Some notes on the founding of the Kate Sharpley Library

There should be a very old saying along these lines: ‘only historians and policemen love people who keep note books’ and herein lies the problem for all well-meaning anarchist historians. Anarchists by the very nature of their social philosophy are in permanent opposition to the state, and therefore the object of continuing surveillance. Keeping diaries, notes-books and journals may make fascinating reading for future generations but they can cause great problems for the living.

Twenty five years ago when a group of young Australian anarchists looking for somewhere very cheap to live in London settled on Brixton, they had very little idea that they were to be the pathfinders for literally dozens if not several hundred anarchists and fellow travellers settling in this corner of south London over the next ten to fifteen years. Today Brixton has a reputation for being hip and cutting edge, but way back in 1979 it was just another crap part of London to live in.

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s squatting was about the only way for young people without money or references to find accommodation in London. Once you had taken control of your first squat and got over the feeling that you are about to be evicted at any moment, it’s a very relaxed and simple matter to spread one’s wings. Helping others to find a squat, organising large scale occupations of empty buildings, finding free space to be creative or even setting up a rent-free business, the scope is limitless! Once settled, it was only a matter of time before the Brixton anarchists decided they needed a social centre. With no rent to pay, no deposit to find and no resident landlord to worry about it took just a matter of days to establish what was to be called for the next 15 years or so the ‘121 Anarchist Centre’ at 121 Railton Road, London SE24. ‘121’ was first squatted by local South London anarchists who were already active in the area before the arrival of overseas comrades.

Number 121 Railton Road was a large corner building covering three stories plus cellar, it’s ground floor was formerly a shop. In the early days no real attempt was made to do anything with the building other than to hold meetings, parties and act as a hostel for the numerous comrades visiting the big smoke.

As the number of anarchists in Brixton grew and contact was made with local anarchists (one of the big lies about the 121 anarchists was they were all outsiders) 121 was transformed into an almost 24 hour a day activity centre, housing a bookshop (admittedly running very erratic opening times but none the less it was to remain open for 10 years), a cafe and a disco in the cellar - the only place where one could be sure the floor would not cave-in.

The centre also acted as the offices for several anarchist publications, the most famous being ‘South London Stress’ (for non-Londoners it must be explained this was a word play on the local rag ‘South London Press’).

With all this activity taking place, with new comrades arriving and old ones departing almost on a weekly basis, a lot of books were donated to the centre. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to start a library. The first library was a lending library, however even anarchists can be forgetful or just plain dishonest: unlike Marxists we are not saints! In time the large front room above the shop was lined with shelving and an impressive collection was assembled. As many of the books donated were either expensive or rare or both, the library was reorganised into lending and reference sections and the books had to be marked.

Some years previously Albert Meltzer met Kate Sharpley in Lewisham and had kept in touch with her until her death. When the comrades were discussing giving the library a name her name was put forward. She was an anarchist, a Londoner, a one time activist and, if truth be told, at that time the 121 Collective was heavily influenced by an anarcho-feminist faction so being a woman put her name way ahead of Bakunin & Co.

However choosing to name the small collection after a totally unknown comrade was not by any means an act of originality by the 121 Collective. Anarchists love to confuse the agents of the state. When a group named after Marius Jacob (who had died 50 years earlier) were active in Paris in the 1970s, the police spent much time looking for the anarchist Jacob! The local Brixton police once mistook the number 121 for “One To One” unintentionally turning what was mostly an anarchist-communist collective into a group of anarcho-individualists.

During the early 1980’s ‘the Bookshop’ as number 121 Railton Road was more commonly known came under many attacks, some serious, some farcical. The farcical were the attempts of Lambeth Council (the alleged rightful owners of the building) to evict the comrades: wrong papers presented to the courts, ill briefed solicitors, court dates mixed up. In many cases the judges sided with the comrades only because they found the local council so totally inept. The serious threats came from crypto-fascist followers of the National Front who would burn down anything connected with left-wing or anarchist causes. Black gangsters also were a big problem, the Bookshop was right on the so called ‘Front Line’, one of London’s major drug markets and a shop like that could be a very nice location to deal drugs from.

In addition to the various anarchist groups - Anarchist Black Cross, South London Direct Action Movement etc. - the Bookshop also housed a squatters network and magazine, a prisoners rights organisation, the London office of the Greenham Common womens peace movement and, during the great miners strike, the London support desk of the South Wales Miners. Not the most popular collection of state-friendly organisations. During one of these problematic periods it was decided that the KSL could no longer stay at 121. The collection had become too valuable to be seen going up in smoke. Many old comrades had contributed their life-long collection of books and papers to the library. Even the Socialist Part of Great Britain had contacted the KSL and handed over their collection of foreign language syndicalist papers, including quite a few Yiddish papers. The library also had many rare first editions both of books and journals. As old comrades died and others moved overseas, unwilling to drag their books with them, the library kept growing. At one stage it had a very fine collection of fascist literature, collected by comrades researching the progress of the ultra right. Later this material was sold to raise money for the KSL and to make room for more libertarian minded material.

A police raid in August 1984 effectively sealed the decision to move the library. The KSL would cease to be a lending library with open access to all, turning into a specialist research library, arguing that those people wishing to acquire a general overview of anarchism could reasonably find such information in any good bookshop.

For the next few years the KSL became a squatter itself, holding out in the wonderfully posh sounding St. Georges Residences, just across the road from the Bookshop. This beautifully designed Victorian block of flats, originally built to house music hall artists, were saved from demolition by the resistance of anarchists and other squatters who recognised quality building much more than any so called town hall expert. As the library continued to grow it was in serious need of cataloguing and reorganising, this could only be done away from the pressure of seizure or fire and with this in mind the KSL moved out of London for good.

Col, June 2004