Barker, Ambrose, 1859-1953

Stratford, turn of the century

Short biography of East London radical secularist and anarchist, Ambrose Barker, who was active in the Socialist League, Walthamstow Anarchist Group and the London Freedom Group.

Ambrose Barker
Born 1859 Northampton, England. Died 1953 East London, England

Ambrose George Barker was born and brought up in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, near the town of Northampton. His father had been a Chartist and had helped set up a cooperative shop and bakery in the village. He remembered his father taking 'a party of Radicals to Northampton to support Bradlaugh at the hustings in October 1868’. Charles Bradlaugh was the leading figure in the National Secular Society (NSS) and waged massive electoral campaigns in Northampton. At the age of 19 Barker moved to Leyton in east London in 1878 to become an assistant schoolmaster and joined the NSS. In 1880, he openly opposed Charles Bradlaugh's support for the Coercion Bill. He recalled: "One can well imagine our joy in the election of Charles Bradlaugh for Northampton and the great satisfaction generally that a great majority had overthrown the Tory government in 1880. But that satisfaction was soon to be shattered. Reaction had ruled so long that great things were expected of the Radical-Liberal Government. But the people were soon to be disillusioned. They were looking to the Government to bring forward social reforms, instead of which a most stringent Coercion Bill for Ireland was introduced."

Ambrose Barker attacked Bradlaugh in print and proposed a motion condemning him but could find no seconder. This came on top of discussions within the Stratford Branch which had been going on for some time over the question of whether religion alone or the wider 'social question' should be their central concern. The majority favoured 'this worldism' and the more narrowly secularist members left, taking the name of the branch with them. The remaining 'this worldists' formed themselves towards the end of 1880 into the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club. This, writes Ambrose Barker, who became secretary to the club, "marks the inception of the Socialist movement in East London". (There was still a certain respect for Bradlaugh in anarchist circles for his stand against religious obscurantism- witness the presence of the banner of the Brighton Anarchists at Bradlaugh’s funeral in 1891.)

This group professed socialism, and Barker became their secretary. The National Secular Society was by no means devoted only to anti-Christian theology. Its members were renowned for their 'advanced' views on all the leading questions of the day. They were closely associated with every species of metropolitan Radicalism and led political demonstrations, for example in Hyde Park against royal grants in 1875 and against war during the Eastern crisis [circa 1880] The Secularists were definitely identified with and indeed in the late 1870s were the chief upholders of the Radical-Republican cause. They attacked monarchy, hereditary privilege and class oppression and in London secured wide general support among the working men's clubs.

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

"The lecturer," reported the Radical of February 19, 1881, "argued that people made a great mistake in looking to Government for help. It had always been the destroyer of independence." Speakers and writers were invited to the club and included James and Charles Murray, Frank Kitz, Dan Chatterton, and Miss Le Compte, the American delegate to the International Congress. Later on, in April 1882, Kropotkin was also to speak at the Stratford Club on 'Russian Exiles’.

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

Barker and Lane set up a new group, the Labour Emancipation League, which in 1884 merged with H. M. Hyndman's organisation to form the Social Democratic Federation. The majority of the group soon split to form the Socialist League, and Barker followed Lane into the new organisation. He appears to have left around the same time as Lane, at the end of the decade, and by 1895 was active in the Anarchist Communist Alliance, along with Tochatti and L.S. Bevington.

In 1892, Barker became the secretary of Walthamstow Workingmen's Club, a post he held until 1950. He appears to have been active in the Walthamstow Anarchist Group which between 1910-11 were holding three or more weekly outdoor meetings. This group were enthusiastic debaters and visited local branches of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party. They were present at the inaugural meeting of the Socialist Society in nearby Leyton, formed from a SDP branch expelled for anti-parliamentary views. Between 1910 and 1914 he was also associated with the Walthamstow Syndicalists, who met in the Walthamstow Workingmen's Club, (founded 1892 and still exists). According to Albert Meltzer: “Many of the Walthamstow Syndicalists were in the Horse Transport Union, an anarcho-syndicalist union (not a breakaway from the T & G, but a forerunner) which decayed with the trade itself”. Barker was remembered at the Club as both its secretary and as an anarchist. He was secretary of the Club until 1950 and wrote a history of it.

Continuing in anarchist activism, in 1930, he was a founder member of the London Freedom Group. With other veterans like George Cores and John Turner, he had demanded that Tom Keell hand over the running of Freedom to them. They were finally able to restart Freedom in 1930. However the British anarchist movement was in deep decline by then, and it was only able to appear until 1933, in difficult circumstances. These circumstances forced it to reduce its size in 1932. He appears to have become active in the National Secular Society again, and his partner Ella Twynan, also an anarchist, wrote several pieces for them.

Barker penned a pamphlet on Henry Hetherington, 1792-1849: pioneer in the freethought and working class struggles of a hundred years ago for the freedom of the press in 1938. E.P. Thompson interviewed him for his book on William Morris in the 1940s.
Barker died on February 14th, 1953.

Albert Meltzer on Ella Twynan:
His companion Ella Twynan wrote several pamphlets for the NSS and was involved in the anarchist and anti-militarist movements. During World War I she was one of the international delegation which went to Sweden to discuss international socialist opposition to the war. After Barker died she was involved with the NSS to a greater extent but came to the first meeting of the "Cuddon's" Group, which later became "Black Flag". It was she who suggested the name "Cuddon's Cosmopolitan review" after the paper published in 1861 by Ambrose Cuddon, jun., who she claimed was the first self declared anarchist in Britain. A direct connection with the Chartist and Luddite movements, he welcomed Bakunin to London.