. ” Since I was sixteen years of age I have done everything in my power to benefit the workers in a straightforward way. I have deprived myself, as many of my class have done, of hundreds of meals on purpose to buy books and papers to see if we could not by peaceful consultation, by deliberate and calm organisation, do what I am inclined to think the middle and upper classes by their neglect, apathy, and indifference, will compel artisans to do otherwise than peacefully. ” I plead ‘ Not Guilty,’ my Lord, to the charge of sedition, particularly to the charge of seditious conspiracy. I plead not guilty, not to deny the words I used on 8th February, or any other words I ever used, but simply because the language I used on that occasion had no guilt or sedition in it. I expressed the virtuous indignation against the misery and injustice of a man who had from his earliest infancy up to the present moment struggled and worked hard to support his wife and an aged mother, both of whom would instantly repudiate me if I were to go back from one single statement that I made on 8th February. I pointed out the steps that were necessary for a peaceful solution of the difficulties which the industrial classes have to encounter, and which press so hardly on the lower classes of society as they are falsely called. I pointed out how the unequal incidence of taxation pressed upon shopkeepers and others, and how the capitalists and the rich were able to tide over the difficulties. “Against this system of society I frankly confess I am a rebel, because society has outlawed me. I have protested against this state of society by which at present one and a half millions of our fellow-countrymen, adult males, are starving starving because they have not work to do. ” I had very strong feelings upon this matter of the unemployed, particularly on the day in question, when we were brought face to face with men who for month after month had trod the street in search of work, with men whom I knew were honest ; whose only crime was that they let the idler enjoy that which the producer alone should have not loafers and thieves but the real unemployed of our nation city. Talk about strong language! I contend my language was mild when you consider the usage they have received, and that the patience, under severe provocation, displayed by the workers, is almost slavish and cowardly. “Now what have we done? We have pursued the same course for the last five years. These are remarkable defendants who stand in this box. “There must be some unusual agitation to prompt one of the idle classes like Mr. Champion, a skilled artisan like myself, an unskilled labourer like Mr. Williams, and a middle-class man like Mr. Hyndman, to stand in this box for one simple cause. There must be something unusual to bring us here. ” We have gained nothing by this agitation; on the contrary, we have lost what material well-being we had, and we come before you not as paid agitators pecuniarily interested in creating riots, tumults, and disturbances, but men anxious to change the exist- ing system of society to one in which men should receive the full value of their labour, in which society will be regarded as something more than a few titled non-producers who take the whole of the wealth which the useful workers alone produce. “We are indicted for seditious conspiracy. If it were not so serious a charge in itself, it would be enough to raise a smile. Seditious conspiracy! Why, if there is one thing that the Whigs, Radicals, and the Tory Party accuse us of it is this that we have brought these questions and we are the first who have done it into the open street! When we are again accused of conspiracy it will be when all open methods of securing redress have been tried and have failed. ” If you want to remove the cause of seditious speeches you must prevent us from having to hear, as we hear to-day, of hungry, poverty-stricken men who from no fault of their own are compelled to be out of work, who are fit subjects for revolutionary appeals. If you want to remove a seditious agitation, as it is called, you must remove, not the effect, but the cause of such agitation. ” We are not responsible for the riots; it is society that is responsible, and instead of the Attorney-General drawing up indictments against us, he should be drawing up indictments against society, which is responsible for neglecting the means at its command. ” I have not one single word of regret to utter for the part I have taken in this agitation. If my language was strong, the occasion demanded strong language. I say we cannot have in England, as we have to-day, five millions living on the verge of pauperism without gross discontent. Well-fed men never revolt. Poverty-stricken men have all to gain, and nothing to lose, by riot and revolution.   ” There is a time, I take it and such is the present, a time of exceptional depression when it is necessary for men, particularly for the working classes, to speak out in strong language as to the demands of their fellows ; and I contend it would be immoral, cowardly, and criminal to the last degree if I, having what little power I possess to interpret the wishes of my fellow-workers, were not to use every public occasion for ventilating the grievances of those who, from no fault of their own, are unable to ventilate them themselves. “That meeting of 8th February called the attention of the people of Great Britain to this fact that below the upper and middle strata of society there were millions of people living hard, degraded lives men who were forced to live as they do, but who would, if possible, work and live virtuous lives men who through the unequal distribution of wealth are consigned to the criminal classes, and women into the enormous army of prostitutes, whom we see in the streets of our large cities.   “And, as an artisan, I cannot see poor, puny, little babes sucking empty breasts, and honest men walking the streets for four months at a time I cannot hear of women of the working classes being compelled to prostitution to earn a livelihood I cannot see these things without being moved not only to strong language, but to strong action, if necessary. ” Society journals demand our imprisonment. Why? Because £1,000 worth of windows have been broken. But how about the sacred human lives that have been, and are, degraded and blighted by the present system of capitalism? ” I am prepared to stand by what I said on that day. If I go to prison (as I think very doubtful) I shall serve my cause, as Mr. Champion has said, as well inside the prison as out. “The word prison has no particular terrors for me. Through the present system of society life has lost all its charm, and a hungry man said truly (as Isaiah said in the Holy Book) that there was a time in the history of our lives when it was better to die in prison, or better to die righting than to die starving.   “As the holy man said of old, so millions of men are thinking at the present moment; and if the governing classes want to bring on a revolution by force, such as has been mentioned by the counsel for the prosecution, they will find it come more speedily, and with more violence, if they deny to the poor men of England (who are too poor to pay for halls) the right to express their grievances and opinions in public meetings in the open air, and I would ask the jury, as they are for the moment the guardians of the right of free speech, as they have an opportunity in the present instance of laying down a good or bad precedent, I ask them in the interests of justice, particularly in the interests of the great mass of poverty-stricken men and women in this country, not to allow this opportunity to pass without stigmatising by their verdict as absurd, stupid, and frivolous, the prosecution that has been brought against us by Her Majesty’s Government.”

On the jury returning to the Court, the foreman said they acquitted Messrs. Hyndman and Williams, and with regard to the other two defendants, he was desired to say the jury are of opinion that the language of Messrs. Burns and Champion was highly inflammatory, and greatly to be condemned ; but on the whole of the facts laid before them, they acquitted those two defendants of seditious intent. The Judge: “That, gentlemen, is a verdict of ‘Not Guilty.'”

So the SDF leaders walked… But the government hadn’t finished with the socialists, and was to get its revenge a year and a half later, on Bloody Sunday, in November 1887, when a socialist-radical demonstration was outnumbered and heavily battered by the police, causing two deaths, and proving to many that the revolution was not just around the corner, as some had thought…

John Burns went on to leave the SDF, and became a Liberal MP and then a government minister in 1905 (the second working class minister); he resigned in protest at the entry of Britain into World War 1 in 1914 and left politics.

HM Hyndman led the SDF for the next 20 years, mixing dogmatic Marxism with nationalist and militaristic tosh, until he was ousted from the British Socialist Party (the SDF’s successor) after jingoistically supporting World War 1.

HH Champion, an ex-army officer, left the SDF in 1889, became a founder of the Independent Labour Party, but emigrated to Australia and worked as a journalist.

Jack Williams remained an SDF member and served on its executive, being mostly involved in unemployed organization. He died in 1917, having never recovered from his childhood in workhouses and time spent in prison for socialist agitation.

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s radical history: Brotherhood Church finally closes its doors, 1934.

On corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, on Islington’s border with Hackney, where a block of flats now stands above a Tesco Express, there once stood a church, for a few years one of North London’s leading socialist and anti-war spaces…

According to Ken Weller:

“The Brotherhood Church was founded in 1662, as an independent congregational chapel. In 1862 it moved to Southgate Road; at this time it was a conventional chapel, although it had some fairly radical connections. In 1892 the Reverend Bruce Wallace became the Minister. Wallace was a Christian Socialist. In 1887 he had founded the socialist paper Brotherhood at Limavady in Northern Ireland, in which he developed the ideas he was later to put into practice.

When Bruce Wallace took over he renamed the Southgate Road Chapel the Brotherhood Church, and it rapidly became the centre of a whole range of radical and socialist activities. The Brotherhood Association, the Church’s ‘political’ wing, had about 15 branches by the turn of the century, mostly in London but one or two elsewhere.

There were also several associated churches, for example those at Croydon, Harrow Road, Forest Gate and Walthamstow (It’s possible that the Walthamstow Brotherhood Church was connected with the Walthamstow Free Christian Church. whose minister, Reg Sorenson played an important part in the movement opposing World War 1 in North London). Also connected with the Church was the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust which operated several workshops and shops, of which at least one, the shop at 37 Newington Green, seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War. In the 1890s, the Croydon Brotherhood Church was the main publisher of Tolstoy’s social writings; its minister.J. C. Kenworthy was also a well known anti-War campaigner.

About the turn of the century, the Brotherhood movement spawned a number of communities in the countryside where members lived together. There were four of these in Essex alone, and while many were relatively short lived, one at least, ‘The Commune’ at Stanford-le- Hope, was in existence until the Second World War. ‘The Commune’ and some other Brotherhood-connected groups seem to have played quite an important part in the informal network helping ‘dodgers’ on the run. After the end of the War ‘The Commune’ provided a recuperative haven for a number of anti-War activists, notably Reg Sorenson and Fenner Brockway and their families.

The politics of the Church were basically christian socialist and pacifist – a number of its members were Quakers. There was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current and William Morris was an important influence.

The Church had strong links with the socialist movement, exemplified by the record of one of its prominent members, H. A. Barker.

Barker also illustrates how, whenever you look at the wartime radical movement, you have only to scratch the surface to find strong connections with previous radical waves embedded within them. Barker (1858-1940) was a Trustee of the Brotherhood Church for its last 30 years. A builder by trade, he was born in Shoreditch and seems to have lived in the general area all his life; as a boy he had been confirmed at the Southgate Road Chapel before it was taken over by Bruce Wallace. Barker was a pioneer socialist. He was probably a member of the Labour Emancipation League, a forerunner of the SDF, and he was certainly a very early member of the latter. In December 1884 Barker left the SDF with the Socialist League split, and he became a very active member of the new body, of which he eventually became National Secretary between 1886 and 1888.

In 1888 Barker left the Socialist League with a number of other members who objected to the growing anti-parliamentarianism of that organisation, and he helped to found the Labour Union, a short-lived socialist group which played a prominent part, with H. A. Barker much to the fore, in the industrial struggles in North London in the 1889-1890 period, notably the successful and pretty violent strike of coal porters at the St Pancras Arches complex in July and August 1889, which led to the formation of the Coal Porters’ Union. The Labour Union was also heavily involved in a disastrous strike of postmen at Mount Pleasant and other local post offices in July 1890, which was completely smashed by the authorities.

Barker went on to play a leading part in the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and he was a member of its first executive. He was an active member of the Brotherhood Church from its formation until its closure.

A notable event at the Church under Bruce Wallace was the Congress there in 1907 of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which was attended by virtually all the prominent figures of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Party (Among those present at the Brotherhood Church on this occasion were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Gorky, Zinoviev and Rosa Luxemburg).

In January 1911 the Church was taken over by F. R. Swan, who got the job with the help of the Reverend R. J. Campbell of the City Temple. Campbell had been Secretary of Finsbury ILP. Swan had lost his previous living because of his support for Victor Grayson, the successful independent socialist candidate in the Colne Valley election of 1907. He was a member of the ILP and had joined the staff of the Daily Herald virtually from its foundation.

Under Swan’s ministry the Church became even more explicitly political. Its service took the form of a reading from the Bible – in accordance with a clause in the Church’s trustee agreement – readings from other books, the singing of songs from the Labour Songbook, and a speaker. Among the huge number of speakers before the War were Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.”

During WW1 the Church was one of the main North London centres of anti-war activity, on socialist-pacifist grounds, but opening its doors to anti-war activists of other stripes too, such as the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East London federation of Suffragettes/Women’s Suffrage Federation/Workers Socialist Federation (our Sylv and friends liked to change the moniker of their crew more often than Karl Marx changed his razor blades).

Various elements of the Brotherhood Church movement seemed to have played a very significant part in the informal networks helping men on the run from the authorities and dodging conscription during the war.

As recounted last week on this blog, several anti-war meetings here were attacked by ‘patriotic mobs’, often composed largely of soldiers, and not uncommonly stirred up by the police and Special Branch.

“Perhaps the peak of the Brotherhood Church’s involvement in the anti-War struggle came in July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church.

This meeting took place on July 28th. There were about 250 delegates including a number of servicemen. There had been some attempt to keep the venue of the meeting private but even so the authorities were well prepared. Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, noted in his diary on 27th July in relation to the meeting:

They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged for the Daily Express to publish the place of the meeting and strong opposition may be expected.

Leaflets were also distributed in the area stating that a pro-German meeting was taking place and that ‘scores of old soldiers and others are going to march to the canal bridge to show these traitors what we think of them’. The leaflets called on the local population to ‘remember the last air raid and roll up’. Part of the job of mobilising the mob was taken on by Horatio Bottomley, then MP for South Hackney, who ran a sort of mini-Tammany Hall locally which had a ‘stable’ of roughs on call.

Long before the meeting was due to start the mobs had begun to gather. It was estimated that they eventually totalled 8,000, many of them in uniform. The leaders of the military contingent seem to have been a Canadian soldier and two Royal Naval Air Service men. Also present were our old friends the Anti-German League. There was also a strong force of police in attendance.

By 3 pm the Church was completely surrounded. At 3.15 a sledge-hammer mysteriously materialised and the front door of the Church was smashed in and the fight started. The delegates who had already arrived were trapped in the small hall at the back. Meanwhile the crowd systematically smashed up the main hall; windows and fanlights were broken and frames ripped out, the furniture was almost completely destroyed, water pipes were pulled out of the walls and the hall was partially flooded.

Bertrand Russell – who was there – described what happened to the trapped delegates:

‘A few people, among them Francis Meynell attempted resistance, and I remember him returning from the door with his face streaming with blood.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused pointblank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everyone had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken women began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested they should defend me. The police merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. ‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an Earl’, she finally cried. At this the police rushed to my assistance. They were, however, too late to be of any service, and I owe my life to a young woman whom I did not know, who interposed herself between me and the viragos long enough for me to make my escape. But quite a number of people, including several women, had their clothes torn off their backs as they left the building.

Another illustration of the violence of the situation and the attitude of the police was what happened to Leonard Howard of the North LHL. With blood streaming down his face he was attacked again and again. He eventually took refuge in a furniture van, and the police finally acted- they grabbed him and threw him back to his attackers…

Needless to say the conference broke up; when John Maclean turned up a bit later all he saw was ‘a howling mob of male and female dervishes’ . Among the consequences of this rather one-sided fighting were numerous injuries, including lacerated heads and serious cuts; one delegate nearly had his eye gouged out by a stick; and a young woman had her throat badly cut when someone in the crowd tried to grab her necklace.

A. M. Barker the 18-year-old son of H. A. Barker – was present at the time and wrote of his experience to me:

But I will tell of an awful scene of a woman being swung around by her hair, the technique of women’s fighting in those days – and which could cause terrible scalp wounds – and a crowd of god knows how many howling ‘do her in’ and horrible language. . . . The next morning I found the Church itself wrecked, a shameful shambles of broken windows, broken down doors, smashed pews, piano, organ, and the floors of the Church almost solid with brickbats. I almost broke down and cried at this terrible shameful sight.

The police arrested only one man – one of the delegates. The excuse given for the police inactivity by the sub-inspector in charge was ‘that to have attempted to arrest anyone would have depleted our force and given them [the rioters] the opportunity of attacking the Church.’ In actuality the role of the police consisted entirely of gently shooing the rioters from the ruined hall after they had worked themselves out – a classic example of low-profile policing?”

The authorities were heavily involved in the attacks on, and harrassment of, the anti-War movement. They were certainly involved – as the entry in Basil Thomson’s diary indicates – in sometimes making sure that potential attackers were informed of the venues of meetings. What happened at the Brotherhood Church was not an isolated event: what happened on a local scale was repeated nationally.

“With the coming of peace the Church continued to function, but it was in severe financial difficulties, having to foot the bill for repairing the damage it had received during the War. It continued to be a centre for a wide range of political activities. For example, the first two conferences of the Young Communist League was held there, and trade union branches, local Labour Parties, the SPGB, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Shoreditch Unemployed all met at the Church. Eventually funds ran out and the Church finally closed its doors on March 18th, 1934. Regular meetings of the congregation continued at the Essex Road Library until the death of F. R. Swan in October 1938; the last meeting was held on January 12th 1939.

After the final closure, surviving members of the Brotherhood Church apparently used to meet in Walthamstow until the early 1960s. But a Brotherhood Church still exists at Stapleton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire. This community is a direct descendant of the Brotherhood community at Purleigh in Essex, which was itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood Church at Croydon.”

On a personal note, your past tense typist, in my wayward youth, met some socialists raised in the Stapleton Brotherhood Community, who were active in my local anti-poll tax group… the spirit lives on… This post is dedicated to John and Bracken x

This post was lifted with some text-slaloming from Ken Weller, Don’t Be a Soldier.

For information on some of the Brotherhood communities see Dennis Hardy, Alternative Communities in nineteenth Century England, 1979.

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

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Today in London’s socialist history: a meeting of radical clubs forms the Democratic Federation, 1881.

On March 2nd 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman, a stockbroker recently converted to socialist ideas, and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This meeting (which took place at the Rose Street or Social Democratic Club, an organisation primarily of German socialists)

proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation. This grouping would become the Social Democratic Federation, considered the first Marxist organisation in Britain.

The moving factor in the Federation’s birth was the disillusionment of Radicals with the Liberal government, and the growing need for a separate organisation to represent working class interests. Members of a number of London radical clubs had for some months been urging the need for “a labour party which should be independent of the Liberal party”. The idea was for “a non-Ministerial Radical party” to be led by Joseph Cowen, the radical M.P. for Newcastle. But the gathering would probably not have happened without Hyndman.

A man of independent means, widely travelled, a Cambridge graduate aged nearly 40, Hyndman was by nature a radical imperialist Tory in the tradition of Disraeli. He had been converted to the Marxist standpoint by reading a French translation of Capital in 1880, and was to become an undaunted propagandist of English socialism for the next forty years – as well as a major impediment to its development.

The March 2nd meeting was the first of a series of conferences which resulted in the formation of the Democratic Federation. At the next meeting, on March 5th, Joseph Cowen, a radical MP, presided over a large number of delegates from London Radical clubs, meeting at the Westminster Palace Hotel. The proposal to create a new organisation based on a federation of Radical clubs was made plainer and a sub-committee formed to draft its political program.

The official founding conference of the Democratic Federation took place at Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, on 8 June the same year.

Hyndman took the chair. The founder members were a disparate body of radicals, former Chartists, Irish MPs and a few socialists. Radicalism was reflected in the program adopted, which included home rule for Ireland, land nationalisation, abolition of the House of Lords (but not, on the objection of Hyndman, the monarchy), and above all adult suffrage and similar political reforms. Hyndman distributed copies of his book England for All, whose title was a foretaste of the nationalism which was to dog the SDF for the rest of its life.

Within a year or so most of the Radicals had been scared off, mainly by the DF’s complete opposition to the Liberals. After this the DF seemed little more than a middle class think tank. A fair number of such intellectuals were attracted, however most of the 500 or so members were working class radicals. Many of these early working class members were former disciples of ‘Chartist socialist’ Bronterre O’Brien (whose ideas roughly came down to Chartism plus land reform). Gradually socialist ideas began to dominate in the organisation.

But the DF/SDF’s entire existence was to be overshadowed or tainted, as some saw it, by HM Hyndman’s mix of dogmatic Marxism and jingoistic Little Englander nationalism. “A natural gambler and adventurer who delighted in political crisis, he totally lacked the personal tact and strategic skill which a successful politician needs. He made numberless enemies, pissing off Marx and Engels, William Morris, and the trade unionist socialist pioneers John Burns and Tom Mann. He opposed the campaign for an Eight Hour Day as a diversion, and denounced the idea of the First of May as  workers day. He saw trade unions as politically unimportant and their leaders as “the most stodgy-brained dull-witted and slow going time-servers in the country”. He opposed both the syndicalists and the suffragists in the 1900s, and suggested that women who struggled for their emancipation as a sex question “ought to be sent to an island by themselves”. He was a persistent anti-semite, became a violent anti-German, supported Carson and the Ulster Protestants and backed allied intervention against the Russian revolution.’

At first the Federation was a negligible force, with only two branches in 1881-2. It quickly lost the support of the radical clubs when Hyndman’s hostility to “capitalist radicalism” was made apparent.

Paul Thompson argues in his book, Socialist, Liberals and Labour (1967) that it was the publication of the book, Progress and Povery by Henry George that increased the popularity of the SDF: “The real socialist revival was set off by Henry George, the American land reformer, whose English campaign tour of 1882 seemed to kindle the smouldering unease with narrow radicalism. This radical voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness.” The new atmosphere brought important recruits to the Democratic Federation in 1883 and 1884: William Morris, Dr. Edward Aveling, a Darwinian chemist and secularist leader, Harry Quelch, a packer in a city warehouse, H. H. Champion, a former army officer, and John Burns, born in Battersea of Scots parents, a temperance enthusiast who had been influenced by an old French communard in his engineering workshop. By 1885 the organisation had over 700 members.

Some members of the Social Democratic Federation disapproved of Hyndman’s dictorial style and his pro-imperialist and jingoist bollocks. In December 1884 a group including William Morris and Eleanor Marx left to form a new group called the Socialist League… of which more elsewhere…

In the 1885 General Election, Hyndman and Champion, without consulting their colleagues, accepted £340 from the Conservative Party to run parliamentary candidates in Hampstead and Kensington. The objective being to split the Liberal vote and therefore enable the Conservative candidate to win. This strategy did not work and the two SDF’s candidates only won 59 votes between them. The story leaked out and the political reputation of both men suffered from the idea that they were willing to accept “Tory Gold”.

In 1886 the SDF became involved in organizing demonstrations against low wages and unemployment. After one demonstration that led to a riot in London, three of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The SDF was doomed to remain a sect. It participated in the founding of the Labour Party, but withdrew within a year. It suffered continual splits as members attempted to alter its direction or loosen Hyndman’s control and failed; and it failed to significantly gain or keep members during periods of intense class struggle, hampered by its narrow sectarian dogmatism. The racist nationalism of Hyndman and his main support remained as the SDF reformed itself as the British Socialist Party, an organisation which was to be riven by the outbreak of World War 1. Hyndman and a significant minority supported the war; the majority opposed the conflict on internationalist grounds It too them two years to expel the jingoists. The BSP was to form the largest constituent element of the new Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.

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Some of the above was shamelessly nicked from writings by Keith Scholey, and Spartacus-Educational.com.

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

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