Portet, Lorenzo 1870-1917

A short account of the life of Lorenzo Portet, active alongside Francisco Ferrer and an anarchist militant in Spain, Argentina, France and Liverpool.

“Portet acted as a link between emerging Liverpool syndicalism and the development of a revolutionary industrial movement in Spain in the period before 1914”.
- Bob Holton in Building the Union, Hikins.

“Lorenzo Portet was a rare individual. He was an unusually brilliant companion, a loyal, inspiring friend"
- Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control

“A spirit that flames in protest at every injustice he meets”.
- Unpublished essay on Portet by Sanger.

Lorenzo Portet was born in 1870 at Vich, eighteen miles from Barcelona. He was an only child. His parents were Catalan, but his grandfather was French, hence the surname. His father, a peasant, was no radical but was advanced enough to want his son to have an university education and Lorenzo was sent to Barcelona at the age of seventeen with the hope that he would train to be a barrister. After 3 years study at the University Portet left Spain for South America. During his time in Barcelona he had become interested in the ideas of the Catalanist movement which sought independence for Catalonia. However, he soon became disgusted with the reactionary ideas of the leaders of this movement. He decided to distance himself from Spain and from Europe by leaving for Latin America. In Buenos Aires he taught at schools for five years and became involved in revolutionary activity, writing many articles for the press, and moving in a libertarian direction.

He returned to Spain in 1895. Whilst he was abroad both of his parents had died. He became involved in the movement to free Cuba from Spanish control. The Cubans had risen against their Spanish governors, and in Spain itself a movement of support had developed supported by both anarchists and republicans. Portet was obliged to escape across the border and move to Paris as a result of a clampdown on radicals following the bomb explosions of the Corpus Christi procession in 1896 and the resulting arrest of many hundreds. In Paris he met Francisco Ferrer and worked closely with him until his death in 1909. Ferrer was still a republican and freethinker and not yet an anarchist and it was Portet’s influence that moved him in that direction. Both were concerned by the ignorance and illiteracy of the Spanish masses, deliberately compounded by the Catholic Church and both conceived of educational programmes to counter.

News now came out about the horrendous tortures inflicted on anarchists imprisoned in the Montjuich prison in Barcelona. Portet immediately returned to Barcelona and managed to get into touch with those in prison and gathered evidence. He returned to Paris determined to expose these atrocities. The case was taken up by the French press. Large public meetings took place, followed by a large demonstration outside the Spanish Embassy. This was stoned by the crowd who then broke into the building and began to demolish it. The police charged in to save the Embassy staff. As a result of the demonstration Portet was arrested the following day. He was expelled from France and then made his way to England. However ten days later he passed through France on his way to Madrid. He continued to illegally travel through France to Spain for years.

Portet moved to Liverpool, where he taught at the University. It was here that the anarchist Jim Dick first met Portet. Dick accompanied Portet when he went to Spain to settle Ferrer’s estate. Together they set up an anarchist Sunday School in November 1908 which met at the Toxteth Co-operative Hall in Smithdown Road. By January 38 children were attending the school. The school was affiliated to the International League for the Rational Education of Children set up by Ferrer with Portet sitting on its international board. Lectures were given on many and varied subjects, Mat Kavanagh speaking on the Paris Commune. The children at the school became involved in the protests over the arrest of Ferrer and his subsequent execution in 1909, protesting outside the Spanish Embassy. A pamphlet was produced by the School in collaboration with the International Club entitled the Martyrdom of Francisco Ferrer.

The International Club was an anarcho-syndicalist association which gave lectures in English as well as in French and Spanish to local workers as well as to visiting seamen and students. Fred Bower in his autobiography Rolling Stonemason describes its true internationalism although in terms that might well shock today. He talks about a “pleasant faced Chinaman” which would have been Lee Foo, secretary of a Chinese seaman’s union in Liverpool, an “Egyptian interpreter, employed at a large Liverpool cafe, sphinx-like in look, action or inaction, and speech” a “Hindoo..acquired from somewhere” and a “Jap who had imbibed Socialistic doctrines”. Portet and Frank Pearce were involved in this venture. Pearce, an admirer of the IWW, was hon.sec of the Club, and the editor of the journal of the National Union of Ships Stewards.
Portet was an important influence in relaying the ideas of the embryonic anarcho-syndicalist movement to the British working class alongside a fellow Spaniard Tarrida del Marmol who edited The General Strike with Sam Mainwaring and spoke in the South Wales valleys, and the group of Spanish anarchist immigrants in that area.

Portet became associated with the Direct Action Group in Liverpool which invited speakers like Guy Aldred and John Turner to speak. Portet with Frank Pearce representing the International Club, alongside Dick and Fred Bower representing other Liverpool groups, was one of the Liverpool delegates at the inaugural conference of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League at Manchester in November 1910.

When the assets of the Ferrer Modern Schools impounded by the Spanish authorities were retuned on 29th December 1911 Portet took charge of these.

When Margaret Sanger, the American champion of birth control went to Europe in November 1914 she encountered Portet in Liverpool, running into him at the Clarion Club. She later described him as being a man of middle height and weight whose “alert glance summed you up with an accuracy occasionally disturbing” and that “no human being I ever knew could explain with such infinite pains the details of a subject”. (An Autobiography). Another acquaintance of Portet describes him as having a revolutionary temperament masked by fastidious manners, and as always toting a gun concealed beneath his impeccably tailored suit. Portet was a good friend of such anarchists as Malatesta and Charles Malato.

Sanger and Portet started a passionate affair, which they concealed as both were married. Portet followed Sanger to London. They met again in Paris where Portet was running La Casa Editorial Publicacciones de la Escuela Moderna, a Ferrer-inspired venture that printed Spanish literature and translated other texts in French and English censored in Spain, which were then smuggled into Spain. In spring 1915 Portet was permitted to visit Spain for several weeks. Portet and Sanger then undertook a journey through France and Spain, visiting Ferrer schools and the grave of Ferrer himself. They were tailed by plainclothes policemen in Spain, who actually intervened to arrest some petty thieves when they attempted to rob Sanger.

The World War divided Sanger and Portet and she was never to see him again.

He died in a Paris nursing home of TB on May 10th, 1917. Sanger was to remark that he “died with his greatest wish unfulfilled-the freeing of the Spanish woman from the ignorance and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church”.

Nick Heath

Sources:
Bower, F. (1936) Rolling stonemason
Hikins, Harold R (1973) Building the union: studies on the growth of the workers' movement 1756-1967
Sanger, M, Katz E.(2003) The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Vol 1.
Sanger, M (2004) An autobiography