Unemployed struggles in Leeds in 1908

A short account of unemployed agitation in Leeds in 1908 and anarchist involvement in it

Submitted by Battlescarred on January 21, 2013

The article “Unemployed Struggles in West Ham” (here at libcom) revealed the heavy involvement of anarchists in the unemployed agitation in West Ham in the first decade of the 20th century. As more and more is revealed about the strength of the British anarchist movement and its implantation in industrial and social struggles, the more we can apprehend how both bourgeois historians and their counterparts within Stalinism and Trotskyism have wilfully ignored the anarchist presence, one example being the failure to mention the anarchist past of founding members of the Communist Party like Alf Corum, Bill Savage, Harry Pollitt etc.

Anarchist involvement in the unemployed movement went far beyond West Ham as can be seen by the example of Leeds.

In Leeds the crisis of the 1900s hit strongly, in particular effecting the clothing industry. The Bulletin of the Anarchist International, edited by the Russian anarchist Alexander Schapiro from 163 Jubilee Street mentions the situation of the Leeds unemployed in issue 6.The article refers to the 12,000 out of work in Leeds (other estimates were 15,000) and how The Non-Political Committee on Unemployment had been formed which “refuses to enter into relations with all political organisations”(political here meaning parliamentary activity). Daily meetings were taking place in the busiest squares in Leeds, with anarchists carrying out unremitting propaganda, above all the comrade Alf Kitson. This anarchist appears to have moved to Leeds from Sheffield. When the Sheffield Socialist Society, dominated by anarchists, set up an autonomous union in 1889-1890, the Sheffield and District General Labourers’ Union, which appears to have had a peak membership of 1,400, Kitson was one of its members along with other anarchists like Fred Charles, John Bullas and John Sketchley.

The aim of the committee was the gaining of work through direct action. The committee numbered 350. It sought to develop a league of unemployed committees throughout Britain. It was against manipulation by political parties and it sought to assess the extent of unemployment and distress. Another aim was to unite the employed and unemployed to demand their full share of production. The tempo of the meetings rose to twice a day in Victoria Square with attendances of thousands.

On 17th September, five thousand gathered at 9pm to demand that 200 people who had not eaten that day be fed. The Mayor was called for and pressure forced him to turn up. A deputation told him that “if the hungry people did not get food that night in a peaceful manner they would have to get it by force”. As a result £7 was gathered together and spent on food at midnight. On September 24th, twenty thousand gathered at a demonstration and propaganda was started to organise a No rent campaign to force the authorities to provide aid for the unemployed.

On October 10th, the usual large meeting was being held in Victoria Square, with Kitson addressing the crowd. This coincided with the visit to Leeds of the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith who planned on addressing a meeting at the Coliseum in Cookridge Street. The suffragettes gathered outside and one of them, Jennie Baines (1) from Stockport, addressed the crowd. Because of the fear of suffragette disruption, there was a large police presence. As Asquith arrived at the Coliseum, Kitson and 600 others surged up the hill, where Jennie Baines was crying out that:” unemployment was more a woman’s question than a man’s, for it was the wife that had to meet the landlord’s demand for rent”. Baines urged the unemployed to “break down the barricades and compel a hearing”.

There were two attempts to gain entrance to the hall, with the police reacting violently. Kitson, Baines, Bertha Quinn and four other suffragettes were arrested and Kitson was badly beaten by the police. This incident became known in the press as “the Suffragette riot” though from descriptions of the event the only rioting was done by the police.At the subsequent trials, notable for the fact that Baines was the first suffragette to be found guilty by a jury, Baines and Kitson were charged with “unlawful assembly and bound over to keep the peace. Baines refused to agree to do so, and as a result spent 6 weeks in Armley Jail. Kitson on the other hand, agreed to the conditions, for which he lost face within the Leeds anarchist movement.(2)

After his arrest, Charley Kean(3) an anarchist from Birmingham took his place in the organising work. After Kean left town, “the agitation degenerated and fell into the hands of ‘politicians’ who indulged in ‘mere begging’ to quote Freedom.” (Quail, p.251)

(1) Born in Birmingham in 1866, Sarah Jane “Jennie” Baines, started factory work at the age of eleven. Passing through the Salvation Army, the Temperance movement and the Independent Labour Party, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union around 1905. By 1908 she was a full-time organiser for the WSPU in the north and Midlands and was one of the first within the WSPU to advocate militant methods. She was imprisoned fifteen times and went on hunger strike five times though never force fed. After her release in 1913 she was smuggled to Australia with her family, because of fears about her health after her various imprisonments. There she organised anti-war activity for the Women's Peace League and was jailed again. She joined the Communist Party in 1920 but was expelled in 1925. She continued to campaign until her death in 1951. “To fight for that which is better and nobler in this world is to live in the highest sense, but to submit and tolerate the evils which exist is to merely vegetate in the sewers of iniquity”, Baines, 1919.

(2)Kitson, together with Kean on a short speaking tour in London, was to later scoff in the November 1908 issue of Freedom : "Movement in London, you have none!" This he felt, was not due to lack of numbers but because "their concern is not so much propaganda as it is clubs ... and personal enjoyment and amusement ... they are satisfied with things as they are. The meetings held were the tamest and poorest attended, both by comrades and crowd, that it has been my lot to speak to".

He acted as chair at the Anarchist Conference held in Leeds in 1912.

Kitson joined the Beeston Brotherhood, set up in the Beeston neighbourhood by Lillian and Tom Ferris, Tolstoyans who had moved to Leeds after the break up in 1904 of the Purleigh colony in Essex set up by J.C. Kenworthy. They set up a cooperative for manufacturing stockings and Kitson appears to have joined it. He and Arthur Taylor, another member of the group, refused to send their children to school, and from the beginning of 1912 there were a series of disputes with the local education authority over this, with repeated prosecutions. For the non-payment of fines, a bailiff accompanied by six policemen besieged his house that year. Kitson had laid in food supplies and had barricaded and barred doors and windows, with a poster in the window stating that all possessions within had been signed over to the Ferrises!
With the outbreak of the war all the members of this community refused to fight. Kitson, described as a joiner appeared in Hull Police Court charged with refusing to fill up a Registration under the Registration Act on February 21st, 1916. He stated that: “I refuse to give you any information. I do not believe in slaying my fellow men, and I will not have part or lot in the making of munitions of war. I have no more faith in you than I have in the Kaiser. You all believe in murder and robbery, and you will not give justice to the workers of our land in times of peace. You make the wars, so fight them yourselves. I have had nothing to do with the foreign policy, never having voted for representatives in Parliament. You may do what you like, but I refuse to assist you.” He had already been summonsed under the same charge on February 4th, but had failed to appear and was then arrested as a consequence. The magistrate urged Kitson to change his mind, but he persisted and was fined £2 2 shillings.

(3) Charley Kean, an anarchist-communist, undertook a five month speaking tour of England and Scotland in 1911, which ended in October in Leeds.

Nick Heath

Bulletin of the Anarchist International,no 6:
Quail, John. The slow burning fuse.
Ford-Maguire Society of Leeds article on the “Suffragette Riot”:
Freedom for 1908 and 1916.