George Barrett, anarchists and the Great Unrest

Freedom Press published a selection of essays by 1910s anarchist activist George Barrett, Our Masters Are Helpless, at the start of this month. Below is an edited and slightly expanded text of the launch event talk.

Submitted by Rob Ray on June 15, 2019

Our Masters Are Helpless is a collection of writings by George Ballard (later known as George Barrett), who was one of the best-known and most active of the young anarchists to emerge in Britain around the time of the Great Unrest of 1910-14. Barrett was only active for eight or nine years before dying at the early age of 29, but had an extraordinary influence on the movement in Britain, inspiring Colin Ward among others and impressing many of the British movement's most important figures, including Peter Kropotkin, George Cores, Alfred Marsh and Mat Kavanagh.

I'm going to break down this talk into a couple of sections, first passing on the editor Iain McKay's written thoughts on why and how he put it together, then taking a whistlestop tour through Barrett's life, and possibly talking a bit on the Freedom Press Newspaper Archive project which enabled Iain's research.

Iain's take

This section briefly breaks down a longer piece by Iain here about his reasoning and efforts in editing together the book.

Barrett was very active in the movement in the 1910s and is to Iain an exemplar of all those anarchists who contribute so much and yet often, at best, get mentioned only in passing in the histories. Yet without their agitating, speaking, writing, editing and so on, academics and historians would have nothing to write about – there would be no movement.

He was also instrumental in creating one of the many incarnations of the Glasgow Anarchists, a subject Iain has a particular interest, in so that was another reason. But, mostly it was because his writings are good – indeed, Ian repeatedly quotes from “The Anarchist Revolution” and “Objections to Anarchism” in An Anarchist FAQ. According to Iain:

Iain McKay

“I still remember reading a collection of his three pamphlets – “The Anarchist Revolution,” “Objections to Anarchism,” and “The Last War” – by Pirate Press entitled The Last War (Sheffield: Pirate Press, 1990) and being impressed. I still am, particularly with “The Anarchist Revolution.” So when I noticed that the Freedom Press Newspaper Archive had digitised all its issues from the early 1910s, I thought it would be good to see what else was there by Barrett. I was happy to see quite a bit (although as he was also working on The Anarchist and then The Voice of Labour, we can be sure these are a mere fraction of his writings).
“So the material was there, I just had to find the time. Luckily I was on strike last year for quite a bit, so as well as working on my substantial introduction to the PM Press edition of Voline’s The Unknown Revolution, I went through those issues of Freedom and gathered the texts. As well as his articles of anarchist propaganda, I decided to include his reports and letters to the paper as these gave a nice sense of what the movement was like then (and it chimes with my, and I am sure others, experiences much later). I also wrote biographical and bibliographical sketches, both very focused and concise (at least for me!). Various explanatory footnotes were added – as would be expected, some comments reflect well-known events of the time but which have faded from popular awareness. 

George Barrett

‘No. 17 If you abolish government, what will you put in its place?
This seems to an Anarchist very much as if a patient asked the doctor, “If you take away my illness, what will you give me in its place?” The Anarchist’s argument is that government fulfils no useful purpose. Most of what it does is mischievous, and the rest could be done better without its interference. It is the headquarters of the profit-makers, the rent-takers, and of all those who take from but who do not give to society. When this class is abolished by the people so organising themselves that they will run the factories and use the land for the benefit of their free communities, i.e., for their own benefit, then the Government must also be swept away, since its purpose will be gone. The only thing then that will be put in the place of government will be the free organisations of the workers. When Tyranny is abolished Liberty remains, just as when disease is eradicated health remains.’

Iain McKay

I particularly liked the “only thing then that will be put in the place of government will be the free organisations of the workers.” This, I thought, summed up the basic libertarian position from Proudhon onwards.

George Barrett and the Great Unrest

George Barrett was born George Powell Ballard in Ledbury, Herefordshire, on December 6th 1888. His direct family were relatively affluent middle class, his father was a master mechanic and his broader family and ancestors were well-known locally, especially those of his grandparents' generation. Thomas Ballard painted the Last Supper in Ledbury Church, Stephen Ballard was an engineer and architect who designed the Hereford-Gloucester canal while Robert Ballard owned the local brick factory.

Public-school educated at Hereford Cathedral School, George trained as an engineering draughtsman and first became notably active in politics through Bristol Socialist Society, showing up in the pages of Freedom in February 1908, aged 19, where he was noted for causing trouble in the group with a highly critical stance on parliamentary politics.

Barrett was in this sense part of a generation of militants which had been emerging and would collectively cause huge concern to the State in the form of the Great Unrest of 1910-1914. The proto, and sometimes outright syndicalist uprising was for the most part conducted a little outside the influence of the anarchists, though there was definite cross-over especially in the form of the anarcho-syndicalist miners of South Wales who had been inspired by Sam Mainwaring.

Railway riots in Llanelli, 1911

Their Miners' Next Step pamphlet, written shortly after Welsh strikes and Tonypany riot of 1911, was a major influence on a crisis which had been brewing for years between bosses who had been manipulating and legislating against labour organisations, union tops who were trying to act as mediators and workers who had been seeing their real wages decline year by year. Trade union membership had trebled between 1888 and 1910 – and doubled again in the four years up to the war.

Amid this rising ferment, Barrett met and later married fellow socialist Bristolian Edith Oxley. "Edie" Ballard was active alongside George until his death and remained an active pacifist activist throughout her life. She lived in Bristol after George's passing with her sister, Nell Oxley — she was a longstanding reader of Freedom Newspaper and supported publication of George Barrett's writings in the form of Freedom Press book The First Person. She died on May 24th 1963.

The Ballards moved to Walthamstow in 1909 and George joined Walthamstow Anarchist group, meeting well-known East London anarchists such as Ambrose Barker, and finding work on Waltham Abbey among other projects. He was known for his prodigious energy, speaking almost every night and cycling up to 20 miles each way to meetings after work.

The couple moved again to Glasgow in April the following year and Ballard started street speaking on his own, sometimes assisted by John McAra from Edinburgh. John Paton, then an anarchist with the ILP, notes:

There had been no anarchist propaganda in Glasgow for many years, although at one time there had been an active group. The speaker was a tall, good-looking Englishman, extremely eloquent and able, whose speech betrayed his middle-class origin. The passionate conviction with which he spoke was extraordinarily impressive; he was undoubtedly an unusual personality; the crowd about him swelled in numbers. As the speech developed, my interest quickened with excitement; he progressed from the usual attack on capitalism to a scathing indictment of politicians and particularly the leaders of the Labour Party: here was, at last, being shouted at the street corner, all the criticisms which had become common in the ‘left-wing’ of the I.L.P., but which we’d keep discreetly for party discussion. My heart rejoiced. But it was much more than a mere attack on personalities; it was a powerful analysis of the causes that produced them.

and it was with Paton, who himself in later life would later go on to become the ILP general secretary and MP for Norwich in 1945) that Barrett went on to form Glasgow Anarchists, with the first meeting taking place at the Clarion Club, Gorbals The first few meetings reportedly saw poor interaction, until Ballard took the chair and made a speech. He was duly elected secretary, and with Paton formed the core of a group, picking up 20 members through 1910.

Ballard's writing through this period for Freedom is broadly in favour of the rising tide of syndicalism which was taking place at the same time, though fell in line with warnings from the likes of Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin that fetishishing industrial organisation without fielding a revolutionary organisational undercurrent wouldn't change the material relationship between worker and boss. He notes:

George Barrett

Direct action, though the truth, is not the whole truth. There are two distinct purposes to which direct action may be put. The first leads to freedom, the second simply to various forms of oppression. The first leads to anarchy, and the second to a reorganisation of the capitalist system.

If you are slaves and combine among yourself and ask your owner for better conditions, better houses, a supply of books to read, etc., then if you are sufficiently united by your direct action you may force your owner to give you these things. But nevertheless at each step he becomes more and more entirely your keeper and owner, and you, so long as you recognise that it is his duty to keep you, become abjectly his dependent. How much better if you had gripped the simple truth, that all the clothes, houses, and books that he gave you, you first of all had given him; and that therefore much the simplest and the only direct way to get these things would be to use your powers of direct action to refuse to give them up when they were created.

In fact, instead of demanding that your owner should govern you more perfectly, begin to demand that your owner slackens his hold on you and gives you more freedom, so that you can produce those things that you need and enjoy them freely among yourselves.
Now, the relation of the workers to the capitalist is just like the relation of the slaves to the slave owner. direct action may be used to force from the master class labour legislation, which generally means that the government promises to help your starving old mother and father to live, pays for your sickness, and helps you when unemployed — in fact, more completely regulates and controls you (We will neglect the fact that while it puts a florin in your hand, it takes half-a-crown from your pocket.) To carry this argument to the extreme, direct action may be used as some advanced politicians are recommending today, namely, to force the government to control the industries around which the disputes are raging. What profound folly!

The government is sending gangs of men about our streets, armed with bludgeons and firearms with which to fight the workers, and yet we are told these same workers should demand, as the outcome of this struggle, that this same government shall control the very industry about which the war is waged.

Workers and fighters, you have shown our power, the power of the producers against the impotent capitalist class, which can only oppose you with its brutal force. Use that power wisely and well. It is not your business to see that you are properly legislated for; that is the business of the exploiter. It is for you to free yourselves. Everything that the government gives you — the “free” schools, pensions, or insurance — you first of all give the government. Demand and take your freedom, so that these things will never be given over to the governing class.
Fight for higher wages and shorter hours, because it is well to dictate to your impudent dependents (the capitalists) and demonstrate your strength; but remember that you are out for something far greater than this.

Barrett's politics dovetailed well to Freedom's, to the point where he was actually asked to edit the paper at the behest of Alfred Marsh and after consideration, refused on the grounds that its mighty three decades of historical baggage would make it too difficult to turn around. He tended to fit with a perspective in the anarchist movement which was ultimately correct but not what workers necessarily wanted to hear at the time, for example the directly-linked line by Malatesta that:

Certainly syndicalism can emancipate a part of the workers, but not all. It is only too obvious that the syndicates make a serious division of the workers and often without doing any harm to the capitalists.

Militant anarchists who were part of the wider syndicalist movement couldn't use this theoretical armament in their work throughout broader unions and workforces, which were only really beginning to be hostile towards TUC conciliation and the limits of ILP's softly-softly approaches. They instead tended from 1910 to cluster around the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, The Syndicalist newspaper and the successes of a network of talented organisers built around the likes of Tom Mann, Guy Bowman and Ben Tillet.

The syndicalists meanwhile managed to get in on the ground floor of a truly enormous mobilisation. For context, by 1914 more than 10 million working days were being lost to strike action per annum and 4.1 million people were in trade unions out of a working population of perhaps 10 million – up to 40% density. Last year, by contrast, out of a working British populace three times larger but with a membership of 6.2 million (less than 20% density) there were barely 273,000 strike days. And the 1910s strikes were much more confrontational showdowns with significant violence. Scabs' houses were attacked, blacklegs were getting their legs broken, cops were being bricked.

Much of this was passing the anarchists by, but that's not to say activists, including Ballard, were silent. Activity from the anarcho-syndicalist and communist agitators was continuous up to the war with street speaking, meetings, social clubs, Sunday schools, even rambling. The radicals coalesced in 1908 through the Industrialist League, intiially with EJB Allen and through increasing links with the revolutionary syndicalist IWW in the US. Ballard, as I'll talk a bit about in a minute, was among many who involved themselves directly in local struggles wherever they arose.

But their impact on the wider union agitation was patchy and over the period Ballard became increasingly critical over compromises being made with the major institutions, noting in 1913 the way in which the Independent Labour Party's “elastic principles” were bringing it success …

the spirit of revolution has been as effectively excluded from the labour movement as the spirit of religion has been slowly done to death in the churches. Compromise may, and often does, mean success to organisations, but it means death to great principles.

Prior to that however he and the Glasgow Anarchists were getting involved in a number of struggles, some not of their own making. In January 1911 the Siege of Sidney Street, a famous confrontation between Peter the Painter's Latvian anarchist crew and London cops, led by Winston Churchill, electrified the media and caused a major moral panic over foreign insurrectionists on British soil. Peter escaped and was thought to be hiding in Glasgow, so cops called at Clarion Club and sent two undercovers to a GAG meeting, though they were subsequently caught out and asked to leave.

Nevertheless, GAG was clearly on the authorities' watchlist especially due to its notable growth. By May 1st 1911 the group had recruited 50 members, spreading to Govan and Paisley and by June 1912 was meeting regularly in Glasgow/Paisely with additional activity in Clydebank, Maryhill and Parkhead.

That month Ballard, whose ambitions for the movement continued to be extensive, took a long tour round North of England particularly looking for funds to produce a new paper, The Anarchist, and some of his impressions from this tour are recounted in Our Masters Are Helpless. He raised around £90 towards the project through these trips, but his biggest coup was drawing the support of photographer George Davison, a wealthy man who had made his money working as a managing director at the Kodak photo firm (and had in fact been forced to resign that role in 1908 due to his "unsavoury" anarchist friendships, though he remained a board member until 1912). Davison's cash would allow the paper to be launched a year later.

Steamers at Broomielaw Quay in 1911

But before that came about, in June 1911 GAG found itself getting involved in the Glasgow leg of 1911's massive Seamen's Strike, where Ballard himself was arrested and charged with leading an attack on the wharves against use of scab labour. The charges were eventually dropped as strikers' militancy essentially intimidated local magistrates, but Ballard was fired from his job and blacklisted. Ballard permanently changed name at this point to his erstwhile penname George Barrett, in an effort to thwart blacklisting, but ended up having to make a scant living writing articles for the engineering press.

It left him with significantly more free time, which was very much put to use when The Anarchist was launched in May 1912. It ran for 34 issues with writers including George Cores and trade unionist A J Cook – later the secretary of the Miners Federation.

Unfortunately support from the wider movement wasn't forthcoming enough to support such a grand project. Freedom Press, which had been running largely on the energies of its paper's editor Tom Keell, said it hadn't the capacity especially as a broad upsurge of interest meant the print run of Freedom as a monthly was getting higher, around 3,000 per issue. Barrett was thus himself involved on every level in the Anarchist – writing, editing, including folding, packing, even postage.

He impressed Kropotkin enough with the venture that the famed figure described him as a “rare journalist”, but the tone of the paper was again not quite what the syndicalists were after, and production throughout was restricted to the efforts of the core group of GAG – alienating many of its hinterland membership.


Barrett also continued as a speaker at the same time, speaking at evening and after-dinner meetings, setting up new groups as he went, many of which survived to the end of WWI. From his reports we get an impression of how the anarchist movement was doing in the North, as he cites in Glasgow and Edinburgh a wealth of possiblity, High activity was also recorded in Bristol and some action in Newcastle and Liverpool – though Leeds and Manchester were dubbed a mess.

The sheer effort of continuing at such a rate made it impossible to keep every plate spinning, and in early 1913 the entire project came crashing down. The paper collapsed, taking GAG with it, which was a bitter blow to Barrett — though he was able to point to a better situation in general nationally particularly in South Wales, where a strong anarcho-syndicalist section was to be found. The remaining editorial team – primarily Barrett himself — moved over to work on mooted replacement Voice of Labour, which from April 1913 was being set up with the Freedom Press group, featuring particularly the outstanding Lillian Wolfe.

And members of the GAG were also instrumental in a different editorial venture the following year, according to contemporary Mat Kavanagh, specifically related to the fight for Irish freedom — The Irish Worker. Mostly associated with James Larkin, on his imprisonment and subsequent departure to the US in October 23rd 1914 the paper was taken over by his second hand man, syndicalist-linked activist James Connolly. The next issue came out with the strapline Neither King nor Kaiser, and was outright anti-capitalist in scope, aiming to raise support for the Citizen Army. The paper was heavily repressed however and its final official issue that December was heavily censored.

Nevertheless it was almost immediately replaced by first Irish Work, straplined “published when the censor wasn't looking” and then simply The Worker.

Kavanagh misremembers the paper as being The Harp, which was actually an earlier US-based effort from Connolly, but does explain that when he heard the Worker had been suppressed Barrett immediately got in touch with Connolly to offer his help. The Worker was subsequently put together at The Anarchist’s old printery and successfully smuggled into Ireland. Other accounts of this suggest the Socialist Labour Party might have been the ones who did it, but due to the secrecy involved this remains unclear. Either way, the police in Britain clearly got wind of “anarchists” being involved and duly raided several anarchist presses, including Freedom at its base in Ossulston Street, just north of where the British Library now resides, but never caught the culprits. The Worker wasn't able to be as up to date as the Irish Worker had been and was finally stopped in February 1915 when the authorities seized a smuggled shipment of “glass” on its trip from Glasgow to Dublin.

By 1914 however Barrett was already starting to be affected by the illness that would eventually kill him. Having acquired a motorbike he had driven it through the worst of weather to attend meetings, and in March 1913 he caught a chill at an outdoor meeting, which later developed into tuberculosis.

His journalistic writing for Freedom mostly stopped after 1914 but he did involve himself with the refounding of Voice of Labour from May of that year and continued to work on pamphlets, in particular writing The Last War, published by Bristol Freedom Workers Group, which sold 10,000 copies before it was banned and Objections to Anarchism, two key essays which are included in Our Masters Are Helpless. Voice of Labour helped united the fragmentary anarcho-syndicalist movement just before the war began but subsequently suffered from both repression against the Freedom Group and the deaths of many of the movement's most able figures through the period before folding in 1916.

His final major involvement in the affairs of the movement was in 1914-1915, when he was, as part of Voice of Labour, involved in backing Tom Keel against Peter Kropotkin in a furious dispute over the anarchist position on World War One. Barrett was a signatory an International Manifesto against the War produced by the group around Freedom, which is reprinted at the back of our book.

He continued to write until he was too weak, then dictated his thoughts to friends. He died on January 7th, 1917 in Torquay.

The Freedom Newspaper Archive

Alongside Freedom Press history A Beautiful Idea, this is the second book published by Freedom Press which was largely enabled by the digitised archive we have been building of Freedom's long-running newspaper. We think around 3,000 copies of the paper have been produced (of 1,256 have been digitised), and at the time of Barrett's activism it was running relatively regularly on a monthly basis, meaning that once we had found digital copies we were able to search for Barrett and track down much of his writing for the paper. Mat Kavanagh's original biographical sketch of Barrett was also freely available without requiring researchers to head down to one of the few libraries which contain it to read the full copy.

Barrett's writing and personality was very influential on the movement at the time, but the impact of World War I — and the later bombing of Tom Keell's stores of pamphlets in 1944 — saw much of the anarchists' histories get all but wiped out. Our Masters Are Helpless offers a useful showing of what can be achieved as more of our earliest written papers get past the digital walls of academia for all anarchists to read and learn from. We recently put up all our available issues of Freedom Bulletin, and soon to be published will be a full set from 1923, so we shall see what can be gleaned from those!


jef costello

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Submitted by jef costello on June 16, 2019