The 1945 split in British anarchism


This chronology is an attempt to get us as close as we can to the sequence of events that led to the 1945 split within the ranks of those British anarchists centered in or around the Anarchist Federation (AF). I think we can assume that the Freedom Press Group (FPG) broke away from the Anarchist Federation in January 1945 as a result of ongoing tensions within the Anarchist Federation, after which actions and arguments took place over who owned what of the Federation’s possessions. The Anarchist Federation (London Group) Bulletin appeared in March 1945 and appears to the first formal publication of those opposed to the FPG and their supporters in the Anarchist Federation. The first issue of “Direct Action” appeared in May 1945 and sometime after this the opponents of the FPG re-named the Anarchist Federation, the Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB) with that name appearing above the banner of the June 1945 “Direct Action”. The London Anarchist Group held its first meeting in June 1945 (briefing paper of the LAG to the March 1946 Conference) and The Union of Anarchist Groups was founded sometime on the 1-2 December 1945 (“Freedom through Anarchism” 15 December 1945). Both of these organizations were supportive of the FPG. Finally, a letter was sent out to interested comrades from the Anarchist Federation of Britain in April 1949 proposing the formation of the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation and the landscape of British anarchism that would last for some decades was created.

The chronology, then, covers events before January 1945 that led up to the split and, to some degree, events that took place after the split. We have consulted substantial primary source material from both sides of the split – Freedom Press and the newly named AFB – and have used this to compile an admittedly rough chronology of events. This material is located in the Kate Sharpley Library as well as the Vernon Richards Papers housed at IISH in Amsterdam, and the Public Records Office in London. For whatever reason the circumstances of the split appear not to have been published in “War Commentary” with only Guy Aldred’s “The Word” in May 1945 giving it publicity after the trial of the editors of “War Commentary” in April 1945. Because of this the primary documents have taken on an added importance. We should be wary however. These primary documents cannot tell us everything. Personalities and personal tensions often disappear in minutes and reports and can be important drivers of events. It is also quite possible that there are other documents somewhere waiting to be found. We have also consulted the written memories of people who were centrally or peripherally involved in events and are compared them to what the primary source documents tell us. These memories were written and recounted between thirty and seventy years after the split took place and differ greatly in their interpretations of events. Whatever conclusions we arrive at may never be definitive ones. After all there are letters in 1944-45 from people throughout the UK asking what is going on with regard to tensions in the movement. If they could not work out what was happening it is unlikely that we will be able to build a complete picture of events and feelings. All we can try to do is get a little nearer to what occurred during those strange wartime years. After all this split created a landscape for British anarchism that would last for at least fifty years if not longer.

Some points and questions that might help the reader or, at the very least, provide some material for discussion:

The Anarchist Federation that was formed in April 1940 appears to have had three primary areas of support namely London, Glasgow and Kingston Upon Thames. There were some supporters in Bristol and numerous other individuals around the country. Numbers are hard to determine but one source cites the newspaper “War Commentary” (often described by some anarchists of the time as the paper of the Anarchist Federation) as having a circulation of around 2,000 and the Workers in Uniform bulletin having a circulation of twice that. (see “I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels”. P.95.) The list of subscribers we have in the KSL appears somewhat smaller but this list may well be a subset of a larger one. Not all of the subscribers would have been in the Anarchist Federation of course. In “Revived 45” Philip Sansom suggests that around 200 people in the armed forces subscribed to “War Commentary”. It might also be useful at this juncture to mention that the split affected some anarchists who were not in the Federation.

Many of the accounts listed below lay stress and emphasis on some events and miss some others out entirely. One event in particular in the primary sources we have, that appeared to have left bad feelings among members of the Federation which may have fueled later tensions, was the affair of Desmond Fenwick who was allegedly caught stealing money sent in by subscribers and supporters to the Freedom Press office from May 1942 onwards. Albert Meltzer mentions Fenwick in passing but as far as we can tell no one else does. The case of Fenwick and the aftermath of his expulsion from the Anarchist Federation was cited by Marie-Louise as being a prime cause of unpleasantness within the Federation and was one of her reasons for her resigning from the organization in 1944.

It has proved quite difficult in trying to pin down the relationship of the Freedom Press Group (FPG) to the Anarchist Federation. At times, in the documents we have, they appear to be a group within the London Anarchist Federation but there remains considerable uncertainty as to what that relationship was with the organization and whether or not people at the time saw “War Commentary” as the organ of the Anarchist Federation and, therefore, essentially owned by the Federation. We know that the FPG published “War Commentary” and various books and pamphlets. We also know that they regularly appealed for money to publish “War Commentary” and, after the bombing of the Freedom Press premises in May 1941, the FPG created a Reconstruction fund. It also formed the Friends of Freedom Press in September 1941 with one of its purposes being the providing of finance to help publish Freedom Press publications. The FPG, apparently, scrupulously published each donation that was received for “War Commentary” or the Reconstruction fund etc. in the paper but it appears that some (Tom Brown etc.) were unsure of where the money actually went and suspected Vero and Marie-Louise, for example, were using it to live off the movement. Albert Meltzer, however, in “The Anarchists in London, 1935-1955” states that only John Hewetson and Marie-Louise Berneri were full time workers at “War Commentary” (unpaid?) It would appear that for some of the war Vero worked as an engineer for London Underground and the British rail network (see his obituaries in “The Times” of 12/12/2001 and “The Guardian” of 4th February 2002, the latter written by Colin Ward).

The role played by some Spanish anarchists in the split needs to be considered carefully and more work does need to be done on the effect they had on the British movement. It seems that some of the Spanish exiles apparently felt that the FPG had not been welcoming to them. This feeling may have come about because the FPG did not provide space in the FPG offices for Spanish anarchists to work after being asked if that was possible. We also have to understand that the AF was vehemently anti-war and anti-militarist. In their “Aims and Principles” (1943) we can read that “We oppose the war as the outcome of the clashing interests of rival imperialisms”. Some of the Spanish anarchists who became members of the Federation supported the war effort the Allies in the hope that the defeat of Hitler would lead to the defeat of Franco. Such an attitude was one of the reasons why Albert Meltzer resigned from the AF claiming that the Federation had different principles from the one he had joined. We do know that, after the split became formalized, only a minority allied themselves with the FPG and the London Anarchist Group.

Two other points we would make that both reflect the difficulties we have faced in creating this chronology.

In “A Beautiful Idea” (p77) Clifford Holden is reported as putting a gun to Marie-Louise Berneri’s head and marching her down to a bank to cash a cheque on the evening of January 30th 1946. According to the briefing paper presented at the March 30th meeting at Kingsway Hall the people who entered the flat of Berneri and Richards that evening to re-claim the money for a duplicator were Ken Hawkes, Tom Brown (both from London) and Bill Borland and Tom Reilly from Glasgow. No attempt was made to cash the cheque for a few days and the attempt to cash the check led to another major incident. George Woodcock in “Half A Life of Editing” suggests that some of the people (the men from Glasgow presumably) were IRA members or close to them. If nothing else this story reflects how easy it is for myths to grow unchecked and appear to be a “fact” once published.

Secondly an apparently key player – George Woodcock – is missing from much of the documentation we have. Concerns about the funding of his magazine “Now” that appear in both Albert Meltzer’s work and are mentioned in Woodcock’s own writings are not reflected in the contemporary documents we have found. It is Richards and Hewetson who appear to attract the ire of those opposed to the FPG and it is Richards who is keen to press the FPG’s case with the Glasgow Group of the AF for instance, where he was supported by Albert Meltzer. Woodcock is rather absent as a target of criticism or support, or as a presence at meetings, as are Peta Edsall and Woodcock’s partner, Ingeborg Roskelly, who were also in the FPG. He does, however feature in Special Branch reports, as do Edsall and Roskelly.

Oral memories and various accounts of the events that took place can be found in:
Colin Ward “Witness for the Prosecution” in “Wildcat Inside story” No 1:London, 1974
Albert Meltzer “The Anarchists in London, 1935-1955”. Sanday: Cienfuegos Press, 1976
Albert Meltzer “The Anarchists in London, 1935-1955” London: Freedom Press, 2018 (this edition has a two-page epilogue written in 2018 by Freedom Press)
Charlie Baird Transcript of interview.  1977
George Woodcock “Half A Life of Editing” in “The Sewanee Review”, Vol 89,No.3. Summer 1981.
George Woodcock “Letter To The Past”. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1982.
Philip Sansom “Freedom Press and the Anarchist Movement in the 50s and 60s” in “Freedom / a hundred years”. London: Freedom Press, 1986.
Philip Sansom “Revived 45: Anarchists Against the Army” in “The Raven Anarchist Quarterly” No. 29 : Freedom Press London, 1995.
Albert Meltzer “I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation”.  Edinburgh, London and San Francisco : AK Press/Kate Sharpley Library. 1996.
Clifford Holden “Work In Progress” 2006 (See
Donald Rooum “A Short History of Freedom Press” in “Freedom” Nov 2011- March 2012 (5 issues.
Carissa Honeywell “Anarchism and the Warfare State: The Prosecution of the ‘War Commentary’ Anarchists.” in International Review of Social History vol 60,issue 2, August 2015.
Rob Ray “A Beautiful Ideal: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists”. London: Freedom Press, 2018.
David Goodway, “Introduction” in Vernon Richards “Lesson of the Spanish Revolution, 1936-39”. Oakland and London: PM Press/Freedom Press, 2019.

Many of these references are autobiographical memories but Honeywell and Ray have attempted to write historical narratives that discuss and explain some of the events that took place in 1944 and 1945 often drawing on the sources outlined above.

Sharp eyed readers will also notice that there are numerous references to Albert Meltzer throughout the chronology. We hope that this will inform a separate work that will re-consider Albert’s life and writings so we took the opportunity of attempting to kill two birds with one chronology.

Any corrections /added information/ general comments would be more than welcome. Apart from constantly reviewing all the information here – we need to add details about John Olday for instance – our next step will be to provide a biographical directory which will include many of the people involved in the split, however peripherally.

[This is the preamble to the chronology as it appeared on 10 April 2020. The latest version and the chronology are at]