Thomas Keell 1866-1938

Thomas Keell 1866-1938

This extract is from a centenary history of Freedom, published in 1986. Written by "H B" (probably Harold Barclay), it offers as full a biography as we're likely to find of Keell, who was for decades a key organiser at Freedom Press and provided a generational link between the Freedom group of the early 20th century to that of Vernon Richards, Marie Louise Berneri et al.

Thomas Keell was certainly one of the little-known and often misrepresented people who helped to keep Freedom going through its most eventful years. As Mat Kavanagh, also one of the lesser-known indefatigable militants, after some 50 years’ activity in the movement wrote: ‘I know of few men who did more quiet hard work, or were so completely indifferent to praise or blame, or yet so free of personal feeling.’ Between 1903 and 1932 and then again from 1936 to 1938 it was his name or at least his neat handwriting that most of those who relied upon Freedom Press to supply them with Anarchist literature identified with the Press, and Freedom.

Thomas Henry Keell was born at Blackheath, London, on 24 September 1866, ‘of good rural English stock’. Little is known of his early life. On 8 November 1881 he was apprenticed to letterpress printing for seven years, and in October 1887 was admitted to the London Society of Compositors, which became his early school of trade unionism. Apart from that his earliest political interests concerned the Land Reform movement, having seen ‘at close quarters the evils of landlordism’ during his favourite activity: long-distance walks (later on bicycle) mainly across the country on old footpaths, taking an active interest in their defence and preservation. But he soon became attracted by the broader aims of Socialism, and in the mid-1890s he became a member of the Independent Labour Party and then the secretary of its Peckham branch. At about this time, in 1896, he also came into contact with the Anarchist movement.

My first introduction was as a compositor on Alarm in Judd Street. I was out of work at the time, & a fellow member of the I.L.P. asked me if I would work on an Anarchist paper. So I was introduced to Will Banham. I think it was No. 3 of Alarm that I set. When I presented my bill (about 35/-) Banham took me along to 127 Ossulston Street to get my money. He gave me £1 on account. The rest is still owing. I little thought that 127 O.S. would be my home for so many years when I entered it on that occasion.

He soon found regular work again, as compositor on the weekly paper The Spectator, from now on, however, he regularly attended anarchist meetings. "On all such occasions," as Max Nettlau later recalled, "one could see the tall bearded frame and face of the silent Keell from South London who would scarcely say a word, but if he did, very modestly, it was to the point, usually a useful suggestion. Thus we got used to him as a helpful element and he himself came to understand that the commonsense socialism which he advocated was identical with the opinions of all commonsense anarchists."

His first contact with the Freedom Group was in June 1898, when Walter Needs and W F Rean (at this time still an Anarchist and editor of a little-known libertarian magazine, The Harbinger, where Louise Michel published the beginning of her Memoirs) took him to the "private" gathering to bid farewell to Lillian Harman, the American Anarchist and birth control activist. During a meeting in Trafalgar Square he got acquainted with Harry Kelly, the American Anarchist who had just come to England and soon joined the Freedom Group, and invited him to talk to the ILP Peckham branch on conditions in America.

In that talk I spoke of Thoreau, who had thrilled me as he has countless others; later Keell told me that it was his reading of that most original of all American minds that changed his line of thinking and eventually brought him to our movement.

When Tom Cantwell had a stroke on Christmas Day, 1902, and became incapacitated, and the other compositor on Freedom, Mr Boyd, also proved inefficient for managing work, Alfred Marsh approached Keell (who had helped Cantwell on several occasions with the paper during the previous year) to ask if he would be interested in becoming the compositor and manager. Keell agreed and so in January 1903 became a regular feature of the Freedom office.

One of his first activities was to clear up the already legendary mess in the Ossulston Street Office, and from then on comrades came to meet there and it gained some sort of social value to the movement. For the first time in more than a decade orders were executed promptly, and the sale of literature (and the reprinting of pamphlets) speeded up considerably. Having proved his reliability, he was asked in September 1903 to take over the business side also. From 1904 (and until the building was pulled down in 1928) he was the responsible tenant of the office. That year he also moved from Camberwell to Leyton to set up there a household with his wife (whose first name incidentally was also Lillian) and William Wess, which however lasted only some 18 months. Then Lillian Keell left with Wess; they were both instrumental in setting up, in February 1906, the new Workers’ Friend club in Jubilee Street, and she tried to initiate an Anarchist Sunday School. (Some years later, as Lillian Evelyn, she ran one of the two Modern Schools in London, the Ferrer School in Charlotte Street.)

In the aftermath of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905, the discussions soon centered on the value of direct action as an important means to bring about a social revolution, and the Freedom Group decided to publish a paper more or less entirely concentrating on industrial activities and especially agitation for all forms of direct action. A draft for a programme was prepared by Kropotkin, all practical preparations done by Alfred Marsh and Tom Keell, and a name soon found: Voice of Labour. A dummy of a first number was produced (and distributed in a few copies) in November 1906, but the paper started only on 18 January 1907. Since 1903 he had done all work on Freedom in his spare time; but now with two papers to set, to print and to manage he had to give up his job at the Spectator. The first eight numbers were edited by Alfred Marsh:

He then withdrew and it was decided to stop the paper. Two days after some of the V. of L. group approached me & asked me to accept the editorship, if they would find the money to carry on. Reluctantly I agreed.

The principal contributors were John Turner, Guy Aldred (in his own name and also as ‘Ajax junior’), Karl Walter, Harry Kelly, S Carlyle Potter and Jimmy Dick. Keell himself wrote only one article: "I had never written but one article in my life before. Perhaps that accounted for the death of the Voice!" The keynote of the paper was the futility of parliamentary action and the value of direct action. Altogether 36 issues were published.

In August 1907 Keell was, with Karl Walter, one of the English delegates to the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. The following years saw a boom in publishing activities by the Freedom Press, and it was Keell who did most of the donkey-work, day in day out. But his role at Freedom was more than that of a mere compositor and manager paid wages. As Nettlau later recorded, ‘he was also a thoroughly efficient member of the Group and if very many facts and impressions can be recalled in a few words, I should say that Keell’s sober judgement greatly helped Marsh to preserve Freedom for years from well-meant, but one-sided influences of others, even of Marsh himself who might, alone, have given way to others. Keell was also a most useful member by reason of his real observation of economic life. We were sometimes very good at general conclusions and sweeping hypotheses or rather affirmations. Then we needed just a few hard facts which none of us could have produced. But Keell had read these things up and not a few very plausible theories had to take on a more modest aspect.

When after 1910 Marsh, due to growing health problems, withdrew more and more from the actual practical work involved in producing the paper, Keell had also to take over more and more editorial tasks. George Cores, later one of Keell’s bitterest enemies, returned at this time to London and appeared regularly in the office, presumably to help, but Keell saw things just a little differently:

There was always a coolness between us. He also...had many meals at my expense at the office when he turned up again in 1912. He was a fearful bore...usually turned up at teatime and talked incessantly on elementary Anarchism. I had to tell him that the office was not a discussion forum and as I had to set type he must not hinder by talking. He evidently has never forgiven me.

In 1913 Keell became "acting editor" of Freedom, George Ballard (‘Barrett’) having refused to take part in that work as he felt the strong tradition of Freedom to be too much of a burden, and preferred to eventually start another paper (the Glasgow Anarchist). In controversial matters, however, Marsh retained the final decision.

From around 1911 a group of young anarchists developed independently from Freedom and the Freedom Group, calling themselves in 1913-1914 the Anarchist Education League. From mid-1913 they were loosely linked to the Freedom Press and especially to Tom Keell, and from November Freedom Press published for them The Torch, which after five issues from 1 May 1914 on became the Voice of Labour. The editor was in the beginning ‘officially’ George Barrett, who being very ill could however write only a few articles, while other editorial work was done mainly by Fred W Dunn. It was this group — Dunn, Mabel Hope (who having been for years a contributor to Freedom actually had brought about the initial contact), Elizabeth Archer, Tom Sweetlove, W Fanner, and Lilian Wolfe — who supported Keell in his difficult stand against the supporters of the First World War in the Freedom Group, and who soon were to constitute the new one, after Kropotkin, Cherkezov and wife and their friends no longer took part in the production of Freedom. The story of this rupture has been told elsewhere, and need not to be repeated; but it would be wrong not to stress how much courage Keell showed to oppose ‘secular saints’ like Kropotkin, whom he himself had admired so much: ‘To work with them was indeed a pleasure and an inspiration, and my greatest regret was when the War...split our group asunder. One doubted the judgement of those members who supported the War, but one never doubted their sincerity.’ But ‘the other side’ (with the exception of Kropotkin!) was never so generous, and from now on called the same Keell, who up till now had always been regarded by some as the paid servant, a ruthless dictator who had seized all the valuable Freedom assets.

However, at the next anarchist national conference at Hazel Grove (Stockport), in April 1915, all the accusations which George Cores (‘the man selected by Tcherkesoff & Turner and others to denounce me as a thief) brought forward against Keell were repudiated and his ‘only crime’ approved of unanimously: to have prevented ‘the paper joining the patriotic & pro-war crowd’. The same group then started, in March 1915, Marsh House at 1 Mecklenburgh Street, which functioned until September 1916 as anarchist commune and meeting-place for the London anarchists and the Anti-Conscription League formed in May 1915. After the passing of the Military Service Act injanuary 1916 both Freedom and the Voice of Labour soon ran into trouble, first for an article ‘Defying the Act’ by ‘one of those outlawed on the Scottish Hills’ (Fred Dunn), which was published in the April issue of the Voice and subsequently as a leaflet. This was enclosed with a letter from Lilian Wolfe to Malatesta which was intercepted by the police. The consequent raid on the Freedom office then brought to light another article just set up for Freedom, headed ‘The Irish Rebellion’ and worthy of a second charge.

On 24 June 1916 Tom Keell and Lilian Wolfe were tried at Clerkenwell Police Court under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). The charge arising from the second article was dismissed, but for the first article Keell was sentenced to a fine of £100 or three months imprisonment, and Wolfe to £25 or two months. Both refused to pay and were imprisoned.

The whole affair at least proved Freedom office to be quite a tempting place for the police, for it was raided three more times in the course of the next year. Despite all harassment Keell managed to keep Freedom going. The group so far responsible for the publication soon dissolved, the men hiding or going to the United States, and Mabel Hope and Elisabeth Archer also soon leaving for the States. From 1918 it was mainly Keell alone who did all the work, occasionally helped by Percy Meachem on the practical side, and then more and more by William Charles Owen, who eventually came to live with Tom and Lilian (and their son Tom junior) in their house in Willesden.

In the decade after the war Freedom’s existence was a long struggle for survival, one appeal for help following the other. Except for a few comrades abroad, and W C Owen and Lilian Wolfe, nobody actually came to help. The price of Freedom was increased in May 1918 from Id to 2d; but the income in the mid-1920s was not more than that in 1914, when the printing costs were only about a third of those in 1925.
In December 1926 Keell officially retired as compositor to live off the superannuation income provided for by the Society of Compositors, and when in 1927 the London County Council gave notice to quit 127 Ossulston Street, as the whole quarter was to be pulled down, he issued a last desperate appeal, again to no avail. Finally, with the agreement of Lilian Wolfe and Owen, he decided to close down Freedom.

I must be very sentimental as I do not mind telling you that a tear was hard to suppress when passing the final page proofs for the last time. Freedom has been a dear friend all these years & I could not part from it without feeling a wrench.

For others however the "death" of (this series of) Freedom proved to be quite a re-animating event, for though they had overlooked for years all statements of the desperate situation and all appeals for help, the fact that Freedom no longer turned up regularly in their letter-boxes eventually had more effect. At a meeting arranged by Keell in February 1928, many faces that had been familiar before the war showed up again for the first time, and Keell...

Was told that the enthusiasm of the movement would revive and Freedom could start again. The collapse of Freedom, I told them, was due to the collapse of the Anarchist movement in this country and they should concentrate on a revival in London at least.

But still in August 1928 they had...

done nothing — absolutely nothing. Not one meeting have they held and not one pamphlet have they sold. They wrote a lot of letters, though, mainly to old comrades abroad, complaining about the dictatorship of a former servant.

By what right do these people criticise Lilian and I and say we regard Freedom Office as our private property? For many years these people have never come near us to help and lift a finger — let alone their voice — in Anarchist propaganda. Lilian and I have stuck to our job here through thick and thin, and Owen has been a hard worker also, ever ready with his pen ... he has lent us money when we were in difficulties. Lilian has given at least £50 since 1914, and when my father died during the War and left me £160, at least £100 of it was swallowed up by Freedom.

Keell moved with the Freedom Press literature to Whiteway Colony (near Stroud), and published at irregular intervals a Freedom Bulletin. His old opponents from 1914 saw in this removal of the Freedom Press away from London only new fodder for their accusation of ‘a dictatorship’, and as a result of this altogether utterly unpleasant quarrel published from May 1930 on a paper called ‘Freedom (New Series)’, which however Keell (and other former members and friends of the Freedom Group, like Nettlau, Mabel Hope, Elizabeth Archer, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and others) did not recognise as a continuation of ‘the old Freedom’. (The group itself it seems was soon dissatisfied with the poor standards of the new paper, and eventually Keell’s old opponents dropped out, to be replaced by people sympathetic to him, like Victor Neuburg who became editor for a while in 1934, or even by his friends, like Oscar Swede and Harry Jones who became editors in November 1934.)

Keell himself published 15 issues of the Freedom Bulletin between 1928 and 1932, and was from autumn 1928 secretary of the Whiteway Colony, but otherwise felt quite disillusioned.

The event of 1930 had such a disheartening effect on me that I cannot get up any enthusiasm for anything that would mean co-operation with others. I do the work connected with Freedom Press because it is work I understand & does not call for any great effort, writing for the Bulletin is only an occasional effort & I also get some pleasure in knowing that I can help to spread our ideas.

With the labour movement as a whole he felt not happy either:

They have concentrated on the economic side of the movement and never gave a thought to the libertarian side. Many years ago I heard a lecture by an old Fabian — I think his name was Leakey — on “The Morality of Socialism” in which he spoke of freedom & tolerance, & said that unless Socialists gave more attention to the economic changes for which they were working would be of little value. But his voice was raised in vain. Everything has been put aside as Utopia. The “Scientific” Marxian philosophy, with its idea of an all-powerful State in which the individual would be No. 232,855 B., has carried the day. “Freedom is a bourgeois idea,” said Lenin, & all the Communists repeat it ad nauseam. We have been sliding down the slippery slope for years.

He found a consolation in working on the land, and most letters to friends contain references to sowing and the encouraging effect that seeing seeds grow has on the mind. In 1936 however he was again brought back to a more active role in the production and distribution of anarchist literature and papers, when he was approached by the son of an old Italian comrade to help with the distribution and eventually editing of Italia Libera — Free Italy; and he then helped with the production of the pamphlet The Struggle for Liberty in Spain, and, of course, with the new paper Spain and the World, which he eventually came to regard as the proper successor to the old Freedom. The success of Spain and the World cheered him up again a little at a time when

We are even threatened with visits from officials who will measure us for gas masks. The gas mask seems to me the supreme symbol of the degradation of mankind. It is the lowest level I can imagine... When I think of the dreams of Socialists and Anarchists thirty or fourty years ago & the realities of the present day, it seems to me that those who died then cherishing their dreams are the last of that happy race. To-day dreams are no longer possible. The world is faced with the herd instinct of fear...

He did not have to face this world much longer. He died some three weeks later, on 26 June 1938, at Whiteway, of heart failure.

Tom Keell wrote no books or pamphlets, and only very few of his articles were signed; but he wrote most of the ‘Notes’ on the front page and the major part of the leaders of Freedom between 1914 and 1927.
Obituaries were published by Max Nettlau in Spain and the World (15 July 1938; a corrected and expanded version was published shortly afterwards in the Yiddish Freie Arbeiter Stimme and the English manuscript of which survives in the Rocker collection in the IISH, Amsterdam); by Harry Kelly and ‘A Correspondent’ (Dr Oscar Swede) in MAN! (September-October 1939; reprinted in MAN! An Anthology..., London 1974). And Mat Kavanagh published a recollection in his series on British Anarchists in Freedom (18 January 1947).


Rob Ray
Oct 22 2016 11:53

Added because I'm doing a general historical read-around as part of the Big Freedom Rebuild campaign, and while there are writeups of various Freedom figures on Libcom (eg. Alfred Marsh) Keele wasn't among them.