A short biography of early Scottish anarchist and tailor, James Tochatti, who was active in the Socialist League in London.
James Tochatti, whose real name was Moncure Douglas, was born in 1852 in Ballater, Scotland. His grandfather was Italian. Originally destined for a career in the kirk, he began to study medicine but eventually became a merchant tailor. He was very active in the National Secular Society from the 1870s. He lectured on a number of topics, including various reforms and pseudo-scientific topics like phrenology (it may be hard to believe today that reading bumps on the head was taken seriously as a science, but that was the case in the Victorian period, and phrenology was seen as a legitimate science by people such as Karl Marx).
He moved towards socialism meeting Morris Hyndman and Shaw around 1885 and was elected a member of the Hammersmith Socialist League in January 1886. With William Morris and Bernard Shaw he was a frequent outdoor speaker for the branch, going to the usual League stands at Walham Green and Hammersmith Bridge, where crowds of up to 500 gathered to listen. He served as branch delegate to the 1886 League Conference, and wrote news items and articles for Commonweal, the League’s newspaper. He became an open supporter of anarchist communism within the League. In 1889 he helped organise a strike at Thorneycroft's engineering factory in West London, together with Lyne of the Fulham branch of the League and Jack Williams of the SDF. In 1891 he was arrested for causing a disturbance at a United Shop Assistants' Union picket on the Harrow Road and fined in October. As he lived in Hammersmith, he joined Morris's Hammersmith Socialist Society and often spoke at its meetings. He was often accompanied by his wife, an activist in her own right. Morris mentions her working very hard to raise money for strikers in 1889.
He continued to speak frequently in the early 1890s as reported in anarchist newspaper Freedom. David Nicoll had been a picket in the Harrow Road agitation and had been sent down for a month. In his subsequent arrest and imprisonment as editor of Commonweal, Nicoll was strongly defended by Tochatti in 1892. Tochatti expressed total solidarity with Nicoll as an anarchist persecuted by the State. However he must have had grave doubts about Nicoll’s and others’ stance on ‘propaganda by the deed’. January 1894, as Commonweal became increasingly inflammatory he founded the paper Liberty (subtitled A Journal of Anarchist Communism and pictured above), together with Louisa Sarah Bevington. Tochatti had kept up friendly relations with the Hammersmith Socialist Society after it left the League over the question of revolutionary violence and in fact non-anarchist ex-members of the League like William Morris, as well as ex-League anarchists like Sam Mainwaring, contributed to the paper. The paper stated that ‘we believe that bombastic talk and glorifying the acts of men driven to desperation by circumstances can only serve to retard the progress of Anarchist ideas by alienating the sympathies of the mass of people’. It was this stance that made Morris agreeable to writing for the paper, providing two articles, 'Why I Am a Communist' and 'As to Bribing Excellence’. Liberty lists Tochatti's address as Carmagnole House, Beadon Road, Hammersmith, W5.
He and Bevington were among those who attempted to set up an organisation, the Anarchist Communist Alliance in May 1895, which was unfortunately stillborn.
Due to Tochatti’s ill health and the death of Bevington Liberty closed down in December 1896. John Quail (author of The Slow Burning Fuse) remarks that it was: “Excellently produced and devoted to maintaining a dialogue between Anarchists, anti-parliamentary socialists and libertarians of more statist inclinations in the I.L.P. and elsewhere…closely in touch with many facets of the socialist movement, it actually managed to have discussions rather than battles in its columns”.
With the revitalisation of the anarchist movement in the early 1900s, Tochatti was one of those old anarchists who returned to the movement as activists. He became an active speaker and George Cores refers to Mrs. Tochatti singing revolutionary songs at open-air meetings. His clothing shop near Hammersmith Broadway became an anarchist centre, with the ‘book lined cellar under his shop… in which no daylight ever came’ (G. Slocombe, The Tumult and the Shouting, 1936). Cores says that: “He exercised a great influence with young men, gathering round him men like Percy and John Tanner”. John Tanner is the Jack Tanner who started out as a syndicalist and ended up as a union bureaucrat, President of the AUEW! He goes on to say that Tochatti circulated many thousands of pamphlets and that he was always on hand to keep the local meetings going. He contributed to Tanner’s paper Solidarity (organ of the Industrial Democracy League). Wartime issues include humorous “‘phrenological’ studies of prominent labour politicians… where particular attention was drawn to ‘bumps of ambition’ or ‘bumps of avarice’ (Quail).
Tochatti was actively involved in the successful 1912 campaign to save the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta from deportation from Britain.
Freedom reported his lectures in 1912 and on 12th October 1914 in Bristol on 'The Attitude of Revolutionists towards the War'. In 1915 he gave another ant-war speech in Plymouth. John Mahon the biographer of the Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, (London 1976) describes Pollitt's visits to the bookshop in 1918 and after, where Pollitt supposedly defended conscientious objectors on socialist grounds, arguing with Tochatti, who advocated folded arms and shooting the officers. Sometimes they had first-hand news from Russia by someone returning from there. It can be inferred that Pollitt, with his various anarchist acquaintances at the time, and his membership of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation,had a far more libertarian outlook than later!
He died in Poole, Dorset on 22nd November 1928.