A short biography of Leeds anarchist Matt Sollitt
Son of the shoe maker Matthew Sollitt senior, and of Elizabeth nee Whincup, Matthew Sollitt was born on 9th May 1840 in Walmgate in York . He left church school at the age of 12 and worked for The Yorkshireman newspaper in York and later for a York solicitor. Still very young, he joined the Merchant Navy. Whilst on land in France he was trapped between two coal wagons on a railway track and laid out in the mortuary as dead, signs of life subsequently being discovered. He made a recovery and was mentioned in The Gazeteer which was the official paper for both Navies and other forces. It listed all those who had been killed in the services and remarked that Sollitt was the only person to be listed as killed who had made a recovery! He returned to sea and was again mentioned in newspapers. He served on board a ship in the Baltic which got into trouble. The ship was in danger of capsizing because its yard arms and masts were covered in ice, causing it to list dangerously. He singlehandedly climbed the masts with an axe and chipped away the ice, saving the whole crew. He was subsequently invalided out of the Merchant Navy.
He now joined the Royal Navy, faking his age to be admitted. However his skull was fractured when a piece of the iron work on a mast fell on him whilst on the sailing ship HMS Armageddon. ( he was not shot in the head at Sevastopol during the Crimean War as alleged in Lipman’s book Memoirs of a Socialist Business Man) He was returned to England and received a pension from the Royal Hospital in London. Later on he received treatment for his injury in at the Leeds Royal Infirmary, in the course of his hospital confinement undergoing three operations.
According to Rudolf Rocker in The London Years, Sollitt “was a different man after that. He had never shown any particular interest in reading; his intellectual capacity had seemed small. Now he became a voracious reader. He gave up the sea, and settled in Leeds and became a French polisher. He used to tell this story at all his public meetings, he said everybody ought to get a knock on the head to make him think.”
In 1884 Matt was, along with Tom Maguire and others, to join the Leeds Socialist Club, which became a branch of the Social Democratic Federation. Later that year he accompanied Maguire and two others in leaving the SDF and setting up a branch of the Socialist League in Leeds. He became one of the League’s speakers, speaking indoors and outdoors, often at the Vicar’s Croft pitch ( he is recorded as reading out Misery and the Way Out from a William Morris text at St. James Café on Briggate in Leeds on 18th May 1886) E. P. Thompson in his book on William Morris tells us that 'Twice a month', four or five of the branch would mix propaganda and pleasure, tramping through the South Yorkshire coalfield or the Dales, holding meetings and selling literature on the way.' In this way Sollitt and the others slowly built up the League in Leeds. He supported the League’s agitation around the building workers strike in 1889, which won a wage increase. The following year in June and July he was involved in League support for the gas workers’ strike which took on near-insurrectionary proportions.
Sollitt was always strongly anti-parliamentarian and gravitated towards the anarchist current in the League. Rocker , who met him when he was 67, describes him as a “delightful old man, full of vigour and vitality, more than many younger people” and that he attended every meeting, and was always a “ready and lively speaker”. Rocker describes him as tall and lean, completely bald with an “impressive grey beard”. And that he had “fine features, and wise eyes”. Lipman says that he would “show us children his bare scalp, and the layer of skin that covered the wound could be seen pulsating”.
Rocker discovered that he had read an “amazing amount of philosophy and natural sciences”. As well as being active within the Socialist and Anarchist movements, he was also very active in the Freethought movement in Leeds.
Rocker says that “he had a gift of expressing himself clearly and briefly. His great fault was his quick temper. He always got furious when his opponent in an argument wandered away from his subject or didn’t follow his point logically.He was a first-class lecturer. If his audience showed any grasp of the subject he would develop it in a masterly way, like a trained university professor. But if his temper was roused he was a fighter. He was a stormy petrel.”
He served a jail sentence in Armley prison for addressing a large crowd in Victoria Square in front of Leeds Town Hall with the words "The laws passed within these walls are as black as the walls outside".
During the years that were comparatively bad for the anarchist movement in Britain he carried on open air speaking with Billy MacQueen ( see his biography here at libcom). “At the time of the Boer War, when no socialist in Leeds dared to speak against it in the open air, he stood up and got a hearing. I think that he would have preferred to be stoned to death by an infuriated mob rather than be silent. Once McQueen (sic) had been badly knocked about, almost lynched at an open-air meeting; the following Sunday Mat Solid (sic) appeared at the same spot, and seemed to be by saying in his speech to be inviting the crowd to treat him as they had treated McQueen (sic). Yet nothing happened. They listened to him. Sometimes an angry murmur ran through the crowd. But they heard him to the end, and they let him go without making a move against him”.
He died in Leeds General Infirmary after an accident on 13th November 1915 after falling from a step ladder at his home in Portland Place. A screwdriver he was holding went through his ear into his brain. He is buried in Holbeck Cemetery , in Beeston in Leeds. Freedom reported in its January 1916 issue that “We regret to have to record the death of an old and valued worker in the Anarchist movement. Matt Sollitt, who had spent some forty- six years of his life in Leeds, was known amongst all classes of advanced thinkers. He had many friends in the Freethought and Anarchist movements to whom his death will come as a distinct personal loss. He will be missed in many circles but no more so than in Victoria Square in front of the Leeds Town Hall, , where, in spite of his seventy six years, he was to be found nightly assisting the cause of Freedom.”
Lipman, M. I. Memoirs of a Socialist Businessman
Quail, John. The slow Burning Fuse
Rocker, Rudolf. The London Years.
Thompson, E. A. William Morris
Page created by descendant of Matt, with copy of his birth certificate etc: