Anarchists against World War One: Two little known events – Abertillery and Stockport

There have now been a reasonable number of publications on British anarchist opposition to World War One – the trailblazing and well-documented book on opposition in North London by Ken Weller, the relevant chapter in John Quail’s book on British anarchism, etc. However, much more investigation needs to be done. This article is a contribution to that ongoing work, with reference to State repression in two different parts of Britain.

In 1913 the resentment against the behaviour of trade union leaders in South Wales – the so-called anti-leader agitation – crystallised in the setting up of Workers Freedom Groups in that region. The anarchist paper Freedom reporting on the Anarchist Conference of March 1913, referred to the report given by delegates from Abertillery, Harlech and Swansea and took note that there were now eight of these groups in the Swansea valley alone. One of these groups was at Ammanford with the involvement of the miner Jim Colton (see his biography at libcom). These groups rapidly took on an anarchist communist nature and began to spread beyond Wales. As the Ammanford group proclaimed:

The Constitution and programme of the Workers Freedom Groups have been shaped upon the model of future society at which they aim, namely Anarchist-Communism”.

Workers Freedom Groups were set up in at least Bristol, Oldham and Chopwell (the latter at the initiative of the miner Will Lawther, later to become a right wing union bureaucrat). The development of the Workers Freedom Groups seems to have been sponsored by George Davison, with the wealth he had received from his involvement in Kodak. Davison paid for the setting up of Communist Clubs connected to the Workers Freedom Groups in Ammanford and Chopwell and it seems likely that he paid for the Communist Club in Stockport, itself connected to the foundation of a Workers Freedom Group there. It appears that the Workers Freedom Groups may well have had their origins in the Central Labour College, a breakaway from Ruskin College that was also sponsored by Davison. At a national anarchist conference held in Newcastle on April 11th and 12th 1914, there was discussion on a basis for work using the Workers Freedom Groups (Newcastle Journal, 13th April 1914)

The Communist Club was opened at 18 Park Street, Hazel Grove in Stockport in February 1914 with participation from anarchists from Stockport itself, Cheadle, Reddish, Oldham and New Mills. Freedom was to describe the “dainty, bright” and “charming” rooms of the Club in a report of the Anarchist Conference held there a year later at Easter in 1915. The Stockport group summed up their concept of anarchist communism in a statement published in Freedom which included the following:

Comrades, to struggle is to live, together, not isolated; let not the most determined individualist fear the Communism we advance – the Free Society of Individuals – based upon the order of equality and liberty of expression, voluntary agreement and social service according to ability, desire and opportunity”.

The war started with millions volunteering to be slaughtered. The death of so many in the first two years of the War compelled the British State to consider introducing conscription, and over this even some supporters of the War expressed grave reservations. The Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party (formerly the Social Democratic Federation) had large sections who took a pro-war, patriotic stand and it was only around the Labour Leader paper of the ILPer Fenner Brockway that the anti-war elements of the ILP were able to rally. For their part, the anarchists, despite the pro-war stance of Kropotkin and others, consistently opposed the war and carried on propaganda and activity against it. As an indication of sympathy for anti-war views, sales of Freedom and The Voice of Labour rose significantly. Conscription was introduced in January 1916 and soon the State struck against the anarchist movement. Freedom and The Voice of Labour were raided and anarchists like Henry Sara, Guy Aldred, Bonar Thompson and others were imprisoned, Sara being particularly badly treated. Other anarchists like Rudolf Rocker and Charlie Lahr were interned as “enemy aliens”. One London anarchist, Alf Corum, was plucked from the orchestra pit of Finsbury Music Hall by the police (1)

An indication of how seriously the State took the anti-war agitation of the anarchists is seen from the treatment meted out to the anarchist Jack Smith in Glasgow in May 1916. Whilst two others, Maxton and McDougall, who were socialists, received sentences of 12 months for the same offence, Smith received a sentence of eighteen months, because of his association with a “well-known London anarchist” (Aldred is meant here) and because 8 copies of a paper were of “an extreme character” found on him contained a statement from the International Stop the War Committee which advocated the ending of the War through revolution, and the spreading of communism. (Western Daily Press, May 12th 1916 and Derby Daily Telegraph, May 11th 1916)

The Welsh coal miner Christopher John Smith, very active in Abertillery in the Workers Freedom Group there, had his house visited by a police inspector whilst he was at work on March 22nd 1916, and anarchist literature there was confiscated. As Freedom noted on his trial “our militant comrade at Abertillery, Chris Smith, has now been singled out for distinction for thinking aloud”. In court he described himself as an Anarchist Communist. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment on 12th April 1916 for advocating a down-tools policy to the prejudice of the national interest, translated by Freedom as “the heinous crime of distributing leaflets among the miners”. He was also charged with sending a letter to a newspaper calculated to prejudice recruiting. Judgement was reserved on the latter charge. Smith told the court he had been a soldier in the Boer War but had since changed his mind about militarism. On August 5th, 1916 the socialist paper The Merthyr Pioneer reported: “The case of Chris Smith, about four months ago sentenced at Abertillery to six months’ imprisonment under the Defence of the Realm Act, will be well remembered by many Pioneer readers. A week last Monday his wife and other relatives and friends visited him at Usk Prison, where he is confined. They found him in good health and spirits, and also looking well and strong. He was by no means down-hearted, but rather his optimism was marked. Prison life has not modified his opinions, neither lessened his determination to continue service in the people’s cause. The cell does not suppress a man’s spirit nor his mentality it only strengthens the revolutionary.”

In Stockport there was an active branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship and the number of prosecutions against conscientious objectors seems to have been high for the Stockport area. One objector from Stockport, Arthur Butler (who appears not to have been an anarchist) died in Preston prison as a result of the appalling treatment he received. The local anarchists were active in the NCF and the Club soon became the target of raids. The first raid took place on February 1st with the local Chief Constable taking out a warrant under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to search the “premises occupied by the Workers Freedom Group or Anarchist Club” (evidence given by Inspector Billings in court). No one was present in the Club during the raid. The police seized the anarchist literature at the Club “many of which were of a revolutionary nature and were no doubt prejudiced to recruiting”. The owners were summoned to show cause why the literature should not be destroyed. The Manchester Evening News (7th March 1916) reported that Robert Holt (probably an erroneous transcription of Herbert Holt) had appeared and said he was a member of the group and that he wished to state reasons why the literature should not be destroyed. The magistrates agreed that not all the documents should be condemned: “There were some” said the Chairman “that people might read with advantage. We have gone over a number of the pamphlets and think that “The Appeal To Socialists” “Down With Conscription” “International Anarchist Manifesto on the War” and “Apes and Patriotism” should be condemned and the rest handed back”.

On 13th June 1916 one of the Stockport anarchists, Walter Barlow (21), a hat leather cutter, of Strean Terrace, Turncroft Lane, was in front of the local magistrates on the charge of being an absentee under the Military Service Act. In court he said that “I am an anarchist and do not believe in government of men by men”, adding that he did not appeal because he denied the right of any man to judge his conscience. The tribunals were used to smash opposition to the Military Service Act and therefore he refused to have anything to with them. He was fined 40 shillings and handed over to the military authorities (Manchester Evening News, 13th June 1916).

In raids on the Club on 18th and 20th September five anarchists were captured and charged with absenting themselves from military service. These were William Jackson, a commercial traveller, of Langley Cottage, Hazel Grove; Herbert Hope of York Street, Didsbury, (another erroneous transcription for Herbert Holt); William Hopkins of Marshland Street, Stockport; Charles Warwick of Crofton Street, Rusholme and Arthur Helsby. Hopkins, a conscientious objector, was found in the cellar. Holt and Jackson said they were antimilitarists and did not believe in war and the Army. Holt went out of his way to say that the Club was not the premises of the NCF as had been alleged by the police. He said that he did not owe anything to England and therefore did not think he should fight for the country. Jackson said that he did not intend to be a soldier because war was barbarism. The Chief Constable said that Helby refused to give an account of himself and “was evidently a man of foreign extraction” (!) He was remanded for further enquiries. The others were fined forty shillings each and ordered to be handed over to the military authorities (Friday 22nd September 1916, Manchester Evening News).

In another raid on the Club Robert Williams was arrested. The previously arrested Jackson and Hopkins were sentenced to 2 years hard labour at a Birkenhead court martial.

In another raid elsewhere another Stockport anarchist, Robert Seaton of Charles Street was arrested for not having responded to a call up notice. He was an employee of the L& N.W. Railway Company.

In court he stated: “How can I absent myself from something to which I never belonged. It’s illogical and the whole proceedings are a perfect farce from beginning to end”. The usual sentence was meted out… 40s shillings fine and handing over to the military authorities. Another Stockport objector, James Worsencroft, told the court that: ” I am opposed to all manner of warfare”.

Fenner Brockway was imprisoned for his anti-war activity and met some of the Stockport anarchists whilst imprisoned at Chester Castle. “There were three young anarchists from Stockport whom I knew as N.C.F. members”. He went on to say that they were “splendid” and that: ” two of them were only eighteen and the third could not have been older than twenty… They were all working class lads accustomed to roughing it and were blessed with a great sense of humour… Bob Seaton was a strong, good-looking boy with the open, ruddy type of face one usually associates with the country. Williams was quiet and thoughtful, a pale-face. Sam Brookes was a little chap with the features and fun of Punch. I went through a good deal of my imprisonment with these boys and found them of sterling character.” Brockway, together with the anarchists and Percy Bartlett, later secretary to George Lansbury, decided to defy the silence rule in prison and went to the prison governor to tell him so. The governor replied that this could be interpreted as mutiny for which flogging was the punishment. Despite this they began to talk whilst stitching mail bags. They were confined to their cells and next morning reported to the governor, but this time not removed to cells. Ordered to walk ten feet apart during exercise they bunched together and even started playing games. They were then left like this for a week, by which time the revolt spread. Brockway, together with Brookes, was then moved to Lincoln Prison.

Another Stockport anarchist, Alfred Toft, was forced into the Cheshire Regiment as a private. He appeared in court charged with disobeying orders on May 30th 1917. In court he stated: “I decline to plead as I don’t recognise myself as a soldier”. He had already been court martialled three times. He believed that the military system was brought about through ignorance, war was brought about by the capitalist class for its own gain, to the disadvantage and degradation of the masses. The result of war was slavery. He was previously sentenced to two years, with 1 year and 22 days remitted. He now received 2 years hard labour, a sentence then reduced to six months with hard labour. (Liverpool Echo, 6th September 1917)

The Stockport anarchists remained intransigent during their imprisonment, refusing to accept alternative service, with the exception of Herbert Holt, who finally agreed to do work for the Home Office at Wakefield. In April 1919 all of the conscientious objectors in prison were released, Seaton and the others among them.

(1) Alf Corum (1890-1969). From a musical family. Joined the British Socialist Party in his early twenties, became an anarchist during the First World War, contributing to Freedom. Imprisoned as a conscientious objector he edited the secret prison paper The Winchester Whisperer, written in ink with a blunt needle on toilet paper. Became a founder-member of Communist Party in 1920 and remained with it the rest of his life. He became a fairly well-known classical composer.

Nick Heath


Brockway, F. Inside the Left (1947)

Various newspaper reports (see above)