Tom Keell

With the passing of Tom Keell goes one of the most prominent links with the active and enthusiastic period of the English libertarian movement. The London Freedom Group had been founded in the [18]90’s around the personality of Kropotkin, who had made England his home after adventures with the prisons and police of half Europe, and despite the difficulties of all anti-state activity, its paper “Freedom” remained a glowing torch of unique literary standard for over thirty years – a remarkable life for this type of periodical. During the early years of the century, at a time of particular hardship, it was lucky to enlist the sympathy of Alfred Marsh, son of a prosperous brush manufacturer, who became nominal editor, and from then Tom Keell, who had joined the “staff” as compositor some time before, and had done most of the practical work, gradually took on duties of publishing, accounting, editing, distributing, writing the excellent “Notes of the day” and finally running the whole paper “Freedom” as is bound to happen to an efficient man who is always “on the job” and willing to work and to take responsibility. The practical problems of “committee editing” were burden enough: the tragedy of the group schism brought about by alignment towards the war fever and Russian affairs are even now hardly forgotten; and the fact that a paper with such a policy could be kept alive through the war period was itself a miracle. In all this Tom took a consistent, an honourable, an uncompromising line of anti-state, anti-government, anti-war activity,   though it may be human nature to rail at one who stayed on the right path whilst others strayed, it is very difficult to find in his record much to criticise.

With the post-war slump and general world disillusionment the wave of activity and interest in Anarchism (essentially international) fell considerably, and by the time he had decided to retire to the country with his sympathetic comrade of many years, Lilian Wolfe, there was no responsible group to whom he felt justified in handing over. The press was dismantled and sold, bills all paid, and Tom retired to Whiteway Colony, which has had its place for some years in the history of Utopian Colony experiments. Having little urge towards journalism (his memoirs would have been fascinating), he confined himself to keeping in touch with affairs, a periodical visit to his friends in London, and remaining, with the help of the old “Bomb Shop” (Henderson’s of Charing Cross Road) and that independent personality, Charles Lahr, the representative, more or less, of the tiny stream of English libertarian literature.

Can I get a Kropotkin pamphlet anywhere? Ask Tom Keell. Is “Man!” available here without writing to the United States? Write to Tom Keell. Does anyone know anything about Spanish anarchists before the war? See if Tom Keell can help you – and so on – until the Spanish war brought Anarchism again into world politics, attracted new blood, and found him willing to help as publisher and distributor of “Spain and the World.” His firm, neat handwriting on the wrappers to the day of his death remain our last contact with him.

When I first came to London I had 14/7½ d, a suitcase and need of a job. On the third day, having found a room and started personal affairs rolling, I put in my pocket my copy of “Freedom”, picked up if I remember, at an Emma Goldman meeting in Manchester, and stood at half past four on a Saturday afternoon at the back door of 127, Ossulston Street, “Hello!” – a tall grey-bearded man at the top of a dark rickety  staircase. “Are you Mr. Keell?” “I am.” “Can I have a few words with you?” “Come upstairs,” and a man sat on a packing case eating bread and cheese sandwiches, drinking tea and handing out information in a small tidy room under the roof and crowded with its hand-press, type fonts with which he proceeded later to do conjuring tricks all the time he was talking, one chair plus me, neat piles of literature and two rows of his personal books. Trained to look for a good critical study of a new subject, it did not take me long to discover that I wanted an “Eltzbacher.” “Nothing doing, my boy,” said Tom. “Apart from pure luck, you’re twenty years too late – but if you can read French there’s a translation still in print published by so and so” – and from then the twelve years to his death are covered, with some interruptions, by letters, purchases of books and papers, visits to London, meetings at Whiteway and talks! – talks of the past, before my time, talks of the days of Kropotkin and Malatesta in the office and of their personalities; of the coming of the released Spanish prisoners, tortured in Montjuich prison, of their scarred backs and of Tarrida del Marmol; of the public outcry at the Ferrer execution; of printing and other help to Mrs. Pankhurst and the Women’s Suffrage Movement when they were raided by Liberal governments; of illegal pamphlets against war and conscription left in buses and other public places; of Scotland Yard officials and how to deal with them; of useful help with correspondence and propaganda for Emma Goldman’s lecture campaign; of that extraordinary short-lived genius “George Barrett” who could not be replaced; of that fine personality Wm. C. Owen, and of Edward Carpenter, who meant so much to many a pre-war youth; of Whiteway itself, originally founded by a group of Tolstoyans, and of the colourful individualist personalities it has attracted since; of Irish politics, labour, enthusiasm and martyrdom; of George Lansbury, the red “Daily Herald” days, the Miracle of Fleet Street, and the brave days when “Many of us were twenty-one, light of heart, of pocket, but full of ideals” and met at the Minerva Rooms in Silver Street, at the International Restaurant in Denmark Street, or at the Emily Davison Club.

And what good did all the talking do? Well, it kept the torch alive and has handed it on.

From a Correspondent.*

*Dr Oscar Swede (1900-1942), attribution from ‘Thomas Keell 1866-1938’ by “HB” (probably Harold Barclay) http://libcom.org/library/thomas-keell-1866-1938. Swede’s papers are in Amsterdam.

From: Man! Vol 6 No 9-10 Sept.-Oct. 1938 [p603-6 of the Man! Anthology].