A short biography of James Morgan Brown, tailor, poet, gay socialist and anarchist communist.
“A beloved comrade and genial propagandist”. John Bruce Glasier
“He (tailor by trade) the very picture of kindness and broad good-nature would move among the crowd as if he hardly belonged to us, and engaging persuasively in conversation, first with one and then with another, would draw many a doubter into the fold”. Edward Carpenter
James Brown was a Glasgow tailor who became interested in radical politics, first joining the Secular Society where he was a keen reader of Goethe and Carlyle, and then with his friend Dan McCulloch becoming one of the first members of the Glasgow branch of the newly created Socialist League in early 1885. The branch had been set up on the initiative of John Bruce Glasier, at that time working in a foundry, and Glasier became the first secretary of the branch. Other members who took an active role in public speaking were James Gilbert, Carr, and Pollock, and the brothers Joe and Tim Burgoyne. Mc Culloch took over very soon as secretary from Glasier. The branch initially met at the Ram’s Horn Assembly Hall in Ingram Street.
James Brown was not a public speaker but made up for this by his friendly and welcoming attitude, as Glasier was to write, “ yet by good humour, good sense and remarkable gift of ‘chumminess’ exercised a most helpful influence upon the propaganda”. He attended all the League meetings, whether outdoor or indoor and sold literature enthusiastically. “None of our propaganda excursions were successful without him-his snatches of song and amusing stories and comments enlivening our long tramps. He was always making converts, and ever and anon introduced to us new comrades of the most wonderfully diverse external and internal characteristics”(Glasier)(1)
Alas, Brown did not suffer from good health because of his working conditions as a tailor, and because of a congenital weakness of the heart. As a result he experienced great physical suffering. He was one of several gay socialists who gravitated towards Edward Carpenter, whom he came to know. In fact Carpenter paid for him to convalesce in the village of Comrie for a year or so. He was able to recover enough to start work again in the town of Beith in Ayrshire, where he stayed for around a year, keeping in close contact with the Glasgow comrades.
Three years later he moved to Dore, near Sheffield at the prompting of his friends Edward Carpenter and Robert Muirhead, an engine fitter, both active in the Sheffield Socialist Club. He moved there partly for his health, and partly to be near Carpenter and Muirhead. He was also close to another Sheffield socialist, Jim Shortland, a labourer at the armour-plate department of Vickers and Maxim’s.
Brown was part of the pronouncedly anarchist wing of the League and enthusiastically supported Dr. John Creaghe during his agitation in Sheffield. However, he was able to establish enough distance to criticise the blood and guts outlook of Creaghe and his associate from Chesterfield, Andrew “Navvy” Hall, as revealed in letters to Carpenter. A good friend of Creaghe and Fred Charles, he fell out with Carpenter when he felt that he did not offer enough help to the defendants of the Walsall Anarchist Trial.
However, Carpenter and Brown reconciled shortly before the latter’s death from Bright’s Disease on April 7th, 1893. Indeed Carpenter edited a collection of Brown’s poems, some with a homoerotic accent, for the Labour Literature Society of Glasgow, with a preface by Carpenter, published in the year of Brown’s death.
The John Morgan Brown Review, edited by Brian Dempsey in Dundee, a review of lgbtqi literature, two issues so far, is named after Brown.
(1) Glasier is best remembered for being one of the important figures within the Independent Labour Party which he remained active in from 1893 until his death in 1920. Up until then, as his obituary of Brown reveals, he was a staunch anarchist communist, a fact not remarked upon very much by historians.
Carpenter, Edward. My Days and Dreams. Autobiography available at http://www.edwardcarpenter.net/ecdd7.htm
Glasier, John Bruce. Obituary in Freedom, May 1893.
Rowbotham, Sheila. The Sheffield Anarchists in the 1890s in Threads Through Time
and Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love
Tsuzuki, Chushichi. Edward Carpenter 1844-1929. Prophet of Human Fellowship