Deakin, Joseph Thomas 1858-1937

Plaque on Deakin's house in Walsall
Plaque on Deakin's house in Walsall

A short biography of Joe Deakin, anarchist ensnared in the Walsall bomb plot provocation

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 5, 2011

“A far away, dreamy, poetic look, almost reminding one of the portraits of Shelley (Walsall Free Press, 9th January 1892)

Joe Deakin was born on August 11th, 1858 in Wednesbury, Staffordshire. He was the son of Charles Deakin, a blacksmith, and Marie nee Middleton. He left school at the age of twelve to work at the Wednesbury Goods Station, remaining there for twenty years. He then worked as a clerk in the ticket office at Wednesbury.

He was secretary of the local branch of the Socialist League and was also secretary of the local Socialist Club at 18 Goodall Street in 1891 which he had founded in 1887 . He was extremely active in Walsall and organised a successful campaign to elect Hayden Sanders as Social Democratic candidate to the town council in 1888. Sanders stirred up a lot of trouble on the council, but after 18 months moved to Rotherham to take a leading role in a strike. With his departure Deakin became the de facto leading light in the Walsall socialist movement. He lacked Sanders’ powers as an orator and as an outgoing personality but “his fluency and his transparent sincerity” ensured him good receptions at meetings. He attended the International Socialist Workers Congress in 1889, alongside anarchists like Frank Kitz and Fred Charles , and his encounter with them must have reinforced his own anarchist leanings. Together with E. Gilemard he represented Walsall Socialists Society at the Brussels Congress 16-23rd August 1891. As a railway worker he had a “privilege ticket” so was able to visit anarchists in other parts of the country and this may have explained his international mobility.

In 1891 Fred Charles came to Walsall looking for work. Charles, Deakin, and Westley and Ditchfield, two other members of the Socialist Club, were lured into manufacturing bombs by the agent provocateur Auguste Coulon. In January 1892 Deakin went to London and was arrested on Tottenham Court Road, on his way to the anarchist Autonomie Club in Fitzrovia, by Inspector Melville of the Special Branch and charged with having been unlawfully in the possession of a cigar-box containing a bottle of white fluid, and not being able to give a satisfactory account of how he had obtained it. The fluid was chloroform. It appears that suspicions had been raised about Coulon and the chloroform had been substituted for any explosive. Nevertheless, Charles and others were also arrested. On 15th January 1892 the brutal and manipulative Melville treated the sensitive Deakin badly, first engaging him in a discussion on socialism and anarchism, and bringing him to a state of agitation, before letting him eavesdrop on an apparent confession from voices that appeared to be those of Charles and Ditchfield. Believing that he had been betrayed Deakin made a full confession, stating that he thought the bombs were to be used to attack the Tsar of Russia.

At the subsequent trial Deakin received five years prison sentence. He became Librarian at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, where he continued his self-education with the help of William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and other socialists. He earned 1 year and 89 days remission, being released on Christmas Eve, 1895.

He appears to have moved away from anarchist ideas after his release, whilst still remaining on the left of socialism. He moved back to his old home at 238 Stafford Street, above a milliners’ shop run by his sisters Lucy and Elizabeth. He worked there as a clerk, supplementing his income by doing auditing work for friends in the town. He remained extremely active in socialist politics, becoming a member of the British Socialist Party. In August 1920 he was secretary of the Walsall branch of the Communist Party. He had an important influence on the Trades Council and the labour movement in Walsall for thirty years after his release, maintaining good relations with the different socialist groups, including the ILP, BSP and Fabians. He joined the Labour Party in the later years of his life.

He died on September 7th 1937 and was buried at Ryecroft Cemetery in Walsall. He never married, and was outlived by his two sisters. The former Labour M.P. J. J. McShane stated that “..Joe Deakin was one of the shyest and most sensitive creatures I have ever known..” and attested to his great knowledge, whether of literature, economics, science, history, or drama.

His great nephew on his father’s side was the late Roger Deakin, writer and environmentalist, who stated that he was proud of his great uncle.

Sources: Entry on Deakin by Eric Taylor in Dictionary of Labour Biography Vol.3
Barnsby, G.J. Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country, 1850-1939
Quail, J. The Slow Burning Fuse.