The libertarian Dundonian: Jute, The Poet’s Box, the Guy They All Dread (with an aside on poet McGonagall)

The Poet's Box shop, Dundee
The Poet's Box shop, Dundee

A short history of libertarian Dundee

Submitted by Battlescarred on June 11, 2013

After Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, Dundee was the Scottish city that had the greatest anarchist implantation in the 19th century.

Dundee was a centre for Radicalism in the 1790s and the Radical weaver George Mealmaker, who stood on the revolutionary wing of the movement, was transported to Australia for fourteen years. Subsequently Dundee was a stronghold for Chartism in the 1830s.

There was a tradition of autodidacticism in the city from at least the 1830s when a Dundee ‘Republic of letters” emerged, an informal gathering of self-educated, well-read and politically active working people. This group encouraged working class writing, and this was often radical and in favour of social equality. Those too poor to publish were offered an opportunity to do so by this circle. This vibrant working class culture is also reflected in the emergence of the Poet’s Box. This was a shop set up in Overgate in 1880 by J.G. Scott and published and sold broadsheets and ballads. In 1882 Scott produced a catalogue of 2,000 titles including humorous recitations, dialogues, temperance songs, medleys, parodies, love songs, and Jacobite songs. It was particularly busy on market days. William Shepherd appears to have taken over from Scott sometime in the 1880s. More of the Poet’s Box later. With the growth of literacy broadsheets and ballad sheets became very popular. They often commented on topical subjects and the latest news. This tradition remained strong in Scotland. Other Poet’s Boxes specialising in the distribution of these sheets were in Edinburgh and Glasgow and had previously existed in Belfast and Paisley. They almost certainly sold each other’s sheets.

William Morris wrote in the Socialist League paper Commonweal in 1886 after a visit to Glasgow that “Our comrades here ought to make a push to get up a branch in Dundee”. This seems to have happened and a branch appears to have emerged there. Whether it came out of the Social Democratic Federation from which the Socialist League had seceded, or was a branch of completely new members is not clear (the SDF had two branches in Dundee).

Concerning a subsequent tour of Scotland in March 1888, Morris wrote in The Commonweal that:
“The next day I went to Dundee, where I had much the same kind of audience, except that there were more middle-class persons amongst it, who made themselves useful by asking questions easily answered, but (I hope) in a way not satisfactory to them, though very much so to the working-men present. One of the questioners was the sub-editor of the Radical paper, and I answered an unfair question of his with some warmth, so I was not surprised at getting a very curt report next morning; whereas the Tory journal reported us fairly and well. The audience was very hearty and appreciative. There is a branch here of the Scottish Land and Labour League, manned by energetic workers, whose work, however, is difficult, because ordinary party politics run high in Dundee, and the Radicals there have not got further than the Gladstoneite programme, if it can be called a programme”.

The Dundee Socialist League was still going in 1889 when James Connolly first committed himself to socialist ideas and decided to join the Dundee branch.

The first Dundee anarchist group appears to have emerged from the wreckage of the Socialist League in the early 1890s. The initiator seems to have been the anarchist William Cameron, who in September 1890 opened a debate on “State Socialism versus Anarchism” at the Labour Institute on Overgate. Freedom (October 1890) reported: “The discussion was spirited, and a great many questions were asked about Anarchism. Addison spoke strongly in support. Comrade Cameron, whose remarks were well received by the meeting, has secured the names of seven or eight comrades to start a group for the study of Anarchist principles. Having been requested to speak again shortly, he is preparing an address on "Are Governments Necessary?" which we hope he will soon deliver.”

Cameron had been secretary of the Social Democratic Federation at least until 1889 and subsequently appears to have moved to the Socialist League and anarchist communism.

Later in 1891 Commonweal reported: “On Saturday 20th, Anarchist-Communism was preached for the first time at Greenmarket, by Cyril Bell (1). There was a good meeting, and some opposition. On the 21st, Cameron opened at Hilltown, and Bell spoke for an hour and a quarter, no opposition, but good crowd. In the afternoon again, at Barrack Park, splendid meeting, Cameron, C. Bell and Dempster speaking. Dempster had been called upon to oppose Anarchy, but he quite admired it. Afterwards the Social-Democrats began to have a discussion on Parnell. Interesting! In the evening, a large meeting in Commercial Street, from 7 to 10, Cameron introducing and Bell lecturing. Opposition came from a God Almighty “Christian Democrat," and in answer to the Social Democratic opposition Bell showed the futility of government and the ballot-box. At the meetings we got rid of three quires of ' Weal, and a quire of pamphlets. A Group has been formed in Dundee, and lecturers are invited to help as there are no outdoor speakers.” An address for the Dundee Anarchist-Communist Group was given as William Reekie, 15 Ann Street (Commonweal, July 19th, 1891).

Dundee was the scene of the first territorial meeting of Scottish anarchist groups with attendance from 25 delegates from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Haddington and Aberdeen as well as the Dundee anarchists on January 1st 1893 at the Argyle Coffeerooms. In their report to the conference, the Dundee comrades opined that they had thousands of sympathisers (measured probably by attendance at open-air meetings) and a “splendid field” but “suffered greatly for want of open-air speakers”. (3rd January 1893, Dundee Courier).On the agenda was arrangements for lecturers from London, entry into all the trade union bodies, a shunning of 'political socialists' and a continuance of educational work. A . Le Beau (one imagines this was a French exile) rounded off proceedings by singing the Carmagnole, followed by Richie and Duncan of Aberdeen and Henry of Edinburgh singing the Song of the Workers.

In 1893 Agnes Henry, as part of a tour of Scotland, spoke in Dundee on 1st March 1893 to a meeting of “fair attendance” on the subject of anarchist communism.

Cameron was interviewed by the local paper the Dundee Courier in February 1894 and this subsequently appeared as an article ‘The Anarchist Movement in Dundee (Feb 17th) . Cameron said that the Dundee group had 20 members, but with a far larger group of sympathisers. It had no hall for meetings, but gathered at the house of a comrade. Cameron said that in addition to Agnes Henry, the anarchists Charles Mowbray and David Nicholl had addressed meetings in the city.

In 1894 there was a joint agitation between the SDF and the anarchists in holding street meetings, with the anarchist David Warden often chairing these assemblies. The meetings were jointly against pressure from police and magistrates to clamp down on open –air meetings and to protest against the decision of the local council to present both Sir George Trevelyan, Secretary of State for Scotland and the Duchess of Albany with the freedom of the city and with silver caskets. At one of these meetings, in front of the Clydesdale Bank at the foot of Hilltown, on the 12th September, where Warden presided and introduced the socialist James Duncan, the police informed them that the meeting was “not allowed”. It adjourned up the slope to Hilltown where the meeting continued without interruption. Dundee had previously been the scene of a free speech fight in March 1889 when the local SDF had defied the local magistrates’ attempted ban on open-air meetings, attracting crowds of 15,000. As a result the ban was lifted.

There was a threat by the Dundee anarchists to disrupt the Duchess and Trevelyan’s visits with “groaning and hissing brigades” along the route of the processions (Dundee Courier, 20th September, 1894) came to nothing, with non-appearance from the anarchists. We must assume that the police had taken action to prevent this happening.

The London based anarchist James Tochatti, originally from Scotland, gave a report back from his Scottish tour in 1894 in Liberty, the paper he edited. He referred to George Fraser, one of the anarchists active in Dundee, with whom he stayed.

The American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre spoke in Dundee at Plumbers Hall, Wellgate on September 18th 1897 as part of her Scottish tour arranged by the Glasgow anarchists William and Maggie Duff.
The Dundee Anarchists had a project of setting up a ‘labour union on libertarian lines’ (Freedom, October, 1904). Later in 1907 this group was involved in another unsuccessful attempt to set up a jute workers’ union on federalist lines. This was the year that Guy Aldred launched a campaign to set up a network of Communist Propaganda Groups, and the local anarchists appear to have affiliated as a local branch.

Certainly in 1911 a number of the methods advocated by anarchists and syndicalists manifested themselves in Dundee. Radicalised by the boilermakers’ strike of the previous year, 1911 kicked off with a strike at Cox’s mill in support of two laid-off workers and proceeded to September with a schools’ strike where 1,500 schoolchildren attacked eight schools with sticks and stones! Finally in December 600 carters and 700 dockers came out on strike. This caused the closure of the textile factories, with the laid-off workers going on the streets in support of the strikers. A mass of workers blocked blacklegs from worked and persuaded some of them to change sides. Carts and lorries driven by blacklegs were stopped all over Dundee, with the horses unharnessed from the vehicles and then taken back to the stables by strikers. One lorry was pushed in the river. Police detachments from outside Dundee and 300 soldiers were drafted in , with hand to hand fighting taking place. The New Year brought a strike of women weavers and male polishers, followed by a rent strike! Five hundred carpet workers joined the fray, ending with the strike and lockout of 30,000 workers.

John Lowden Macartney had been born with the surname McArthy in 1863 and worked in the jute mills. He subsequently became a journalist for the Dundee Advertiser and The Weekly News. He took over the Poet’s Box in 1906 and maintained it until its closure in 1946. He died in 1951.He specialised in publishing local songs and bothy ballads and brought out a large number of Irish songs, as there were many Irish workers in the jute mills and as seasonal workers for the potato harvest. He organised “penny readings” in the shop for those unable to read, as the illiteracy rate was quite high in Dundee. In the tradition of fostering local working class literary talent, he appears to have had the dubious honour of having encouraged William McGonagall, generally regarded as the worst poet in British history. He provided an introduction to a posthumous selection of McGonagall’s poems.

Macartney stocked the anarchist paper Freedom. The shop was small and crowded, and Macartney had a printing press in the gas-lit back room. He used the pseudonym of Alvan Marlaw, writing “The Use and Significance of Strikes” for the February 28th 1904 issue of the anarchist paper Voice of Labour (Glasgow) – the only issue- and the pamphlet The Bugbear of Socialism ( No1 of Anti-Jacobin Series) and the ballad The Rime of the Ancient Harridan . Of this the Word on the Street site says: “Alvan Marlaw's satirical ballad is a parody of Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' that delivers an indictment of corruption in civic and national government. Civic power is represented by the wealthy, selfish provost; the ancient harridan who stops him represents the State. The premise of the poem is that the ruling classes in Britain pay higher taxes, or bribes, in order to maintain the system of class and privilege, and ensure that the working classes remain poor and discriminated against in law. “He brought out the pamphlet Red Ravachol; An Allegory of Our social Chaos in 1900 and it was he who arranged Guy Aldred’s first meeting in Dundee on Sunday afternoon July 13th, 1913 at Shoe Terrace on Socialism and God.

Aldred spoke that night on Albert Square on When Trade Unions Fail followed by a Monday evening meeting on Industrial Unionism. The Sunday meeting attacked trade unionism and included criticisms of industrial unionism and syndicalism. Three more meetings in Dundee followed. Aldred visited Dundee three times more to address meetings, in October and then December of 1913 and finally during World War One when he spoke alongside Jack White (above information based mainly on reminiscences of Aldred in his paper the Word in the mid-1940s).

Again with the setting up of the Communist League, in which Aldred was involved, in 1916 Dundee had one of the component branches, apparently based on previous avatars like the Communist Propaganda Group.

In the aftermath of the War Aldred supported, in 1919,the International Union of Ex-Servicemen – usually known by the acronym IUX- which was very active in Dundee at this period around unemployment, addressing meetings arranged by them including one at Gilfillan Hall on November 5th, 1919, advertised as being addressed by ‘the famous Guy Aldred’. Aldred spoke another time with Jack White to the IUX in Dundee on November 12th The IUX described itself as a revolutionary socialist organisation and had first appeared in Glasgow that year. Its National Secretary, James Cox, was an advocate of direct action and he and other IUX leaders contemplated the setting up of a Red Army in Britain! Aldred, in his inimitable fashion, seems to have shortly parted ways with the IUX.

With the formation of the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation in 1921, again with a big input from Aldred, a branch was set up in Dundee, appearing to be based on the previously existing Communist Propaganda Group there.

The libertarian stream in Dundee seems to have gone underground after this period until the emergence of a Dundee anarchist group between from 1963 until at least 1965 as listed in Freedom. In the 1970s Mike Malet , a London anarchist, had moved to Dundee. It was at his house that a Scottish anarchist conference took place in 1971, at which most of the participants, including Malet, decided to join the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists.Later on a Dundee group of the libertarian socialist organisation Solidarity was set up in the 1970s. They produced a pamphlet in 1974, Educational Idiocy in Scotland.. Malet seems to have been involved in this group. Later with the founding of the Scottish Libertarian Federation in 1975, he was its Dundee contact . At least one issue of Black Cat, a Dundee libertarian socialist newspaper appeared that year.

There was significant anarchist activity in Dundee during the early 1980s mainly through the Tayside Libertarian Socialists group. There was also a Libertarian Socialist Society at Dundee University around 1981/82. The group held regular public meetings and organised a People's Festival in Baxter Park on royal wedding day 1981 as well as putting on bands in the old Wishart Centre.
The public meetings were held in the Wellgate Library until the Dundee Courier exposed them as "anarchists masquerading as libertarian socialists" and the Labour controlled council promptly administered a ban.

There was also a anarchist peace picnic in 1986 which resulted in four arrests. Photos from then and a demo in 1985 can be found on the Dundee Anarchists fb page:

Again there seems little evidence of libertarian activity in Dundee up until the present period with the founding of the broad based Dundee anarchists and a Dundee group of the Anarchist Federation. Let us hope that this time a more deep-rooted anarchist presence can be established in “The City of Discovery”.

(1) Cyril Bell, medical student and lecturer, who gives the information in Commonweal that he was a "mountain devil" from mid-Wales, was active in Scotland, Sheffield and London. He spoke in Edinburgh in 1891 for the anniversary of the Chicago Martyrs. Later he was secretary of Louise Michel’s Free School in Fitzrovia, London.

Nick Heath


Memorialising Burns: Dundee and Montrose compared
Word on the Street site on Macartney:
Evening Telegraph, Angus. 13th September 1894
Kenefick, William. Red Scotland (2007)



10 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by Duncan on June 15, 2013

Great article and very interesting. There was however significant anarchist activity in Dundee during the early 1980's mainly through the Tayside Libertarian Socialists group. There was also a Lib Soc society at Dundee Uni around 81/82. The group held regular public meetings and organised a Peoples Festival in Baxter Park on royal wedding day 1981 as well as putting on bands in the old Wishart Centre.
The public meetings were held in the Wellgate Library until the Dundee Courier exposed us as "anarchists masquerading as libertarian socialists" and the Labour controlled council promptly banned us.
There was also a anarchist peace picnic in 1986 which resulted in four arrests. Photos from then and a demo in 85 can be found on the Dundee Anarchists fb page:


7 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Battlescarred on July 25, 2016

Updated with a bit more info on John Lowden Macartney


3 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by Battlescarred on January 6, 2021

I've added more info on William Cameron and on the anarchist conference in Dundee in 1893.

Red Marriott

3 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by Red Marriott on January 6, 2021

Photo added.