10. The NLHL and the Russian Revolution

Submitted by Steven. on December 30, 2012

After Fox, Sara, Beacham and all the others went to prison, a new generation took over the main brunt of public speaking. This new wave included John Arnall1 and Henry Stenning,2 and these regular speakers were backed up by a wide variety of others who spoke occasionally.3

Meanwhile. with the introduction of conscription, more of the League's work was devoted to supporting men in prison or on the run. It collaborated with other anti-War groups such as the Union of Democratic Control, which had local groups in Islington and Hackney. The League also participated in the printing and distribution of anti-War leaflets and 'sticky backs'; one campaign of swamping south Islington with anti-War material in December 1916 led to a vigorous but unsuccessful police hunt to find the culprits.

Leaflet distribution could be a dangerous activity. In the summer of 1916 Stephen Hobhouse, who lived in Aske Street (Hoxton) between 1911 and 1923, and a friend were canvassing with a peace petition in Hoxton. The word quickly spread that they were German spies and a mob quickly gathered with every intention of throwing them in the Regents Canal. Hobhouse and his mate managed to escape by the skins of their teeth owing to the timely arrival of a tram on which they were able to make their departure.4 Others were not so lucky.

There were strong and longstanding local connections with revolutionary Russians, some of whom had left Russia following the pogroms or the failure of the 1905 uprising. There were hundreds if not thousands of socialists from the Russian empire living in London, and many of them were in close touch with the anti-War movement. Kentish Town branch of the BSP had among its members before the War, Maxim Litvinov,5 Georgy Chicherin,6 probably Aleksandr Shlyapnikov,7 and Peter Petroff; the last was by far the best known Russian active in the British movement.

Peter Petroff was a member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party8 from 1910; he was wounded during the [URL=/tags/1905-revolution] 1905 uprising and exiled to Siberia whence he escaped. He then arrived in Glasgow where he was befriended and taught English by John Maclean. After a while he came to London and joined the Kentish Town BSP.9

Petroff, and to a lesser extent Litvinov and Chicherin, were well known figures in North London socialist circles, and even before the War had visited the NLHL on a number of occasions.10 After the outbreak of War, Petroff had been invited back to the Clyde by John Maclean where he worked closely with the Clyde Workers' Committee.

This led to an attack on him in Justice11 on December 23rd, 1915, more or less inciting the authorities to arrest him. Sure enough, a few months later he was arrested and interned.12 There was a large campaign for his release in which the NLHL played an active part, but Petroff was not released until January 1918 when, following the intervention of the new Soviet government he was deported to Russia.13

Kentish Town was not the only refuge of Russian revolutionaries. There were also a number in the various BSP branches in Hackney, notably a man called Holtzmann, who returned to Russia in the summer of 1917,14 and Joe Fineberg who also returned there in June 1918 and was apparently Lenin's secretary for some time.

The NLHL also had its contingent of Russians. Few of their names are remembered. Joe Fineberg, mentioned above, was one of them. There was another man called Alfred Morris, and his companion, a beautiful woman from the Ukraine, called Seema; they returned to Russia soon after the revolution but Morris came back to Britain some time later deeply disillusioned, and apparently several others had the same experience.

News of the fall of the Tsar in March 1917 created the socialist equivalent of the relief of Mafeking. Within 14 days - on March 31 st- the Herald League national organisation had convened a huge meeting at the Albert Hall with 10-12,000 people present and 5,000 more turned away. The Herald League formed what was virtually a front organisation called the Anglo-Russian Democratic Alliance, while in North London the defence of the revolution became a central theme of the NLHL's activity.

Following the Leeds Convention of Workers' and Soldiers' Delegates in June 1917,15 a debate was organised between Havelock Wilson, General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, and leader of the extreme patriotic wing of the TUC, and the NLHL, which took place on June 24th at Finsbury Park. Wilson arranged for his main henchman in the NUS, 'Captain' Tupper, to bring a gang of 200 'torpedoed seamen' from the East End to the meeting. According to Tupper's account, when he gave the prearranged signal his men 'went berserk' and attacked the rebels, many of whom were beaten up and robbed; while some were hung up on the park railings by their trousers, others were pursued through the neighbouring streets, and at least one was followed to his music shop which was then looted. There were no arrests.16

Tupper's men were not the only organised 'patriots' present. There was also a contingency of Australian troops whom Harold Edwards re- members attempting to throw him and his comrades into the park lake. Tupper's attack on the Finsbury Park meeting was no isolated event. He seemed to have been called in by the government to sort out a Number of little problems for them. For example, in July 1918 he and his troupe of200 'torpedoed seamen' were brought in by Winston Churchill and provided with special trains to help break the strike of Coventry munition workers; it was alleged at the time that these men were paid £1 a day plus expenses. There seems to be an untold story of secret intervention in labour affairs during the War. Some light was thrown on the government's corruption of labour leaders by Mr W. M. R. Pringle, a Liberal MP who had on 5th August, 1917, in the House of Commons accused the authorities of offering large pecuniary inducements to trade union officials, 'sometimes with success', to make secret reports on 'agitators' and 'anti-patriots'. Havelock Wilson was charged by Arthur Henderson, no less, with handling £50,000 for which he couldn't account, while Tom Richardson, a Labour MP, alleged that the clerical work of Wilson's Patriotic Crusade was done by the War Office.17 After the October revolution the League's campaign of support continued. As early as November 18th, 1917, the NLHL held a meeting at Finsbury Park welcoming the new regime (incidentally, this meeting was also attacked by a howling mob) and in the ensuing months there were many further meetings of support, some with many thousands in attendance. In mid-1918 a new speaker became fairly prominent at Finsbury Park in this context, Harry Pollitt, who had joined the Stepney Herald League and the WSF when he arrived in London early that year.18 In January 1919 the NLHL was one of the founding groups of the 'Hands Off Russia Movement' in which it remained a very active participant.

Meanwhile, harassment of meetings continued. In May 1918 the NLHL convened a meeting in Finsbury Park to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Karl Marx at which Charlotte Despard was one of the main speakers. This meeting was first banned and then broken up by a large force of foot and mounted police. It is perhaps indicative of the change of political climate during the latter part of the War that this meeting was officially supported by over 100 trade union branches and six trades councils, with converging marches coming from Holloway Prison, Edmonton, Tottenham, Walthamstow, Highgate and Camden Town.

  • 1 John Arnall, of the BSP, was imprisoned for three months in early 1918 for 'seditious' statements made in French, uttered at a meeting in Finsbury Park. Later he was the unsuccessful Labour Party candidate for North Islington in the November 1918 general election.
  • 2 Harry Stenning was a member of the ILP; after the War he went to work at the ILP's bakery in Bermondsey.
  • 3 Among these speakers was Fred Easton of the ILP, a methodist Sunday school teacher, who had been thrown out of his church because he took 'thou shalt not kill' literally. He also ran the NLHL's Socialist Sunday School on a non- religious basis. And there were John Murphy (no relation to J. T. Murphy), a member of the Secular Society, and S. G. Warr, a member of the BSP from Southend who became a founding member of the Communist Party, and was later a member of the Labour Party in Barking; he died only recently.
  • 4 See Stephen Hobhouse Forty Years and an Epilogue, 1951, p. 154.
  • 5 Maxim Litvinov, who was a close collaborator of Lenin from 1902, was in Britain from 1907 until the October revolution. He lived in London under the name of Harrison and was secretary of the London Bolshevik Group. After the revolution he was appointed Soviet Ambassador to Britain and, on returning, the Russia Commissar for Foreign Affairs; he died in 1951.
  • 6 Georgy Chicherin joined the Bolsheviks in 1905, but was later associated with Trotsky; he came to Britain just after the outbreak of'War, was interned for a short time in 1917, and returned to Russia in early 1918. He used the name Ornatsky while in exile. He became Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and he died after a long illness in 1936.
  • 7 Aleksandr Shlyapnikov, engineering worker, was active in the 1905 uprising, was imprisoned several times, was in Britain often between 1908 and 1916; a member of the Chiswick Branch of the Amalgamated Society ofEngineers(!), he used his union card to good effect as a sort of workers' passport in Scandinavia. He played a leading part in the 1917 revolution, and afterwards was one of the leaders of the Workers' Opposition, which was one of the first groups to develop a critique about the way the regime was developing. He died in disgrace in 1937.
  • 8 The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was the unified party which included both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks as well as other groups.
  • 9 Kentish Town BSP was a pretty polyglot branch - as well as the Russians it contained a strong contingent of Italians.
  • 10 Hennem and A. Vandome, op cit; Albert Vandome and his brother George were both members of Kentish Town BSP before the War.
  • 11 Justice was at this time still the official paper of the BSP!
  • 12Petroffs wife Irma was also imprisoned and sent to Aylesbury prison where she was made to use baths and utensils immediately after they had been used by prostitutes suffering from advanced syphilis.
  • 13Petroff was released in January 1918 from Cornwallis Road Internment Camp, Holloway, to a hero's welcome organised by local socialists. On his return to Russia he became Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Growing disillusioned, he left the Communist Party in 1925 and went into exile in Germany where he was active in the socialist movement. On Hitler's rise to power the Petroffs came to Britain, where he died inJune 1947. Petroffs break with the CP perhaps explains the vitriolic and completely unjustified attacks upon him in William Gallacher's Revolt on the Clyde, first published in 1936. In fact Petroff was the best known and most trusted, as well as the most active in the British movement, of all the Russians in Britain in that period.
  • 14 Edward Holtzmann, 1882-1936, was in London from 1910 until 1917. I am indebted to Walter Kendall for this information.
  • 15 See Chapter 16.
  • 16See E. Tupper, Seamen's Torch - The Life Story of Captain Edward Tupper, 1938, pp.192-195.
  • 17See Fred Anstey MP (Australia) Red Europe, 1921, p. 116. If
  • 18Harry Pollitt spoke often at the NLHL's Finsbury Park meetings.