Some little known anarchists: James Harrigan

The subject of this sketch was a cockney of the working class. A shoemaker who tramped the country making and repairing boots and shoes, varying his occupation by hawking different articles. He held meetings in the provincial towns which he visited during his travels, never looking for any assistance in his propaganda work. All he wanted was a crowd, and with his strong voice, and ready wit, he always held their attention. He was a member of the first “International”, and opposed the “arm-chair” revolutionaries of those days, as he did later on in the “Eighties”. He probably earned the proud distinction of being the first open-air propagandist of avowed Anarchism in England. When H. Seymour was publishing the first English anarchist paper, Harrigan was selling it at his meetings in the parks, besides occasionally contributing to its columns. The “Anarchist” after a fluttering existence, during which it changed from Anarchist-Communism to Anarchist-Individualism died on the advent of “Freedom”.

Harrigan, like Chatterton, has been described in a novel which Olive [Helen and Olivia] Rossetti wrote under the nom-de-plume of Helen Meredith: “A Girl Among the Anarchists”. She gives us a picture which is, on the whole, a truthful one. “He was a very small man, certainly not more than five feet high, thin and wiry, with gray hair and moustache, but otherwise clean-shaven. His features were unusually expressive and mobile, from his some-what scornful mouth to his deep-set observant eyes, and clearly denoted the absence of the Stolid Saxon strain in his blood. His accent, too, though not that of an educated man, was free from the cockney twang. His dress was spare as his figure, but though well-worn there was something spruce and trim about his whole demeanour, which indicated that he was not totally indifferent to the impression he created on others.”

Harrigan’s propaganda work was done in what has justly been called “The heroic period of Anarchism”, when the names of Emile Henri [Henry], Ravachol, and Sante Caserio were on the lips of every-one, and Anarchists were regarded as bomb-throwers and assassins. Hostile audiences were often met with, yet he could gain their sympathy without compromising his position, invariably explaining that, in his view, the violence of some Anarchists was a natural reflex of the violence and tyranny of governments.

Propagandists such as Harrigan, work away at the street corners, and in the parks, known only to a few, and leave a memory only among those who were their intimates. But who can measure their influence on their time, or tell what waves of thought they have set in motion? Is it improbable that Maurice Hewlett, after listening to some Anarchist speaker in one of the parks, was inspired to create that fine anarchistic character “John Senhouse”, in the “Open Country”?

Thousands of such men and women, in the course of years, have worked persistently and unobtrusively, changing the current of thought of their time. Like practically all such sincere workers, Harrigan died miserably poor.

From: Freedom, April 1934.