A short history of socialist and anarchist Yarmouth in the late 19th century.
To some, it might seem laughable that the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth was once the scene of open-air advocacy of anarchist-communism on a regular basis, and of a vigorous fight for free speech. For those willing to look a little more closely, one can discover a quite rich history of radical thought within the town, a history that, like other British towns, has remained underground for far too long and is in the process of being rediscovered.
Yarmouth was a stronghold of Owenite socialism in the 1830s. The Socialists held well-attended meetings, with Farn lecturing on subjects such as freethought and community of property on July 14 1839. The Socialists were willing to zealously spread their message in surrounding rural and maritime communities, John Collier Farn holding meetings in Caister and Haddiscoe, Malthus Questell Ryall addressing a hundred strong crowd at Kisby, Neslew two hundred at both Oulton and Havergate. At the last place a constable prevented the meeting, upon which Neslew moved to the premises of a friend and addressed the crowd from a threshing machine.
Later on in 1886, with a wave of riots brought on by the big rise in unemployment, Yarmouth was one of those places affected, with the angry unemployed breaking windows in the town.
In 1888 there was a vibrant and extremely active branch of the Socialist League in the town, with among others, Charles Mowbray addressing large meetings. The propaganda work was spread out to surrounding towns and villages. Mowbray addressed a meeting in June in Yarmouth, returning the following week with another very active member of Norwich branch, George Poyntz. He was then invited to make this a regular event by local supporters.1
The Yarmouth open-air meetings attracted large crowds as well as the attention of the local constabulary. A.T. Sutton, secretary of Norwich branch reported in Commonweal for August 11th, 1888 that “Thursday, notwithstanding threats from authorities at Yarmouth, Poynts (sic) and several comrades commenced meeting on the Quay, and afterwards adjourned to Church Plain. Very large attendance. Police, as usual, were most brutal in conduct, pushing and stamping upon our comrades; the crowd continually calling for groans for the police, and urging our comrade to go on.” Finally Poyntz’s name was taken, and a summons issued against him for obstruction. “This being the first case the Branch have had in connection with the right of free speech, they are determined to carry on the propaganda in spite of prosecution. Large number of the people are with us; if we give in here, the law-and-order folk will very soon try it on in Norwich.”
Poyntz duly appeared in court.
For some considerable time the Norwich branch has been holding very successful meetings every week, which are considerably increasing in number, much to the annoyance of the bourgeois class at Yarmouth, who have at last taken steps to try and suppress them by summoning one of our comrades for obstruction. Two summonses have been issued, the first one under the Act of 1849— which has been since withdrawn, I suppose through the Act being rather old and the police evidence shaky. The second one was issued, and our comrade, George Poynts, (sic) had to appear on Wednesday, August loth, before a special muster of the great unpaid. Our comrade made an able defence, and clearly proved no obstruction was caused. Of course these non-producing idlers could not understand that.
Our comrade pointed out to them another meeting was being held at the same time and place by the Church Army, who were really causing the obstruction if there was any. But these gentlemen were not considering whether it was a religious or Socialist meeting, so they fined our comrade £1, and £1 7s. 6d. costs, in all £2 7s. 6d., or one month's imprisonment. Our comrade is now doing the term of imprisonment. As it was his wish as well as ours that this question should be fought out, we intend carrying on the propaganda there in spite of prosecutions or imprisonment. We have comrades in this branch who are willing to carry on the meetings, without any fear of imprisonment or fines. The more sacrifice we make we feel sure the movement will go on with greater success than ever. On Thursday last a good meeting was held by comrade Reynolds, who had his name taken by one of the modern wolves. We expect he will receive a summons in a day or two; he will then be able to cheer our imprisoned comrade by his presence in the same gaol.”
“Yarmouth and Free Speech,” written by Sutton in Commonweal, August 25th 1889. William Morris, writing in the same issue on Poyntz, added that “Our comrade has been sent to prison for a month for this terrible " offence " of free speaking, and as this is clearly a piece of mere persecution of opinion, it is to be hoped that all parties who have any feeling for freedom will back up our friends, who are fighting the battle of free speech for all honest men both in the present and the future.”
The local papers began a campaign calling for the banning of League meetings in Norwich, Yarmouth and the surrounding area. Fred Charles, secretary of the League, announced the setting up of a Yarmouth Free Speech Fund on August 25th.
Norwich Leaguers decided to pay the fine as Poyntz had an elderly mother depending on him for support and he was consequently released. C. Reynolds, originally from Hull, was duly summonsed, and George Cores and Mowbray had their names taken and expected summons. By now the authorities appeared to be panicking, and were forced to issue summons against religious groups meeting in the same spots, with a summons being served on the captain of the Salvation Army!
On Sept 2nd, about 30 members of the Norwich branch, including Poyntz, along with H.B. Samuels from London went to Yarmouth to hold a meeting, despite the Yarmouth magistrate and the Chief Constable saying that no such meeting should be allowed. ”In the twinkling of an eye, while Poynts and Samuels were discussing the technicalities of the case with the head constable, a large table made its appearance, 8 ft. by 6ft., on which at once sprang comrade W. Moore, soon followed by Beare, Poynts, and Samuels. They were, however, not allowed to proceed until they had given their names and addresses to the police the crowd hooting the police all the time. There was then no fewer than 1,000 persons present, who seemed very enthusiastic and sympathetic….. After passing a resolution which about half the people held up their hands for, and no one against”.
The police subsequently arrested the Leaguer R. Racheau, to whom bail was not allowed. Altogether 23 names were taken by the police, including Salvation Army and Church Mission people! 2
A little later, 38 people, including those from religious bodies, appeared in court. The hearings were adjourned. Once again the League contested the banning of meetings. “Our comrades from Norwich, accompanied by W. B. Parker (of London) went to the contested spot, and finding large crowds of people waiting for them, they formed a big procession, and held a very fine meeting on the beach where being interfered with by the police, a fisherman offered them his boat, from which they spoke.” 3.
In a remarkable show of solidarity, a benefit concert to pay for fines and travel expenses incurred was held at the Berner Street Club in East London, home of the Jewish anarchist movement. There were readings by William Morris, Frank Kitz, Fred Charles, Tom Cantwell, and W.B. Parker, among others. The choir of the Socialist League gave a performance. “A most enjoyable evening was spent by the crowded audience on Saturday night at the Berner Street Club. English, Russian, German, and French songs were sung and speeches made, after which there was dancing” 4.
George Cores incurred a month’s imprisonment because of this agitation. Many of those sentenced, including those from the religious bodies, elected to go to prison for a month rather than pay the fine.
The authorities had been made to look ridiculous. Mowbray spoke on a Thursday in late September on Priory Plain. He was asked for his name by the police, he refused, and they quietly walked away.
In mid-January 1889, the League was able to hold a meeting attended by a thousand people, with Reynolds, Mills, and Poyntz and speaking, with fifty Commonweal sold, and with no police interference.
All this hard work began to pay off and a Yarmouth branch of the League was set up. Among those active in it were Ruffold, Brightwell and one John William Headley, who ran a large newsagents in Northgate Street. The branch began a tempo of three meetings every Sunday, in the morning at Priory Plain, in the afternoon at the same place or at Fish Wharf, in the evening at Colman’s Granary. For example in Commonweal for Sep 21st 1889 we can read:
“In the morning on Priory Plain the meeting was addressed by Ruffold and Henderson. In the afternoon, at the same place, by Ruffold, followed by Adams; in the evening on Colman's Granary Quay. We opened by singing the “Starving Poor of Old England," followed by addresses from Ruffold, Moore, and Darley; we finished the day's propaganda with a song from Comrade Darley ; 33 Weals sold, and fair collections for local propaganda. A meeting was held at Colman's Granary on Monday evening by Parker (London) and Poyntz; labour songs sung.”
Like other League branches, the Yarmouth branch was characterised by its fondness for song and music, and there are several descriptions of this liking in the pages of Commonweal. Meetings were held every Tuesday evening at Headley’s place at 48 Row, George Street. Gertrude Schack came up from London with Elizabeth Tochatti and spoke on Bloody Sunday and the Chicago Martyrs in October 10th of that year. The proceedings began on Sunday morning with Elizabeth Tochatti “singing "The Starving Poor," followed by a few remarks from Reynolds; after which Mrs. Schack gave an earnest address on the events we commemorated, explaining their meaning to an audience of over 1,000 people, who listened with great interest. We closed the meeting by singing the "March of the Workers," the audience taking up the chorus with great gusto. In the afternoon, at Colman's Granary, Mrs. Tochatti opened with “Trafalgar Square” and the “Marseillaise," followed by Ruffold, and by Mrs. Schack with a touching address on the Trafalgar Square murders. Mrs. Tochatti then sang the "Carmagnole," and Reynolds addressed the meeting, which closed by singing " The Starving Poor." …In the evening, at same place, Mrs. Tochatti opened with "Annie Laurie," followed by Mrs. Schack with another long and earnest address, in which she appealed to the Yarmouth people to accept Socialism. After Mrs. Tochatti had sung "Linnell's Death Song," Reynolds followed … We closed with the "Marseillaise," after which we adjourned to comrade Headley's, and spent the remainder of the night (up to 1 a.m.) in singing revolutionary songs, with the help of comrade H.'s fiddle.”
William Morris spoke on Monopoly to the branch on 20th October 1889, and stayed the night.
By now, Yarmouth was like Norwich, Leicester and Glasgow, one of the branches very much under the influence of anarchist-communist ideas.
On a late Sunday in December, Brightwell opened a discussion in the afternoon on “Socialism and Anarchy” followed by an evening meeting which finished with the comrades marching along the quay under a Red Flag singing Trafalgar square, a song about Bloody Sunday.
In January 1890, the Yarmouth comrades were talking enthusiastically about setting up a sub-branch in Goleston. They regretted the lack of funds to buy leaflets to carry out propaganda in the “slums and rural districts”. In March it was decided to set up a socialist club. Rural agitation began at Bradwell with Brightwell addressing a regular Sunday morning meeting there. Schack and E.Tochatti again attended a successful meeting for the anniversary of the Chicago Martyrs in March.
By April the branch had secured premises at 56 Row, Market Place. It had library, reading, boxing, and refreshment rooms and was open every evening to members. There was Singing Practice on Wednesdays, Discussion Classes on Thursdays, and Elocution Classes on Fridays!
William Wess visited Yarmouth at this time and wrote a report in Freedom of October 1890 outlining the difficulties the local group had to face:"Comrade Wess writes to us from the Socialist League Club, Great Yarmouth, that a capital group is just being formed there; but our comrades are undergoing very rough handling from the master class, assisted by the Authorities. The sweaters boycott unmercifully. Directly one of their wageslaves shows himself worthy of his manhood by working openly and energetically for the cause of freedom, he is forced to leave his place, and often loses all chance of employment. Comrade Headley, secretary of the Club, is almost the only one fortunate enough to be independent of this persecution, and he is using his liberty to work most energetically. The result of Comrade Wess's visit is that the Yarmouth Socialists are beginning to sell Freedom, and hope before long to dispose of a good supply of Anarchist literature."
In October-November, the branch received the support of an anarchist couple described in Commonweal as being from Manchester, the Oldmans,(1) who stayed for three weeks, carrying out “splendid propaganda”.
Headley reported in Commonweal (Nov 15th 1890) that:
“Most successful meetings have been held during the past month; a lot of revolutionary literature has been distributed amongst the soldiers and police; large bundles of Commonweal and other literature have also been sent to sea to enlighten the fishermen to their true position. Altogether, things are moving in the right direction. On October 19th two successful meetings were held in the club room; fair audience, good discussion; revolutionary songs sung; two new members. 24th, comrade John Oldman, Apostle of Anarchy, from Manchester, delivered a stirring address in the morning on Priory Plain on " The Voting Swindle." Mr. Smith, a Radical, occupied the platform for several minutes, advising the audience to vote for Mr. Ecockes, "the working-man's friend" — a man who has put up for the North Ward. Oldman thoroughly convinced the audience that the voting dodge was a swindle. In the afternoon, on the Fish Wharf, another successful meeting was held. Comrade Oldman lectured on "The Wage Swindle," after which opposition was invited. Five Scotch fishermen responded to the call. Oldman, Saunders, Brightwell, Barnes, and Headley formed five groups, taking one opponent each. The meeting was continued for upwards of three hours. In the evening, good discussion in club-room, weather too wet for out- door speaking; room crowded to excess until a late hour.”
Three more mass meetings on the Chicago Martyrs followed on the 9th November, with Headley reading out Louis Lingg’s court statement. The following Sunday, the Oldmans finished their stay in Yarmouth with three mass meetings, ending up with a discussion on Anarchy led by John Oldman at the Radical Hall, supported by Kitchen, a Leaguer up from London and five local comrades.
The zeal and the elan of the Yarmouth comrades continued with a desire to spread the message to the countryside. On Boxing Day a large Yarmouth contingent visited Bradley, Burgh, Belton and district with literature and the Commonweal and in the afternoon they moved on to Caister, Martham, Ormesby and district, returning in the evening for a Revolutionary Concert in the Club Room.
The intense tempo of agitation and propaganda continued into 1891 with ten lectures organised with speakers including George Bernard Shaw. The usual annual Chicago meeting took place on March 15th and Headley wrote in the Commonweal that
“The movement which for a long time seemed to fall on dead ground here, is now firmly rooted, and aristocratic visitors to this seaside resort will have Anarchist-Communism dinned into their ears persistently during the coming season.”
But the largest “and most interesting meeting was held on….Sunday May 17th… when addresses were delivered by Shaw Maxwell, of the Glasgow Branch of the Socialist League, late editor of the People's Press”. The police seemed to be up to their old tricks again for whilst Headley was speaking
“several police rushed in the ring and tried to upset the meeting, but, seeing that we were determined to meet force by force, the crowd being with us, contented themselves by taking the names of Shaw Maxwell, Saunders, and Headley, after using a lot of threats about what they would do. This resulted in our already large meeting considerably increasing, nearly 1,000 people being present, and our comrades have since received summonses. A large meeting was also held in the afternoon by the same speakers. Owing to rain we had to adjourn to the new Club Rooms in Howard Street, where another large meeting was held in the evening.”
However by 1892 high unemployment was having its effect, along with the implosion of the League. Headley remained active in the anarchist movement until at least 1896, but soon after he left to join the Independent Labour Party, though he continued to remain a thorn in the side of the authorities. In addition to his trade as a newsagent, he worked as a newspaper reporter and became Yarmouth correspondent for The Echo, a daily newspaper of the time. But the feverish anarchist agitation in Yarmouth was a thing of the past.
(1) They actually appear to have been from Odham, where John Oldman was secretary of the local branch of the Socialist League. John Oldman wrote to William Morris with the founding of the League that he had " been a Socialist for upwards of twenty years- actively engaged in propagating Socialistic principles--and am still in earnest". Adress given in Commonweal is 57 Landsdowne Road, Chadderton, Oldham.