Inside Freedom: Corporate Watch

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.

Similar example of the poster from 2009

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.

Corporate Watch A-Z of Green Capitalism (cover).jpg

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.


Somers Town, drifting around

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 down Freedom.


The inside courtyard and front door of 127 Ossulston Street as it was in 1927.

The rough location today, with the British Library in the bottom corner. Walker House is now on the site where 127 would have been.

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.


A Short History of Freedom Press

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.

Marie-Louise Berneri (left) and Lilian Wolfe selling War Commentary in 1945

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.