84b Angel Alley, Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX
Opening times: Mon-Sat 12-6pm, Sunday 12-4pm Phone: (07952) 157-742
(For overseas donors paypal.me may not work, but you can use the email freedombuildingcollective at gmail.com)
Working on volunteer-led political projects, especially bricks and mortar ones, can often feel like an endless and thankless sort of task. Cashflow problems, lack of relevant expertise, high turnover of key organisers and sometimes feuds and scandals are just some of the pitfalls which periodically need dealing with, usually by people who have many other things to do.
84b Whitechapel High Street has seen its share of all the above since it was bought by the Vernon Richards-led Freedom Press in 1968, with the help of donations and a substantial bit of support from his family.
From the multi-decade feud Vero maintained with Albert Meltzer until the day he died in December 2001, to fascist bombings and the long, slow process transitioning to provide a home for many other groups on the libertarian left, Freedom has often felt like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back sort of process.
Our most spectacular example of this has been in recent years, since an attempted firebombing of Freedom bookshop in 2013 which only failed to put us down for the count after a wonderful rallying round of our friends and allies, some of whom we had no idea existed.
In a matter of months we were back on our feet, but it did force us to re-examine how we were doing things, and to consider sustainability in the long term.
At the time we were running a loss-making newspaper with an audience in the low hundreds, a bookshop which was perennially under-resourced, a publishing house that had thousands of books in boxes which stretched back 40 years and weren’t bringing in enough money to cover our costs.
And we also had the building to look after, which all involved agreed represented the most important part of Freedom at that time — a large physical space in the heart of London, with good transport links and owned outright by a dormant trust (so it could survive in the event the Collective didn’t).
The movement has nothing else like it, and unlike the publication of paper propaganda, it is near-irreplaceable as a physical asset for anarchists in the capital. Even before the fire we had opened the space to help the Advisory Service for Squatters, Corporate Watch, Haven and LCAP.
It was a huge amount of work and at most there was a dozen of us helping out at any one time — sometimes half that — none as a full-time role.
So over the following three years we changed how the place was running. We brought other building users in to have a direct democratic say in how it was run and to help organise it. We closed the newspaper as a monthly production, lifting a huge financial and labour-intensive burden off our shoulders and allowing us to focus on making everything else work.
Over that period we went from loss-making to breaking even for the first time in a decade. We now have a decent online shop (freedompress.org.uk), news site with near-daily updates about anarchist goings-on around the world (freedomnews.org.uk), we bring out these less frequent free journals for physical handout, and began publishing sustainable, short-run titles again.
But then in January 2016 we had another big shock. A survey from the Friends suggested we would need up to £50,000 to secure the building for the long term (works needed are listed on the right).
We had an immediate crisis. The trustees of the building were in favour of selling, as it seemed unlikely we would be able to raise the cash. The building users voted to stay, as it seemed unlikely we would be able to find somewhere suitable to move to and no-one wanted the value of the building to end up in an account somewhere to eventually drain away.
In the end it was decided to look for the money from the movement, and prioritise immediately essential works in year one. And in this, we have once again been humbled and delighted by our comrades from Britain and the wider world.
Since we formally opened our campaign to raise the first £13,000 of the rebuild cash needed last autumn we have raised £9,242, with more due to come in — all in solidarity from comrades, no loans, no grants. We’re already talking to people who know a bit about the construction trade (though if any project management help is on offer that is welcome!) and are confident that over the next few months we’ll hit our first set of targets.
We’ve still got a long road ahead of us, a lot of money to raise, but this sets us up to eventually achieve what had seemed impossible — spending our 50th year in the Freedom Building at 84b Whitechapel High Street making it fit and ready to stand for another 50.
Anarchist political projects can sometimes be hard work. They can burn us out, make us feel like we’ve wasted our time, even leave us embittered. But the legacy of the hundreds of people who have worked on maintaining Freedom as a voice of the Beautiful Idea, a nail house in the face of banks’ machinery chewing on Tower Hamlets’ working class neighbourhoods, is still there. A seed beneath the snow.
Our thanks to you all.
Part of a new series on the groups inside the building at 84b Angel Alley — aka some of the folks who are benefiting from getting Freedom’s rebuild sorted!
How did CW originally get together?
Corporate Watch grew out of the anti-roads direct action movement of the 1990s – the same handful of companies kept turning up, and everyone needed information about who these companies were, how they operated and where their weak points were. A group of people started finding this information (which pre-universal-internet was a lot harder), which then directly informed the protest tactics and strategies.
Soon protesters took the campaign to the builders’ doorstops and occupied their offices rather than just waiting for the companies to come to them. Corporate Watch’s first publication was a booklet called DBFO — Destroy! Burn! Fell! Obliterate! — it was written in May 1995 and uncovered the companies, lobby groups and government departments behind the Design Build Finance & Operate road building schemes of the mid-1990s.
How has the organisation changed over the last 20 or so years?
Corporate Watch has been through several different phases. After the road protest period Corporate Watch came back as a bi-monthly magazine. The first issue was out in September 1996 and included articles on the bigger corporations just then coming under concerted attack — McDonalds, British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), RTZ (now Rio Tinto group), as well as a DIY Guide to researching corporations (which we updated in 2014). At this stage Corporate Watch was still unfunded and no one was paid – the magazine was photocopies and hand stapled. All in all the Corporate Watch magazine ran to 12 issues between 1996 and 2000, going online from 1997. In this period Corporate Watch also produced the GM-info website featuring an interactive map of the UK GM crops industry, field trials and all.
It was through working on particular issues in depth like this that prompted CW to slim down the magazine to a more frequent newsletter and to focus attention on the website and thematic reports. These provided analysis of more structural issues, often neglected by activists and the mainstream media, including the legal structures of corporations, the public relations industry, supermarket dominance and techonofixes to climate change. CW has continued to produce thematic reports (and now books) since this point. It was during this period that CW also produced its online corporate profiles — in depth examinations of the key companies in particular sectors including arms, biotechnology, food, construction, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, privatised services and the public relations industry.
In 2008 CW moved to London as the old office in Oxford was scheduled for demolition — to make way for new eco-homes! In 2009 it moved to a small but cheap office above the Freedom bookshop, where we are now. Around this point the news project was once again transformed, and CW resumed the thematic quarterly magazine format. This meant we could produce both emerging news stories and comment online, as well as the more thematic investigations on a diverse range of topics in print. From this point the magazine was edited collectively by the whole co-op rather than being the responsibility of one single editor.
Since then we have decided, given the context of falling magazine sales, to concentrate our energies on publications and articles, and so no longer produce a magazine at all. Instead we have revamped our website to ensure that our material — whether news or analysis — is easily located by theme. And we now produce longer books, handbooks and online articles, as well as maintaining a monthly email update to keep our readers updated.
Overall there have probably been about 35 Corporate Watchers, five offices, three websites and three libel threats (all dropped)!
Any of the original team still in touch?
Not really but the current generation are still in touch with some of the previous generation (from 10 plus years ago) and with people who’ve left over the past 8 years. We also have former members on our advisory group, which provides some useful organisational memory. Some of the founding members went on to denounce grassroots activism in favour of electric cars and the like!
How was it funded in the early days?
For the first few years CW didn’t get any funding or donations or anything. Then in 1999 Corporate Watch became a workers’ co-operative, putting ideas of non-hierarchical organisation and consensus decision making into practice. CW already had a reputation for high quality research, and focusing on themed projects were able to receive some grant funding, first to cover office rent and printing costs, and then, as it became increasingly difficult to conduct this work without an income or on the dole, for subsistence wages for all staff. Of course, Corporate Watch’s readers have always supported us through donations and purchases, but we have always made sure our work is available for free online, so are unable, currently, to support ourselves through sales and donations only (but this is our dream – and if you can help us out please do! (Donations here)
What were some early scoops?
Corporate Watch was instrumental in providing information and analysis on the GM industry to campaigners and activists, from the first stirrings of grassroots resistance to GM crops around 1996 through to Bayer CropScience’s decision to abandon their plans to grow GM crops in the UK in 2004. Corporate Watch’s work on GM crops included magazine and newsletter articles, over 20 briefings and corporate profiles, a website listing the locations of all the GM test sites and corporate infrastructure in the UK, and a family tree poster of the biotech industry.
Not so much a scoop but a really important piece of our early history — Squaring Up to the Square Mile (1999) was an activist’s guide book and map to the City of London and the how the finance sector works. It was produced in collaboration with London Reclaim the Streets and formed an integral part of the preparations for the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism that stopped the City of London in 1999. This is a topic we have worked on in much more depth since – with our guides to understanding the financial sector and report on the Eurozone crisis.
What would you say have been CW’s best moments in your time there?
Of course it’s great when we get stories in the mainstream media which we do regularly, but only because we think it might lead to some tangible action. We love it when people contact us after reading our work with further information (as did several carers recently who weren’t being paid travel time) and when they use the information we’ve uncovered in their own campaigns and actions.
The goal is to help people make strong and informed challenges – be it to the state, corporations, their employers or whoever! Personally, I’m really proud of the research I did into property companies with PEACH (People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House), which led to an action in East London, all of which stemmed out of our magazine on housing in 2011. And our work exploring more theoretical issues have sparked interesting much-needed discussions around those issues, such as the Managing Democracy Managing Dissent book, our work on the financial sector and our A-Z of Green Capitalism.
And of course probably the most immediately practical impact has come from our research training programme – including both the DIY guide to researching companies and more detailed workshops – through which we aim to give people the skills and tools they need to conduct their own investigations.
Are there any impacts from CW work that you’re been particularly proud of?
Recently, IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) bike couriers from three companies won a pay-rise, in part through using Corporate Watch research into the companies’ use of off-shore tax havens.
We love hearing about people who have used our work in their own campaigns, or to learn how to do their own research. But we hope that also our research is part of a wider picture, involving many other projects, of providing more radical, anti-capitalist perspectives than the mainstream can incorporate, which do not always translate into neat ‘impacts’.
Any former CWers go on to notable deeds?
PhDs, lecturers, parents, other co-ops, NGOs, freelance research, graphic design and one is now promoting nuclear energy and capitalism!
Have you ever been attacked by your corporate targets and if so, how?
We’ve been threatened with libel but each time the these were never pursued. People have been stopped and searched under terrorism legislation when crossing borders partly because they worked at CW.
How does CW get by nowadays?
We apply for funding for our projects from the small number of charitable funders who will consider us, given our strong political stancesuch as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. While these are dependent on each particular funding application we really appreciate the more regular and reliable funding that comes from our supporters, via donations, ‘Friends of CW’ (who receive our publications), sales and benefit gigs. We don’t accept any money directly from states or companies, even ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ companies and we have a stricter approach to this than many other similar projects. So if you can spare any dosh, please… you know the rest!
What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment we are working on investigating the internalisation of border controls into everyday life — in hospitals, schools, and housing provision. The government’s aim is to produce what they unashamedly call a “hostile environment” to push out or deter “illegals” by making it impossible for them to live a normal life. This even involves supposedly caring charities — we recently exposed homelessness charities providing immigration information on homeless people they encountered to the immigration officials.
We are also busy developing and expanding our anti-corporate research trainings, as well as working with people who come to us with information or leads to produce a story (such as our recent piece about Hyde housing association). We have a few other projects in the works — including one to follow up on our successful Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent project – and are also delivering workshops and discussions based on our popular A-Z of Green Capitalism. In fact, we have an event coming up on this in London – on 8 May at City University
From humble beginnings, Corporate Watch has grown into a well-established professional research organisation. But our allegiances remain firmly with the grassroots activist networks which we sprang from.
It’s been a few weeks since we launched our Big Rebuild campaign and laid out a plan to stop Freedom from slowly dissolving in the rain, making nine campaigning and support service groups homeless. So it’s high time for a roundup!
In short we’ve made at least some progress and there’s been some good news in the form of donations and pledges, but there’s also some worries and shortfalls.
The good news
There’s been some income, and many thanks to everyone who’s donated! So far we’ve had:
Cheques and donations worth £1,014
Pledges worth £3,000
£153 pledged online
Which makes our year one targets look something like this:
One thing keen-eyed building project types will note about this list is that the repointing (fixing up the bricks and mortar so that they’re protecting against leakage and damp) is a big chunk of the money, but isn’t a massively skilled job — there’s even people in the building who already have some experience of doing it. And this is true. In theory, we could save a big whack of the necessary money by getting in volunteers to do the work.
However, as anyone who’s run a volunteer-led rebuilding project will tell you, what people will promise to do and what actually happens is not always one and the same. If we spend £2,500 on scaffolding for a month but no-one shows up to work it’s just a massive waste of funds. So we’re playing this one safe. We need enough money to make sure that when the scaff goes up, the job gets done regardless. If people then show up to make the job cheaper that’s all good — we have another £30,000-worth of works to be done which isn’t so immediately pressing like fixing the windows, the stairs, the inside walls etc. This is a multi-year project and all the money will get spent on things that are needed.
What we’re doing next
Various kind people have helped put together graphics and print runs for other bits and pieces, some of which you may have seen at this year’s anarchist bookfair, including a range of tote bags, T-shirts and stickers which can be picked up either from the Freedom shop, or bought online.
Following on from this, we’re looking at setting up a gofundme campaign with some interesting tweaks on what you can get hold of. Author-signed merch, that sort of stuff. When we have more details on that we’ll pass ’em straight on.
There’s also been a couple of very welcome offers to put on gigs, which if they come off will help both to raise funds and get the campaign noticed — as we also have a year two and year three to sort out at some point that’ll be no bad thing!
And of course along with running this blog soliciting people like you for cash we will be needing to send off funding applications to various grants organisations, and good old begging letters to people who we think might be able to get our totals looking a bit less daunting.
Essentially our main worries at the moment revolve around the very ordinary problems of long-term volunteer organising. The Freedom Building user group has nine member organisations (more on them another time), but all are typically quite stretched doing useful stuff like investigating corporate malpractice, or helping people to not lose their homes, or sending books to prisoners.
So while we have various people seconded to the fundraising group it’s quite difficult to, for example, be volunteering at a group in a core capacity, working to keep heads above water and running quite time-intensive fundraising campaigns.
So we could very much do with a hand if there’s anyone out there who is enthusiastic and/or skilled at:
Letters asking folks for a bit of money
Writing grant applications
Organising fundraising events
Coming up with good ideas (and acting on them!)
You can get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or via the shop.
How you can pay in
This is the bit where we ask you to put in a few quid to get rid of all the red on our building graphic (hmm maybe we should reverse the colour scheme so you can add red…) Any donation no matter how small helps us get to our target. A handy paypal button is at the top of this page, or you can send a cheque payable to “Freedom Press” to 84b Whitechapel High st, London E1 QX, or call the shop to get details for a direct transfer on (07952) 157-742.
We’ve got a unique resource in central London to bring back to its best, a building that has been in the hands of the anarchist movement for nearly 50 years providing space and support for innumerable libertarian projects and which today provides a home for many important organisations. We hope you can join u in making it ready for the next few decades!
Arguably there would be some very good reasons not to write a biography about Dr Thomas Fauset MacDonald (1862-1910), a Lanark man whose politics veered from a long-running association with militant anarchism to becoming one of the “pioneers of the White Australia movement,” according to his obituary in the British Medical Journal.
But the fact is this utterly bizarre figure, whose historic racist lobbying within the Australian labour scene continues to help cast a baleful shadow over that country’s politics, unlocks a part of the anarchists’ history — and for all the brevity of his direct involvement he had a substantial impact. So without ignoring the monster, it is worth examining the doctor.
Born to Thomas and Jane MacDonald, Fauset (he used this for his pen-name) grew up the son of a successful GP and followed his father into the profession, graduating in medicine and surgery from Glasgow University in 1882. He sailed to Australia and New Zealand in 1883, spending six years becoming a specialist in tropical diseases and contributing several reports to medical journals at the time. In 1889 he returned to Britain and began studying for a veterinary degree, which he achieved in 1892.
At this point, aged 30, there appears little to suggest that he was particularly politically active, having followed a vaguely interesting but not terribly noteworthy path through the medical profession and achieving much the same middle-class position as his parents before him. He seemingly hadn’t made contact with the anarchists, as it was noted by David Nicoll (of whom more later) that Fauset only “came into the movement in the summer of 1893,” spending money freely and “in favour of the most violent action.” It is unclear exactly what sparked his conversion to the cause.
From zero to hero
Fauset certainly made a splash in his first few months of activism, bringing funds, expertise and his travel bug to a movement that was constantly on its uppers. His apparent first ports of call were with middle-class socialist elements and Russian exiles, then moving on to correspondence with Peter Kropotkin and contact with the Commonweal and Freedom groups.
Olivia Rossetti paints a glowing portrait of the early involvement of Fauset in the socialist and anarchist sets in her book A Girl Among the Anarchists. As teenagers, the Rossettis published anarchist paper The Torch out of their father’s basement, and Fauset appears to have contacted them at some point in 1893, shortly after they had acquired a printing press — his name began appearing as a contributor in June of that year. By 1894 he was the publisher.
While semi-fictional, Rossetti’s novel refers to numerous figures from around the time, and Fauset in particular gets a hefty role under the moniker “Dr Armitage.” Writing of her first meeting with him, she describes attending a “small and stuffy” parlour room belonging to Nekrovitch (actually the Russian nihilist Sergey Stepnyak-Kravchinsky), mostly bare of furniture but full of well-connected and cosmopolitan people. Russian exiles, British liberals, socialists and Fabians mixed with “journalists and literary men whose political views were immaterial … all manner of faddists, rising and impecunious musicians and artists—all were made welcome.”
Throughout the book, she compares him favourably with what she perceived to be a gruff and often lazy community of anarchists:
Dr. Armitage was one of the most noticeable figures in the English Anarchist movement, and it was with him that I first discussed Anarchist principles as opposed to those of legal Socialism … Dr. Armitage was a fanatic and an idealist, and two convictions were paramount in his mind at this time: the necessity and the justice of the “propaganda by force” doctrine preached by the more advanced Anarchists, and the absolute good faith and devotion to principle of the men with whom he was associated … Not for a single instant had Armitage hesitated to throw open the doors of his Harley Street establishment to the Anarchists: to him the cause was everything, and interests, prudence, prospects, all had to give way before it.
It’s easy to see why the politically-minded teenager might have gotten on with Fauset in 1893. In among a variety of dilettante London worthies and heavily bearded international hardliners the handsome 31-year-old doctor, as thoroughly middle-class and mannered as she, appears to have been gregarious, enthusiastic and genuine, friends with eminent figures and a member of the Freedom and Commonweal groups. He was especially connected with the latter by May 1st of that year, acting as financial backer (with Max Nettlau) to Commonweal during the editorship of tailor Henry B Samuels.
The appointment of Samuels as acting editor had been controversial. Stridently anti-trade union, he was of the opinion that Englishmen — and only Englishmen — should be free to blackleg. Along with a strong position in favour of propaganda of the deed (ie. terror to “wake up the people”), which comrades of the time such as Max Nomad noted always seemed to involve action being taken “by others,” he seemed an odd choice to follow publisher Charlie Mowbray and former editor David Nicoll, who had both been jailed for 12 months in connection to the Walsall bombing plot. He was however very much on Fauset’s wavelength, and when Nicoll tried to regain his editorship in December 1893, he found Fauset blocking the way:
Tom Cantwell acted as porter and excluded all ‘possible disturbers’. The usual pretext was they were ‘not members’ of the ‘Commonweal Group’. Most London Anarchists were not, the Commonweal Group consisting of about a dozen members ( … ) If however a man’s principles were alright, i.e. if he were a friend of Mr Samuels, they let him in. Besides the benefits of ‘scientific packing’, Mr Samuels had the advantage of the official support of the Freedom people. There were two delegates present – Agnes Henry and Dr Macdonald. Miss Henry was neutral, Dr Macdonald supported Samuels with enthusiasm ( … ) Seeing how everything had been ‘arranged’ I threw up the editorship.
The recollections of George Cores note that throughout his tenure: “Samuels’ conduct was deplorable, and led him open to the gravest suspicion. The police took no action against him.” John Quail offers a slightly different view in The Slow Burning Fuse, noting that “he had served his time and played his part sufficiently well to be trusted by sections of the movement” but also quoting contemporary Louise Sarah Bevington, who knew him well, saying “the keynotes of his character are vanity and vindictiveness.”
Though there are suspicious elements to Samuels’ time in the movement, Quail notes that no more than circumstantial proofs were ever offered that he was anything other than an anarchist. What is certainly true however is that Samuels ran a paper that was dedicated to a spectacular and insurrectionist approach, which inspired Fauset to keep his wallet open seemingly until shortly after Samuels was deposed in June 1894 under suspicion of being a police ringer. Funding dried up just a month later, and Commonweal closed that August.
The Greenwich Observatory Bombing
The catalyst for Samuels’ demise as editor was amongst the more noteworthy in this period of the British anarchist movement’s history, warranting two entire chapters of John Quail’s book.
On February 15th 1894, an explosion near the Greenwich Observatory drew a park keeper, who found Martial Bourdin, severely wounded by the bomb which had gone off while he was carrying it, blowing his hand from his wrist and opening his belly. Bourdin died hours later, saying nothing about his accomplices, but suspicion was rife across the movement, with Samuels quickly put in the frame for having potentially provided the explosive materials. He was a Bourdin’s brother-in-law and had been seen in Bourdin’s company on the day of the attempted attack, yet was not even interviewed, let alone arrested — and a justifiable paranoia was growing within the anarchist ranks.
The movement had come under intense pressure from the public in the aftermath, with an angry mob attempting to overturn Bourdin’s hearse during the funeral march and anarchist events being attacked by reactionary elements, including direct action from police to disrupt anarchist organising, both covert and overt. May 1st saw police-led attacks against public anarchist meetings.
In this atmosphere, Samuels was busy bragging about his links to Bourdin. Then, at the end of May, David Nicoll (who was holding a grudge against Samuels over his ongoing editorship of Commonweal) reported a story where Samuels had come good on a boast that he could lay his hands on sulphuric acid to another tailor by handing him a small vial of the substance — the other man’s house was raided two days later.
At a subsequent meeting, Nicoll relates, Samuels was confronted over his handing out of acids and his links to Bourdin, and admitted both, subsequently being expelled from Commonweal. In mounting his doomed defence however, Samuels noted that he had acquired most of his materiel from the stocks of his good friend Fauset MacDonald.
There is a direct parallel in the report of this confrontation by Nicoll and a scene in Rossetti’s novel, in which she describes Armitage/Fauset as being shocked by Samuels’ admission. Whether he actually spoke to her on the subject or not is unknown, but her characterisation is as follows:
After some seconds’ hesitation Armitage [Fauset] replied: “I do not desire or intend to go into any details here concerning my past conversations or relations with Jacob Myers [Samuels], neither do I consider myself in any way bound to discuss here the motives which prompted, or which I thought prompted his actions, and the requests he made of me. As Anarchists we have not the right to judge him, and all we can do is to refuse to associate ourselves any further with him, which I, for one, shall henceforth do. The knowledge of his own abominable meanness should be punishment enough for Myers.
Fauset could not entirely disassociate himself from the situation however, inasmuch as he had also found himself in Nicoll’s line of fire. For Nicoll, Fauset was as much to blame for the Greenwich debacle and the subsequent police crackdown as Samuels and Bourdin, acting as a silent partner in providing the explosive chemicals, and he said as much when the doctor visited him in Sheffield a month later:
Certainly it was true that Freedom hadn’t backed Nicoll in the case, much as it hadn’t covered his activities since his release from prison, and it seems plausible that Fauset could have used his connections through Freedom to outmanouver Nicoll in the broader movement, as Nicoll was already by this point considered something of a crank by many senior voices, including Kropotkin and Max Nettlau. Fauset’s willingness and ability to travel brought him a wealth of contacts across the country, allowing him to take on a tour of Dublin (April 1894), Sheffield (June/July 1894) Leicester (July 1894) and Manchester (late 1894). By August, Nicoll was being accused of having “spy mania” by John Turner and pressed to cease publishing screeds accusing Samuels and MacDonald.This was partially successful, as after his initial accusations Nicoll remained silent until 1897, by which time Fauset’s anarchist boat had long since sailed.
The ‘other’ Commonweal
It’s worth a brief diversion to look at Nicoll’ belated summary of events, which involved the distribution of an inciendiary pamphlet entitled The Greenwich Mystery and an issue of Commonweal entirely unrelated to the defunct former publishing group. The full extract is quite long and can be found at this forum thread, but in summary Nicoll believed Fauset had:
Encouraged the most violent of actions while remaining himself above the fray
Funded (and by implication controlled) Commonweal
Provided a “small arsenal at his dispensary” (and hinting that these materials had been deliberately left for Samuels to pinch) including sulphuric acid and chlorate of potash, both of which found their way into Bourdin’s bomb
Alongside Samuels, avoiding police interest in a quite baffling way (implying he was a nark)
He also describes the series of events directly after the bombing, when MacDonald visited him in Sheffield:
When the news of the disclosures at the “Commonweal” Group reached Sheffield, Macdonald came down with a young comrade from Manchester, and did his best to persuade me to make no disclosures in the Anarchist. He said he was firmly convinced “Samuels was not a police agent.”
“But, MacDdonald, ‘ I said, “how could he have stolon that stuff from your surgery without your knowledge, and why did you lot him go on stealing more!” “Would you stop a man from acting on his own initiative” said the worthy doctor. “ Yes, I mean to stop that kind of business. Don’t you know he was exposing you to terrible peril, and why did you not stop him? If violence is necessary, let it come in the form of open insurrection, and not in dynamite explosions.” I looked round, and saw the doctor shaking bis head with a pitying smile to his young companion. I then spoke with some warmth. “Don’t you see,” I said, “that your own conduct İs open to grave suspicion?” “Now, if you talk like that,” said the doctor, “I shall…-“ “Don’t try it on. MacDonald,” I said. He replied with a seraphic smile.
MacDonald left Sheffield after obtaining from me a promise that I would publish nothing more on consideration that there should be a full and fair inquiry into the case by a proper committee consisting of delegates from all the London Groups. That inquiry never came off, the doctor informing the young man from Manchester, who was acting in good faith, that comrades in London took no interest in the matter, and if the inquiry was held no one would attend. This is not true, for my pamphlet has been eagerly bought by the London Anarchists. So Mr. Samuels’ accomplice did his best to hush up the case. MacDonald soon after left England, and has never returned.
At the annual meeting of provincial Anarchists at Monsal Dale Mr. Banham, who defended Samuels, told us a story which showed Macdonald’s real opinion of his accomplice. Banham related how that after Samuels had given the men the chlorate of potash and sulphuric acid, at his suggestion they tried an experiment, but the stuff would not ignite.
MacDonald was asked at Manchester for an explanation. He said, “Samuels was so ignorant of explosives that he had probably taken cough mixture for sulphuric acid.”
Though MacDdonald’s name was freely mentioned before an audience of about eighty people, some of whom wore not Anarchists, as the man from whom Samuels had “stolen” the explosives, yet, though he stayed in England some weeks afterwards, the police never arrested him or Mr. Samuels.
Nicoll was roundly condemned for his troubles by the Freedom Group in particular, members of which called his mental health into question and castigated him for laying into MacDonald in the doctor’s absence. George Cores, who maintained cordial relations with Nicoll until the older man’s death in 1919, noted sadly that:
In the concluding years of his life I often met him and I am gratified with the firm conviction that he regarded me as a true friend and comrade till his death, though he was suspicious of so many about him.
The restoration of the Editorship would have saved him from very much mental, moral and physical suffering.
He was truly a martyr. The wretched, petty, greedy vanity of a man was a greater blow to Nicoll than anything the enemy could do, and made the concluding phase of his life a tragedy. No man ever lived who was more idealist, more concerned with the freedom and welfare of humanity than David J Nicoll.
Fauset meanwhile was already far from the fray as Nicoll duked it out with the likes of Nettlau and Turner. He seems to have left for Australia at some point between August and October of that year, to seek a new life omitting bombs and fractious British anarchism.
The white supremacist anarchist
It’s possible that Fauset entertained some racist thinking before he began his long boat ride to the other side of the world — his good friend H B Samuels was certainly of the opinion that Englishmen were of superior stock and “racialism” was hardly uncommon at the time. He seemed to hold no particular grudge towards the Irish however, as he happily went to talk in Dublin in 1894, shortly before he left, at a time when anti-Irish prejudice was rampant. His attitude towards his hosts was approvingly cited in the local press:
He is a Scotsman, cool and shrewd in manner. Not once, even when closely “heckled,” as they would say in his own country, did he show any sign of heat. His arguments may be put thus. He objects to any form of artificial government to begin with: but he would not remove our governors by the summary method of lifting them into the air in so many atoms. He desires to remove Parliament by a natural and constitutional process. To workingmen, he says, absorb the “blacklegs,” form free associations, let those associations associate with other associations, and go on developing in this manner until great international federations are established … the lecturer is a great believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution, and referred to this subject frequently to enforce his arguments.
At this point in his life he appears to have been in favour of an internationalist approach, but was also prone to looking at life through the lens of evolutionary theory — sometimes a precursor to the developing of a “social Darwinist” outlook and not unacquainted with racism towards non-Europeans.
His interest in the supremacy of the white race however only bloomed into full-fledged activism during his time in Australia, opening the oddest chapter in Fauset’s exceedingly strange political journey — one which suggests he was never a mole, for what logic would send a police undercover from the heart of anarchist London to a Australian frontier town in order to found a racist class struggle movement?
But this bizzare project would eventually drive Fauset’s politics in the latter years of his life, and while his two years in London were hidden from the British Medial Journal’s obituary writers, who instead were fed (or made up) a cock-and-bull story about a two year medical studying jaunt around Germany, America, Italy, Egypt, China and Japan, his efforts to “pioneer the White Australia movement” were officially documented.
He settled, initially, in Queensland, where he initially made his name as a vet, dealing with a tick epidemic in 1895-6, but seems to have also tried to immediately immerse himself in radical circles around Sydney. Joining the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (Aaas, now Anzaas) he wrote for Sydney’s The Worker in 1896 on “the social question” castigating the iniquities of government, opining that “the laws of the universe are anarchical” and expressing his admiration for the Surplus Labor League.
The next year, he delivered a paper to the Aaas on Kropotkin’s approach to anarchism, and then moved around 2,300 miles north as the crow flies to set up a cottage hospital at Geraldton (now Innisfail) — Dr T. F. MacDonald’s Bureau of Tropical Disease and Cottage Hospital.
The outback village could not have been further away from the electric, seething paranoid circles he had frequented in Britain. Settled as a post office site just 25 years prior, Geraldton wouldn’t have its own paper until 1906 and even today contains just 9,000 people. This was the town in 1885:
Due to a goldrush in the surrounding area, it did become a more multicultural place than most while Fauset lived there, with First Peoples and Anglo-Celtic settlers quickly being outnumbered by “Kanaka” South Sea Islanders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait workers, Chinese miners who developed the banana industry and retail businesses, French merchants, and German timber and sugar producers — though the most influential Italian influx wouldn’t happen until Fauset had moved on.
It is possible that Geraldton was where he first developed the disdain for non-English peoples that would lead to his embrace of eugenics. He certainly had a difficult time at the colony, struggling to deal with a hookworm infestation which he found “deeply rooted and flourishing among the inhabitants of the Johnstone River District.” Nine out of ten children were infected, and MacDonald recorded a trend for them eating dirt as an “irresistible craving,” saying that such children became pale, disobedient, cunning, dishonest and immoral. Affected adults meanwhile he believed to have developed an extreme fondness for pickles, curry and alcohol and were lazy and aggressive. His requests for help to stamp out the infections in 1900were ignored by the Queensland government as sensational nonsense.
Fauset refused to give up however, and the nearest larger town to Geraldton at that time was (and largely still is) Brisbane, so it was to the Brisbane Courier that he wrote in 1903, complaining again about the “earth-eating” disease. It appears that 1903 is the same year he was swayed to the cause of eugenics.
While she gets his place of birth wrong, Diana Wyndham’s description in her thesis Striving For National Fitness of “Tom” F MacDonald, a Queensland doctor running a 30-bed hospital in a “north Queensland town” from 1896-1906 could hardly be anyone else, and she gives an insight into his movements in those years:
In January 1905 he wrote to Francis Galton at the Eugenics Record Office in the UNiversity of London to enquire about his Eugenics fellowship and to offer himself as an applicant. He explained that he had read about it in an Australian paper, which appears to be the first reference to eugenics in an Australian newspaper. His application included a reference to a paper (renamed “Evolution and Sociology”) which he had read at congresses in 1903 and 1905.
Fauset noted to Galton that he would have to keep his interest off the written page, as he hoped to sell articles to the London press on the subject in due course, but his interest clearly extended to his organising and speaking activities, as he would would go on to flat out argue the case for Eugenics on the basis of increasing white control of labour in his 1907 book Experiences of ankylostomiasis in Australia. In it he suggested that southern Europeans were particularly vulnerable to hookworm infection (ie. laziness and fighting), and noted approvingly that “South Sea Island, and other coloured labour generally, has been replaced by workers of our own people in fulfilment of the national ideals of ‘White Australia’ … the Caucasian skin has been presented with an opportunity of proving its power to survive.” He really was off the deep end by that point — not even kidding, he’d patented a diving suit in July 1906.
New Zealand, London, and Africa
By the winter of 1906, Fauset had had enough. At some point between July and November he upped sticks and got on a boat headed East, to New Zealand, arriving in Wellington in time to be the guest speaker of the Socialist Party there at an event advertised, suitably, by their party paper — Commonweal:
A visiting speaker from Australia, Dr T F McDonald, ‘also referred to the US Governmental conspiracy which led to the judicial murder of Parsons and his comrades’, before proceeding with his prepared speech on the philosophical inheritance of Kropotkin, Bakunin and others.
When he arrived in New Zealand, the London ex-pat “introduced himself to the then Honorary Secretary of the Wellington Branch of the Socialist Party as an anarchist communist,” and energetically engaged himself in the scene. Macdonald’s “clearness of vision” and “honesty of purpose” was put to good use.
As well as lecturing on behalf of the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, he gave numerous talks on socialism and anarchism, published a number of medical pamphlets and regularly penned articles in the Commonweal, such as “Humanist Interpretations of Crime”; “The Prime Minister” (a satirical text mocking those in power); and “Freedom and Union”—“the principles which provide the anarchist-communistic ideal of a freely federated humanity.”
In late 1906, he toured the country advocating for an Imperial Labour Conference in London, which was warmly approved of in a printed address to Macdonald delivered by “representatives of the labour movement, the Socialist Party, and others interested in the economic advances of the masses.” The undersigned recognized “the enormous potentialities of a gathering of Labour representatives,” and added, “we believe the seed you have sown amongst us will grow.” His activity eventually caught the attention of conservative cartoonist William Blomfield, who put ink to paper in order to ridicule Macdonald’s revolutionary politics.
But eugenics were never far from the surface for Fauset after 1903, and alongside keeping up a steady stream of racist writings. Davidson notes:
Numerous press interviews, pamphlets, and letters to Nettlau [from the time] are rife with discriminate statements that betray his racism. The labour question in the antipodes, wrote Macdonald, faced “the element of cheap, coloured, absolutely servile alien labour… with the presence of Japanese, Chinese and other eastern peoples, the workers of Australia have had an extra battle to fight.”
Indeed MacDonald, still friends with Peter Kropotkin, wasn’t afraid to push his line internationally. In a quite extraordinary rant published first in Freedom and then in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth in 1907 [PDF pp. 405-410], he argued that:
For some 30 years the work in tropical agriculture fell entirely into the hand sof cheap alien workers, who were in reality slaves, having neither social privileges extended to them, nor could they in their helpless ignorance form even the simplest institution of of self-defence. In the mines, Chinese labour had to be opposed.; in the pearl fisheries, the Japanese.
With some pride he goes on to argue that white Australian labour had successfully forced out this “hydra-headed enemy” before decrying its fall into parliamentarianism. It appears that Mother Earth made less fuss (this was a magazine that actually carried adverts for the American Journal of Eugenics in the same edition) than the New Zealand Socialist Party, whose members slated him and called him out for lying about having acquired their official recommendation in the first place. He fell out of favour with the group and was officially declared persona non grata in July 1907, the same month in which he set up the White Race League, placing himself as president.
Fauset’s presidency was shortlived however, and with the humiliation of yet another public rousting from erstwhile comrades looming, he once again took his heels to the other side of the globe — by September he was back in Liverpool, taking in a whirlwind tour of his old mates (including a visit to Kropotkin in Paris) before returning to Britain to bring the Good News of socialist eugenicism.
For the next two years he appears to have toured, spoken, and in 1909 he published a book of verse, North Sea Lyrics. In 1910 he took up a post with Compagnie de Kong in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, and worked there until his death from yellow fever on December 14th, aged 48.
This article was written as part of a fundraising drive for works at the Freedom Building, which currently hosts no less than nine anarchist and campaign groups in central London. All of the groups involved work on a shoestring budtget, so while we collectively cover year-on-year costs, we need a bit of help to keep the roof sound! There’s details on how to donate at the top of the page, any pennies would be appreciated.
Just two days until Anarchist Christmas! Also known as the London Anarchist Bookfair. And this year we have so much stuff coming out of Angel Alley it very nearly didn’t fit on the van, kindly organised by the Bookfair Collective itself. There’s one more day to go and pick up an early programme from the shop and some leaflets to distribute to people who just don’t know they need to head up to Tottenham on Saturday…
Many of the building user groups have been boxing up their wares for the big day, including AFed who will be bringing their new editions of Organise and Resistance, SolFed:
Haven, whose boxes can be seen here along with a tonne of stuff from Freedom Press before the Solfed, Afed and Corporate Watch stuff was brought down…
Not to mention it looks like there will be a new edition of the must-read ASS Squatters Handbook – the first since rule changes made residential squatting illegal – and Corporate Watch will be showing off their latest research and shiny new A-Z of Green Capitalism:
Plus there’s even stickers from the fundraising group!
The Freedom building hosts nine different collectives on four floors from all different parts of the movement, and we’re extremely proud of how much work is coming out of 84b Angel Alley in 2016. Long may it last!
Although it’s not the current Freedom premises, it might be worth a little look at the background of Ossulston Street, London, which runs down the western flank of the British Library. The building at number 127 is mentioned by Donald Rooum as the first long-term premises run by Freedom Press after it was kicked out of the Freethought Publishing Company’s offices at Bouverie Street in 1888. He notes:
In 1895, Charlotte Wilson resigned [as editor] and was replaced as publisher by Alfred Marsh, a violinist. In 1898, Freedom acquired its own printing facilities. The nieces and nephew of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti had been printing their own paper, The Torch, a journal of anarchist communism at 127 Ossulston Street, near Kings Cross, since 1885. In 1898 they decided to cease publication and arranged for the Freedom group to take over the premises. The Rossettis’ printing equipment was bought and donated to Freedom by two sympathisers. Freedom Press stayed in Ossulston Street for the next 30 years.
The “nieces and nephew” were Olivia, Helen and Arthur Rossetti, referenced as also being cousins to Ford Maddox Ford, whose stories are said to have helped inspire Joseph Conrad’s famous farce The Secret Agent.
While teenagers (they were 16, 11, and 14 respectively) they had founded The Torch in their father William’s basement at 3 St Edmund’s Terrace in 1891, which led to the extraordinary spectacle of the home of the Secretary of the Inland Revenue — William’s job — being under constant surveillance by “English detectives, French police spies and Russian agents provocateurs” as Ford put it.
In 1892 the teenage trio acquired a derelict printing press, taken from the loft of the old Commonweal offices at Clerkenwell Road, and by 1893 were corresponding with well-known members of the British anarchist movement, including Thomas Cantwell and H B Samuels of Commonweal, Dr Fausset Macdonald (a middle-class militant under near-permanent watch by Scotland Yard), as well as international figures such as Peter Kropotkin (already in London at that time and writing for Freedom, then publishing out of 61 St Augustine’s Road) and Errico Malatesta. However their father expelled them from the basement that year and the Press was removed, first to Goodge Street and then to Ossulston. Olivia would later relate to Ford that Goodge Street was:
A locality as grim as its name. There it became a sort of club where the hangers-on of the extreme left idled away an immense amount of time while their infant hosts and hostesses were extremely active over their forms. I myself did not like it much and only went there I think twice — to see about the printing of my first poem.
After an eight-month break in publication, due to the Rossettis’ mother falling ill, it appears that Macdonald and co. had largely taken over while the Rossettis continued to help in the background and in 1894 The Torch took on a new subtitle, “a revolutionary journal of anarchist-communism, settling at Ossulston Street in 1894. In a diary entry about the building reported by R Hampson in Conrad’s Secrets, Olive Garnett notes:
“One Frenchman comes, the rest are Italians … who come and go from month to month. Many of them sleep there at night, food for a dozen is provided at Olive’s expense … the place is constantly observed by policemen.”
By 1896 however the Rossettis had quit due to work (in Arthur’s case) ill health (Helen) and possibly disillusionment (Olivia), leaving behind a fictionalised account of their time in the movement which was none too flattering — though it should be noted that Olivia would later become a fascist sympathiser in Italy. In her novel, the “Bomb” newspaper found itself in dire straights after the arrest of key comrades, and was left in the hands of “Short” — a thinly disguised rendition of Thomas Cantwell, now in overall charge of the Torch. She describes a scene the day after the arrests:
“The comrades had not seen fit so far to muster round the paper. To say there was none, however, is an injustice, for there on the sofa, still huddled in the red flag, lay Short, apparently little affected by what had taken place since I last saw him. He had been aroused from his slumbers by the yelping of his dog, whose tail had been trodden on by one of the detectives, and he had raised himself on his elbow, and was looking round, uttering curses volubly. He nodded slightly on seeing us enter, but did not change his position. There he lay, quite heroic in his immovable sloth; of all the many fighters he alone remained staunch at his post; and that because he was positively too lazy to move away from it.”
Cantwell was, by all accounts, an irascible personality badly affected by a stretch of six-months’ hard labour handed down in 1893, with a habit of starting fights with comrades. He and others from Commonweal, closed for good the year before, had been recruited along with John Turner and Joseph Presburg by Freedom contributor Alfred Marsh in 1895, who had effectively taken on responsibility for the paper following the resignation of Charlotte Wilson as editor. Then he’d taken over at the stricken Torch as well, moving all the Freedom print type over from its previous home at Judd Street in April 1896. By 1897 all other papers were closed down, leaving just Freedom.
Cantwell’s brief stint as acting editor was brought to an end the same year, apparently to the relief of all:
“From September 1898 A Belgian, F Henneghien was able to replace Cantwell and this was a relief to many as he tended to fall out with comrades on a regular basis and was seen as very unreliable rarely producing anything on time. As regards Freedom George Cores noted that Cantwell ‘had, as acting editor, a peculiar habit of censoring all contributions, making everything which appeared conform to the gospel according to Cantwell. This did not suit the comrades.’ Marsh himself was to write in 1897 to Nettlau that ‘ you cannot imagine what a time I had. 2 ½ years with Cantwell is enough to kill anyone’ (Cantwell had left Freedom in November, at least temporarily).”
He came back as the Freedom compositor after Henneghien left in 1900, but had a stroke in 1902 and died in 1906, Max Nettlau writing an obituary that took note of his faults, but lauded his endless loyalty to the cause.
Ossulston Street in the 1890s
The featured picture (top of page) is of Ossulston Street circa 1922, but gives a solid idea of what the street would have been like 30 years before as the Rossettis left and Cantwell took over. The road was a poor one and a major thoroughfare on the edge of Somers Town, showing up on Charles Booth’s 1890s maps of poverty. In the detail below, the Midlands Rail Goods Depot and Potato Market is on the site of what is now the British Library, while 127 Ossulston would be between Phoenix Street and Aldenham. In Booth’s colour scheme, purple indicates a down-at-heel area, blue impoverished and black serious poverty — the infamous rookeries would fall into that category, and the Somers Town slums are still sometimes portrayed as such in novels.
Clarendon (now Werrington) Street, on the left of the image and just round the corner from number 127, was one of these and described by Booth in 1898 as:
A narrow thoroughfare of bad repute — the worst spot in the immediate neighbourhood and a good many prostitutes and amateurish thieves are living here. The local name for the street is ‘Little Hell’.
Initially the area had been a cheap haven for artisans fleeing the French Revolution, described in 1878 by Old and New London:
This district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho … the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself.
The population soared from the 1830s onwards, leading to high density slums with transitory and multinational demographics, with transport links which made it a useful spot for incoming radicals. The Judd Street premises, taken over by The Alarm in 1896 after Freedom moved out, can be found just the other side of Euston Road, while other premises further south that Freedom had published from included 28 Grays Inn Road, 57 Chancery Lane and 7 Lamb’s Conduit Street. In 1921 the census found density in Somers Town averaged three people to a room.
Keell, Marsh and the movement’s decline
Following Cantwell’s stroke, Tom Keell and Alfred Marsh became the key figures at Ossulston Street in 1902. Marsh was acting editor, while Keell ran the business side, largely stabilising what had become a hugely dysfunctional operation. By 1905 the pair had, in the wake of the failed Russian revolution of that year, begun to focus primarily on reporting industrial activities and agitating for direct action. Contributors at the time included John Turner, Guy Aldred (in his own name and also as ‘Ajax junior’), Karl Walter (grandfather of Nicholas), Harry Kelly, S Carlyle Potter and Jimmy Dick. By 1910, when Marsh was to retire from ill health, the building was seemingly ticking over well. In his essay A Visit To London written the same year, Ben Reitman notes:
On my arrival, I called at the office of Freedom, the leading English Anarchist paper, that has been proclaiming the message of liberty to the world for nearly twenty-eight years. Dozens of publications have come to life and died, but Freedom has weathered all difficulties.
The man who has charge of Freedom and publishes all the Anarchistic pamphlets is Tom Keell, a jovial, hardworking, and devoted soul, whose entire life is consecrated to his cause.
He gave me a truly comradely reception and bade me make myself at home in the office. Nor did his cordiality diminish during my entire stay. Gloomy or cheerful, Tom always greeted me with kind words and a cup of tea. And when I incurred the curiosity of Scotland Yard, members of which were eager to locate my place of “conspiracy,” it was Tom Keell who beat them off my track and took me to his home.
However editorial support for the paper was lacking, largely in Keell’s view due to a more general malaise in the wider London movement, and despite an influx of new people who produced Voice of Labour through the press at Ossulston he was forced to take on Freedom’s editorial duties as well as business ones, eventually becoming “acting editor” in 1913 and getting embroiled at the heart of a major movement split over engagement with the First World War.
Writing later, historian Max Nettlau would argue it was inevitable, in an era where nationalism was scorched onto the psyches of all, that even among the anarchist movement many would take sides on the Allies vs Central Powers question, and the argument kicked off in earnest in November 1914 following an edition of Freedom in which Peter Kropotkin and others made the case for supporting the Allies.
Keel, though anti-war, was at pains to provide impartiality and carried the articles verbatim along with criticism from many other writers, but would go on to place himself squarely against the “secular saints” who were advocating getting behind the Allies. He was denounced as “unworthy” of his editorial role by Kropotkin for his troubles. He was backed primarily by the Voice of Labour collective, including George Barrett, Fred Dunn, Mabel Hope, Elizabeth Archer, Tom Sweetlove, W Fanner, and Lilian Wolfe, but would not be exonerated of accusations that he was disgracing his office until the next national anarchist gathering in April 1915. By then Kropotkin and others in the pro-Allies camp were thoroughly hostile to Keell’s Freedom, and they would go on to write the Manifesto of the Sixteen the following year.
The rest of the story of 127 Ossulston Street is best told by the Freedom centenary history:
After the passing of the Military Service Act in January 1916 both Freedom and the Voice of Labour soon ran into trouble, first for an article ‘Defying the Act’ by ‘one of those outlawed on the Scottish Hills’ (Fred Dunn), which was published in the April issue of the Voice and subsequently as a leaflet. This was enclosed with a letter from Lilian Wolfe to Malatesta which was intercepted by the police. The consequent raid on the Freedom office then brought to light another article just set up for Freedom, headed ‘The Irish Rebellion’ and worthy of a second charge.
On 24 June 1916 Tom Keell and Lilian Wolfe were tried at Clerkenwell Police Court under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). The charge arising from the second article was dismissed, but for the first article Keell was sentenced to a fine of £100 or three months imprisonment, and Wolfe to £25 or two months. Both refused to pay and were imprisoned.
The whole affair at least proved Freedom office to be quite a tempting place for the police, for it was raided three more times in the course of the next year. Despite all harassment Keell managed to keep Freedom going. The group so far responsible for the publication soon dissolved, the men hiding or going to the United States, and Mabel Hope and Elisabeth Archer also soon leaving for the States. From 1918 it was mainly Keell alone who did all the work, occasionally helped by Percy Meachem on the practical side, and then more and more by William Charles Owen, who eventually came to live with Tom and Lilian (and their son Tom junior) in their house in Willesden.
In the decade after the war Freedom’s existence was a long struggle for survival, one appeal for help following the other. Except for a few comrades abroad, and W C Owen and Lilian Wolfe, nobody actually came to help. The price of Freedom was increased in May 1918 from Id to 2d; but the income in the mid-1920s was not more than that in 1914, when the printing costs were only about a third of those in 1925.
In December 1926 Keell officially retired as compositor to live off the superannuation income provided for by the Society of Compositors, and when in 1927 the London County Council gave notice to quit 127 Ossulston Street, as the whole quarter was to be pulled down, he issued a last desperate appeal, again to no avail. Finally, with the agreement of Lilian Wolfe and Owen, he decided to close downFreedom.
The inside courtyard and front door of 127 Ossulston Street as it was in 1927.
The building was vacated in September 1928. Freedom did not entirely disappear, as Keell continued to publish infrequently from his retirement at the Whiteway colony until a collective around Vernon Richards revived the group in the 1930s, but 127 Ossulston Street, with all its grime, intrigue and history, had by then been long-since replaced by social housing.
Following on from Donald Rooum’s more general writeup, this extract is from John Quail’s Slow Burning Fuse, currently out of stock at Freedom (though we intend to print more at some point). It goes into a bit more depth about the founding of the Press in the 19th century and its relationship with the socialist movement.As Donald noted in the last blog, Freedom was in part founded after the folding of Henry Seymour’s individualist-minded Anarchist magazine.
The first number of Freedom in October 1886 was very different from Seymour’s Anarchist. It was sober, respectable and theoretically coherent. All contributers were anonymous — except that everyone knew Peter Kropotkin wrote for it. The keynote of its long life was given in its first article. After a review of the contemporary situation, man’s constant struggle for freeeom and the uselessness of participation in the structures of repression for achieving freedom, the piece finishes:
“Such, in rough outline, is the general aspect of the Anarchist Socialism out paper is intended to set forth and by the touchstone of this belief we propose to try the current ideas and modes of action of existing Society.”
Here it is made clear that the paper is not considered so much an agitational newspaper but as a general propagandist paper reviewing events as they take place outside. Unlike Commonweal or The Anarchist it was not designed as a newspaper of combatants. Neither did it consider itself at any time the newspaper for the anarchist movement but as the newspaper of the Freedom Group. The Group was not open, it’s “membership was always limited and confidential.” The Group included in addition to Kropotkin Dr Burns Gibs, Mrs Dryhurst, Frank Hyde and his wife, and Charlotte Wilson who was effectively the editor of Freedom. Charlotte Wilson remained editor of until 1895 and it was largely due to her efforts that the paper appeared consistently over that time. She had first become interested in anarchism during the trial of Kropotkin and other anarchists in Lyons in 1883, and by 1884 had become an anarchist. Born Charlotte Mary Martin in 1854, the daughter of a surgeon, she received “the best education then available to girls.” During 1873-4 she attended the institution at Cambridge which a few years later became Newnham College. After leaving university, she married Arthur Wilson, a stockbroker, and settled in Hampstead, a fashionable suburb of London. By 1886 they were living a somewhat expensively appointed simple life at Wildwood Farm (later renamed ‘Wyldes’) on the edge of Hampstead Heath.
She had joined the Fabian Society in 1884 and in December was elected to its executive. In addition to her two contributions to Justice on anarchism she also wrote the section on anarchism in the fourth Fabian tract ‘What Socialism Is’ which was published in June 1886. At this time the Fabian Society had not firmly espoused Social Democratic electioneering and was basically a discussion group for socialist intellectuals with no fixed programme or ideology. It was its openness at this time which made the publication of anarchist material possible. But this openness was too open for some of the members and steps were taken to find out the extent of Mrs Wilson’s influence and so establish a policy of parliamentary activity.
At a meeting in London in September 1886 the parliamentarians proposed that the Fabian Society should organise itself into a political party. William Morris proposed and Charlotte Wilson seconded an amendment which stressed the need for the education of the people as to their position and to steadily keep the principles of socialism before them and whereas no Parliamentary party can exist without compromise and concession which would hinder that education and obscure those principles: it would be a false step for Socialists to attempt to take part in the Parliamentary contest.” This amendment was overwhelmingly defeated. Charlotte Wilson resigned from the executive of the Society in April 1887.
The Freedom Group, however, betrayed distinctly Fabian tendencies — not so much in any penchant for electioneering as in its exclusiveness and its commitment to ‘permeation* of other bodies with anarchist ideas as opposed to using the paper as the nucleus for the organisation of other autonomous groups. It can be guessed that this was Charlotte Wilson’s natural preference. Kropotkin, who had taken part in more direct agitational and organisational work in the past, now also seemed to prefer a more discreet role. This was partly due to his desire not to upset the authorities with regard to his residence in England, to failing health and to his difficulties with English. French was the court language in Russia and with it he had no trouble. English was another matter: “His pronunciation was peculiar until one grew used to it. ‘Own’ rhymed with ‘town’, ‘law’ was ‘low’, and ‘the sluffter fields of Europe’ became a kindly joke amongst us.”
Manuscripts in the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam show his written English to have been defective. In order to write English propaganda he needed sub-editors and the Freedom Group represents from this point of view a ‘front organisation’ for Kropotkin. Whatever the difficulties, though, he had great personal prestige at this time in the English socialist movement and it was his presence that rubbed some of this prestige off on to the other Freedom Group members. His discretion by no means forced him completely into the background, however. In the 1880s he is to be found lecturing to a large number of meetings, bad English or not. He also formed friendships with the Hyndmans and William Morris. The S.D.F. regularly reprinted his Appeal to the Young over the years. William Morris and he met at a celebration of the Commune shortly after his arrival in England. Soon they were to have long discussions and were in close contact, Kropotkin speaking occasionally at the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League and attending some of the Sunday suppers at Morris’s home. “It is doubtful that Morris made any systematic study of Kropotkin’s anarchist writings, but he did have ample access to Kropotkin’s ideas, and arguments during the last years of his participation in League affairs.” It was probably through this early contact with Morris that the Commonweal press facilities were used to print Freedom. As time went by the Freedom Group also used branches of the Socialist League to distribute Freedom — Freedom certainly reached Scotland and Norwich by being ordered through the Socialist League office. It is doubtful whether this ‘permeation’ would have been possible without the prestige of Kropotkin.
Friedrich Engels wrote in April 1886: “… the Anarchists are making rapid progress in the Socialist League. Morris and Bax — one as an emotional socialist and the other as a chaser after philosophical paradoxes — are wholly under their control for the present.” Yet a rather different view is given by Max Nettlau of this period. He points out that Kropotkin had the choice of working with the Socialist League and preferred to work with first Seymour and then the Freedom Group. Indeed Kropotkin wrote to Morris in reply to a request for articles for Commonweal saying he had too much work on hand with La Revolt and the Anarchist together with the scientific articles by which he earned his bread. Reasonable though this refusal might sound, it nevertheless represented a political choice, a choice Nettlau described as:
… regrettable, for in 1886 and 1887 the League contained the very best Socialist elements of the time, men who had deliberately rejected Parliamentarianism and reformism and who worked for the splendid free Communism of William Morris or for broadminded revolutionary Anarchism. If Kropotkin’s experience and ardour had helped this movement we might say today Kropotkin and William Morris as we say Elisee Reclus and Kropotkin. Unfortunately we cannot say so. There was a latent lack of sympathy between the Anarchists of the League and those of the Freedom Group in those early years; the latter were believed by the former to display some sense of superiority, being in possession of definitely elaborated Anarchist-Communist theories… if both efforts had been coordinated a much stronger movement would have been created.
Thus it is made clear that the Freedom Group in no way wished to become organically linked with the Socialist League but were prepared to use the branch organisation of the League to distribute their paper. When members of the Socialist League were recruited — as, say, John Turner and Alfred Marsh were in 1887 — their activities in each body were kept separate. Thus it was not from the group round Freedom that the ‘anarchists’ in the League received consistent encouragement and support or received their political education — except as general readers of the paper or through attendance at Anarchist meetings.
It is more than likely that Nettlau is naive in ascribing the “latent lack of sympathy” between the Freedom Group and the Anarchists in the League to the alleged “sense of superiority, being in possession of definitely elaborated Anarchist Communist theories” of the Freedom Group. This amounts to an accusation of inverted snobbery and philistinism. With the exception of Kropotkin, the militant anti-parliamentarians in the League seemed to have looked on the Freedom Group with some suspicion not as clever theorists but as “middle class faddists” to use Nicoll’s phrase. He wrote:
“… neither Kitz, Mowbray or I were particularly friendly (to the Freedom Group). We looked upon them as a collection of middle class faddists, who took up with the movement as an amusement, and regretted that Kropotkin and other ‘serious’ people ever had anything to do with them. But they called themselves ‘Anarchists!’ and that had great influence with many of our international comrades.”
This was a suspicion which extended to many of the middle-class members of the League. William Morris was acceptable because he was completely free of pretension, and seemed prepared to take the risks and do the work. More to the point perhaps, he seemed to understand what it meant to live the worker’s life. “The whole of his poetry and prose is permeated with sympathy and love of the poor,” wrote Frank Kitz, “the victims of landlord and capitalistic greed. This note of sympathy distinguishes him from many who surrounded him and who babbled of art and culture, but were mere tuft-hunters devoid of any desire to raise the status of the working class… Morris’s preference for the society of his humbler confreres gave great offence to some superior persons.” Kitz is here referring to Fabians of the George Bernard Shaw type. But one can see the reasons for suspicion of the sincerity of anarchists like Charlotte Wilson on the part of working-class militants in the face of her middle-class life-style. A contemporary, Margaret Cox, later Lady Oliver, wrote of a time around 1886: “She seemed to me a peaceful sort of anarchist and so did all the others who came to meetings, some of them Russian. Someone read a paper and this was followed by discussion, often very vigorous and exciting, lasting until Mrs Wilson interrupted with sandwiches and drinks, after which we all turned out on the Heath.” It all seemed a little too genteel.
It really seems then that the anarchism which was developing in the League received only passing encouragement from the Freedom Group. In fact, as anarchism grew within the League the Freedom Group finally disengaged from it. The anarchists in the League developed their anarchism in their own way, and in response to their own needs. Briefly, they were due to the need to develop the ideological counter-attack to the parliamentarians in the League and the need for a wider vision of a new libertarian society under the pressure of events.
This article, written by Wildcat author and longtime Freedom Press stalwart Donald Rooum in 2008, charts some of the early social history of anarchism and anarchist publishing, before looking at some of the upheavals which happened to Freedom in the 20th century. A personal view, it first appeared in Information for Social Change Number 27. Donald will be talking about his new compilation of Wildcat Greatest hits at Freedom on October 18th.
Freedom and Freedom Press publications have concentrated on anarchist propaganda, and refrained from publishing anything about quarrels and splits in the anarchist movement. This essay, not being a work of propaganda, is largely about the quarrels and splits. I will not give the personal names of people who are, or may be, still alive. This is not a piece of original research, but an amalgam of memories dating from the 1940s, and scissors-and-paste work using the following secondary sources:
Heiner Becker, Nicolas Walter, Philip Sansom, and Vernon Richards (anonymously), in Freedom a hundred years (Freedom Press 1986);
Heiner Becker Notes on Freedom and the Freedom Press 1886-1928” The Raven (1) vol 1, pp 4-24, Freedom Press 1986;
Nicolas Walter (2007) The anarchist past and other essays edited by David Goodway, Five Leaves Publications 2007;
Richard Boston ‘Anarchy among the Anarchists’ The Guardian 16 November 1996, reprinted as ‘Mere Anarchy’ in Starkness at Noon Five Leaves Publications 1997;
Albert Meltzer (1986) ‘Liars and Liberals’ Black Flag Supplement no. 3;
Vernon Richards (anonymously) (1986) Friends of Freedom Press Ltd.
Anarchism is an ethical doctrine ‘a concept of what ought to be’ which holds that nobody should be threatened into obedience, and seeks a society without intimidation. In Britain, the term anarchism has been claimed by three different schools of thought. Anarchist socialism or anarchist communism demands economic equality as well as (or as a requirement of) liberty for all. This is referred to simply as anarchism, without qualifications. Individualist anarchism (sometimes known as ‘native American anarchism’, as it developed from the ideas of Thomas Paine and the drafters of the American constitution) opposes central government but allows trade, and differences in wealth that result from trade. Anarcho-syndicalism advocates democratic societies organised through trade unions.
The first anarchist newspaper in Britain, Freiheit, published and edited by Johann Most from 1879, was in the German language. The first British anarchist paper in English was The English Freiheit, of which the first issue was a translation of Freiheit, sold outside the Old Bailey where Johann Most was on trial in 1881. Also in English, and available on subscription in Britain, was Liberty, an individualist anarchist paper published in America.
In March 1885 Henry Seymour, who had been prosecuted for blasphemy in 1881, started a paper in London called The Anarchist. Seymour was himself an individualist anarchist, but he recruited fellow editors who were anarchist socialists. One of these was Charlotte Wilson, a prominent member of the Fabian Society, who had written articles on anarchism for the magazine Justice, and was shortly to write a Fabian Society pamphlet on anarchism. Wilson persuaded George Bernard Shaw to write an anarchist article for the first issue of The Anarchist. Shaw told Seymour it ‘was written more to show Mrs Wilson my idea of the line an anarchist paper should take … than as an expression of my own opinions’.
In March 1886, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin was released from prison in France, and Charlotte Wilson invited him to London to join the editors of The Anarchist. This was too much for Seymour, who wrote to a friend that his anarchist individualism had been sidelined by anarchist communists who only wanted to write, leaving him to do the production work and bear most of the cost. They had a tiff. Seymour ceased publication of The Anarchist and told the anarchist communists to start a paper of their own, which they did. The first issue of Freedom appeared in September 1886 (bearing the date October 1889). Charlotte Wilson was editor and publisher, and Kropotkin the main theoretical columnist. Freedom never acknowledged its origin as a breakaway from The Anarchist, but its first issue denounced Individualist Anarchism as a round square, a contradiction in set terms.
Wilson arranged with Annie Besant for a publishing office at Charles Bradlaugh‘s Freethought Press, and with William Morris for printing services at the Socialist League. In January 1888, Bradlaugh decided he would not have anarchists in the Freethought Press building, so the Freedom group moved. In the next ten years there were seven more moves, during which, in 1895, Charlotte Wilson resigned and was replaced as publisher by Alfred Marsh, a violinist. In 1898, Freedom acquired its own printing facilities. The nieces and nephew of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti had been printing their own paper, The Torch, a journal of anarchist communism at 127 Ossulston Street, near Kings Cross, since 1885.
In 1898 they decided to cease publication and arranged for the Freedom group to take over the premises. The Rossettis’ printing equipment was bought and donated to Freedom by two sympathisers. Freedom Press stayed in Ossulston Street for the next 30 years. The hand-operated press dated from about 1820, and needed three operators; two to load the paper and pull the handle, and one to take the paper off. A comrade who was a trained compositor, Tom Cantwell, set the type in the room upstairs.
In 1902 Cantwell had a stroke which prevented him from working, and his place as compositor was taken by Tom Keell, a compositor at The Spectator. In 1907 the Freedom group started a second paper, Voice of Labour. Tom Keell then left The Spectator for a wage paid by the Freedom group, for which he acted as compositor of both papers, editor of Freedom, and manager.
Most members of the Freedom group were of the artisan class, but Wilson, a highly educated stockbroker’s wife, and Kropotkin, a Russian prince in exile who wrote geographical articles for Encyclopaedia Britannica, weremembers of the liberal intelligentsia, and this led some to see the whole group as elitist. In 1897 a writer in an anarchist paper wrote that Freedom was ‘a philosophical, middleclass organ, not intelligible to the working classes … less revolutionary than Comic Cuts … edited and managed by an inaccessible group of arrogant persons worse than the Pope and his seventy cardinals and written by fossilised old quilldrivers’. Freedom did not respond.
The first major split within the Freedom group itself occurred at the outbreak of the First World War, in a dispute about the lesser of two evils. Tom Keell, the editor, was for opposing both sides in the war of rival imperialisms. Kropotkin wanted Freedom to support the side of Britain and Russia. Tom Keell later wrote ‘One doubted the judgement of those who supported the War, but one never doubted their sincerity’. Those who supported the War (with the honourable exception of Kropotkin himself) were less tolerant. At the national anarchist conference in April 1915, George Cores, a member of the Freedom group, denounced Keell as a dictator who had seized the group’s assets. The national movement came out overwhelmingly in Keell’s favour.
After the passing of the Military Service Act, which introduced conscription in 1916, Voice of Labour published an article which was also issued as a leaflet, Defying the Act, by one hiding out in the Scottish Hills. Keel and his companion Lilian Wolfe were charged under the Defence of the Realm Act, and found guilty. Keell was sentenced to a fine of £100 or three months imprisonment, declined to pay the fine and served the prison term. Wolfe was sentenced to £25 or two months and went to prison, but there discovered she was pregnant (at the age of 40), so paid the fine and was released.
After 1918, the British anarchist movement declined. Some joined the Communist Party, admiring the Russian revolution, and either forgiving or deceiving themselves about the Lenin dictatorship (the late Bonar Thompson told me there was money coming from somewhere to pay pro-Communist speakers). Others went to the pacifist movement and the womens’ suffrage movement.
Freedom kept going, with the aid of donations, including £50 (half a year’s average wages) from Lilian Wolfe, until 1928, when the Ossulston Street building was demolished in a slum clearance scheme. Tom Keell retired to Whiteway Colony to live on his pension from the compositors trade union, and for the next seven years, Freedom Press produced only an infrequent and irregular Freedom Newsletter. A newspaper headed Freedom New Series was produced by George Cores and others who had opposed Keell over his opposition to the war, but Freedom Press did not publicly acknowledge its existence.
When the Spanish civil War broke out in 1936, Vernon Richards, known as Vero, the twenty-two-year-old son of an Italian anarchist in Soho, started a newspaper called Spain and the World in support of the Spanish anarchists. After the first issue, Spain and the World became a Freedom Press publication, with Tom Keell as publisher and Lilian Wolfe, now aged 60, as administrator. Lilian often stayed in London with Vero and his companion Marie-Louise Berneri. She stayed on as administrator and manager of Freedom Bookshop until the age of 95.
When the Spanish civil war ended, the paper changed its name to Revolt!, and as World War Two started, to War Commentary for anarchism. Having been an established publisher before the war, Freedom Press had a licence to buy paper. In 1943 it published The March to Death, a book of cartoons by John Olday with anonymous commentary by Marie-Louise Berneri, which presents Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Stalin, and Rooseveldt as engaged in a common conspiracy against all their subjects. It sold 5,500 copies, to people delighted by relief from the relentless war propaganda.
In 1942 the Freedom Press was offered the chance to buy a printing firm, Express Printers in Whitechapel. A rival printer lent some money on condition that he could take over the Hebrew type (effectively acquiring a monopoly of Hebrew type in a Jewish area), and the rest of the purchase price was lent by various supporters. The supporters’ group, calling itself the Anarchist Federation, became the nominal owner of Freedom Press and publisher of War Commentary.
Anti-war as it was, the Freedom group was quite friendly with a pro-war group, the publishers of Solidaridad Obrera, a Spanish-language anarcho-syndicalist newspaper which was produced on a stencil machine in the Freedom Press office. The editors of Solidaridad Obrera would telephone whenever their stencils were ready, saying can we come round and run off Solidarid Churchilliana?
Vero, Albert Meltzer, and later Philip Sansom were refused registration as conscientious objectors. Albert was called up into the Royal Pioneer Corps, while Vero and Philip served prison sentences. John Olday, a deserter from the Royal Pioneer Corps, was captured and sent to a military prison. Freedom Press as such, however, was not prosecuted until almost the end of the War.
I came across anarchism in September 1944, when I was on a Ministry of Food scheme using schoolboys to pick hops in Kent, and visited Hyde Park speakers’ corner. My subscription copies of War Commentary stopped coming in December 1944, so I wrote to ask what had happened and learned, in a letter from Lilian Wolfe, that the police had seized the files.
In April 1945 Vernon Richards, Marie-Louise Berneri, John Hewetson, and Philip Sansom were charged with conspiracy to contravene Defence Regulation 39A (i.e. to cause disaffection among members of His Majesty’s forces). The anarchist art pundit, Herbert Read, later to be knighted, assembled a Freedom Press Defence Committee from those of the ‘Great and Good’ who were interested in civil liberties (the National Council for Civil Liberties, which might have been expected to take up such a case, was temporarily possessed by the belligerently patriotic Communist Party). Richards, Hewetson and Sansom were each sentenced to nine months in prison. Berneri was found not guilty on a technical point; she was married to Richards (to get a British passport), and the old law still stood that a wife conspiring with her husband committed no offence.
As the prosecution was being prepared, Freedom Press was subjected to a takeover attempt. Freedom of course said nothing about it, and it was months before we learned of it in Bradford. In 1949 I visited London and spoke to comrades on both sides of the split. Lilian Wolfe lent me a copy of a document, privately circulated in 1945, on condition that I kept it confidential. That was 60 years ago, so I hope my promise of confidentiality has lapsed.
As is the custom in anarchist groups, decisions in the Anarchist Federation (publisher of War Commentary and the Freedom Press books) were made by consensus. Among the most frequent writers for War Commentary were two anarcho-syndicalists, one of them a professional journalist. These two proposed, and got it agreed, that if the members of the Anarchist Federation could not reach a consensus, a majority decision would be accepted. It was also agreed that as the war was ending, differences about whether to support for the war had become less important, and Spanish comrades were invited to join. In December 1944, the editors of War Commentary left a Federation meeting before it ended, and after they had gone it was proposed under ‘any other business’ that they should be replaced as editors by the two anarcho-syndicalists. The motion was carried by a majority.
The plot failed. Earlier in 1944, some detectives had called at the Freedom Press office about a different case entirely, and tried to encourage co-operation by pointing out that Freedom Press was in danger of immediate closure, because its proprietors were not registered under the Business Names Act. That same day, Vero Richards and John Hewetson had visited the office of the Registrar of Business Names, and registered themselves as proprietors of Freedom Press. When they were sacked as editors, they just refused to go. The plotters were furious. A Spanish comrade told me in 1949 that he liked what was written in Freedom (the paper had reverted to its old name), “but not what they do”.
Four men visited Richards and Berneri at their flat, pointed a pistol and refused to leave until Richards gave them a cheque for £25 (about six weeks’ average wages) to start a new anarcho-syndicalist paper, Direct Action. Some comrades photographed the four leaving the flat. The four and two others, six in all, went to Express Printers with a sledge-hammer, evidently expecting to find a halftone block of the photograph ready for printing in the next War Commentary. There wasn’t one because Freedom Press never published anything about the split, but they smashed the printing forme anyway, then met Richards in Angel Alley and beat him up.
The publishers of Direct Action called themselves the Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB). The Freedom Press Group declared itself autonomous, but joined with others to form the Union of Anarchist Groups (UAG). At international conferences in the 1950s there were two separate British delegations, representing the AFB and the UAG. War Commentary (which reverted to the name Freedom in 1947) never mentioned Direct Action, but Direct Action was full of damaging references to War Commentary and Freedom.
People withdrew the loans they had made for the purchase of Express Printers, and Vero obtained an emergency loan from his mother, which he found quite embarrassing because his mother was not an anarchist.
In 1949 Marie-Louise Berneri died (aged 31) and George Woodcock, a prolific writer for Freedom, renounced anarchism and migrated to Canada. In the second edition of his Penguin book Anarchism, Woodcock wrote that British anarchism collapsed in the 1950s, following Berneri’s death and his own departure. He was mistaken. Anarchism in Britain has always been a minority movement, but the 1950s was one of its most successful periods, with Albert Meltzer among Freedom’s regular writers.
In 1961, while the weekly Freedom continued, Freedom Press began the monthly magazine Anarchy. In 1965, the advent of small offset printing made it possible to produce papers with little capital, and Albert Meltzer went off to start a paper closer to his own ideas, called Wooden Shoe, and a publishing group called Wooden Shoe Press.
In 1968, Whitechapel Art Gallery bought the Express Printers premises at 84a Whitechapel High Street. Before payment was completed, Vero borrowed the money, in his own name, to buy the freehold of 84b Whitechapel High Street, an empty building on the other side of Angel Alley. The publisher became ‘Vernon Richards trading as Freedom Press’.
Albert Meltzer wrote to Vero with the proposal that Wooden Shoe Press should hire a room in the building, contributing to the mortgage repayments. Unlike the new Freedom Press building, the Wooden Shoe premises had a shop window. Jack Robinson, who was managing Freedom Bookshop and earning his living as a second-hand book dealer, visited the landlord of the vacated shop with a view to taking over the tenancy, and learned that Wooden Shoe had paid no rent for the three years and were being evicted. Vero might have written to Albert explaining what he had learned, but in the event he wrote a woffly letter, turning down Albert’s offer without mentioning the real reason. Albert began a feud which lasted until both he and Vero were dead, and for some years after.
Co-operation did not entirely cease. In the early 1980s, Freedom and Albert’s new paper Black Flag were both fortnightlies, published on alternate weeks. At weekends there were joint meetings in Freedom Bookshop, at which people from both publications would prepare subscription copies of whichever came out that week. Every edition of Black Flag contained some derogatory about Freedom or someone associated with Freedom Press. One of Freedom’s editors did not entirely agree with the policy of no retaliation, and managed to sneak in a comment on Black Flag’s attitude: ‘We invite you into our house and you piss on the carpet’. Albert pretended to take the metaphor literally, as accusing himself in person of urinating on the carpet in the bookshop which had no carpet.
In 1982, Vero transferred ownership of Freedom Press to Friends of Freedom Press Limited, a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital, whose registered directors were comrades long associated with Freedom Press. The existence of FFP was not made public until 1986, and Vero continued making all the business decisions. In the late 1980s he decided to pay stipends to two comrades, one (who had worked as a volunteer for years) to manage Freedom Press publishing, and the other (of whose background I know nothing) to manage Freedom Bookshop.
1986 was Freedom’s anniversary year. A bumper anniversary number was produced and also issued as a book, Freedom a hundred years. Besides describing the history of Freedom Press, it was agreed that I solicit contributions from the whole anarchist movement of 1986. Of course I wrote to Albert, but he did not reply. He responded later with a pamphlet: Black Flag Supplement No. 3, Liars and Liberals the other anarchism The Woodcock-Sansom school of falsification, a classic of libellous abuse.
After 1968, Freedom was edited by a succession of editorial groups, not all of whom were very good. In the 1970s, the paper was set on an ordinary typewriter. One typist-editor took the opportunity to insert articles seen by no other editor, in praise of the Animal Liberation Front and the Irish Republican Army, until she was asked to leave by the other editors. No doubt Vero would have objected, but it seems that when he was not the editor, he did not even read Freedom. A feature article in a national newspaper, about the famous McLibel trial, mistook the name of one of the two defendants. The case was followed in every issue of Freedom, but Vero telephoned me full of praise of the defendant, using the wrong name.
Vero decided that he must return as editor when a Christmas number featured on its front page a drawing of Death in a Santa Claus costume. The editor who commissioned the picture had resigned before the number was published, leaving as editors myself, the chap who was paid to do the books, and another comrade. Vero decided that the new Freedom, to his own design, should revert to being a fortnightly. Editing a fortnightly struck me as too much work, so I gave notice that I would resign as an editor. Vero published a number zero, denouncing the existing editors as incompetent, inciting another resignation. Only the comrade hired to do the books remained to be Vero’s fellow editor.
Vero and Albert Meltzer met at the Anarchist Bookfair in 1995. During the 20 years they had worked together on Spain and the World, Revolt, War Commentary, and Freedom, it had been their custom to enjoy bantering arguments, and they took the opportunity to revive this custom. Among the insults, Albert told Vero he was senile (he was older than Albert by five years), and Vero replied I’ll be writing your obituary. Albert died in 1996, at a conference of the syndicalist federation founded in 1945 as the Anarchist Federation of Britain, by the plotters who failed to seize War Commentary.
An obituary of Albert was published in The Guardian, written by one of Albert’s legatees and evidently using Albert’s reminiscences as its only source of information. It reiterated many of Albert’s self-aggrandising fictions and scurrilous denunciations of the neo-liberals who dominated the movement in the late 1940s. Vero replied with an obituary in Freedom, headed ‘Instead of an obituary’, correcting some of the lies, recalling his joking prediction that he would write Albert’s obituary, and deploring the damage Albert had done to the anarchist movement. Of course we would prefer anarchists not to be enemies, and Albert’s malice certainly damaged the reputation of Freedom Press, and but it is not certain that it damaged the movement as a whole. Verbal attacks on Freedom Press have been a British anarchist tradition since Freedom Press was founded, and quarrels may increase the total output of anarchist propaganda.
In his last years Vero published four books of his photographs, at his own expense but with the Freedom Press imprint, and retired from activity. The editing of Freedom and the work of the bookshop fell to the two comrades hired by Vero. They meant well, but persisted with wasteful practices which Vero would probably have discontinued had he been present. The quarrel between Vero’s friends and Albert’s friends persisted, even after Vero died in 2001.
Rescue came in the form of a big, energetic, young man who had been working with the Socialist Party of Great Britain (a Marxist party, but not Marxist-Leninist, with a constitution unchangeable since 1904). He persuaded Freedom Press to get rid of some drains on resources, and more importantly, to reach out in cooperation with other anarchist groups. Three years after he arrived he changed his allegiance again, and became an adherent of the Church of England, where we hear he is training to be a priest. This does not alter the fact of his importance to Freedom Press, while he was present.
Freedom Press is now going well, with a keen group of volunteers, and the prospect of a bright future.
There are many buildings we would like to see topple and fall over, but we would also like to think you share our view that Freedom is one worth keeping. To make sure that this happens, and the building at 84b Angel Alley remains a resource for all of the great anarchist groups to come, we’re afraid to say that it’s in need of some pretty serious repairs.
A survey carried out at the end of 2015 highlighted that emergency repairs are needed to the roof and walls that will total around £13,000 — more details can be found of this work on page 12. Our aim is to raise this figure by August 2017 so that the building works can take place next summer.
As of the beginning of October 2016, we’ve raised over £3,000 to get us started. And the fun doesn’t stop there — over the coming three years we will need a lot more money to treat dampness in the walls, insulate the building, install a boiler and look into making the whole place more accessible.
In the long term, costs could be between £40,000-50,000 to bring the building back to its best, including things like fixing up the lovely (but old-style) sash windows.
We would really like to take this opportunity to not only do the emergency repairs to keep it from falling apart, but to also push to make the space the best resource it can be for the wider London anarchist scene.
How can you help?
You can donate via cheque, made payable to “Freedom Press,” online via PayPal at http://www.paypal.me/fbuildingcollective (though they take a 3% slice of donations) or via direct bank transfer (call the shop for details).
Or if you have skills/time you would like to donate, drop us an email.
Come along to one of our monthly socials held in the bookshop on the second Friday of every month, 7-9pm.
If you are organising benefit gigs you could consider adding us to your list of beneficiaries.
And you can help advertise the building and the fact we need money via social media — or even in real life.
In 2015 the Freedom Collective was treading water financially, dependent on book donations and in the longer run publishing new books of its own at low cost. This however marked an improving trend over previous years, as even before the death of former editor, proprietor and leading Collective figure Vernon Richards in 2001 a dependence on legacies from friends and fans of the press had made for an unsustainable long-term position.
In an effort to find its feet and move beyond mere subsistence, the Collective undertook a major re-organisation, splitting the finances so different parts of the operation were semi-independent, and aiming to be self-sufficient, while reporting back to the collective at the monthly meetings. It also, working with other groups within the building, set up the Building Users Group (Bug) to bring about a consensus-led approach to running things, as it was felt an “anarchist landlord” scenario would be against libertarian principles.
The Bug set its own rates at the April AGM, with groups coming to a consensus on reasonable payments bringing in all cash needed for utilities and business rates, plus some extra for contingencies and small works to be done. All groups at Freedom are non-profit, and all work on a shoestring budget, so each group gives what it can afford — essentially practicing a “from each according to their means” approach.
Late in the year, a survey commissioned by members of the Friends of Freedom, a “dormant company” which holds the building in trust for the Collective, found a number of works that needed to be done to secure the building in the long term, which has since provided the focus for the founding of the fundraising group which runs this website.