The conflict between Albert Meltzer and Freedom Press shaped the landscape of the anarchist movement we joined. We’re going to examine one explanation of how it started. It will show (hopefully) that if you rely on later printed accounts and don’t dig through what was written at the time you can miss the complexity of what really happened. The Wooden Shoe was an anarchist bookshop at 42 Old Compton Street in London which ran from 1966 to 1967 (It’s mentioned in Freedom between 15 October 1966 and 28 October 1967). Donald Rooum blamed it for starting a dispute between Albert Meltzer and Vero (Vernon Richards), but that seems to be wrong.
In 1967 Freedom described the shop: ‘Last year there also opened in New Compton Street the “Wooden Shoe” bookshop with an extensive range of anarchist books and publications. This shop is owned and run by a comrade, Ted Kavanagh, who now publishes Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan Review and reprints various anarchist pamphlets including Anarchy No. 2 on Workers’ Control. Ted K. also publishes many provocative posters, his latest is the famous Bakunin slogan: “If God existed it would be necessary to abolish him.”’
In 1967 the first (and only) issue of Wooden Shoe appeared. In it, ‘Genesis of our group’ showed how it started: ‘The Wooden Shoe group is, of course, the Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan Review group plus those who have gathered around the Cuddonite flag. […]
‘Freedom Press having shifted their bookshop to Fulham, in surroundings that must baffle new members of the Special Branch on the look-out, there was for some time nowhere in central London where people could hang around talking occasionally. When visitors came to London they had to wait for week-end meetings. While convinced libertarians bought their ultra-left journals in the commercial newsagents or even in the totalitarian C–t’s [Colletts, presumably]. The Wooden Shoe Bookshop was born – Ted Kavanagh is in charge (process servers from Camden Borough Council, note). Meanwhile; aside from the bookshop – a worthwhile project in itself – we found the necessity for another anarchist press. For it is only when you put all the anarchist books and pamphlets and mags together in one shop, out of which someone has to pay the bills and live, that you find how few they are, and what long gaps there are between publication.’
Publications available were listed under the headings: Anarchist (Freedom, Anarchy, Cuddon’s), syndicalist (Direct Action, Industrial Worker, Rebel Youth), pacifist (Peace News), Marxist (Socialist Leader, Workers Review, Tribune), solidarist (Solidarity) and psychedelic (International Times, Oz, East Village Other). The Wooden Shoe was also a source of situationist material (including Heatwave). Jim Duke and Anna Blume were involved. Bob Cobbings, anarchist concrete poet seems to have been involved, too: ‘Bob Cobbings has his own cross to bear with the collapse of Better Books and The Wooden Shoe for he was actively engaged at various social economic and political levels in both these cultural enterprises.’ Albert Meltzer was involved with the Wooden Shoe (as a member of the Cuddon’s group). Kavanagh had an offset litho press. Stuart Christie said Kavanagh and Martin Page ‘gave their time and skills unstintingly. A chain of apostolic descent in offset printing came from Ted and Martin.’
The shop spanned radical politics, poetry and the ‘underground’/counter-culture. In 1996 Albert remembered it fondly as part of the radical upsurge of the sixties: ‘Before Ted and Anna closed down with a cryptic note saying “Gone fishing” there were a few far-reaching events. As a meeting place rather than as a bookshop, it influenced the beginnings of new squatting movement, created a least a diversion on the anti-Vietnam War movement and led to the black flag flying over the barricades in Paris. Not bad for an under-capitalised, mismanaged and loss-making bookshop that scarcely existed a year!’ But the Wooden Shoe bookshop plays a very different role in the stories that Donald Rooum tells.
In 2008 Donald Rooum wrote a short history of Freedom Press which he described as ‘an amalgam of memories’ and ‘scissors-and-paste work’. Neither the memories nor the scissors seem to be totally reliable.
‘In 1965, the advent of small offset printing made it possible to produce papers with little capital, and Albert Meltzer went off to start a paper closer to his own ideas, called Wooden Shoe, and a publishing group called Wooden Shoe Press.
‘In 1968, Whitechapel Art Gallery bought the Express Printers premises at 84a Whitechapel High Street. Before payment was completed, Vero borrowed the money, in his own name, to buy the freehold of 84b Whitechapel High Street, an empty building on the other side of Angel Alley. The publisher became ‘Vernon Richards trading as Freedom Press’.
‘Albert Meltzer wrote to Vero with the proposal that Wooden Shoe Press should hire a room in the building, contributing to the mortgage repayments. Unlike the new Freedom Press building, the Wooden Shoe premises had a shop window. Jack Robinson, who was managing Freedom Bookshop and earning his living as a second-hand book dealer, visited the landlord of the vacated shop with a view to taking over the tenancy, and learned that Wooden Shoe had paid no rent for the three years and were being evicted. Vero might have written to Albert explaining what he had learned, but in the event he wrote a woffly letter, turning down Albert’s offer without mentioning the real reason. Albert began a feud which lasted until both he and Vero were dead, and for some years after.’
Rooum has removed Kavanagh and combined the Wooden Shoe (bookshop, paper and press) with Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan Review (which did start in 1965) and Coptic Press (which started in 1964). The Wooden Shoe had shut before Freedom Press moved to Whitechapel. It’s difficult to say that Albert ‘went off’ when in January 1965 he was being introduced to Freedom readers as a new housing critic (he wrote in Freedom in 1966 and 1967, and into the seventies).
The account of Freedom Press’ move is confused. Whitechapel Art Gallery did not buy 84a in 1968. Vero used the proceeds of the sale of 17 Maxwell Road in Fulham (owned by his partner Peta Hewetson), money he had borrowed, plus loans from friends to purchase 84(a and b) plus ‘The Golden Plightle’ cottage in Suffolk. Vero was keen not to own 84, but to transfer ownership to a trust (the Friends of Freedom Press) of which he would be the unpaid secretary. ‘Vernon Richards trading as Freedom Press’ doesn’t appear on Freedom after the move; it seems to be an echo of Vero becoming the registered owner of Express Printers in 1943.
I have found one instance of the ‘Wooden Shoe story’ in circulation before 2008. Finnish-American Wobbly Harry Siitonen visited London in 1976, and was told something similar (with illuminating additions):
‘Richards also made his enemies within the English anarchist movement, particularly with an old Freedom Press writer Albert Meltzer (1920–1996) who had tried to merge his Wooden Shoe Collective into Freedom Press over the former’s objections. This caused an irrevocable split from then on between them, with Meltzer founding Black Flag magazine with a young comrade Stuart Christie to rival Freedom. Black Flag was more proletariat-oriented than the former which was more generally intellectual. So this caused Meltzer to attack Richards as a “liberal” rather than a horny-handed navvy. (Actually Albert’s day job was as a copy editor at the bourgeois London Daily Telegraph.) Talk about factionalism! Where have we heard this before? I called up Meltzer and he invited me to dinner at his flat, where we spent a most convivial evening, with Albert being a most warm and friendly host with whom it was easy to talk shop. I ended up subscribing to both Freedom and Black Flag for a number of years.’
These two accounts give us the story created by people around Freedom Press to explain away Albert’s criticism of them. They suggest: the dispute is personal and not political (and originally between Vero and Albert); Freedom Press are criticised by Albert after he fails to take financial advantage of them; Vero defends Freedom Press but is partly to blame because of his lack of social skills; Albert is a ‘workerist’, but does not live up to it because he’s in a white- rather than blue-collar job. It might be significant that in this version they get his job wrong: Albert was employed as a copy taker, not a copy editor.
In 2018 we reviewed Rob Ray’s A Beautiful Idea: history of the Freedom Press anarchists saying that the Wooden Shoe story ‘sounds a rather convenient explanation for a broader conflict’ and ‘The refusal might have happened: presumably there would be evidence in the Freedom Press archives in Amsterdam if so.’
Minutes of Freedom Press meetings are in Folder 130 of Vero’s papers in at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. If you can’t visit to research it’s possible to take the ‘lucky dip’ approach and ask the staff to scan material for you. It doesn’t cost that much, you just have to hope there’s not too much to scan and that what you ask for is useful. Eventually, I bit the bullet and ordered the minutes for 1967 (there are no minutes for 1968). When they arrived, it was obvious things happened very differently to the Rooum version. In a meeting in Fulham on 1 August 1967 it’s clear that ‘the Wooden Shoe option’ was that Freedom would use the Wooden Shoe’s premises: the shoe was on the other foot!
Looking at the minutes for 1965-7 fill in the context. Freedom Press had moved to Fulham from Red Lion Street in September 1960. ‘The Move!’ explained ‘we had at our disposal, and at a nominal rent, premises in the Fulham area’ (but not that it was owned by Peta Hewtson, Vero’s partner).
Leaving Maxwell Road is first mentioned in the minutes for 17 May 1966 (the council ending up buying the building for a redevelopment plan that never happened). The issue of whether Freedom Press can find a better location recurs until 1968. The Wooden Shoe is one of the possibilities, another is Robert Barltrop’s shop in Walthamstow. It’s clear that Vero has the final say in what Freedom Press does.
In the minutes for 2 June 1965 it was ‘proposed to invite Albert Meltzer to the editorial meetings.’ On 4 January 1966 ‘A new society for the publication of Freethought literature having been formed, in which a prominent member was Albert Meltzer, he thought it would be a good idea to make their proposed central London bookshop a general radical bookshop, and he would like to discuss possibilities with Freedom Press. Vero Richards agreed to meet Albert Meltzer and discuss the proposition’. (No Secular League bookshop seems to have started.)
13 September: ‘New Bookshop: Ted Kavanagh was opening a book shop, The Wooden Shoe, in Central London and would like to have a full range of anarchist literature, including back issues of “Anarchy”. It was agreed to supply him.’
26 September: Vero wants to sell the Fulham property, and ‘we could not be given a lease as this would reduce the chance of a sale.’ Mary Canipa wondered about ‘our raising a fund to buy. In Vero’s absence, however, nothing further was known as to the present position, and this would have to be held over until he could inform us.’
The meeting of 1 August 1967 discussed a memorandum from Vero which seems to have suggested curtailing what Freedom Press did: giving up printing their own material (possibly to just publish Freedom and Anarchy, and give up on books and pamphlets); getting rid of the Freedom Press library; giving up running a bookshop. With regard to Freedom Press moving into the Wooden Shoe, Philip Sansom was in favour; Vero thought it ‘irrelevant to discussion’.
‘Wooden Shoe: Jack Robinson reported that the information he had verbally from Ted Kavanagh had been incomplete and inaccurate. The lease had one year to run, not two (but with strong possibility of extension) […] Ted owed one quarter’s rent and a whole year’s rates.
‘This made the rent high, but it was a central position; the fact that it could be only for one year might not be such a bad thing, as by then we would know exactly where we were with regard to other premises, and in the meantime we would have an outlet and an office and some of the functions carried on at Maxwell Road could be transferred there before we actually had to leave here. […]
‘John [Rety]: is against merging the identities of Freedom Bookshop and the Wooden Shoe. There is an increase in the number of bookshops willing to stock anarchist literature; up to now the Wooden Shoe and Freedom Bookshop had been two outlets, and he would like both to continue separately; to transfer certain functions of Freedom Press to that address would only cause confusion. He thought the Wooden Shoe might provide an opportunity for Jack to become a public bookseller, but the mail order side as set out in Lilian’s memorandum was invaluable and it was essential to keep Freedom Bookshop going separately, and new comrades would then have to be found to staff the Maxwell Road premises. […]
‘The consensus was that the outlay was too much and period too short, and the risk of distraint by publishers for Ted’s debts with them too great. In effect, Jack was offering himself as the bookseller envisaged by Vero. The decision was for him and not for the group, but if he did take the initiative we should do our utmost to back and regard him as the selling outlet for Freedom Press literature; although John Rety remained worried about cutting the throat of Freedom Bookshop, and we would still have to have personnel for the remaining time of the Maxwell Road premises.’
There never was a plan for the Wooden Shoe to move in with Freedom Press, it was the other way round; and the bookshop closed before Freedom Press moved to Whitechapel in 1968. Yet something did happen in that year. The London Federation of Anarchists Archives hold an undated circular from the LFA:
‘We are planning a permanent London office for the LFA, which will be a place for central activities, general information and ordinary social gathering; where, in fact, comrades from London and visiting London can get together, and be put in touch with activity generally. It will also be a general office for our national and international organisational work. We have been offered accommodation at Freedom Press’ new premises, and we want to ascertain that we shall always be able to pay our way.’ The appeal for donations is aimed especially at ‘those who are not otherwise active for various reasons’.
This plan seems to have failed, and enraged the Freedom editors:
‘Two years ago, when Freedom Press was faced with the problem, once again, of having to leave our premises (these were in Fulham, due for demolition in a scheme which has since been shelved), we found we had the opportunity of acquiring the premises in Whitechapel where our printers have been established for many years. The money to buy these premises was raised by private loans from a few sympathisers throughout the world, and an arrangement has been made whereby the premises are not owned by Freedom Press, but for the first time we have security of tenure. We have also of course to pay back the loans, which involve considerable sums from these few individuals, within reasonable time. […]
‘Freedom Press has of course to pay a rent for 84b, and it had been hoped that The London Federation of Anarchists would take responsibility for the ground floor (known now as Freedom Hall) and pay a reasonable rent for that towards our costs. Unhappily the LFA seems to have collapsed, so this ground floor is not fully used.’ […]
‘The point has been made to us by a consistent Freedom seller that the groups should subsidise us, not vice versa. After all, groups come and groups go, but Freedom Press goes on for ever – and is often left with bad debts from disintegrating groups and federations, even!’
In December 1969 John Rety was appealing for volunteers to open Freedom Hall for ‘entertainment-cum-education-cum-fund raising once a week’. Freedom Hall was used for meetings (Miguel Garcia spoke there for the Anarchist Black Cross on 15 February 1970) but by May 1971 Albert and his comrades had started Centro Iberico as a social-political centre, another step away from working with Freedom Press.
Albert’s move away from Freedom Press was a gradual one that probably had more than one trigger – the ‘Statement by the Black Flag Group to the Liverpool Conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain, Sept., 1968’ gives a list of ‘Liberal’ statements from Anarchy and Freedom. Rooum’s tale of the conflict as a personal one between Albert and Vero is an attempt to rewrite what happened (from an enthusiastic participant in the conflict). There’s no doubt that Albert criticised Vero but I suspect initially the problem was not Vero’s ideas but his inaction. In 1973 Albert lamented ‘The weekly “Freedom” was built up by the Anarchist Movement as a whole. It was taken over by the Freedom Press Group (not the same thing as Freedom Press which had existed many years before). The last survivors of this group have let it drift into the hands of a body we can only describe as Non-Violent Fascists.’
So, we are left with more questions: When did Albert give up on Freedom Press? What was Vero’s political trajectory? It will be interesting to see what else comes out of the archives in Amsterdam.
1, ‘News from Elsewhere’, Freedom 28 Jan. 1967
3, Arthur Moyse ‘Around the galleries’ Freedom 21 October 1967
4, p.26-7 of Edward Heath made me Angry
5, p.184 ‘The Wooden Shoe’ in chapter 12 of I couldn’t paint Golden Angels
6, Donald Rooum ‘Freedom, Freedom Press and Freedom Bookshop: A short history of Freedom Press’ Information for Social Change Number 27, Summer 2008 https://ia802800.us.archive.org/9/items/information_for_social_change/ISC%2027%20Whole%20Issue.pdf
7, See ‘November 1943’ at http://katesharpleylibrary.pbworks.com/w/page/139511268/The%201945%20split%20in%20British%20anarchism
8, Chapter 25, ‘Libertarian Socialism, 1976’ http://finnlabor.net/Memoirs25.htm
9, In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 97-98, February 2019 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/vhhp7d
10, The minutes for 1967 are at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/k0p4hs
11, Freedom 24 September 1960
14, ‘The cost of being anarchists’ Freedom 25 October 1969
15, ‘An idea’ (letter) Freedom 20 December 1969
16, see ‘Notes on Centro Iberico’ https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/jdfpr8 and Mudlark121 ‘Spotlight on London’s historical anarchist spaces: Centro Iberico’ https://pasttenseblog.wordpress.com/2021/03/05/spotlight-on-londons-historical-anarchist-spaces-centro-iberico/
18, Anon. ‘How to recapture ‘Freedom’ for the anarchist movement’ Black Flag v2, n15, January 1973. See also ‘The nature of nonviolent fascism and the George Woodcock myth’ Anarchy (Second Series) #11 (1973) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/fqz7qc