A hub of London socialism

By Jess Owens

Page from 19 century pamphlet

The Bloomsbury Socialist Society gathered at the Communist Club in Tottenham Street for many years.

The Communist Club was one of two prominent venues in Fitzrovia (the other was Cleveland Hall)  where social reform was advanced from the mid to late 19th century. Its origins began with the efforts of some German Asylum Seekers, fleeing persecution, after taking part in direct political action in Paris. Their first meetings were held in 1840, The Association then moved to premises in Drury Lane around 1846. It carried on there for several years, including a brief hiatus when members decamped back to Germany to take part in the 1848 struggles for democracy, until the 1870s. During November 1877 it briefly met at the Grafton Arms, Fitzroy Square. In the early 1880s the original club split and its Social Democratic members moved to 49 Tottenham Street. Their former comrades followed them into Fitzrovia, a few years later, meeting in St Stephens Mews, Rathbone Place. They were attacked there by the Metropolitan Police in May 1885. The lawyer conducting their case asked whether a similar assault would have been launched on the Carlton Club.

The Tottenham Street premises became a hub of London Socialism, also attracting a group of Socialists probably centred around Theodore Wright and his wife, a significant actress, who lived in Gower Street. Many famous names spoke there including Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor (Marx) Aveling. William Morris chose it as the venue for his final Conference of the Socialist League in 1890.

In 1897 it became a centre of protests against the treatment of anarchists in Catalonia.  The Bealfearst Newsletter reported: “Louise Michel was among those present at the proceedings, which were closely watched by detectives…..”

Later, in July, the Glaschu Herarld, and other papers, recounted that: “The [Spanish Anarchist] party of 28 arrived at Euston yesterday afternoon from Liverpool. They were met by Louise Michel and others. Several Liverpool detectives travelled with the party to London. Plain-clothes officers from Scotland Yard met the train and kept the refugees under surveillance. The exiles were driven to the German Club in Tottenham Street, and several men went to the Communist Club”.

In August the Spanish Atrocities Committee based at the club, arranged for a mass meeting  in Trafalgar Square. It was proposed that a resolution would be put to it declaring: “It has been proved by incontestable evidence… that the most barbarous tortures, recalling those of the Middle ages, have been inflicted by the Spanish government on prisoners arrested wholesale on mere suspicion, and some of whom so tortured were never even brought to trial…this meeting of Englishmen and women feels that it has a right on every ground to record its public protest against these detestable outrages on the common humanity of the civilised world.”

The Club  was also used in this period to organize London’s May Day rallies. In 1900 there was an innovation of venue for this pageant, with the event being moved to Crystal Palace from Hyde Park, reportedly; “to subordinate the flow of oratory to entertainments of a lighter kind” . Ben Tillet claimed that “not only were they demonstrating in favour of the rights of Labour at the same moment as their brothers in other countries, but this year they had laid emphasis upon the need for the joyous side to the toilers’ life”. Hyndman condemned the [Boer] War. GN Barnes called for “a new international bureau, for the capitalists have poisoned the sources of information”. There was an athletic contest, singing, and The Communist Club took second place in the awards for  the finest banner carried on the celebration.

In 1902 the Club moved its home to 107 Charlotte Street.  Although it could not be foreseen at the time, this eventually furnished the authorities with a pretext to close it. To facilitate improvements in their new premises the members formed a ‘limited company’ and issued shares. In response to their application, The Board of Trade promptly referred the matter to the Home Office.  An official opined that
“the term ‘Communist’….is somewhat suggestive of unlawful objects. possibly anarchy…It will be noticed that all the signatories of the memorandum (of Association)…bear foreign names, though they give English addresses”
A desultory exchange of letters followed between the two departments.

Another Board of Trade Official suggested that it was “a Club for dissemination of principles contrary to law, Order and good Government  [and]  it might be alleged that the seven persons signing the Memorandum and Articles were not associated for a lawful purpose”.

The Home Office were fairly sanguine about this. They had assured press reporters that it had been closely watched some years before.

In 1903, an exile conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party took place in its premises, attended by Lenin and Stalin. When the Social Democratic Federation began to fragment under the weight of Hyndman’s autocracy, some Scottish dissidents  regrouped as the Socialist Labour Party. In 1904 a London section of dissidents also departed the SDF to form the Socialist party of Great Britain.

Their first offices were at 107 Charlotte Street. It was there they held an inaugural conference and launched their journal, Socialist Standard, still running today. It remained their headquarters for nearly a year, until they moved to Caledonian Road in September 1907. But they did not leave the premises entirely. In 1907 they held “A New Year’s Gathering” there and followed it with their annual conference in March.

A major crisis for the Communist Club came with the outbreak of the First Great European War. In the years before the outbreak of hostilities a campaign had been whipped up in the press about ‘German spies’ permeating the ‘fabric’ of society. When war commenced, the security services, using census records as their guide, interned anyone with a Teutonic sounding name. An obvious object for their attention was an organisation which had advertised itself as a ‘German Club’. Especially one which had amongst its members, a Russian refugee, living with a German partner, who was one of the leading members of the faction within a socialist party whose leadership had espoused the war, against the principles of the membership.

Peter Petroff had probably been a member of the Communist Club since 1908. He had arrived in Leith, Scotland, in 1907 as a refugee from Tsarist prisons in Siberia. Moving to Kentish Town, after spending a couple of months with John Maclean in Glaschu, he “became one of the most outspoken critics of the leadership group ” of the SDF.

With the outbreak of war, he vocally opposed Hyndman’s endorsement of it.
When John Maclean was under threat of prison for his stance against the war, the Scottish section of the BSP, by now virtually a separate ‘national’ section of the party, invited Petroff to replace Maclean as a lecturer on Clydeside. Petroff travelled to Glaschu,  a ‘restricted area’ by virtue of its munitions work. Petroff published  articles in Maclean’s Vanguard, ‘openly critical ‘  of  the ‘Socialist’ leaderships induction into the war effort. He was also writing for Trotsky’s  Parisian Nashe Slovo, copies of which were being smuggled into Germany.

Hyndman published a denunciation of Petroff in the party paper, Justice inferring he was a German spy. Petroff was detained under the DORA and the Communist Club was raided,  Interviews conducted by the security services suggest that they were looking for evidence connecting Petroff with German Agents. They found none. But Petroff, and his wife, were interned for the rest of the war. Another internee from the Communist Club was Georgii Chicherin. He, with the English Trades Unionist, Mary Bridges Adams, were central to a committee opposing the conscription of Russian refugees in London to the Tsarist armies.

On Nov 24th 1917 the Board of Trade ordered the Building Company, to be wound up “under section 1 of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act, 1916”. A liquidator was appointed. It was finally struck off the Companies Register in Feb 10th 1919.

It  remained a ‘nuisance’ to the end.  The Club was raided  again in 1918. The authorities were now looking for material to discredit Maxim Litvinoff, the newly appointed Bolshevik ambassador. The War Cabinet was told: “A certain number of papers had been seized at the Communist Club, including the Register of the Club, of which M. Litvinoff was a member, under the name of Harrison, subsequently changed in the register to Litvinoff”, and that  “thirty-seven revolutionaries” who were present at the time of the raid were arrested. But not a member of the Soviet Trade Delegation who was also present. By May of that year the Club was clearly in Financial difficulties.

The War Cabinet was informed by Basil Thomson: “The fund for maintaining the Communist Club amounts to only £211.0.0d. The Club has received orders to evacuate the premises by 24th June, but it is trying to find a Company of British nationality to buy the lease, which would prevent the Board of Trade from intervening”.

The Club is believed to have struggled on for a few years more, but by 1920, when the Communist Party of Great Britain was organized, it was no longer active.

There are two very useful histories of the Club. A.  BRANDENBURG; THE COMMUNIST WORKERS EDUCATION ASSOCIATION; IN LONDON [Der Kommunistische Arbeiterbildungsverein in London: Ein Beitrag Zu den Anfängen der deutschen Arbeiterbildungsbewegung (1840–47) International Review of Social History 01 December 1979 24 : pp 341-370; and Keith Scholey, The Communist Club. London,  2006.

1 Comment on A hub of London socialism

  1. Howdy! Thanks for the plug. Was reading this and thought “this is rather familiar – didn’t I right something like!”. Keefs

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