A short biography of tailor Charles Mowbray, who was possibly the first anarchist-communist in Britain. He was active in London, Norwich and the US.
Charles Wilfred Mowbray
Born 1850s – Durham, UK, died December 1910 – Bridlington, UK
"Surely one of the greatest working-class orators who ever spoke in public…rather a handsome man, and was always popular with his audiences."
- George Cores, Personal recollections of the anarchist past.
"A big, athletic-looking man…with black hair, blazing eyes and a tempestuous eloquence that stirred many an audience in Britain."
- Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits
Charles Wilfred Mowbray was born at Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham in 1857 and as a young man served in the Durham Light Infantry. He worked most of his life as a tailor. He didn't leave much record of his first contact with revolutionary ideas, but we do know that he moved to London and married Mary, the daughter of an exiled Paris Communard, with whom he had several children. Cores says that he was the " first person I knew personally who described himself as an anarchist-communist…"
Living in the Boundary Street slum in London, he educated himself. He engaged in propaganda with Kitz and with him joined the Socialist League.
When the police began to harass open-air meetings in 1885, he was one of those involved in the agitation in Dod Street in Limehouse. On September 20th, he was beaten by the police there and arrested for obstruction along with other speakers, including Kitz. William Morris opined that Mowbray "had done the most" but fortunately he was set free. The publicity and outrage meant that 50,000 people turned out in support at Dod Street a following Sunday. The police left the meeting alone, and following ones, too. He was again arrested at a free speech rally in Trafalgar Square on June 14 th, 1886. He was fined £1 and costs.
He organised a number of unemployed meetings in Norwich in 1886 (see our biography of Fred Charles for more information) and became secretary of the local Socialist League branch. He was arrested with Fred Henderson on January 14th 1887 after the Battle of Ham Run, and received nine months on the treadmill in Norwich Castle prison. Before the sentence he had been a passionate opponent of capitalism but now he was consumed with hatred against it. He took part in annual Paris Commune and Chicago Martyrs meetings, speaking with famous anarchists Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, and Louise Michel. He returned to Norwich to chair a meeting where Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the Chicago Martyrs, spoke.
In 1889 he was elected onto a tailors'strike committee of 17 alongside John Turner and Woolf Wess. The three-week strike brought out both West End and East End tailors and was successful. Mowbray developed warm relations with Jewish workers in the East End, and often spoke at the anarchist Club in Berner Street off of the Commercial Road. Mowbray was now talking about dynamite and individual propaganda by deed. In an 1890 article in Commonweal he wrote: "I feel confident that a few determined men…who are prepared to do or die in the attempt could paralyse the forces of our masters providing they were acquainted with the power which nineteenth century science has placed within their reach". This sort of talk had been the final straw for William Morris and he had left the League not long before. Kitz was to follow not long after.
In 1891 Mowbray and Fred Charles were involved in intensive anti-militarist propaganda. Mowbray's son had been imprisoned and discharged from the Army for carrying out anti-militarist propaganda. Mowbray and Charles visited the barracks at Rochester, Colchester and Chatham, distributing thousands of leaflets and copies of Commonweal containing an Address to the Army. This reminded soldiers of their working class origins and urged them to refuse to fire on the people if ordered to do so. A No-Rent agitation was also carried on in the Boundary Street slum where Mowbray lived. He spoke alongside Louise Michel at the August tea party to keep the Jewish anarchist paper Arbeiter Fraint (Workers' Friend) going in 1892.
Later, after the Walsall Anarchist trial in 1892 (see Fred Charles), the Socialist League paper Commonweal editorialised "Are These Men Fit To Live" referring to the Home Secretary and the policemen and judge who had been involved. The editorial had been written by David Nicoll and Mowbray was not present (he was nursing his dying wife) and would have vetoed its inclusion. He was arrested and charged with inciting to murder.
When the police came to arrest him, his wife Mary was already dead of TB a few hours before in a room upstairs. Mowbray and his children were sitting down to a meagre meal. He was taken away and children left alone in the house with their dead mother. Mowbray was remanded in custody, and the judge reluctantly let him attend his wife's funeral. Yanovsky and the other anarchists at the Berners Street Club took charge of the funeral and it became a show of defiance, with thousands marching in the cortege and 20 anarchist banners flying.
Mowbray was finally acquitted in May, Nicoll receiving 18 months hard labour. In summer 1893 he was one of the delegates excluded from the Zurich Congress of the socialist Second International by August Bebel, along with Gustav Landauer and other anarchists.
They then held their own congress of protest. As a result of deliberations there, Anarchists turned to agitation in the workplace. Mowbray wrote an article "Trades Unionism and the Unemployed" where he called for unity of employed and unemployed, an overtime ban, an eight hour day, the abolition of piecework, and a rejection of political lobbying.
In 1894 Mowbray and the editor of Arbeter Fraint, Saul Yanovsky, attended scores of meetings in the East End, "both Trade Union and unemployed, at which they have done a remarkable amount of good" (Freedom newspaper).
The Socialist League had finally disappeared in 1894. Mowbray went on a speaking tour of the United States. He addressed many meetings on the East Coast, denouncing reformist trade unionism and calling for revolutionary action. The tour was highly successful, pulling in large crowds. But he was arrested on December 28th in Philadelphia, charged with incitement to riot and sedition against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Voltairine de Cleyre, who had chaired the meeting, immediately set up a defence Committee. Charges were dropped and Mowbray moved to Boston, where he started work as a tailor. Mowbray brought his family over in April 1895.
He went on another speaking tour in summer 1895, speaking in St. Louis and Chicago, where police attacked the meeting.
Mowbray continued his intensive activity on the East Coast. An anarchist-communist group was set up in Boston. Mowbray became secretary of the Union Cooperative Society of Journeymen Tailors and orientated it in an anarchist direction.
In 1895 Mowbray and Harry Kelly set up the paper The Rebel – a Monthly Journal devoted to the exposition of anarchist communism. He continued his speaking tours, and brought out another anarchist paper with Kelly called The Match, only two issues of which appeared. A few years later he moved to New York and then Hoboken. Here he opened a saloon and developed a taste for heavy drinking.
After the assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist he was deported in 1903, returning to London.
In 1904 Mowbray was involved in the general strike activity propagated by Arbeter Fraint. He chaired a mass meeting at The Wonderland, Whitechapel where all 5,000 seats were taken and many had to be turned away. Rocker, Malatesta, Mainwaring and Kitz spoke and the Jewish Bakers Union came out for improved hours and working conditions. He was involved in the initiative by John Turner and Guy Aldred to set up the Industrial Union of Direct Actionists (see Charlie Lahr) in 1907.Guy Aldred says that he often spoke with him in Canning Town.
But now Mowbray dropped the political views he had held all his life Guy Aldred says that he "became a mere political adventurer, and organised Australian emigration schemes." He also got involved with the tariff reform movement and lectured for it. He died of a heart attack in a Bridlington hotel he was staying in in December 1910. Harry Kelly believes he drank himself to death. As Aldred says: " It was a sad conclusion to an active Anarchist career".