London's anarchist HQ: 127 Ossulston St, 1894-1927

Tom Keell and Percey Meachem at 127 Ossulston St in 1927

Originally written for the Freedom building fundraising blog as part off a history series kicking off the campaign, this article looks at the anarchist links of Ossulston Street, London, which runs down the western flank of the British Library.

Submitted by Rob Ray on November 1, 2016

The building at number 127 is mentioned by Donald Rooum as the first long-term premises run by Freedom Press after it was kicked out of the Freethought Publishing Company’s offices at Bouverie Street in 1888. He notes:

In 1895, Charlotte Wilson resigned [as editor] and was replaced as publisher by Alfred Marsh, a violinist. In 1898, Freedom acquired its own printing facilities. The nieces and nephew of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti had been printing their own paper, The Torch, a journal of anarchist communism at 127 Ossulston Street, near Kings Cross, since 1885. In 1898 they decided to cease publication and arranged for the Freedom group to take over the premises. The Rossettis’ printing equipment was bought and donated to Freedom by two sympathisers. Freedom Press stayed in Ossulston Street for the next 30 years.

The “nieces and nephew” were Olivia, Helen and Arthur Rossetti, referenced as also being cousins to Ford Maddox Ford, whose stories are said to have helped inspire Joseph Conrad’s famous farce The Secret Agent.

While teenagers (they were 16, 11, and 14 respectively) they had founded The Torch in their father William’s basement at 3 St Edmund’s Terrace in 1891, which led to the extraordinary spectacle of the home of the Secretary of the Inland Revenue — William’s job — being under constant surveillance by “English detectives, French police spies and Russian agents provocateurs” as Ford put it.

In 1892 the teenage trio acquired a derelict printing press, taken from the loft of the old Commonweal offices at Clerkenwell Road, and by 1893 were corresponding with well-known members of the British anarchist movement, including Thomas Cantwell and H B Samuels of Commonweal, Dr Fausset Macdonald (a middle-class militant under near-permanent watch by Scotland Yard), as well as international figures such as Peter Kropotkin (already in London at that time and writing for Freedom, then publishing out of 61 St Augustine’s Road) and Errico Malatesta. However their father expelled them from the basement that year and the Press was removed, first to Goodge Street and then to Ossulston. Olivia would later relate to Ford that Goodge Street was:

A locality as grim as its name. There it became a sort of club where the hangers-on of the extreme left idled away an immense amount of time while their infant hosts and hostesses were extremely active over their forms. I myself did not like it much and only went there I think twice — to see about the printing of my first poem.

After an eight-month break in publication, due to the Rossettis’ mother falling ill, it appears that Macdonald and co. had largely taken over while the Rossettis continued to help in the background and in 1894 The Torch took on a new subtitle, “a revolutionary journal of anarchist-communism, settling at Ossulston Street in 1894. In a diary entry about the building reported by R Hampson in Conrad’s Secrets, Olive Garnett notes:

“One Frenchman comes, the rest are Italians … who come and go from month to month. Many of them sleep there at night, food for a dozen is provided at Olive’s expense … the place is constantly observed by policemen.”

By 1896 however the Rossettis had quit due to work (in Arthur’s case) ill health (Helen) and possibly disillusionment (Olivia), leaving behind a fictionalised account of their time in the movement which was none too flattering — though it should be noted that Olivia would later become a fascist sympathiser in Italy. In her novel, the “Bomb” newspaper found itself in dire straits after the arrest of key comrades, and was left in the hands of “Short” — a thinly disguised rendition of Thomas Cantwell, now in overall charge of the Torch. She describes a scene the day after the arrests:

“The comrades had not seen fit so far to muster round the paper. To say there was none, however, is an injustice, for there on the sofa, still huddled in the red flag, lay Short, apparently little affected by what had taken place since I last saw him. He had been aroused from his slumbers by the yelping of his dog, whose tail had been trodden on by one of the detectives, and he had raised himself on his elbow, and was looking round, uttering curses volubly. He nodded slightly on seeing us enter, but did not change his position. There he lay, quite heroic in his immovable sloth; of all the many fighters he alone remained staunch at his post; and that because he was positively too lazy to move away from it.”

Cantwell was, by all accounts, an irascible personality badly affected by a stretch of six-months’ hard labour handed down in 1893, with a habit of starting fights with comrades. He and others from Commonweal, closed for good the year before, had been recruited along with John Turner and Joseph Presburg by Freedom contributor Alfred Marsh in 1895, who had effectively taken on responsibility for the paper following the resignation of Charlotte Wilson as editor. Then he’d taken over at the stricken Torch as well, moving all the Freedom print type over from its previous home at Judd Street in April 1896. By 1897 all other papers were closed down, leaving just Freedom.

Cantwell’s brief stint as acting editor was brought to an end the same year, apparently to the relief of all:

“From September 1898 A Belgian, F Henneghien was able to replace Cantwell and this was a relief to many as he tended to fall out with comrades on a regular basis and was seen as very unreliable rarely producing anything on time. As regards Freedom George Cores noted that Cantwell ‘had, as acting editor, a peculiar habit of censoring all contributions, making everything which appeared conform to the gospel according to Cantwell. This did not suit the comrades.’ Marsh himself was to write in 1897 to Nettlau that ‘ you cannot imagine what a time I had. 2 ½ years with Cantwell is enough to kill anyone’ (Cantwell had left Freedom in November, at least temporarily).”

He came back as the Freedom compositor after Henneghien left in 1900, but had a stroke in 1902 and died in 1906, Max Nettlau writing an obituary that took note of his faults, but lauded his endless loyalty to the cause.

Ossulston Street in the 1890s

The road was a poor one and a major thoroughfare on the edge of Somers Town, showing up on Charles Booth’s 1890s maps of poverty. In the detail below, the Midlands Rail Goods Depot and Potato Market is on the site of what is now the British Library, while 127 Ossulston would be between Phoenix Street and Aldenham. In Booth’s colour scheme, purple indicates a down-at-heel area, blue impoverished and black serious poverty — the infamous rookeries would fall into that category, and the Somers Town slums are still sometimes portrayed as such in novels.

Clarendon (now Werrington) Street, on the left of the image and just round the corner from number 127, was one of these and described by Booth in 1898 as:

A narrow thoroughfare of bad repute — the worst spot in the immediate neighbourhood and a good many prostitutes and amateurish thieves are living here. The local name for the street is ‘Little Hell’.

Initially the area had been a cheap haven for artisans fleeing the French Revolution, described in 1878 by Old and New London:

This district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho … the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself.

The population soared from the 1830s onwards, leading to high density slums with transitory and multinational demographics, with transport links which made it a useful spot for incoming radicals. The Judd Street premises, taken over by The Alarm in 1896 after Freedom moved out, can be found just the other side of Euston Road, while other premises further south that Freedom had published from included 28 Grays Inn Road, 57 Chancery Lane and 7 Lamb’s Conduit Street. In 1921 the census found density in Somers Town averaged three people to a room.

Keell, Marsh and the movement’s decline

Following Cantwell’s stroke, Tom Keell and Alfred Marsh became the key figures at Ossulston Street in 1902. Marsh was acting editor, while Keell ran the business side, largely stabilising what had become a hugely dysfunctional operation. By 1905 the pair had, in the wake of the failed Russian revolution of that year, begun to focus primarily on reporting industrial activities and agitating for direct action. Contributors at the time included John Turner, Guy Aldred (in his own name and also as ‘Ajax junior’), Karl Walter (grandfather of Nicolas), Harry Kelly, S Carlyle Potter and Jimmy Dick. By 1910, when Marsh was to retire from ill health, the building was seemingly ticking over well. In his essay A Visit To London written the same year, Ben Reitman notes:

On my arrival, I called at the office of Freedom, the leading English Anarchist paper, that has been proclaiming the message of liberty to the world for nearly twenty-eight years. Dozens of publications have come to life and died, but Freedom has weathered all difficulties.

The man who has charge of Freedom and publishes all the Anarchistic pamphlets is Tom Keell, a jovial, hardworking, and devoted soul, whose entire life is consecrated to his cause.

He gave me a truly comradely reception and bade me make myself at home in the office. Nor did his cordiality diminish during my entire stay. Gloomy or cheerful, Tom always greeted me with kind words and a cup of tea. And when I incurred the curiosity of Scotland Yard, members of which were eager to locate my place of “conspiracy,” it was Tom Keell who beat them off my track and took me to his home.

However editorial support for the paper was lacking, largely in Keell’s view due to a more general malaise in the wider London movement, and despite an influx of new people who produced Voice of Labour through the press at Ossulston he was forced to take on Freedom’s editorial duties as well as business ones, eventually becoming “acting editor” in 1913 and getting embroiled at the heart of a major movement split over engagement with the First World War.

Writing later, historian Max Nettlau would argue it was inevitable, in an era where nationalism was scorched onto the psyches of all, that even among the anarchist movement many would take sides on the Allies vs Central Powers question, and the argument kicked off in earnest in November 1914 following an edition of Freedom in which Peter Kropotkin and others made the case for supporting the Allies.

Keel, though anti-war, was at pains to provide impartiality and carried the articles verbatim along with criticism from many other writers, but would go on to place himself squarely against the “secular saints” who were advocating getting behind the Allies. He was denounced as “unworthy” of his editorial role by Kropotkin for his troubles. He was backed primarily by the Voice of Labour collective, including George Barrett, Fred Dunn, Mabel Hope, Elizabeth Archer, Tom Sweetlove, W Fanner, and Lilian Wolfe, but would not be exonerated of accusations that he was disgracing his office until the next national anarchist gathering in April 1915. By then Kropotkin and others in the pro-Allies camp were thoroughly hostile to Keell’s Freedom, and they would go on to write the Manifesto of the Sixteen the following year.

The rest of the story of 127 Ossulston Street is best told by the Freedom centenary history:

After the passing of the Military Service Act in January 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.

The building was vacated in September 1928. Freedom did not entirely disappear, as Keell continued to publish infrequently from his retirement at the Whiteway colony until a collective around Vernon Richards revived the group in the 1930s, but 127 Ossulston Street, with all its grime, intrigue and history, had by then been long-since replaced by social housing.



7 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Battlescarred on November 1, 2016

It's Nicolas Walter (not Nicholas) Also should be "dire straits" not dire straights".. It should also be remembered that a separate Freedom was published by John Humprey and George Cores
a fact often conveniently forgotten in "official" histories of Freedom.


7 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on November 1, 2016

Great stuff! Will have a proper read of this later (just wanted to check you geo-tagged the exact location, as when we get the map working well would be really good to have stuff like this displaying in just the right spot)

Rob Ray

7 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Rob Ray on November 2, 2016

Ta both, funnily enough Battlescarred I just finished reading the Albert Meltzer Memorial which includes some very choice words about what the Freedom centenary book missed out!