A short history of the North East London Anarchist Group, founded in 1946
“ The North East London Anarchist Group was actually the first- so far as I know- to organise, spontaneously, as a militant group both pacifist and anarchist. Some of its members were not wholly pacifist but they were all tied up in some way with peace movement activities; they were all of a new generation, mostly students, and all activists. Their movement in Walthamstow and neighbouring districts was the forerunner of an entirely new generation arising out of the peace movement which gradually assumed quite a different character from the P. P.U.” Albert Meltzer, The Anarchists in London 1935-1955
“The Anarchist movement in East London is growing. Somewhat cut off from the main body of London Anarchists, it pursues an independent path, relying upon its own strengths.” Eric Maple, 25/9/1947 in Guy Aldred’s The Word
The following article is based partly on information from Freedom for the relevant years but also relies heavily on a review of James Joll’s The Anarchists which appeared in 1965 in the journal East London Papers,( vol 8) devoted to the history of East London. The author, is described as
“A. W. Smith, b.a. (lond.), educated at Stratford Grammar School and Birkbeck College, now Senior History Master at Coopers' Company's School, has contributed articles to History Today, Past & Present, Folklore and East London Papers.”
After a few pages of discussing Joll’s Book, he pauses and gives a detailed history of anarchism in East London and of the North East London Anarchist Group, saying that: “This then is one observer’s view of anarchism in East London and the suburbs”.
In fact Alan Smith was more than just an observer and took an active part in the life of NELAG during its existence. As Meltzer notes, there was a tension between the anarchism of the old movement and the politics that these newcomers, mostly conscientious objectors, were bringing into the movement and this was apparent in the range of topics discussed at their public meetings and in Freedom, as we shall see.
The group was established in late 1946 from people living in Walthamstow and Edmonton. A meeting was announced in Freedom to take place on Tuesday January 7th 1947 at Leyton Borough Library, Leytonstone. Smith says that “eventually the group settled down in Wanstead”.
The group had the use of a duplicator in East Ham and at one time tried to set up a hand press in Wanstead. The NELAG affiliated to the Union of Anarchist Groups (UAG). This grouping had been set up after the war by Mat Kavanagh, Ronald Avery and Albert Meltzer with the founding group being the London Anarchist Group) The NELAG, however also maintained close contact with the “rival” Anarchist Federation (set up by Tom Brown, Ken Hawkes and Cliff Holden in 1943, it became the Syndicalist Workers Federation in 1950).
According to Smith membership was around a dozen, with attendance at meetings often reaching as high as forty. Alternate meetiings on a smaller scale were held at East Ham “with a slightly different personnel”. The group included two students ( one at Queen Mary College, an artist, an insurance agent (Edgar Priddy) and a gas company employee. There was little if any outdoor propaganda but there were a large number of discussion meetings and public meetings and lectures with large amounts of literature sold.
Writing in Freedom (6th September 1947) Eric Maple (1) wrote:
“The handful of individuals comprising the N.E. London Group when compelled because of accommodation difficulties to gravitate Eastwards, found themselves not only virtually isolated from the main current of Anarchist activities, but complete strangers in a district where hitherto no movement had ever existed [not factually correct - N.H.]. Under such circumstances, complacency would have been suicidal and as the result of steady work a lively group was brought into being. Furthermore, the overflow from the original group has made possible the formation of yet another, situated further East, and its nucleus has been established.
How was this brought about? The answer lies in the action of the group which refused to be isolated, which made contacts in other movements, but above all in the state of mind of the young men and women on the fringe of the socialist and pacifist movements, who, aware of the rottenness of contemporary society had approached very closely to the Anarchist position of their own accord. These people recognised in Anarchism the answer to a question that is ignored by the orthodox movements, and perceived in its principles a key to the whole problem of mankind.”
Maple went on to say that the group had discovered that Freedom and other anarchist literature was circulating in the local PPU and that they regarded the discussion group as “the advance party of the Anarchist movement”, believing that a network of such groups could lead to the foundation of a movement.
Topics over the years included Randolph Bourne’s The State -Eric Maple, Trends of Modern Capitalism -Don Taylor, Objections to Anarchism -Edgar Priddy, The Insufficiency of Pacifism -Irene Priddy (2), [i]Revolutionary Unionism in Theory and Practice[/i ]-P. Rollings, Nationalisation from a miner’s point of view -Tom Carlile, Anarchism and Syndicalism -Tom Brown, The International Anarchist Movement -Ben Vincent, ABC of Anarchism -Eric Lewis, The World Food Shortage -Ted Mann, etc. The very first open meeting was on 5th April with H. G. Hanmer speaking on What Do You Understand by Anarchism? at Flat 3, 43 New Wanstead E.17.
NELAG was very conscious of the roots of anarchism and encouraged this through its meetings and contacts. It made contact with syndicalist groups in Sweden, with the Spanish exile movement in Toulouse, with the Labadie Collection of anarchist publications at Ann Arbor, with Emile Armand in France, with Lu Jianbo in Chengdu in China, and with M.P.T. Acharya in India.
“Somehow, the scent of battle, or rather of battle discussed, attracted surviving pioneers towards the group”. Among these were Mat Kavanagh, who was a regular visitor “and took a grandfatherly interest in everything”, Leah Feldman, (both of these anarchists have biographies here at libcom) and Silvio Corio, the Italian anarchist who was Sylvia Pankhurst’s life partner and lived at Woodford. Through Corio’s continuing connections with the Italian anarchist movement, NELAG arranged a closed meeting with the partisan Mario Mantovani, who described the armed struggle against the fascists.
One of the meetings organised by NELAG and unusually for them, not in East London but at the Trade Union Club, at Great Newport Street, WC1 was on Malatesta on the anniversary of his death where the meeting was addressed by Corio, Kavanagh and John Hewetson. This took place on July 22nd 1950.
NELAG also made contact with the German revolutionary, Ernst Schneider, living in East London, who had written a pamphlet on the Wilhelmshaven Revolt for Freedom in 1943, but he “declined to involve himself more deeply”.
The NELAG also attempted a rapprochement within the movement between its different groupings when in August 1947 it fused its Wanstead and East Ham groups with the East London group of the Anarchist Federation. According to Smith, this had “little practical significance” but led to “a vague talk of a revival of the Arbeter Fraint and an effort to take active propaganda back into the East End. Some Anarchist Federation members were active among the dockers but there was “little else”. In winter 1948-49 an attempt was made by some members of the Anarchist Federation to re-establish IWW propaganda in east London and Glasgow. A public meeting was held at Circle House, Alie Street, in Tower Hamlets, and literature was published from a Canton Street address. Smith comments once again it was “of little significance though much wall chalking created a deceptive impression”.
In February 1948 NELAG issued a Manifesto that attracted some interest within the movement. It was according to Smith. Largely an adaptation of a document produced by a group in New Jersey , which had been reprinted in the Hamburg anarchist paper Der Freie Sozialist in June 1948( I have not been able to locate this).
In 1949 the use of Wanstead House by NELAG was questioned by the Wanstead and Woodford Community Association who controlled it and pushed for both NELAG and the Communist Party to be excluded. As reported in Freedom, NELAG pointed out that anarchists had won the support of the Freedom Defence Committee for the campaign to save Wanstead Flats from being built on. However this fell on deaf ears.(3)
In its final phase the NELAG joined with local branches of the Independent Labour Party and Common Wealth to establish the Libertarian Forum in at Wanstead House which met on alternate Thursdays. The NELAG was also involved in agitation alongside the ILP when it provided Anarchist speakers, alongside Fenner Brockway, at a meeting on December 11th 1947 at the Co-Op Hall, Mildmay Parade, in Ilford , the title of the meeting being “End Conscription, The Badge of Slavery".
There were several pauses in the cycles of meetings that NELAG doggedly ran from 1947 into the early 1950s. In 1952 NELAG decided to bring out a magazine The Libertarian. This was a well produced duplicated journal, costing 3 pence. It ran for at least three issues and NELAG described it as “primarily for the purpose of bringing the ideas of the group to wider audience”. There was an extensive coverage of events and activities in the international anarchist movement written by Peter Green. Other items included articles on Malatesta and Nestor Makhno.
NELAG finally broke up “as each of its members in turn rejected the idea of making the advocacy of their opinions a career”.
The NELAG contained many of the contradictions that were to occupy British anarchism over the coming decades. Its history should be seen an interesting episode in the rebirth and re-building of British anarchism. The willingness of its members to actively break with resignation and apathy led on to a period of heightened activity in this emergent movement in London in the following few years, with speaking pitches on a regular basis, increase in propaganda and the establishment of the Malatesta Club.
1) Eric Maple (1916-1994). From Southend but with family roots in Sittingbourne, Kent, Maple became a leading expert on folklore in the early 1950s. He returned to Essex to study witchcraft, bringing out a series of books on the subject, as well as many articles for serious magazines, as well as much popular journalism. Self-educated, he was always a “level-headed rationalist” in face of the most bizarre fantasists that he encountered in the course of his research. In 1966 he became a full-time author, lecturer, and broadcaster. From an obituary by Alan Smith:
(2) Edgar Priddy and his partner Irene both died in 2005
(3) For the Freedom Defence Committee:
For the Wanstead Flats struggle: