The Slow Burning Fuse : The Lost History of the British Anarchists

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I am the Deputy Head of the School of Literature and Languages and the School's Director of Learning and Teaching. I teach French language, translation, culture and politics at all levels on the Undergraduate Language program. I supervise several research students working primarily in the field of transnational history, with an emphasis on the long 19th century and/ or the history of the anarchist movement. I welcome applications from postgraduate students in any of these areas. My own research focuses on the history of French anarchism from 1870 until 1939, with an emphasis on transnational networks. I studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure (1998-2003) and Paris 13 University (2002-2006), and attended Balliol College (Oxford) as a graduate visiting student (1999-2000). I joined the University of Surrey in 2009 as Lecturer in French, having previously taught at the University of Oxford (2001-2003), Paris 13 University (2003-2006) and Imperial College London (2006-2009). (From :

John Quail was a member of Solidarity, a libertarian socialist group active in the UK between 1960 and 1992. He is now a visiting fellow at the University of York. (From :

(1948 - )
Nick Heath, born in Brighton, East Sussex in 1948, began his political career at the age of 14 as a member of the Labor Party Young Socialists and then the Young Communist League. In 1966, following readings of anarchist books in the library, he became an anarchist communist and participated in the formation of the Brighton Anarchist Group (1966-1972) Nick Heath helped edit the local anarchist magazines Fleabite, Brighton Gutter Press and Black Flame. In 1969 he was also part of the Brighton group’s campaign to help homeless families occupy empty homes. During a protest in 1971 he was arrested with thirteen other participants at a street party in a slum area of Brighton, he also briefly joined the Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance, where he participated in the publication of Black and Red Outlook. In the early 1970s he went for a year to Paris and participated in the activities of the libertarian movement and support f... (From :


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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The work for this book has involved research at archives and reference libraries. Since I was not supported by grants or by any academic institution this could have been a rather desperate undertaking. I had, however, the sense to work part-time as a stagehand at the Fortune and Drury Lane theaters during the writing of the book, which kept my feet very much on the ground. I would like to thank the following for the discussions and the pleasant experience of working with them: Arthur, Reg, Allen, Bob and John from the Fortune; and Alan, Kenny, Billy, Del, Brian, Tim, Tom, Jim, John, Colin, Richard and Sabba at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane. Perhaps as an ‘unofficial’ historian I have had to rely more than others on an informal network of interested, knowledgeable and helpful people. Without them this book would be rather worse than it is now. For more particular information and assistance, I must thank the foll... (From :

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FOREWORD John Quail’s history of British anarchism was a groundbreaking document. It was one of the first books to address itself to the ‘lost history’ of the movement. Only Albert Meltzer had previously addressed the subject in any detail in his The Anarchists in London 1935–1955: A Personal Memoir which had appeared two years before in 1976. As Comrade Quail notes in his bibliography, E.P. Thompson’s book on William Morris had important information on anarchist activity in the Socialist League, though, as he warned, whilst it was sourced from primary sources it has a quite pronounced bias against anarchism. Since then we have had Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier! The Radical Anti-war Movement in North London 1914–1918, containing much information on anarchists and libertarian socialists active in this period, which appeared in 1985; Sheila Rowbotham’s essay on The Sheffield An... (From :

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A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION Some years ago I was talking to a friend of mine in Leeds who was doing a thesis on British labor history. He asked me if I had ever heard of a group of people who had been arrested for a bomb conspiracy in 1892, a group known as the Walsall anarchists. What? British anarchists? I had never heard anything like it. I had cut my eye teeth as an anarchist arguing with Trotskyists and communists over Spain and Russia. I had wondered why left-wing politics always had to do with foreign parts, though I had found much disputational mileage in the events in Barcelona in 1936 (‘the capacity of the proletariat for spontaneous self-activity’) and Kronstadt in 1921 (‘the Bolsheviks were not fighting the counter-revolution, they were the counter-revolution’). But passionate denunciations of Leon ‘Shoot them like partridges’ Trotsky over many pints of beer left much to be desired. There was too much dreaming in... (From :

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Chapter 1. RADICALS, EXILES AND SOCIALIST BEGINNINGS Social agitations and working-class movements in the nineteenth century were many, various and contradictory. Certain themes can, however, be picked out. Ever present was the class war in varying degrees of complexity. Certain formal political liberties were struggled for: freedom of speech and press, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience. The fact that some people’s meetings for their version of freedom were broken up by other people with a different version, or that, say, nonconformists desired freedom from Church of England interference but were in no way prepared to countenance freedom for secularists merely adds charm to the proceedings. There was wide sympathy for nationalist movements of one sort and another and for the Irish particularly; yet British imperialist adventures could count on jingoist crowds turning out in support with monotonous regularity in the latter part of the centu... (From :

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Chapter 2. THE LABOR EMANCIPATION LEAGUE Frank Kitz and his associates were not the only British revolutionary propagandists in London by the time the Rose Street club was formed. The importance of Kitz in the 1870s was that he provided an active link between the veterans of the International (and veterans, too, of earlier movements) and the new socialism of the 1880s. In the mid-1870s there might not have been much young blood about — on a visit to Oxford, Kitz was introduced as ‘the last of the socialists’ — but by the later 1870s there were new and interesting developments and new figures were emerging. One such was Joseph Lane. Born in 1850 in the village of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, he spent his early life “working on the land under the most enslaving poverty. Soon, by necessity, he took an interest in the infamous game and land laws and quickly developed into a thinker and a rebel.” He was attending local political... (From :

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Chapter 3. THE DEMOCRATIC FEDERATION AND THE SOCIALIST LEAGUE The working-class militants were concerned with the practical problems of socialist propaganda on specific issues at the grass roots. As Frank Kitz put it, “the English Section and the comrades of the Labor Emancipation League worked with only one aim and that was to permeate the mass of the people with a spirit of revolt against their oppressors and against the squalid misery which results from their monopoly of the means of life. No thought of kudos or personal aggrandizement had entered into their efforts to spread the light, and therefore the squabbles between would-be leaders had no interest for them.” This assertion was certainly true of those who formed the libertarian wing of the movement in the 1880s. Whatever the accusations against them by their opponents, seeking a political career was not one of their faults. There were others, however, with more of an eye for... (From :

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Chapter 4. THE ANARCHIST AND FREEDOM … AND DAN CHATTERTON As we have seen, the first English-language anarchist paper to circulate in England was the American paper Liberty, published by Benjamin Tucker (see page 37). It is possible that the paper was introduced to the English socialists in the early days by Marie Le Compte, the American delegate to the 1881 congress in London, who evidently spoke in a number of clubs during her stay in England. She was a regular correspondent from France for Tucker’s paper in 1883, great interest being aroused by the trial and imprisonment of a number of anarchists (including Louise Michel, Pouget and Kropotkin) at Lyons. A number of prominent English public men and intellectuals signed a petition for Kropotkin to be released from prison on health grounds and because of his scientific work — a petition, it must be said, that Kropotkin did not solicit. But it s... (From :

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Chapter 5. ANARCHISM DEVELOPS IN THE SOCIALIST LEAGUE For all its hopeful beginnings there was a built-in time bomb in the Socialist League. The group of people that had seceded from the S.D.F. had done so for different reasons, some because of hostility to Hyndman, others because of hostility to Hyndman and his politics. There were continual attempts by the group that initially centered on the Avelings to turn the League into an electoral party. At first these attempts took no great part of the League’s time or attention. The first proposals that the League should strive “to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists” were rejected at the annual conference in June 1885. Another attempt was made the following year and was again defeated. Morris wrote: “the alterers were defeated and bore their defeat with good temper.” From this point on things began to deteriorate. In September 1886... (From :

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Chapter 6. THE WALSALL ANARCHISTS The arrest, trial and sentencing of the Walsall anarchists in 1892 deserve more attention than they have received from the historians of the left in Britain. From the point of view of the more liberal, there was a disconcertingly straightforward use of agents provocateur by the police. From the point of view of historians of the growth of institutions connected with the working-class movement, the existence of options for propaganda by deed and the reasons for the rejection of these options should have given more cause for thought. In any case, the circumstances were unusual enough for notice. As ex-Detective Sergeant McIntyre was to say, “Quite a sensation was caused at the time by the appearance of this new class of revolutionist. It is safe to say that no conspiracy of quite the same nature had been known in England during this century.” On 6th January 1892 J... (From :

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Chapter 7. H. B. SAMUELS AND THE COMMONWEAL The Commonweal restarted on 1st May 1893, under the editorship of H.B. Samuels. Other members of the Commonweal Group included John Turner, Carl Quinn, Ernest Young, Tom Cantwell and Joseph Presburg. Financed by Max Nettlau and Dr Fauset Macdonald, it came out in an edition of eight pages and was issued, except in times of crisis, fortnightly. The early political career of H.B. Samuels is impossible to give in detail but he first appears on the scene in 1886. A tailor by trade, he was then in touch with the Commonweal and according to his own account took part in the West End Riots. According to Nicoll’s extremely prejudiced account, he first saw Samuels at a meeting to celebrate the acquittal of Hyndman, Burns, Williams and Champion on ‘incitement to riot’ charges after the West End affair. Samuels, “supported by a mysterious German in spec... (From :

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Chapter 8. THE GREENWICH PARK EXPLOSION If H.B. Samuels had only been a self-publicizing terrorist of the word perhaps the worst one could say of him would be the assessment made by a contemporary anarchist who knew him quite well, Louise Sarah Bevington: “about the most rubbishy character possible. … The keynotes of his character are vanity and vindictiveness.” But the circumstances surrounding the explosion of a bomb in Greenwich Park which killed the man who was carrying it led some anarchists, the most prominent of whom was David Nicoll, to assert that Samuels was an agent provocateur employed by the police. This further led to accusations that Samuels was responsible for this man’s death. Anarchist bombs in England were now more than a matter of talk. At 4.40pm on Thursday, 15th February, there was a loud explosion near the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Park. When a park keeper an... (From :

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Chapter 9. THE COLLAPSE OF THE COMMONWEAL The anarchists had become the apostles of total destruction in the more gullible sections of the popular imagination. The mad professor in The Secret Agent, the anarchists in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and the figure in cloak and wide-brimmed hat carrying a bomb marked ‘BOMB’ in Pip Squeak and Wilfred cartoons were all variations on a stereotype developed in the early 1890s. This was obviously related to some of the activities and statements of recognized anarchist militants. But it was also to do with the activities of agents provocateurs like Coulon, whose Anarchist Feast at the Opera had been read to such effect at the Walsall trial, and the quite blatant use of anti-anarchist ‘black’ propaganda in the press. We have seen the worst that Samuels and Coulon could do. Yet how does it compare with an article which appeared in... (From :

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Chapter 10. THE MOVEMENT IN 1894 In the years 1889–1891 there had been a positive orgy of trades union organizing. There has been no satisfactory attempt to describe and analyze this phenomenon as a whole, much needed though it is. It is clear though that the ‘terms of trade’ had swung in favor of labor, which made such organization very much more simple. The combativeness had obviously been stimulated by the unemployed agitation and socialists in the previous years. The gains of 1889–1890 began to be eroded by unemployment and the counter-attack of the employers. Unemployment rose seriously between 1891 and 1893. Yet the earlier gains were not given up without a struggle. Defensive strikes occurred in many places. Some were of a massive and riotous nature and mobilized many more people than were involved in the strikes themselves. In December 1892 a fund raising procession in Bristol in support of a strike was banned. It took place... (From :

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Chapter 11. THE MOVEMENT IN DECLINE It may seem peculiar to open this section with an account of the active campaign for the release of the Walsall anarchists. Yet it is right that it should come under the heading of the decline of the movement. It was a campaign which was sparked off by information printed in a reformist newspaper and carried on by means of lobbying and ‘influencing public opinion’. Despite the fact that its major organizer, David Nicoll, was an anarchist, the campaign was not — and under the conditions of the time could not be — carried out by the anarchist methods of direct action. Strikes, riots or even kidnapping and organized jail-breaks, which have all been used to force the release of political prisoners, were not seriously considered. For by April 1895 when Reynold’s News printed the memoirs of ex-Detective Sergeant Mclntyre concerning the arrest and trial of the Walsall anarchists a head of s... (From :

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Chapter 12. COOPERATIVE COLONIES Cooperative enterprises of a utopian kind in England have suffered the fate of all enterprises designed as rehearsals for a great change that has not yet come. They have been defeated and have collapsed, or they have changed and become absorbed, being no longer dangerous. Yet they represent a continual and continuing attempt to place the relationships of work and living on a basis which differs severely from the norm that has existed since the Industrial Revolution. Their makers have attempted to realize in a concrete way ahead of time the conditions they desire or expect in society as a whole. They have attempted in varying degrees to achieve communism in property, cooperation in production and a rather indefinable quality of freedom with sympathy and mutual care in personal relationships which Morris called “good fellowship” and Orwell “decency.” Revolutions have furnished us with examples where suc... (From :

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Chapter 13. ANARCHISM AND THE ORIGINS OF THE SYNDICALIST REVOLT, 1889–1910 Socialists develop theoretical ideas of the nature of their society, the nature of a more desirable future and the manner of the transition between them. Mass action develops through forms designed for immediate use which can have great implications hardly perceived by the majority of participants. Socialist theory and mass action may not combine on any great scale. When they do both are transformed. The result is an explosion of popular creativity, a ‘positive self-consciousness’ which makes particular struggles into general ones and abstract discussion into urgent questions of practice. The implications of such situations are revolutionary and circumstances can make them so. Two such ‘pre-revolutionary’ situations occur in our period. One is that of 1889–1893, the other is the period of the Syndicalist revolt, 1910–1914, and a... (From :

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Chapter 14. THE INSURGENT VIRUS The period 1910 to 1914 and the subsequent period during World War One and its aftermath are among the most interesting in British history for the historian of working-class movements. They are also the most difficult to write about, the very scale of events requiring a great deal of detailed original research organized by the skills of an epic novelist. Such a book, though badly needed, has not yet been written. Certainly the present work is not intended to fill that gap. It is, however, preparative to such a work in that it restores to notice the almost completely ignored anarchist contribution. This is not done in the spirit of what has been called the Jewish Chronicle style of history writing: that journal without apparent selection, hierarchy or relevance lists every passing achievement of Jews because they are Jews. It is not the intention here to list every activity of anarchists in the period, without referen... (From :

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Chapter 15. WORLD WAR ONE — AND AFTER When war was declared on 4th August 1914, it came as a surprise. No matter that warning voices had been raised on the danger of war, no matter the direst predictions of the anti-militarists, the fact that a war had started in Europe was a surprise. From our position in history we look back at that bloody waste of life, appalled and wondering. How could people not only allow themselves to be sucked into that war, how could they voluntarily march off into its jaws? Yet in 1914 the only wars that generations had known had been squalid little wars conducted by regular armies in far-flung corners of the world, carving out empires and markets over the bodies of native populations hardly equipped to resist. The exceptions (at the Crimea and the Franco-Prussian War) were many years in the past and had been much less than total wars. The tightening web of alliances arising out of the rival imperialisms of the me... (From :

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Chapter 16. IN CONCLUSION: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN THE ANARCHIST MOVEMENT The anarchist movement did not cease circa 1930. Anarchism was to enjoy something of a resurgence in the later 1930s, largely inspired by the activity of the anarchists in Spain during the Civil War and Revolution of 1936–1939. The younger militants of that time, or at least some of them, are still active in the movement, and the events of that time and the years since then are still live issues and matters of polemic. (It would be a brave historian who tried to argue too much with the living, particularly since the tone of voice of history is one which implies that the events it describes are past and done with. My comrades would not relish that.) The anarchists have since shown the same astonishing ability to suddenly come from nowhere when everybody had assumed that they were finished with as they did in the years before World War One, though perhaps on a smaller scale. The... (From :

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BIBLIOGRAPHY To paraphrase Kropotkin, the history of anarchism does not reside in books — at least as far as England is concerned. Nevertheless two books must be singled out for special mention even though the first is hostile to anarchism and the second never seems to have heard of it. These are E.P. Thompson’s William Morris and Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain. E.P. Thompson’s book exhaustively covers the Socialist League period and Morris’s relationship with the anarchists and gives a more detailed picture of the early socialist movement than I had space to do. Outside these areas, particularly when he is dealing with anarchists, he should be treated with caution. Walter Kendall’s book is only about a part of the revolutionary movement in Britain but gives a fact-packed summary of some of the developments on the left before and during the Syndicalist Revolt and is particularly interestin... (From :

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BIOGRAPHIES ALFRED BARTON Alfred Barton was born on 30th July 1868 at Kempton in Bedfordshire, the son of a foundry laborer Henry Barton and his wife Eliza, née Savill. Self-educated, he became well informed in philosophy and history, especially classical history. He was able to read several languages. Not much is known of his early years in Bedfordshire. His first job was in a public library at the age of 12. He left home around 1890 to go to Manchester. Here he became a member of the Socialist League, and already had strong anarchist tendencies. He worked first as a clerk and then in Rylands Library. He threw himself into the work of the League which began an intensive propaganda campaign. Active alongside him was Herbert Stockton (an odd job man and later an industrial assurance agent according to George Cores), who ran a drapers shop in Levenshulme, and his brother Ernest. Very active during the free speech fight led b... (From :

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P. Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, London, 1908, pp. 255–6. Club and Institute MS appeal, dated January 1873; quoted in John Taylor, Self Help to Glamour: The Working Men’s Clubs, 1860–1972, History Workshop Pamphlet No 7, London, 1972. John Taylor, op. cit. Quoted in John Taylor, op. cit. The biographical information on Kitz is taken from his ‘Recollections and Reflections’, in Freedom, January–July 1912, and also from Stan Shipley, Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, History Workshop Pamphlet No. 5, London, 1972. Quotes to this point from Freedom, January 1912. For the ex-members of the British Federation of the First International he mentions, see Documents of the First International, London/Moscow, 1964. Of particular interest is George Harris, w... (From :


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