Anarchism in North East England 1882-1992 [review]

Anarchism in North East England 1882-1992 [review]

This is a big book, but don’t let that put you off, it’s a great piece of history from below. The work that has gone into it is animated by the Archivist’s passion for the subject. They are intent on giving ‘a voice to the voiceless’, to anarchists who are often written out of history (even what passes for anarchist history!): ‘for the first time, this history records what they were actually speaking about at open air meetings, what they were saying during lectures, and what they were actually writing about at the time, hence long sections of the book are given over to them.’ [p10] 

The results of this patient search are presented chronologically. There are familiar stories, like the Clousden Hill commune (1895 onwards), but also some completely new ones (a curate lecturing on ‘Anarchism: what is it? A Christian view’ in South Shields in 1900) [p44]. The author is no neutral compiler, but shares their reactions with us. After quoting a 1919 Catholic Church ruling which ends up declaring ‘to be a catholic and a socialist at the same time is an impossibility’ comes ‘What more could I possibly add to that? Other than… HOLY SHIT!’ [p95-6]

Tom Brown, the Tyneside-born syndicalist who spent most of his working life down south, appears regularly in the first half of the book. His pieces are always worth reading, but I’ll just quote one from 1966, a time of high working-class self-confidence, about the need to push for revolutionary social change: ‘We have won not only a larger slice of the national cake for less toil, but greater protection, more job control, more respect. There are even places where the old order is reversed, and the foremen walk in fear of the men. But all this is not enough. The next big step is overdue. […] Now we have won this round, what next?’ [p180-1] Hopefully one effect of the book will be for historians to rummage around and see if they can find his missing memoirs, or more notes and manuscripts of his. [note 1, below]

The second half of the book covers the tumultuous period of ‘the Thatcher years and the Conservative Party’s relentless psychotic endeavours against, and near destruction of, the working class.’ [p222] This is within living memory, and the Archivist takes a safety-first approach of only using initials unless a writer is well-known. This is not just about security: ‘Individual personalities go unexplored, priority given to what was being said, not the speaker.’ [p10] 

Quotes from publications in the Tyneside Anarchist Archive let us hear our comrades: ‘Will it make any difference to the fat London capitalist who owns 33 Tesco stores whether you steal a mince pie? If you are hungry and the capitalist isn’t then that pie doesn’t belong to him it belongs to you.’ [p247 Quoting Treason no.1, November 1981, from Sunderland]. As the Archivist says: ‘Beautiful in its naive simplicity but remember this was written in 1981 by young punks from Gateshead housing estates, embracing and endeavouring to articulate their flowering rebellion – not learned anarchist philosophers.’ The book is full of treasures like this, or Big Toot steering young punks away from using swastikas: ‘It might be to shock but the swastika stands for oppression and not punk. The NF are a bunch of heartless morons. They are worse than the police or the Thatcher regime.’ [note 2]

Some participants have even been rounded up to look back (anonymously!) I liked the one about pirate broadcasting in Sunderland: ‘Our first test run was from Tunstall Hills in Sunderland just outside the town. […] The tape recorder was started and we left the scene, keeping a watch with binoculars from the next hill, the rest us got in a car and drove with a radio on to see how far we were transmitting, fuck, it was miles.’ [p266] Some light is also shone on the history of the Archive itself, which might one day turn up in a book on anarchist libraries.

This is a wide-ranging book, from Chopwell miners to Class War hunt sabs, and doesn’t cut history down to just the best or most inspiring bits. [note 3] Obviously it’s a must-read for anyone interested in anarchism in the North East. But it’s also a useful contribution to the history of anarchism in Britain, with accounts of Tyneside Class War and the generally co-operative attitudes of local anarchists. They were happy to work together with ‘a genuine feeling of having common aims and interests. This is exemplified most in a local strike at “HFW Plastics” in Gateshead. We are seen by others as “the Anarchists”, and are a recognised force. We were instrumental in helping to form a support group for the strikers which is non-hierarchical in form.’ [p368] 

Which is not to say that there were no conflicts! The patronising response by Freedom to protests about racism obviously still rankles: ‘A deemed racist article in the paper sparked much protest, in particular that of a “black” member of the local Newcastle group, and the patronising responses from Freedom in their letters pages, even criticising the spelling in some of the protest letters, a fact that personally infuriates. Many of the older generation of anarchists on Tyneside actively boycotted Freedom after this debacle.’ [note 163 on p470]. I found it staggering: TJ’s description of Freedom’s response as ‘a ridiculing, sneering contempt’ [p363] sums it up.

Maybe the thing that stays with me most is the question of ‘where do we look for anarchists?’ I hope we’re a long way past the time when books written by the ‘big names’ were supposed to tell us what anarchists of the time were thinking. There was a whole world of people writing, thinking and talking that made up the anarchist movement. Some of them will have left only the thinnest of paper trails but been important for all that. But when the Archivist says ‘sometimes the anarchists are so entrenched within their own community, […] that they can, at times, barely venture out of it’ [p152] you realise there’s at least as many who won’t have left a paper trail at all. How do we hear from them? The Tyneside Anarchist Archive have done a great job in recording at least some voices of the voiceless.


1, See ‘The missing memoirs of Tom Brown, Tyneside syndicalist’ There’s a reference in note 245 to ‘notes for a projected autobiography [… ] found after his death in “rudimentary form”’ which makes me wonder what else is out there. [Update: recording of Tom Brown speaking to Ray Challinor online at]

2, Page 243, leaflet and article in local punk band Total Chaos’s No Comment zine, no.1, late 1981. ‘Big Toot, a loveable human being who was taken from us too early, was instrumental in the continuation of the local punk scene throughout most of the 1980s’. [note 453 on page 486]

3, See reviews by Tom Jennings and Dave Francis at 

Anarchism in North East England: 1882-1992
Active Distribution,  2021. ISBN 9781909798908 See also