Anarchism and syndicalism in Brighton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Dr William King - founder of 'The Cooperator' magazine
Dr William King - founder of 'The Cooperator' magazine

A short account of anarchism and syndicalism in Brighton in the 1890s-1910s.

Submitted by Battlescarred on February 14, 2011

Brighton has, some might think surprisingly given its reputation as a fashionable and hedonistic seaside resort, a long tradition of radicalism going back to the 1820s. Brighton began to grow rapidly from 1801 when it still had a population of 7,000. By the late 1820s unemployment was affecting the large numbers of artisans and workers who lived in Brighton. A wave of radicalisation began, led by the large numbers of cabinet makers, shoe makers, tailors and printers. They formed unions like the Boot and Shoe Society, the Society of Tailors and the Hearts of Oak Society of Carpenters. Local workers like William Bryan were at the inception of the cooperative movement and the founding of one of the very first cooperative stores in 1828. Dr William King, a local doctor erroneously described as an Owenite, allied with the workers , produced a monthly paper The Cooperator, which had a very important influence far beyond Brighton in the space of its two years of existing, acting as a positive force in uniting the disparate cooperative societies throughout Britain. Later in 1835 a local politician George Faithfull, an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate running on a reform platform, seeking to build up solid support, produced the well-written and produced The Brighton Patriot (subtitled and Lewes Free Press) starting in 1835, which sought to tie together the opinions of both middle class and working class radicals. It took up the cause of Chartism, but rapidly reduced to a working class readership, and when the Chartist riot in Birmingham and the Chartist call for a general strike was made, coupled with a fall in circulation Faithfull became affrighted and closed down the paper in 1839. By now Brighton had became an important centre of southern Chartism by late 1838. Meetings attracted audiences of 6-700 and leading Chartist orators like Feargus O’ Connor and Bronterre O’Brien regularly spoke in the town.

The building of the railway line from London to Brighton in 1841, brought many militant workers from the North to Brighton, increasing the working class population of the town. Until then the union movement in Brighton had been weak and defensive. The Amalgamated Society of Eengineers is believed to have been set up in the 1840s, followed by the Amalgamated Society of Raliway Workers in 1871. Over the course of the next few decades an Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and Iron Founders and the United Society of Boilermakers and Shipbuilders were founded. None of these had a militant outlook. In 1890 the general union the General Railworkers Union (GRWU)was set up with the aim that it would “remain a fighting union” following the dockers strike in London. The local trades council sought representation on local bodies and by 1895 it had 4 members on the town council, 3 on the Board of Guardians and one on the School Board. The trades council organised weekly outdoor meetings and annual demonstrations on May Day.

Alongside this was the setting up of a branch of the Social Democratic Federation in 1889.. The laundry workers began to organise and organised the biggest demonstration Brighton had ever seen in 1891, forming the Amalgamated Society of Laundresses.

Signs of the creation of a body of socialists to the left of the SDF are seen in correspondence from Frank Cooper to the Socialist League paper Commonweal printed on October 12th, 1889. He wrote that they were carrying on "a steady propaganda with good results" and that several days previously " a debate took place between Comrade Barker and a middle class politician, in which Barker was completely victorious. A Labour Emancipation League is being formed. A code of rules and manifesto has been drawn up, based on the first principles of Socialism."

William Barker was a committed anarchist who had moved to Brighton from Lowestoft, where he was born, after persecution there. Later in the 1890s he moved to London.

The anarchist paper Freedom reported in December 1889 on a successful meeting on the Chicago Anarchists held at the Freethought Hall in Brighton and addressed by Barker and Frank Cooper. This was held on November 10th. Cooper wrote to Commonweal: Barker gave ,an excellent address on the lives and trial of the men, and I moved the resolutions printed in the Commonweal ; they were carried without a dissentient voice. This I think is encouraging."

The following year, on Sunday November 9th they held another meeting on the Chicago Martyrs, the report in Commonweal stating that: " a well attended meeting was held at the Bath Arms Assembly Rooms, in commemoration of the Chicago Martyrs ; comrades Barker and Ford delivered impressive speeches". This is C.E. Ford, who followed this up with an evening meeting on the subject "Priest and Politician" on Sunday November 16th. They were probably involved in arranging for the London Socialist League anarchist, W.B. Parker, speaking on the Level on Sunday afternoon September 14th of that year.

Barker, Cooper and Ford seems to have have been involved in setting up the Brighton Anarchist Group.It took part in the assembly at the funeral of Charles Bradlaugh at Woking in 1891 and displayed its banner there. Bradlaugh was no anarchist by any means . He still had some respect among anarchists for his bold stance on atheism and secularism. Ford wrote to Bradlaugh’s widow offering condolences on behalf of the Group. Brighton had a branch of the National Secular Society from the early 1880s to the mid 1890s with a membership of forty five in 1889 and it may have been there that anarchism developed, if the references to the Freethought Hall and Bradlaugh are anything to go by. The Brighton Anarchists held a meeting on 1st February on the Case For Anarchy at the Bath Arms Assembly Rooms with the individualist anarchist Albert Tarn, editor of the Herald of Anarchy speaking to a "good audience".. "Prior to its delivery Mr. C. E. Ford,l who spoke in eulogistic terms on the late Mr. Bradlaugh, moved the following resolution.: Tihat this meeting, convened by the Brighton Anarchists desires to express its deep regret live loss the Freehought cause lhas sustained by the death of Mr. Charles Bradlaugh M.P., though entirely dissenting from his views upon the great Social question of the day, and that copy of this resolution be sent with letter of condolence to Mrs. Bonner. This was seconded by Mr. Ewer, and carried unamimously" (Sussex Agricultural Express, 7th February. 1891). Ford, who apparently was an ex-member of Brighton YMCA, had moved to Victoria Park Road in London by 1896, where Reynolds' Newspaper reported that he had prodiuced an anti-Christian leaflet entitled Christianity-A Sham and Essentially Immoral.

Barker refused to provide details for the 1891 Census and "when he was prosecuted, has seized the opportunity to make propaganda by distributing Anarchist leaflets among the crowd in the Court" ( Commonweal, May 23, 1891). Described as a fly proprietor, of 157 Eastern Road, he was fined 20 shillings and costs on 27th April 1891. He said he was the victim of tyranny of which tho Stipendiary was the administrator ; but the time would come when he would have something else to do besides " trying census papers."The Stipendiary replied that he was a victim of his own folly.

We also know that delegates from Brighton Anarchists attended a national conference of anarchist communists called by the Commonweal Group at the Autonomie Club in Fitzrovia, London on December 26th 1893, which was reported in Freedom. More research needs to be done on this group.

Locally agitation began to develop among railworkers over the piecework system and in 1909 a new fighting spirit emerged among the Brighton working class with the unsuccessful boilermakers strike , with 250 workers out and their wives and children facing great hardship. It failed through lack of support and internal solidarity.

By 1910 the Trades Council had 15 unions affiliated to it. There is evidence that a syndicalist organisation existed in 1907 but syndicalism did not really take off until 1910. Among delegates to the Trades Council at this time were W. G Kerry, an engineer, and S. H. Muston. Walter Gibson Kerry (born about 1878 in Derbyshire) became president of the Trades Council in 1908. Both were member of the Brighton branch of the Revolutionary Industrialists. Kerry has been referred to as the “Tom Mann” of Brighton. It was he who in April 1909 brought to the attention of the Trades Council the new workers movement in France, although he could not give it a name. He grew more interested in it and soon became an expert on syndicalism. He would often start debates on the parliamentary approach and was the first to criticise the Labour Representation Committee which had strong support within the council. In late 1913 he tried to get a resolution passed in which he suggested that the Trades Council should not run any candidates at all in the next elections. Kerry had the idea of holding a series of three meetings. At the first he argued strongly for amalgamation and unity ( in late 1910). Too many separate agreements with the employers existed, which allowed them to play off these differences, leading on to lack of joint action and blacklegging. James Waterhouse of the GRWU , also on the Council, was an advocate of both electoral and industrial action and had the casting vote on Kerry’s resolutions, using it as a blocking manoeuvre. As a result the Council remained affiliated to the LRC and would not offer support to the newly emergent paper The Daily Herald which it saw as in opposition to the moderate Labour Daily.

Tom Mann had addressed a meeting on the strike in Penrhyn at the Dome theatre in March 1909, under the auspices of the National Democratic League. Kerry was chosen as delegate to the first meeting of Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) held in Manchester in November 1910, apparently attended by 200 delegates. There was a report in the paper The Industrial Syndicalist and it can be seen that Kerry took an active part. He was to say that the union leaders “ had betrayed them again and again in the past” and would betray them again” and was to warn against "too much leadership". There was a mixed reaction to his report back at the next Trades Council meeting. But by 1912 the Council had agreed to order The Industrial Syndicalist at the cost of thirty shillings. Later that year it supported Mann over the Don’t Shoot leaflet addressed to soldiers and sent a strongly worded resolution to Asquith condemning the actions of the government and urging it to reconsider. Kerry suggested that people pay for their own copies of the paper so that the money could be used to support those on trial and this was approved.

In this period two different syndicalist organisations were set up in Brighton, the Brighton branch of the Revolutionary Industrialists and the Brighton branch of the Industrialist League. The second group held regular weekly meetings between 1910 and 1914 , agitating for industrial unionism , directed at the workers of the London Brighton and South Coast Railway, stating that there was nothing to be gained by appeals to the directors and that the Labour Party had achieved nothing. The Revolutionary Industrialists had formed around 1910. Kerry was active in it and Muston was its local secretary. Unlike the Industrial League it believed in replacing the unions with industrial unions modelled on the Industrial Workers of the World and it may have had links with the Industrial Workers of Great Britain set up in 1909 with which it had a similar outlook. Indeed there exist records of a Brighton branch of the Industrial Workers of the World from 1910 and the Revolutionary Industrialists may well have been associated with this group or in fact be the same! The Revolutionary Industrialists argued for the setting up in Brighton of an industrial union of railworkers which in turn would be part of a general union of railworkers and then part of a Union of Transport Workers federated to all other unions nationally and at a local level federating with all other industrial unions in Brighton . A manifesto authored by Muston appeared in 1910. It reads:

"Aim: The overthrow of the existing economic and political state by tho rebellion of educated, class conscious and organised wage-slaves, and the establishment of the industrial commonwealth or communist republic.

Principles and Manifesto: Recognlsing that all existing authority is but the organisation of a robber class, and that its object is the subjugation, exploitation and plunder of the workers, the propertyless wealth producers, which it effects, through its economic power, and enforces by armed hirelings, police and military, at Its command, and that this ruling class maintains Its supremacy by Imposing on the Ignorance, credulity and superstition of its victims, to which end it employs hirelings in school, press and pulpit to Inculcate superstitions supporting its own Interest, such as bourgeois morality and religion, patriotism, snobbery, reverence for authority, rank and position; also hirelings in the political field and industrial arena, labour leaders or mlsleaders, demagogues, thugs, fakers, graftsmen and traitors, who are employed by the master class to divert the spontaneous instincts of rebellion of their slaves into the safe and useless channels of parliamentarlanlsm and craft unionism, self-help societies, etc.
We hold that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by the direct action of the workers themselves, and that class-conscious and economic organisation on scientific lines is essential.

To this end the Revolutionary Industrialists will expose and combat the fallacies of patriotlsm, parliamentarianism, bourgeois respectability, snobbery, morality, religlon and craft unionism, and call on the workers to unite on .the principles of Industrial and international unionism, with the purpose of consciously and Intelligently waging tho class war, by any means which may be ; at the time, place and
condition effective to the end, which is the expropriation of the possessing class and the communalisation of the means of life."

In November 1912 Kerry arranged a meeting of the Revolutionary Industrialists at which many members of the Trades Council were present. The speaker was the syndicalist Guy Bowman who spoke on amalgamated and the general confederation of labour. This was a great success with much applause.

It seemed from this that a branch of the ISEL would now be set up in early 1913 but there is no record of this. This may have been the result of internal problems and the dissolution of the ISEL itself that year.

The presence of Kropotkin in Brighton at 9 Chesham Street in Kemp Town from 1912 to 1917 may have had some influence on local workers as we know that the Trades Council presented him with an illuminated address for his aid to British workers on his departure from Brighton. They might not have been all at one with him on his pro-war positions however as Dick Pennifold,the vice-president of the Trades Council was imprisoned for two years for his anti-war beliefs when conscription was introduced in 1916( he went on to became a founder member of the Communist Party in Brighton). He had earlier, in 1914, given an ant-war speech at a Co-operative Society meeting.

Another line of research that needs to be followed up is the history of the Daily Herald League in Brighton. The League had been set up to provide networks of distribution for the Daily Herald, which had started up as a strike paper in 1911. As Ken Weller says in his book Don't be a Soldier! it saw itself as a forum for the whole range of radical issues, from industrial unionism to the women's movement. Anarchists like Walter Ponder and Henry Sara were active within it. In 1914 fifty new branches of the League were set up, including in Brighton. The Brighton League held public meetings on the mass strikes in Dublin and South Africa that year.

S. H. Muston is an interesting character. He appears to be Samuel Henry Muston, born October 1878 in Brighton.. He worked as a chemist's assistant in Brighton and is on the census as being there in 1901. His father appears to be George Gladstone Muston, a chemist, originally from Lincolnshire, who operated from 57 Western Road and who died in 1915 at the age of seventy-five. One can assume that Samuel worked from that address himself. He appears to have moved to Liverpool where he reported in 1911 on the strikes there. He is described as an anarchist by Quail. He addressed a meeting of soldiers during the disturbances and reported in Freedom in September that year that “ there were many instances of disaffection among the troops during the strike” which had been hushed up. He worked with local anarchists like Mat Kavanagh and Jim Dick, and with Peter Larkin ( the brother of Jim Larkin) Fred Bower, and Frank Pearce in syndicalist activity in Liverpool.He is listed in December 1910 issue of the The industrial Syndicalist as one of those willing to speak in public for industrial syndicalism, is described as a lecturer, with address given of 266 Smithdown Lane, Liverpool. He died in Rotherham in 1949.
Nick Heath

Brown, G.(1974) The Industrial Syndicalist
Clinton, Alan (1977) The trade union rank and file: trades councils in Britain, 1900-40
Rule, John and Wells, Roger A. E. (1977) Crime, protest, and popular politics in southern England, 1740-1850
Hikins, Harold R (1973).Building the union: studies on the growth of the workers' movement, Merseyside, 1756-1967
Paget, Linda (1984) Syndicalism and its effects in in Brighton, 1900 -1914 (PhD thesis)
Quail, John. (1978)The slow burning fuse



13 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on December 29, 2010

Yeah, interesting stuff, thanks

Boris Badenov

13 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Boris Badenov on January 6, 2011

I wasn't aware of most of those sources, so thanks from me as well.


11 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on June 15, 2013

I've added a bit more information on the Brighton Anarchist Group of 1889 onwards.


9 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on February 10, 2015

I've added more info on SH Muston etc


9 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on February 11, 2015

Added more info on WG Kerry


7 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on December 13, 2016

Added stuff from the Revolutionary Industrialists manifesto.


4 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on October 1, 2019

More info added