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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part I – Seekers, Ranters & Quakers in the Civil Wars & Interregnum, 1647-1657.   Leave a comment

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Prophesying the Millennium:

Until 1957, historians had maintained that we could know very little of the real beliefs of the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual Libertines’, since the information we did have came from their enemies. They were accused as regarding themselves as divine beings and of holding that they could, therefore, commit murder, robbery and fornication without sin. But, as Norman Cohn pointed out in the appendix to his iconic book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, published that year, the ‘scandalous tales told of them’ were ‘merely conscious or unconscious slanders’. These were accusations which were made against mystical groups of the later middle ages, but they could not be checked in any detail against their own writings. To do that, Cohn looked into the brief but hectic revival of the ‘Free Spirit’ which took place in England during and after the Civil War. 

Like the writings of their predecessors, those of the ‘Ranters’ of the later period were ordered to be burnt. But it was much harder to destroy a whole production of a work than a few manuscripts, and stray copies of Ranter tracts survived. Viewed as historical documents, these tracts have established that the ‘Free Spirit’ really was exactly what it was said to be: a system of self-exaltation amounting to self-deification; a pursuit to of total emancipation which in practice could result in an anarchic eroticism; often also a revolutionary social doctrine which denounced the institution of private property and aimed at its abolition. But the interest of the Ranter literature is not only historical. If the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Abiezer Coppe were sufficiently vigorous and colourful to earn him an honourable place in the gallery of literary eccentrics, Joseph Salmon deserves recognition as a writer of real poetic power.

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Thanks to the work which has been done on the radical religious ideas of Cromwell’s England, not least by Christopher Hill, in his 1972 book, The World Turned Upside Down, there is now no lack of information concerning the social milieu in which the Ranters flourished. Indeed, this author was counselled by his tutors not to pursue research for his PhD on this period on the basis that he would probably have to limit himself to the study of an obscure sect. It was only some years later that I returned it to investigate the Independent puritan enthusiasm which ran high among the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army and among civilians, and that neither the Episcopalian establishment nor the Presbyterian puritans were able to channel the flood of lay religiosity. Many felt that the time had come when God had when God was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. Ecstasies were everyday occurrences, prophecies were uttered in many quarters, and millennial hopes were rife throughout the population. Cromwell himself, especially before he came to power as Lord General and then Lord Protector, was also moved by such hopes. Thousands of artisans in London and elsewhere lived in daily expectation that through the violence of the civil war the Kingdom of the Saints would be established on English soil and that Christ would return to rule over it.

In the late 1640s, the Quakers were often referred to as ‘Roundhead rogues’, and in May 1648 the ‘Digger’ pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley made it clear that the word ‘Roundhead’ was used especially as a slur on the political radicals in the New Model. Edward Burrough was mocked as a Roundhead even in his pre-Quaker days. But it appears to have been used mainly in reference to political radicalism, and it was only during the intense period of political instability and uncertainty which followed the execution of the King and ended with the establishment of the Protectorate in 1653. In 1649-50, Winstanley was moved by supernatural illumination to found the ‘Digger’ community near Cobham in Surrey. Convinced that the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire, and wearing away’, Winstanley attempted to restore mankind to its ‘Virgin-state’, a primitivist utopian commune in which private property, class distinction and human authority would have no place. At the same time, groups of religious enthusiasts multiplied rapidly. As one pamphleteer remarked in 1651,

… it is no new work of Satan to sow Heresies, and breed Heretickes, but they never came up so thick as in these latter times: They were wont to peep up one and one, but now they sprout out by huddles and clusters (like locusts out of the bottomlesse pit). They now come thronging upon us in swarmes, as the Caterpillars of Aegypt.

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‘High Professors’ & Heretics:

The heresy which this writer had particularly in mind was that of the Ranters. These people, who were also known as ‘high attainers’ and ‘high professors’, became very numerous about 1650. Some were to be found in the Army, where there were cases of officers being cashiered and publicly whipped, and of a soldier being whipped through the City of London ‘for ranting’. There were also groups of Ranters scattered throughout the country. Above all, they abounded in London, where they numbered many thousands. The first Quakers – George Fox (above), James Nayler and their followers – often came into contact with the Ranters. Hostile observers such as Episcopalians or Presbyterians, often deliberately conflated Quakerism with the Ranters; for both alike discarded the outward forms of religion and saw true religion only in the ‘indwelling spirit’ in the individual soul. The Quakers themselves, however, regarded the Ranters as erring souls to be converted. George Fox has a curious passage about his first meeting with Ranters, in prison in Coventry in 1649. He later wrote:

When I came into the jail, where these prisoners were, a great power of darkness struck at me, and I sat still, having my spirit gathered into the love of God. At last these prisoners began to rant, and vapour, and blaspheme, at which my soul was greatly grieved. They said they were God; but that we could not bear such things. … Then seeing they said they were God, I asked them, if they knew whether it would rain tomorrow? They said they could not tell. I told them, God could tell. … After I had reproved them for their blasphemous expressions, I went away; for I perceived they were Ranters.

Amongst the Ranters whom George Fox found in the prison at Coventry was Joseph Salmon who had recently left the Army.  Not long after his encounter with Fox, Salmon put forth a paper or book of recantation; upon which they were set at liberty. From 1650, Salmon was for some years a minister in Kent, preaching frequently in Rochester Cathedral. One of his works was a Ranter tract, Divinity Anatomised, which has been lost, but others, including the Recantation, survive to reveal a very considerable poetic talent. The first time we know of George Fox coming to the notice of authority was earlier in the same year of his Ranter encounter when he was imprisoned at Nottingham. This was, of course, a crucial year in the history of the English Civil Wars, the year in which King Charles was tried by Parliament and executed, and the beginning of the Presbyterian attempt to impose its rigid Calvinist discipline and morality by legislation on the English people, as it had succeeded in Scotland.

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There were radical political movements among the ordinary people, such as the Levellers, led by John Lilburne (pictured below), who later joined the Quaker movement, and the True Levellers, or ‘Diggers’, for whom GerrFenny Drayton

ard Winstanley was chief pamphleteer. The scientific revolution of ideas had not yet spread, but the revolution in religious thought which had produced the Continental Protestant Reformation had led to the establishment of a Commonwealth in Britain which was a place and time of extreme and independent views, bitter controversy, and uncertainty about the nature of religious authority. Many groups of people had been expelled from, or abandoned by, the established Anglican churches, or had withdrawn themselves from them; they were generally known as ‘Seekers’ because they waited for a new revelation of God’s truth. The religious persecutions of the previous century, in particular, the Marian burnings were still strong in the memories of such people, and if they need to be reminded of those sufferings, they had Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to remind them, with its graphic illustrations of the martyrdoms.

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George Fox stood out as a striking and unexpected figure. He was twenty-five, long-haired (unlike the ‘Roundheads’), peasant-featured and astute. He hailed from the village of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, in the corner of the East Midlands and East Anglia which formed the stronghold of radical religious independents. There he had been working as an apprentice to a dealer in fleeces and hides and worked as a shepherd. He was semi-literate, most of his later letters being dictated to others. Leaving home at the age of nineteen to become an itinerate seeker, he found no teacher who could assure him of the truth until, in 1647, as he wrote in his Journal, he heard a voice saying to him, There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition. At this time, William Dell and many other ‘Familists’ believed that academic education was no help in understanding the Scriptures. From 1646 onwards books by Henry Niclaes and man other Familist and Antinomian writers were being published. There were also tendencies even among orthodox Puritans which pointed in the same direction. William Erbery, the Welsh Baptist was one of those who wrote of the ‘free grace’ which came through the preaching of Preston and Sibbes. John Preston taught that the ‘elect’ knew by their own experience that the Bible was true and that God was:

 … as he is described in the Scripture such have they found him to be to themselves. …

Richard Sibbes declared that If God be a father, then we are brethren, it is a levelling word. Tobias Crisp held that sin is finished  and that:

If you be freemen in Christ, you may esteem all the curses of the law as no more concerning you than the laws of of England concern Spain. … To be called a libertine is the most glorious title under heaven.

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s Kiddermindstewhen some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were also harmless in the period following the Restoration when taught by Thomas Traherne. But in between times, the Revolution seemed to stir up infinite possibilities and inflamed the passions of the poor. If the majority in a congregation should excommunicate their pastor, no synod could do anything about it. From this time onwards we get plentiful evidence of the emergence of a whole number of opinions which later became associated with the Ranters. Thomas Edwards reported many sectaries who said Christ died for all and a bricklayer from Hackney who said that Christ was not God, or at least that he was as much God as Christ was. A Rochester man who associated with Baptists said that Jesus Christ was a bastard; so did Jane Stratton of Southwark. Some sectaries held that God his children as well sinning as praying; others held that they cannot sin, but if they sin, Christ sins in them. Other ‘errors’ recorded by Edwards were that God is in our flesh as much as in Christ’s flesh and that all shall be saved at last. A pamphlet of 1648 argued that if a man were strongly moved to sin, after praying repeatedly, he should do it.

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Anthony Pearson reported that many apprentices and young people joined the Ranters in the late 1640s, and Richard Baxter, the Kidderminster pastor claimed that Quakers emptied the churches of Anabaptists and separatists of ‘the young, unsettled’. We think of refusal of ‘hat honour’ and the use of ‘thou’ by Quakers as gestures of social protest, but they also marked a growing refusal of deference from the young to the old, from sons to fathers. Fierce battles were fought in the home, between generations. The preachers of free grace, including William Erbery and William Dell, aimed to liberate men and women simpler and less theologically sophisticated, especially in this time of revolutionary crisis, their teachings were easily pushed over into Antinomianism, a sense of liberation from all bonds and restraints of law and morality. When Thomas Collier told the Army at the end of September 1647 that God as truly manifests Himself in the flesh of all his saints as he did in Christ, he must have known that many of the rank and file listening to him would believe themselves to be saints.

068Again and again, in spiritual autobiographies of the time, we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency and Anabaptism before ending as Seekers, Ranters or Quakers. Controversies over church government or over baptism split congregations, producing conscientious scruples and endless bickerings. Since they believed that the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversies was one solution, a rejection of all sects, and of all organised worship. Such men were called Seekers and included William Walwyn, John Saltmarsh, John Milton (right) and possibly Oliver Cromwell himself.

Radical Independents – The ‘Seekers’:

Many of these men had connections with the radicals and were bitterly disappointed with the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarian enthusiasm. But by the 1650s, Richard Baxter felt that:

When people saw diversity of sects in any place … it greatly hindered their conversion. (Many) would be of no religion at all.

William Erbery was described in 1646 as the champion of the Seekers. He had been ejected from his living in Cardiff in 1638 for refusing to implement Laudian liturgy. He was a convinced supporter of Parliament during the civil war, becoming a chaplain in the New Model Army. As such, Erbery led other ranks in criticism of Presbyterian ministers, tithes and persecution. He preached universal redemption and, according to Edwards, denied the divinity of Christ, as well as declaring that any layman may preach. Erbery modestly saw himself …

… bewildered as a wayfaring man, seeing no way of man on earth, nor beaten path to lead him. Let him look upward and within at once, and a highway, the way is found in Christ in us, God in our flesh. … God comes reigning and riding on an ass, that is revealing himself in the basest of men.

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The Presbyterian ministers sent to investigate the Army said that Erbery was a ‘Socinian’, preaching damnable doctrine and blasphemous errors. He stirred up ‘the multitude of soldiers’, they claimed, against the Presbyterian ministers. In January 1648, Erbery called upon the Army to destroy the power of the King and rectify popular grievances. He objected to the officers’ version of the Agreement of the People because it established a state church and did not extend toleration to the Jews, though he approved of most of it. King and Parliament, he thought, …

… were the two powers who kept the people of the Lord and the people of the land from their expected and promised freedoms. (The Army) had the call of the kingdom, petitioning by several counties and the common cry of all the oppressed in the land (acting) in the immediate power of God … for all saints, yea for all men also. God in the saints shall appear as the saviour of all men. No oppressor shall pass through them any more. The day of God has begun, though the saints have been and are still in confusion. For a few days we cannot bear with the want of kings and rulers, …

The saints drew back when they should have gone forward since the Army was at its best when it acted. Erbery still wanted to see God in the army of saints, wasting all oppressing powers in the land. In July 1652, Erbery wrote urging Oliver Cromwell to relieve the poor, as well as attacking tithes and lawyers’ fees. He advocated steeper taxation of rich citizens, racking landlords … and mighty moneyed men … to form a treasury for the poor. He wrote that the burden of tithes on them in England at that time was greater than under popery or in popish countries. There were no longer any ‘true ministers’ and God, in the last days, would not appear in ministers at all, but in magistrates, both civil and martial. The apostasy of the churches had prevailed for centuries. When kingdoms had first become Christian, he claimed, they had become churches, and national churches began. But then also Antichrist came to be great and Popery, prelacy, presbytery were ‘the three beasts’. The state Church of the Commonwealth in England was no better than the Episcopal Church. It was the last ‘Beast’ or church-state. In the depth of his disillusion, Erbery declared that:

The mystery of Anti-Christ … is manifested in every saint, in every particular church …  The greatest work that God hath to do with you this day, is to make you see you are dead. God is going out and departing from all the preaching of men, that men may give themselves wholly to public acts of love to one another, and to all mankind; therefore all religious forms shall fall, that the power of righteousness may rise and appear in all.

But once in power, the ‘seeming saints’ would inevitably be corrupted. In civil government, they were far superior to their predecessors,

But as for spiritual graces, how soon have they withered in the wisest? Good men in Parliament, when come to power how weak were they? … The people of God turn wicked men, that wicked men may turn to be the people of God. The lords and nobles of old could do better with it (power), because gentlemen born; but when so much money comes into the hands of poor saints, oh how they hold it and hug it and hunger after it, as dogs do after dry bones!

But Erbery managed to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. He gave up the stipend he got from tithes. He wrote that:

The life of the people of God, and mine also, is so unlike Christ that I have often wished … to go away from myself and from my people. … they are mine and I am theirs.

By 1654 he had decided, unlike the Fifth Monarchists, that the people of God should not meddle at all in matters of state since Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. This attitude of resignation after the failure of the Barebones Parliament in December 1653 made John Webster feel he had to defend Erbery against the charge of ‘falling off’ and ‘compliance’.  But to shake off the yoke before the season came was to rebel against the Lord. Erbery seems, in fact, to have been prepared to accept Cromwell as a king and was, according to Webster, rather a presser forward than an apostate, but he seems to have abandoned hope of a political solution in his lifetime:

It may be other generations may see the glory talked to be in the last time, … our children may possess it, but for our parts we have no hopes to enjoy it, or in this life to be raised out of our graves. … all the scattered saints this day do dwell, and I also with them waiting for deliverance.

Erbery was often accused of being ‘a loose person or a Ranter’, of having a ranting spirit; he was also alleged, like the Ranters, to be devious, covering himself by double meanings. Erbery denied the accusation of Ranterism, but not always wholeheartedly. He spoke of the holiness and righteousness in truth flowing from the power of God in us, which by the world hath been nicknamed with Puritanism, and in some now Ranting, though he refused to justify those profane people called Ranters, who blasphemed, cursed, whored, openly rejoicing in their wickedness. He admitted that he was commonly judged by good men as one of those owning this principle and practising their ways, but denied saying that the Ranters were the best saints: his point had been that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters, lusting after the wisdom, power, glory and honour of this present world. At least Ranters were honest about it:

These, it may be, lie with a woman once a month, but those men, having their eyes full of adultery, … do lie with twenty women between Paul’s and Westminster.

John Webster, noting that ‘by some weaker spirits’ Erbery’s doctrine concerning the restitution of all things, the liberty of the creation, … the saints’ oneness in Christ with God was misunderstood or led to practices which Erbery regretted. Even in print, Erbery was often very rude and coarsely jocular about what others might regard as sacred subjects. He thought that holy communion should be a full meal, with lots of drink, and was clearly not averse to a pipe of tobacco after prayers. In these practises, of course, he was far from alone, but the fact that he referred to them in print naturally drew comments from his critics. It is clear that he was very much at home in the world of taverns and tobacco in which many of the sects used to meet. William Erbery died in 1654, and his epitaph was not unfittingly written by one of his friends:

Some are dead that seem alive,

But Erbery’s worth shall still survive. 

‘Bridges’ across turbulent waters:

As early as 1641, ‘divines’ were complaining that religion had become the common discourse and table-talk in every tavern and ale-house. One preacher told the House of Commons in July 1646 that ale-houses generally are … the meeting places of malignants and sectaries.  In London, the Ranters met at a victualling house kept by one of their number in the Minories, and at the David and Harp in Moor Lane, in the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, kept by the husband of Mary Middleton, one of Lawrence Clarkson’s mistresses. According to George Fox, the Ranters had:

some kind of meetings … but they took tobacco and drank ale in their meetings, and were grown light and loose. … (They) sung and whistled and danced.

036John Bunyan (right) thought the Ranters talked too much, one contemporary meaning of the verb ‘to rant’. This may be one reason why the Quakers began their meetings in silence. Yet Fox understood their point. When ‘a forward, bold lad’ offered him a pipe, saying ‘Come, all is ours,’ Fox, who was no smoker, took his pipe and put it to my mouth, and gave it to him again to stop him, lest his rude tongue should say I had not unity with the creation. The last phrase of Fox’s tells us that we should never fail to look for symbolism in what appear the extravagant gestures of seventeenth-century radicals. Ranter advocacy of blasphemy, it has been suggested, was a symbolic expression of freedom from moral restraints. Abiezer Coppe was alleged to have sworn, uninterrupted, for a full hour in the pulpit: a pox of God take all your prayers. 

An obsessive desire to swear had possessed Coppe in early life, but he resisted it for twenty-seven years, before making up for his abstinence. He would rather, he declared, hear a mighty angel (in man) swearing a full-mouthed oath than hear an orthodox minister preach. He made a distinction between swearing ignorantly, i’th dark, and… swearing i’th light, gloriously. Even those on the more mystical and quietist wing of the Ranters were also in the habit of using ‘many desperate oaths’. Bunyan reveals the tensions which lay behind Coppe’s 1646 ‘indulgence’ in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Swearing was an act of defiance, both of God but also of ‘middle-class society’, and of the puritan ethics endemic in it.  As Bunyan remarked, ‘Many think to swear is gentleman-like’ and certainly, many courtiers and members of the aristocracy and gentry classes could get away with it: royalists in the civil wars were known as ‘Dammees’. For the lower orders, however, swearing could prove expensive: one ‘debauched seaman, after being fined at the rate of 6d. for an oath, placed 2s. 6d. on the table in order to have his money’s worth. Lower-order use of oaths was a proclamation of their equality with the greatest, just as Puritan opposition to vain swearing was a criticism of aristocratic and plebian irreligion. But it also expressed a revolt against the imposition of middle-class Puritan mores, interfering with the simple pleasures of the poor for ideological reasons. Bibliolatry led to a phobia about swearing; rejection of the Bible as the sole authority in Christian life made it possible again and with it a release of the repressions which gave the Puritan middle class their moral energy.

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Abiezer Coppe (1619-72) was the most celebrated of the Ranters. He had grown up in Warwick. In his adolescence, he was obsessed by a conviction of his sinfulness. A prey to neurotic anxiety, he kept a daily register of his sins, fasting and imposing vigils and humiliations on himself. In 1636 he went up to Oxford as a ‘poor scholar’, at first a Servitor at All Saints and then as a Postmaster at Merton. By this time his morals were less strict and he would often ‘entertain a wanton Housewife in his Chamber’ overnight. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted his career at Oxford and he left the University without taking a degree. He was a Presbyterian for some time, like Lawrence Clarkson, and later became an Anabaptist minister. In this capacity, he was very active in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, ‘dipping’ some seven thousand persons, and officiating as a preacher to a garrison. For these activities, he was imprisoned in Coventry in 1646. Other misfortunes were brought upon Coppe by the growing eccentricities in his religious life. He says that his father and mother forsook him and his wife turned from him in loathing, that his reputation was ruined and his house was set on fire. These events, in turn, prepared the way for his conversion to Ranterism, which took place in 1649. Besides adopting the usual pantheism of the Free Spirit, he seems to have adopted Adamitic ways. According to Wood in Athenae Oxonienses:

‘Twas usual with him to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard Villanies in the Daytime, and in the Night to drink and lye with a Wenche, that had been also his hearer, stark naked.

It was no doubt for such behaviour that he was imprisoned for fourteen weeks at Warwick. Clarkson recorded that he later belonged to the group of Ranters who called themselves ‘My One Flesh’. Coppe was commonly listed together with Clarkson as a leader of the orgiastic Ranters. Coppe was among the drinking, smoking Ranters who appeared in George Fox’s prison at Charing Cross.  He seems to have been an alcoholic, but above all, he indulged his long-suppressed craving to curse and swear. Richard Baxter asked with horror how it came to pass that, as followers of this man, …

… men and women professing the zealous fear of God, should … be brought to place their Religion in revelling, roaring, drinking, whoring, open full-mouthed swearing ordinarily by the Wounds and Blood of God, and the fearfullest cursing that hath been heard.

Besides his swearing from the pulpit, mentioned above, Coppe swore at the hostess of a tavern so fearsomely that she trembled and quaked for some hours after. Some of his ‘disciples’ were put in the stocks at Stratford-upon-Avon for their swearing. It was as a Ranter in 1649 that Coppe produced his only noteworthy writings, including his two Fiery Flying Rolls which resulted in his arrest in January 1650. He was imprisoned at Coventry for a second time, and then at Newgate. Parliament issued an order that the Rolls, as containing many horrid blasphemies, and damnable and detestable Opinions, be seized by mayors, sheriff and justices of the peace throughout the Commonwealth and burnt by the public hangman. Copies were to be publicly burnt at Westminster and Southwark. The Act of August 1650 was largely directed against Coppe’s works. Finally, the committee of Parliament which examined Clarkson in September 1650 also examined Coppe shortly afterwards. During the interrogation, the prisoner feigned madness, throwing nut-shells and other things about the room. In Newgate, Coppe received many visitors, and by ‘smooth arguments’ converted not a few to Ranterism. In the end, however, the strain of imprisonment began to tell. At the beginning of 1651, he issued from prison a Remonstrance of the sincere and zealous Protestation of Abiezer Croppe against the Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions recited in the Act of Aug. 1650. This was followed five months later by a full recantation, Copps Return to the wayes of Truth… In this Coppe attributed his imprisonment to some strange actions and carriages … some difficult, dark, hard, strange, harsh and almost unheard-of words, and expressions. Of his Ranting, he said:

The terrible, notable day of the Lord stole upon me unawares, like a thiefe in the night. … And the cup of the Lords right hand, was put into mine hand. And it was filled brim full of intoxicating wine, and I drank it off, even the dregs thereof. Whereupon being mad drunk, I so strangely spake, and acted I knew not what. To the amazement of some. To the sore perplexity of others. And to the great grief of others. And till that cup passed from me, I knew not what I spake or did.

Now that his understanding had returned to him, he begged that the Fiery Flying Rolls be thrown into the fire. As a result of this Petition to Parliament and Council of State Coppe was released, after a year and a half in prison. Baxter, who had spoken with Coppe, was certain that he was no madman; and in September he preached a recantation sermon at Burford, and thereafter his life was unadventurous. After the restoration, he practised as a ‘physic’ at Barnes under the name of Dr Higham, through to his death. Coppe’s writings give the impression of eccentricity rather than of any kind of psychotic state. For understanding the religion of the Free Spirit they are of great value. They also throw a good deal of light on the ‘social doctrine’ of the Free Spirit. Coppe affirmed that all things belong, or ought to belong, to the Lord alone, and utterly condemned the institution of private property. The urge to apostolic poverty and public self-abasement, normally regarded as characteristically medieval, can be seen here in the seventeenth-century England. We can also observe in these writings how easily such a rejection of private property can merge with a hatred of the rich, as happened on the Continent in earlier centuries, giving rise to an intransigent and potentially violent form of revolutionary millenarianism.

A. L. Morton, the historian of the Ranters, suggested that migratory craftsmen, freed by the breakdown in the economic system during the Revolution, men who were unattached and prepared to break with tradition, provided much of the support for the movement. We should bear in mind that the mobile itinerant population, evicted cottagers, whether peasants or craftsmen, slowly gravitating to the big towns and there finding themselves outsiders, sometimes forming themselves into religious groups which rapidly became more and more radical. It is very difficult to define what the Ranters believed, as opposed to individuals who were called Ranters. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Levellers or early Quakers, but the Levellers did issue programmatic statements, and the pamphlets of Fox and Nayler can be accepted as authoritative for the Quakers. There was no recognised leader or theoretician of the Ranters, and it is extremely doubtful as to whether there was ever a Ranter organisation. As so often in the history of radical movements, the name came into existence as a term of abuse.

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The Regicide & the Rump:

Following the execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the Rump Parliament followed up the regicide with acts abolishing the office of the monarch and the House of Lords. It called them acts, not ordinances, because they required no other ascent now but that of the Commons. But behind the Rump stood the army, to whose force it owed its power, and the army might not sustain it for long since its first intention had been to dissolve the parliament rather than purge it. The Rumpers themselves promised, in their act of 17 March that abolished the monarchy, that they would dissolve the ‘Long Parliament’ themselves so soon as may possibly stand with the safety of the people that hath betrusted them.  The army had seemingly committed itself to support a programme of radical reform, embodied in the revised Agreement of the People that it had presented to the Rump, a programme that would have transformed the constitution and regulated the frequency and duration of parliamentary sittings, brought significant alterations to the law of the land and changed the whole relationship between church and state. The army and its supporters hoped and expected that the ‘caretaker’ régime, as they saw it, would soon make way for a reformed and reforming parliament, elected on a far broader franchise than ever in the past.

Through the share they had taken in drafting the new ‘Agreement’, the Levellers had reached the peak of their influence. From the early months of 1649 onwards, there was a burgeoning of various groups even more radical than the Levellers: the Fifth Monarchists, who felt a divine call to set up the exclusive rule of their fellow ‘saints’ in preparation for Christ’s prophesied kingdom on earth; the ‘Diggers’, who called themselves ‘True Levellers’, and preached and practised the community of property; and the ‘Ranters’ who believed that those who had discovered the godhead within them were liberated from all conventional morality. Of these groups, only the Fifth Monarchists had any considerable following in the army, but there was an understandable fear in conservative hearts that with dissolution threatening the ancient constitution, the established church, and the known laws of the land, a dark and revolutionary future lay ahead. No-one could have foreseen that the Rump would go on wielding sovereign authority over England and Wales for four and a quarter years after Charles I’s execution, longer than the whole duration of the first Civil War, and almost as long as Cromwell’s whole rule as Lord Protector.

The Rump’s temper became more conservative over that period, as the mood became more revolutionary outside parliament. The majority of the remaining MPs were deeply unsympathetic, if not intolerant towards the aspirations of Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and extremist sects of all kinds. Its concessions to religious liberty were to be limited and grudging, its record in social reform miserably meagre, and the professional interests of its influential lawyer-members made it deeply suspicious of any changes in the substance and operation of the law, where reform was overdue. The period from 1649-53 was one in which the Commons, not Cromwell, was in charge of government policy. He was immensely influential, but as Lord General of the Army, he was away from Westminster and on campaign in Scotland and Ireland for much of the period, and when these commitments did allow him to be in the Commons, he by no means got his own way. Even after 1653, when he became Lord Protector, the case of James Nayler, the Quaker leader, three years later, demonstrates the limited power Cromwell had to protect religious liberty.

The Rump was as hesitant in grasping the nettle of religious settlement as it was in placing the Commonwealth on firm constitutional foundations. By the early 1650s, the old dividing line between Presbyterians and Independents was no longer so sharply drawn, since by then many doctrinally orthodox Calvinists persuasions were prepared to put their differences aside in order to resist the rising tide of radical sectarianism and popular heresy, of which the writings of the so-called Ranters were an extreme example. There was a small party of sectarian enthusiasts within the Rump, including the army Colonels Harrison, Rich, Fleetwood and John Jones, who managed to secure the establishment of a Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, with a similar one being established for England’s northern counties. But the majority of MPs were suspicious of religious enthusiasm and did not want to incur greater unpopularity by seeming to encourage it. They were aware of the strong preference in the country at large for retaining a national church with a publicly maintained parochial ministry, and many of them shared it. An established church was already in being when the Rump came to power, with its faith, worship and government defined by the Westminster Assembly and given statutory authority by the unpurged parliament. But parliament was divided on whether to continue implementing the Presbyterian system, and the motion to confirm it was lost on the vote of the Speaker. In practice, a wide variety of worship and church organisation prevailed in the provinces and parishes.

While the Rump shied aware from the contentious business of providing for the propagation of the gospel on a national scale in England, it continued to demonstrate those things that it was against, like sin and blasphemy. Between April and June 1650 it passed acts against non-observance of the sabbath and against swearing and cursing, as well as the notorious one which punished adultery, incest, and fornication with death, even on a first offence. Mercifully, it was very little enforced. A Blasphemy Act followed in August, less savage than the Long Parliament’s Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648 and aimed mainly at the Ranters, though both George Fox and John Bunyan fell foul of its provisions. It was specifically targeted at the Ranters’ denial of the necessity of the civil and moral righteousness among men (which) tended to the dissolution of all human society. It denounced anyone who maintained himself or herself as God, or equal with God; or that acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing, theft, etc. were not in themselves sinful, or that there is no such thing as sin but as a man or woman judgeth thereof. The penalty for the first offence was six months in jail, banishment for the second and death if the offender refused to depart or returned. However, judges interpreting the Act refused to allow JPs, clergy and juries to extend its provisions to the sincere if unorthodox religious opinions of a ‘Ranter’ like Richard Coppin, or a Quaker like Wiliam Dewsbury.

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Above: Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Rump of the Long Parliament, 1653.

The House took longer to confront the issue of toleration, but in September 1650 it finally repealed the recusancy laws to the extent of repealing the penalties for non-attendance of parish Sunday services, provided that those who absented themselves attended some other form of public worship. Outside the broad national church, the separatist congregations which chose and supported their own pastors enjoyed considerable liberty under Cromwell’s Protectorate, between 1653 and 1658, though it was not unlimited. It did not extend to those whose teachings or actions were considered blasphemous, such as the Unitarian John Biddle or the Quaker James Nayler. Cromwell was reluctant, however, to see these men punished as severely as his parliament desired, and he was more indulgent towards Quakers than most gentry magistrates. But he gave no countenance to those who tried to break up the services conducted by the parish churches in what they called ‘steeple-houses’, and he was even more firmly against so-called Ranters who preached and practised the belief that the spirit had liberated them from the moral code enjoined by Holy Scripture. He was not in favour of ‘toleration’ in the late-modern sense who regards an individual’s religious convictions as an entirely private matter, so long as they do not impinge on the rights or liberties of others. Neither was his ideal a kind of religious pluralism involving a variety of sects, tolerated out of indifference, but a community of all who had ‘the root of the matter’ in them, in a manner transcending differences over outward forms and rites.

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Cromwell’s Commonwealth & its Critics:

On 3 September 1654, Cromwell opened the first real Parliament of his Protectorate. He made a speech on the duty of ‘healing and settling’ in which he contrasted the state of the nation just before the Protectorate was established with what it was at that date. Then, the strife within it had grown so high as to threaten not only ordered government but the very fabric of society, the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years: a nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman. This, of course, was an exaggeration, as even more was his allegation that ‘men of Levelling principles’ had been undermining property itself and bidding to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. Turning to religion, he said it had been in an even worse condition than the civil state, what with the unchecked preaching of ‘prodigious blasphemies’ and the invocation of so-called faith to justify the breaking of ‘all rules of law and nature’. He referred to the Ranters, although he did not name them as such. Such horrors, he said, had brought to mind the iniquities prophesied for ‘the last times’, for Christ returned to earth in judgement. The power to check them had been undermined by a ‘second sort of men’, who while not justifying such evils denied the civil magistrate any authority to intervene, on the ground that matters of conscience and belief lay outside his sphere.

054Cromwell, pictured on the right on the ‘Dunbar medal’, given to those like the Quaker James Nayler who had fought in the Third Civil War, reaffirmed his own commitment to liberty of conscience but defended the claim of the civil power to a role in promoting true religion and punishing manifest wickedness. He upheld the right of godly and gifted laymen to preach, but he repudiated the sectarian extremists who denounced the whole concept of an ordained ministry as antichristian. He adopted a gentler tone when he went on to condemn  ‘the mistaken notion of the Fifth Monarchy’, acknowledging that many honest, God-fearing men adhered to it.

It was one thing, however, to expect that Jesus Christ will have a time to set up his reign in our hearts, but quite another for men upon their own conviction of God’s presence with them to claim a sole right to rule kingdoms, govern nations, and give laws to people. But he drew a strict line between belief and practice in this regard:

If these were but notions, they were to be let alone. Notions will hurt none but them that have them. But when they come to practices, as to tell us that liberty and property are not the badges of the kingdom of Christ, and to tell us that instead of regulating laws, laws are to be abrogated, indeed subverted, and perhaps would bring in the Judicial law instead of our known laws settled amongst us, – this is worthy of every magistrate’s consideration, especially where every stone is turned to bring confusion.

031Such people, he said, not only threatened anarchy at home but obstructed the work of settlement in Scotland and Ireland and hindered the negotiation of peace with Holland, Portugal and France. The next year, however, Cromwell reaffirmed his message of the need for broad liberty of conscience, and for a charitable attitude within the nation, in a declaration issued on 20 March 1654, at a time of a long drought:

Is brotherly love, and a healing spirit of that force and value amongst us that it ought? … Do we first search for the kingdom of Christ within us,  before we seek one without us?

… Do we not more contend for saints having rule in the world, than over their own hearts? … Do not some of us affirm ourselves to be the only true ministry, and true churches of Christ, and only to have the ordinances in purity, excluding our brethren, though of equal gifts? … Do we remember old puritan, or rather primitive simplicity, self-denial, mercy to the poor, uprightness and justice?

034Of course, this ecumenical concept of religious liberty did not extend to Roman Catholics, although they were no longer persecuted for practising their faith. Most Episcopalians and many Presbyterians, like Richard Baxter (right), still blamed Cromwell for the King’s execution, believing also that the King could have saved his own life if he had agreed to give up the Prayer Book and the Bishops in the Church of England.

Baxter thought, simply enough, that many of the things that Christians quarrelled over could be resolved if they were prepared to give way a little. Although Baxter had become Chaplain to Cromwell’s cavalry after the Battle of Naseby, the two men did not get on well with each other, though they respected one another. Both may have been fonder of talking than of listening. Cromwell sent to Baxter to come to listen to him, speaking for an hour about the great things God had done for England through him. Baxter got tired of listening to him without a turn. When it finally came, he told the Lord Protector that he thought the proper way of governing was by King and Parliament. Although not the only preacher to tell him this (Rhys ‘Arise’ Evans had also told him that he should restore the monarchy under Charles Stuart), Cromwell lost his temper with Baxter and they went on arguing for a further four hours, at the end of which, Baxter reported:

” … I saw that what he learned must be from himself, being more disposed to speak many hours than to hear one and little heeding what another said when he had spoken himself”.

Baxter had liked Cromwell best when he was still his Lord General. He had believed him to be honest and truly religious, but he thought that power had corrupted him as Lord Protector. He himself pointed out, however, that it was very difficult to know what to believe about Cromwell the man, for … no man was better and worse spoken than he, … as men’s interests led their judgements”. On his side, Cromwell thought highly enough of Baxter to wish to talk to him in a bid to gain his approval and blessing, though in this he failed.

Quakers v Ranters:

Quakerism had been the ‘legitimate’ offshoot of the ‘Seekers’, a religious movement which, as we have seen, was powerful long before the time of Fox. The Ranters were like its illegitimate and wayward offspring whose unpleasant label only faintly foreshadowed their practises, as reported by admittedly antagonistic scribes. The Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’, which formed the core of Fox’s message and had first attracted Nayler to Quakerism, became with the Ranters a belief in their absolute oneness with God. This belief carried with it by implication the assertion of personal infallibility, together with an all-embracing licence. Fox’s judgement of, as many saw them, this pernicious ‘sect’ did not err on the side of charity, and when one of its ‘members’ sought to ingratiate himself with the Quaker leader he repelled him with the exhortation: “Repent thou swine and beast!” He followed this up with a reference to “the old Ranters in Sodom”. Nayler himself, in the early months of his ministry, records their presence at his meetings in no uncertain tones:

Their filthy hearts was plainly manifest to the view of all the people, and the terrour of the lord was upon them all the while they was amongst us, not being long, so that they fled away.

Ranterism, though closely akin to Quakerism in its doctrines, was sharply distinguished by its disregard of authority and lack of moral restraint. Yet since their doctrines were so closely aligned, there was constant merger and migration between one and the other, something which Episcopalian and Presbyterian propagandists were not slow to play up in their literature. Contemporary commentators long tended to lump together the early Quakers with the Ranters. There was an unreasoning hostility of conservative critics, who believed that both Ranter and Quaker ideas must lead to licentiousness and therefore assumed that they did; there was also the likelihood that many early rank-and-file Quakers had in fact not entirely shaken themselves free from Ranter ideas and practices.  We hear of Ranters, as of Fifth Monarchists, after the execution of Charles I and the defeat of the Leveller Uprising at Burford. The latter event no doubt relates to the origins of the two groups, as it does to the emergence of the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1651, All the world now is in the Ranting humour. A Southwark physician in 1652 defended the Ranters against ‘time-serving saints’ because of their charitable attitude towards the poor. But John Reeve ascribed to them a pretended universal love to the whole creation. At first, he was attracted by their

… imagination of the eternal salvation of all mankind, though they lived and died under the power of all manner of unrighteousness.

In the early fifties, Bunyan found some Ranter books held highly in esteem by several old professors and one of his close companions turned a most devilish Ranter and gave himself up to all manner of filthiness. He denied the existence of God or angels and laughed at exhortations to sobriety. Other persons, formerly strict in religion, were swept away by Ranters: they would condemn Bunyan as legal and dark, pretending that they only had attained to perfection that could do what they would and not sin, a doctrine which Bunyan himself found very seductive, I being but a young man. He was especially tempted to believe that there was no judgement or resurrection, and therefore that sin was no such grievous thing, turning the grace of God into wantonness. Bunyan’s answer to Ranters became the orthodox one: they lacked a conviction of sin. Samuel Fisher, the Baptist, said that they despised the ordinances of Christ and …

… run beyond the bounds of modesty and all good manners. The rabble of the ruder sort of Ranters. … are willingly ignorant, because of the tediousness of that thought to them, that there is any more coming of Christ at all. Some deny the existence of Christ: others claim to be Christ or God.

In 1649, when George Fox first met the Ranters in Coventry jail, they had shocked him by claiming to be God, some of them stating that there is no creator God but that everything comes by nature. Richard Baxter declared that Ranters set up the light of nature under the name of Christ in man. With the spiritual pride of ungrounded novices in religion, they believed that God regards not the actions of the outward man, but of the heart: that to the pure all things were pure, which they took as licensing blasphemy and continuous whoredom. Fortunately, he went on, the ‘horrid villainies’ of this sect speedily extinguished it, but reflected discredit on all other sects. John Holand, a hostile but not unfair witness, said that Ranters called God ‘Reason’, as Gerrard Winstanley had also done. For Ranters, ‘Christ in us’ was far more important than the historical figure who died in Jerusalem, …

… and all the commandments of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, are the fruits of the curse. Since all men are now freed of the curse, they are also free from the commandments; our will is God’s will.

The existence of evil was a subject to which Ranters paid a good deal of attention: simple believers found their arguments difficult to answer, such as the age-old one: If God is omnipotent, why does he permit evil? Others denied that there was any such thing as sin; if there was, it must be part of God’s plan. The day of judgement is either an invented thing … a bugbear to keep men in awe. Lawrence Clarkson believed that, in any case, there was no life after death:

… even as a stream from the ocean was distinct in itself while it was a stream, but when returned to the ocean was therein swallowed and became one with the ocean: so the spirit of man whilst in the body was distinct from God, but when death came it returned to God, and so became one with God, yea God itself.

Clarkson added that he would know nothing after this my being was dissolved. An extreme form of this doctrine attributed to Ranters was that those are most perfect … which do commit the greatest sins with the least remorse. Clarkson came very near to espousing this himself in his writing:

… till I acted that so-called sin I could not predominate over sin. (But now) whatsoever I act is … in relation to … that Eternity in me … So long as the act was in God … it was as holy as God. 

This included, he insisted, those acts by thee called swearing, drunkenness, adultery and theft, etc. Clarkson  (1615-67) was a native of Preston. Brought up in the Church of England, in youth he showed Puritan leanings; he regarded dancing on the Sabbath with particular horror. He became a Presbyterian and then an Independent, an Antinomian in theology. He became a ‘parish priest’ in Norfolk, but then led a wandering life. In 1644, he became an Anabaptist and the following year was imprisoned for ‘dipping’. Up to the end of 1648, he followed another of the major religious tendencies of the time, that of the Seekers. During this period he was an itinerant preacher in Kent before becoming a minister in two more parishes, in Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire. He also began to write religious tracts, but not being a University man, he was very often turned out of employment and was therefore constantly in financial straits. Taking a commission as a chaplain in an Army regiment, he tried to find a parish in London on leaving it in 1649, having been cashiered for blasphemy. He held a living at Pulham for a short time until he was turned out for preaching universal salvation. He then became Baptist and, under Erbery’s influence, a Seeker, preaching for monies in each faith.

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Clarkson developed Familist ideas of Luther’s reformation in his preaching but carried them considerably further. He also began to practice what he preached, escaping from one ‘maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected’ giving his body to other women whilst being ‘careful for moneys for my wife’, travelling the country with Mrs Star, and resisting the opportunity when ‘Dr Paget’s maid stripped herself naked and skipped’ at a Ranters’ meeting. Early in 1650, Clarkson became a Ranter and was soon the notorious leader of the particularly licentious group, ‘My One Flesh’ to which Abiezer Coppe also belonged. He was arrested and examined. As on a previous occasion, he stood on his rights as a ‘freeborn subject’ and refused to answer incriminating questions. On 27 September 1650, the House sentenced him to a month’s imprisonment for his ‘blasphemous’ book, A Single Eye, to be followed by banishment. This latter sentence was never carried out, however, and on his release, he resumed his wandering life before joining the ‘Muggletonians’ in 1658, a sect of extreme ascetics, writing several tracts on their behalf.

Quakers first entered the ‘arena’ of the Commonwealth as a wing of the government party in the years 1651-53, enjoying the protection of the military authorities., and of local gentlemen of radical inclinations. They also had sometimes the more enthusiastic support of the Army rank-and-file. Those who administered the North of England or Wales could not afford to alienate Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers. George Fox had been in prison for nearly a year at Derby in 1650, but in the North, as we can see from his own Journal, he enjoyed a good deal of protection in 1651-52. Even hostile JPs, of whom there were many, had to proceed cautiously against him. Persecution began again, spasmodically, from the end of 1652, when the dissolution of the Rump appeared imminent, and again after 1653 when the gentry felt they had been given a free hand. Fox was imprisoned at Carlisle, but then the relatively radical Barebones Parliament met: a letter from it got Fox released and his jailor put in his place in the dungeon. In Wales, JPs also protected Quakers as a lesser evil than ‘papists’ or ‘pagans’. It was the Quakers themselves who alienated the clergy through indiscriminate attacks on the sanctity of ecclesiastical buildings made it for any priest to support them and continue to hold his living.

In 1654, Fox was arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government, but he was well received by Oliver Cromwell. Those who wished ill towards the Quakers were those who resented Army rule; their views were strongly represented in the Parliament of 1656, as was demonstrated from the debates over James Nayler. Dark hints were dropped that the spread of the Quakers had been due to official encouragement, indeed that Quakers were to be found in the government itself.  Major General Philip Skippon, Nayler’s main Army opponent, had been regarded as ‘Parliament’s man in the Army’ in 1647. The rapid expansion of Quakerism both in the Army by 1649 and more broadly in the South and East of England in the early 1650s had made the ‘men of property’ apprehensive of ‘some Levelling design’ underlying the well-organised movement. The fact that Quakers were said to have reclaimed ‘such as neither magistrate nor minister ever speak to’ might seem reassuring after Quaker pacifism was firmly established and known to be accepted by all members of the sect. But that was to come later in the decade, and after the Restoration. In the mid-fifties, it was still far from being the case.

Baptists & Quakers – Bunyan v Fox:

Ranterism was better at destruction than it was at construction. In 1650, it was by listening to the ‘errors’ of Diggers, Levellers and Ranters that Baptist churches in Cromwell’s Huntingdonshire and elsewhere were ‘shaken’ and ‘broken up’. In Cleveland, in 1651 it was meetings that had been ‘shattered’ under Ranter influence that turned to Quakerism. At that time, both Quakers and their critics mainly defined their beliefs by negatives, in terms of what they were against. Unlike many of the Ranters, however, they did not deny the existence of God or a historical Christ, or of heaven and hell. Neither did they believe that all could attain perfection in their earthly life. Most importantly, in terms of social and political attitudes, they did not challenge the authority of parents or magistrates. In the early 1650s, John Bunyan listed Quaker beliefs, which can be summarised as follows:

(1) The Bible is not the Word of God;

(2) Every man in the world has the Spirit of Christ;

(3) The Jesus Christ who was crucified 1600 years ago did not satisfy divine justice for the sins of the people;

(4) Christ’s flesh and blood is within the saints;

(5) There will be no resurrection of the body;

(6) The resurrection has already taken place within good men;

(7) The crucified Jesus did not ascend above the starry heavens and shall not come again on the last day as a man to judge all nations.

In 1654, Fox himself witnessed that Ranters had a pure convincement, but that they had fled the cross and turned the grace of God into wantonness. He emphasised especially drunkenness, swearing, and ‘sporting yourselves in the day-time’. He had a short way with them, because, in his opinion, they bowed and scraped too much and were too complimentary. In his Journal, Fox records many Ranter groups which ultimately became Quaker, in Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Sussex and Reading, for example. In the same year, Anthony Pearson said that “some that are joined to the Ranters are pretty people,” but that they “contained so many rude savage apprentices and young people … that nothing but the power of the Lord can chain them.”  But in 1655, the Quaker James Parnell admitted that the Quakers were accused of ‘being one’ with the Ranters:

Some of them have tasted the love of God and grace of God, and have had appearances of God, but they have turned the grace of God into wantonness, and have deceived so many with their alluring speeches. Their lascivious ways bring discredit on the truth of God.

In the same year, a diarist in Cheshire wrote that Quakers also denied the Trinity; … denied the Scriptures to be the Word of God; they said that they had no sin. From this doctrinal perspective, therefore, it is also possible to see how they might have attracted former Ranters, suggesting that contemporary judges and magistrates were correct in their famous assertions that had not the Quakers come, the Ranters had over-run the nation. In part, no doubt, enemies of the Quakers were anxious to discredit them, claiming that Quakerism had become ‘the common sink of them all’, including Anabaptists, Antinomians, Socinians, Familists, Libertines and Ranters. But there does seem to have been genuine doctrinal confusion as well as ideological fluidity between the memberships of the movements and sects. In Dorset and Wiltshire, former Levellers were alleged to have become Ranters. The Quakers seemed to absorb many ex-Levellers, including John Lilburne. His acceptance of Quakerism in 1655 was a very different act for the former revolutionary than if he had been convinced after 1660. As late as August 1655, the Grand Jury of Gloucestershire petitioned against Ranters, Levellers and atheists, under the name of Quakers. Christopher Atkinson was accepted as a Quaker until in 1655 he fell …

… into too much familiarity and conversation with some women kind, especially such as (it seemed) were somewhat inclined to a spirit of Ranterism. He grew loose and … committed lewdness with a servant-maid.

Mary Todd, a London lady who at a meeting pulled up all her clothes above her middle, exposing her nakedness to all in the room was disowned by the Quakers, who claimed she was a Ranter: but the act of disavowal suggests that they felt some measure of responsibility for her. In the 1650s there were ‘Proud Quakers’, who showed clear ranting tendencies. They used profane language, were lax in conduct; some of them were football players and wrestlers. Their leader, Rice Jones of Nottingham, set up an ale-house. After the restoration, John Perrot claimed a direct command from God that hats should be worn during prayer, a significant Ranter practice which James Nayler had also followed during his time in the West Country. But Perrot went on to deny all human arrangements for worship, even meeting at stated times and places. Fox said that Perrot preached the rotten principles of the Old Ranters, and associated him with Nayler, many of whose former partisans supported Perrot. Long after the restoration, Fox was insisting that some people claiming to be Quakers were really Ranters. Richard Baxter, who had no reason to love the ‘Friends’, paid them a deserved compliment when he wrote:

The Quakers were but the Ranters turned from horrid profaneness and blasphemy to a life of extreme austerity.

But the Quakers could hardly have prevented the Ranters from over-running the country unless their doctrines had been, at least initially, near enough to Ranterism to absorb many Ranters. Edward Burrough had straddled this doctrinal gap between Ranters and Quakers. He may originally have had Ranter sympathies; at one time he worked closely with Perrot and retained confidence in him longer than any other Quaker leader. In addition, as John Lampden has commented, by his preaching in London, Nayler had attracted, amongst other more reputable followers, a clique of married women all more or less tainted with Ranterism. They sought to exalt him by depreciating the work of his predecessors and pursued him with that undiscerning worship which was the chief trial and temptation of the popular preacher. Nevertheless, without naming the Ranters, Nayler himself had spoken disapprovingly that:

The greatest profession now set up by many is to make the redemption of Christ a cover for all liscentious and fleshly liberty, and say they are to that end redeemed.

Nayler’s Mission in the West; Trial & Torture by Parliament:

That was in 1656, a year after Nayler took up his work in London and prior to his ministry in the West. From the first, the doctrine of the indwelling of God in the heart of man had been the central focus of Nayler’s preaching. This point – exaggerated and distorted by his followers – was to become the rock on which his life was wrecked. It was this doctrine which had first attracted the London merchant Robert Rich to Quakerism, who had become his most faithful friend and advocate, becoming caught up into the current of Nayler’s tragedy. He seems to have responded to the call to missionary service which was heard by every primitive Friend, and in 1655 he was in prison in Banbury, together with Nayler’s Yorkshire ‘patron’ with whom he had worked in the North, and two women preachers. There is no record of Nayler’s first meeting with Rich but it is clear that, in the early months of Nayler’s ministry in the capital, he had won the merchant’s heart. This was due in part, no doubt, to his extraordinary charm of manner, but chiefly to the stress that Nayler laid on the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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In October 1656, Nayler staged a triumphal entry into Bristol, shown above, which was blatantly modelled on Christ’s acted parable at Jerusalem. He rode an ass, accompanied by two of his many women disciples, while others spread their garments in his path or walked behind him singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel. With his long hair, unusual for puritan preachers, he bore a natural resemblance to popular images of Jesus, and he emphasised it by the way he cut and combed his hair and beard. Parliament was outraged; it appointed a committee of no fewer than fifty-five members to examine him and his followers, and they took five weeks before they reported to the House on 5 December. Called to the bar the next day, Nayler protested that as a mere creature he claimed no special glory, but shared the common Quaker conviction that Christ dwells in all believers. He was convinced that he had a revelation from God, commanding him to do what he did as a sign of Christ’s coming. There is no evidence that Robert Rich took any part in their extravagances in the West, and he indignantly repelled the charge of Ranterism which was later brought against him. At the crisis of Nayler’s trial for blasphemy, he determined that whatever might be the errors of the preacher’s followers he himself had offended in nothing save, as he said, …

” … in confessing to Christ in the saints, and my love to that testimony made me willing to stand by him in his sufferings and to bear his cross.” 

Rich took up the unpopular role of Nayler’s champion and flung himself into his defence with the generosity which was the most striking trait of his character. Day by day through that dreary November of 1656, while Parliament debated the guilt of Nayler and the punishment meet for it, Rich, ‘the mad merchant’ as he began to be called, haunted the door of the House with petitions and letters, or lay in wait to make a personal appeal to any member whom he judged to have some tinge of pity in him. He even offered to prove to the Parliament out of Scripture that the prisoner had uttered no blasphemy, nor done anything worthy of death or ‘of bonds’. The House spent nine days in hot debate as to what to do with Nayler since under the 1650 Blasphemy Act he could be given no more than six months’ imprisonment for a first offence, and for the bloodthirsty majority in the Commons that was not enough. He escaped the death penalty by only ninety-six votes to eighty-two, due largely to the support of Cromwell’s supporters on the council of state, like Sir Gilbert Pickering. But the Commons sentenced him to a series of corporal punishments, to be carried out in London and Bristol, to be followed by indefinite solitary confinement and hard labour.

Flogged all the way from Westminster to the City on 18 December, 310 stripes left Nayler so weakened that the next stage of his ‘torture’ had to be postponed. Before it was executed, many petitioners, by no means all Quakers, pleaded for the remission of the rest of the sentence, first (in vain) with parliament and then with Cromwell. He immediately wrote to the Speaker, expressing abhorrence of the ‘crimes’ imputed to Nayler, but asking the House to let him know the grounds and reasons whereupon they have proceeded. This challenge to the constitutionality of its actions, which Whitelocke and others had also expressed, caused both further consternation on all sides in addition to further appeals for mercy, but the Commons voted by two to one to carry out the rest of the sentence, so that Nayler was duly branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’ and bored through the tongue with a red hot iron. Parliament never replied to Cromwell’s letter, but the episode helped to convince its wiser heads that the constitution needed further amendment. In particular, when anything deserving the label ‘torture’ was inflicted during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was by order of parliament, not the executive or the judiciary, as was the case, for example, in the reign of James I. The abolition of both the monarchy and the House of Lords had destroyed the essential separation of powers inherent in the British Constitution.

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A New Constitution & continuing confusion:

The Humble Petition and Advice, as the draft of a new constitution came to be called in 1657, began by asking Cromwell to assume the title of king, though not on a hereditary basis. The most striking proposed change, however, was that parliament was to consist of two houses, with the new one approximating more to a senate than to the hereditary House of Lords, but one which could also operate as a ‘High Court’. Regarding religion, the new constitution was slightly more restrictive than the Instrument of Government which had established the Protectorate, but in practice, this change made little difference. There was to be a confession of faith, agreed between the Protector and parliament, to which clergy who received public maintenance had to conform, but no such document was ever promulgated. For those who dissented from it, toleration was limited to those who accepted the basic doctrine of the trinity and acknowledged both the New and Old Testaments to be the revealed word of God; it was explicitly denied to ‘papists’, prelatists and all ‘blasphemers’ and licentious practitioners, including those who disturbed the public peace. These last exceptions were aimed mainly at Ranters and Quakers, but the authors of the ‘Petition and Advice’ had to steer a course between displeasing intolerant magistrates and offending Cromwell’s breadth of sympathy since their whole enterprise was dependent on his acceptance of their proposals.

Clearly, critics of both sects, even sympathetic ones, continued to conflate both movements on doctrinal grounds, if not on the basis of their demeanour, conduct and practices. Thomas Collier in 1657 asserted that any that know the principles of the Ranters would easily recognise that Quaker doctrines were identical. Both would have…

… no Christ but within; no Scripture to be a rule; no ordinances, no law but their lusts, no heaven nor glory but here, no sin but what men fancied to be so, no condemnation for sin but in the consciences of ignorant ones.

Collier wrote that only Quakers smooth it over with an outward austere carriage before men, but within are full of filthiness, and he gave Nayler as an example of this.

(to be continued…)

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‘Socialism’ & the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900. Part Two – ‘Marxists’, ILP’ers & New Unionists.   Leave a comment

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Keir Hardie – The Harbinger of the Independent Labour Party, 1887-88:

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Keir Hardie, who was to play a major role in the political developments of the next three decades, was born into grinding poverty in 1856 in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Kerr, a farm servant who later married a ship’s carpenter named David Hardie. The first years of his life and his early career among the Ayrshire miners are the stuff of legend, but here we are concerned with how he became a Socialist and his contacts with Marxists in London. He had visited the capital with a miners’ delegation in 1887 and attended several meetings of the SDF, where he was introduced to Eleanor Marx, who in turn introduced him to Engels, who was, by then, critical of both the SDF and the Socialist League in Hardie’s hearing. In the end, he did not join the SDF as he had planned to do before arriving in London, and his reasons for his change of mind are instructive about the state of the Socialist movement in Britain at this time:

Born and reared as I had been in the country, the whole environment of the clubs, in which beer seemed to be the most dominant influence, and the tone of the speeches, which were full of denunciation of everything, including trade unionism, and containing little constructive thought, repelled me.

Hardie’s character and politics were not above and beyond the comprehension of the people from whom he had sprung. On the contrary, he was made of the same stuff as they were, with the same instincts, attitudes, the same religious turns of mind and phrase, the same inability to draw a line between politics and morality, or between logic and emotion. His views had already begun developing under the influence of Henry George, from Liberalism to Socialism; but these views were assimilated into his own life and experience, which was something the London Socialists could not share. As the leader and organiser of a trade union and a federation of unions, weak though these organisations were, Hardie was a valuable recruit to the Socialist cause, and his adhesion brought a less academic and more homely voice to the advocacy of independent labour policy. At the beginning of 1887, he had started a monthly magazine, the Miner, in which he addressed the men in his own blunt style, which contained all the aggressive spirit of economic discontent without any of the catchwords of Marxism:

Party be hanged! We are miners first and partisans next, at least if we follow the example of our “superiors” the landlords and their allies, we ought to be. …

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He was the harbinger of the New Unionists; and it was fitting that, although his career was to be primarily a political one, he should make his entry into national prominence as a trade union delegate. Already he had taken part in political work, as a Liberal; but now, in the autumn of 1887, he was adopted miners’ Parliamentary candidate for North Ayrshire, and in March 1888, when a vacancy occurred at Mid-Lanark, he was selected as miners’ candidate there, but the Liberal Party chose differently. His supporters encouraged him to stand as an independent and he accepted their nomination. The main principle that Hardie stood for, as an independent labour candidate, was the universal one that the working class must build up its own political strength, stand on its own feet and fight its own battles. This note of sturdy independence, which he struck repeatedly in the course of the by-election campaign, had not often been heard in the course of the preceding decade. He was supported by Champion from the SDF office in London, Tom Mann, Mahon, Donald and a host of other Socialists and Radicals who arrived in the constituency of their own accord. But though the canvassing and rallies were vigorous, there was little doubt about what the outcome would be. Hardie was at the bottom of the poll with 617 votes out of the total of seven thousand votes cast. The Liberal candidate was elected, leading the Conservative by nine hundred votes.

It was a disappointing result at the time, but in retrospect, it is seen as an important political turning-point. There and then, there was no reason to suppose that one or other party, Liberal or Conservative, would not allow itself to become the vehicle for labour representation by a gradual process. But the caucus system which operated within the Liberal Party meant that its choice of candidate was firmly in the control of its middle-class members. The failure of the working-class to break through this stranglehold had the concomitant effect that the Liberal Party’s grip on the working-class vote was clearly weakening in the mid-eighties. Yet its leaders still maintained that they served the interests of working people. Champion, for his part, claimed still more strongly his ambitious claim to be the organiser of the ‘National Labour Party’ and Hardie began the task of forming a Scottish Labour Party.

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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The Fabians were also concerned in the task of formulating long-term Socialist policy for the country as a whole. In the autumn of 1888, they organised a series of lectures on The Basis and Prospects of Socialism which were edited by Bernard Shaw and published at the end of 1889, becoming the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism. They provided a distinctive sketch of the political programme of evolutionary Socialism, attracting immediate attention. The first edition at six shillings sold out rapidly and by early 1891, a total of 27,000 copies had been purchased. The seven Fabian essayists, all members of the Society’s Executive, offered a reasoned alternative to the revolutionary Socialist programme. In the first essay, Shaw rejected Marxian analysis of value in favour of a theory of Marginal Utility, asserting the social origin of wealth and reversing the conclusions of laissez-faire political economy from its own premises. In a second essay on the transition to Socialism, Shaw emphasised the importance of the advances towards democracy accomplished by such measures as the County Council Act of 1888. The extinction of private property could, he thought, be gradual, and each act of expropriation should be accompanied by compensation of the individual property-owner at the expense of all.

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Nearly all the Fabian essayists postulated a gradual, comparatively even and peaceful evolution of Socialism, which they regarded as already taking place by the extension of political democracy, national and local, and by the progress of ‘gas and water’ Socialism. They regarded the existing political parties, and especially the Liberal-Radicals, as open to permeation by Socialist ideas. Judged by the circumstances of their time, the most striking omission from their whole general thesis was their failure to recognise the significance of the trade unions and co-operative societies. As Sidney Webb (pictured above)  was later to discover, conclusions could be drawn from the working of these institutions which would dovetail with his general theory of the inevitability of gradualness. Arguing on historical grounds, Webb suggested that Socialism was already slowly winning the day: by Socialism, he meant the extension of public control, either by the State or the municipality.

Annie Besant looked forward to a decentralised society attaching special importance to municipal Socialism. One of the other essayists, Hubert Bland, however,  was hostile on the one hand towards Liberal-Radicalism and on the other towards the ‘catastrophic’ Socialism of the SDF and the Socialist League, but this did not lead him to accept Webb’s view that the extension of State control was necessarily an indication of advance towards Socialism. He could not agree that it was possible to effectively permeate the Radical Left: on the contrary, he predicted, Socialists could expect nothing but opposition from both main parties. His conclusion from this more thoroughly Marxian analysis was that there was a true cleavage being slowly driven through the body politic and that there was, therefore, a need for the formation of a definitively Socialist Party.

Bland’s view was important and, in some ways, future developments confirmed his ideas rather than those of the other essayists. He was certainly more in line with the Championite group, some of whose members were to play a leading role in the foundation of the Labour Party. Among his contemporary Fabian leaders, however, Bland was in a minority of one. The majority, judging national politics from a metropolitan perspective and assuming that the character of Liberalism was the same throughout the country, thought that their policy of permeation was the answer not only for the problems of London County Council but also for the broader sphere of Westminster politics. In the following decades, their association with the metropolitan Liberals was to be the source of great mistrust to the leaders of the growing independent labour movement outside the capital. Consequently, it was not for the immediate political tactics, but for their success in formulating a long-term evolutionary programme, that the Fabians were to be of importance in the eventual foundation of the Labour Party.

Labour Aristocrats, New Unionists & Socialist Internationals, 1889-1894:

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In 1874, the trade union membership recorded and represented at the Trades Union Congress had risen to 594,000; but by the end of that decade it had fallen to 381,000, and it was not until 1889 that the 1874 figure was exceeded. Union membership was almost entirely concentrated among more highly-skilled workers, for the first attempts to organise unskilled industrial workers had been killed off by the depression. The term ‘labour aristocracy’, which was used at the time by Marxists to describe the organised workers, is not inappropriate to point out the contrast between the privileges of their position and the weakness of the great mass of the less-skilled workers below them. Bowler-hatted craft unionists like those seen with their giant painted banner at the opening of the Woolwich Free Ferry in March 1889, shown in the photograph below, enjoyed a measure of respectability and a regular wage, the so-called unskilled lived a precarious existence. Balanced between poverty and absolute destitution, they were feared by the middle classes and despised by skilled and organised trade unionists. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was the third-largest union in Britain by 1890. In 1897-98 it fought long, hard and unsuccessfully for an eight-hour day.

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In London alone, there were four thousand casual workers in the 1890s, and thousands were unemployed, homeless and destitute, a submerged population of outcasts who not only filled the workhouses and doss houses but slept in great numbers in the streets. Two of the SDF lantern slides (below) show differing aspects of homelessness, a picture of women spending the night on an embankment seat, taken at four in the morning, and a scene of men washing in a night shelter. The scene of women sleeping on the Embankment was would have been a common sight at the time. R. D. Blumenfeld, an American-born journalist who came to Britain in the 1880s, recorded, in his diary, his experience of a night on the Embankment on 24 December 1901:

I walked along the Embankment this morning at two o’ clock … Every bench from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge was filled with shivering people, all huddled up – men, women and children. The Salvation Army people were out giving away hot broth, but even this was merely a temporary palliative against the bitter night. At Charing Cross we encountered a man with his wife and two tiny children. They had come to town from Reading to look for work. The man had lost his few shillings and they were stranded …

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Charitable institutions were unable to cope with the vast numbers that sought nightly access to their refuges and many of the outcast lacked even the few coppers required for common lodging houses and ‘dossers’. Others preferred the open streets to the casual ward where they ran the risk of being detained for three days against their will and there were hundreds who would chance exposure to the elements rather than submit to the workhouse. After Trafalgar Square was cleared on Bloody Sunday in 1887, the authorities finally banned the Square to the homeless. But the embankment, with its benches and bridges, continued to be used by mothers with babies in arms, children and old people, all spending the night insulated against the cold by old newspapers and sacks. The thousands who slept out were not for the most part alcoholics but honest, poor, unskilled and casual workers, subject to seasonal and trade fluctuations in employment. Salvation Army General Booth in Darkest London quotes a typical case of a Bethnal Green bootmaker, in hospital for three months. His wife also became ill and after three weeks their furniture was seized for rent due to the landlord. Subsequently, they were evicted. Too ill to work, everything pawned, including the tools of his trade, they became dispossessed outcasts. Not all the ‘dossers’ were out of work; many were simply homeless and earned such poor wages that renting rooms was beyond their means. Records from the Medland Hall refuge showed sailors, firemen, painters, bricklayers and shoemakers among those who sought shelter from the streets of the richest city in the world.

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Elsewhere in the country, there were some anomalies in the divisions of workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’: the Lancashire cotton workers, for example, even though comparatively unskilled, ranked with the ‘aristocracy’, while the Yorkshire woollen workers, probably owing to the greater diversity of their occupations, were almost devoid of organisation. Among the miners, too, the degree of trade unionism varied widely among men of comparable skill in different coalfields. The general labourers and workers in the sweated trades, many of them women, had no unions, and their miserable conditions were at once a cause and a result of their inability to defend themselves. At the bottom of the social heap were the casual labourers, thousands of whom fought daily for work at the gates of London’s docks. The following description of dockers waiting for ‘call on’ was written by Ben Tillett in a little pamphlet entitled A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry in July 1887:

There can be nothing ennobling in an atmosphere where we are huddled and herded together like cattle. There is nothing refining in the thought that to obtain employment we were driven into a shed, iron barred from end to end, outside of which a contractor or a foreman walks up and down with the air of a dealer in cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where they fight like beasts for the chance of a day’s work.

Tillett also told of how these men lived more by accident than design … picking over the rubbish heaps in search of anything eatable and of the furtive storing of refuse rice, the coolies had thrown away. The manager of the Millwall Docks gave evidence at an enquiry, of men who came to work without a scrap of work in their stomachs and gave up after an hour, their hunger not allowing them to continue. They were, said Tillett, Lazaruses who starve upon crumbs from the rich man’s table. On 12 August 1889, two members of Ben Tillett’s little union, the ‘Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association’ which had been formed by twelve men in the Oak Tavern off Hackney Road, met at Wroot’s Coffee House and came to Tillett with a demand that they should declare a strike at the South West India Dock. Though Tillett had campaigned for two years at the docks with evangelical fervour, the demand surprised him: Was it possible to strike with men who shivered with hunger and cold, bullied and intimidated by the petty tyrants who took a delight in the brutalities of the call on? The men left Tillett in no doubt as to the answer. Meetings were held under the windows of the dock offices and seethed with tumult. The demands included the raising of wages to sixpence an hour, The full round orb of the dockers’ tanner, as John Burns described it, eightpence an hour for overtime and a reduction in the number of ‘call-ons’, which kept hungry men hanging about the dock gates all day, often in the wet and cold awaiting the next chance to catch the foreman’s eye.

The strike spread rapidly throughout the docks, stevedores, boilermakers, coal heavers, ballast-men, lightermen, painters and carpenters all supporting the dock labourers. With only seven shillings and sixpence in his union funds. Tillett set about raising money to provide relief for the striking dockers and their families. Daily marches with banners and bands around the docks and to the City served to keep up morale, spread the news and keep money pouring into the jingling collecting boxes. From the strike committee headquarters at The Wade’s Arms, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, John Burns, Harry Orbell and Henry Champion planned the distribution of money. Champion had been expelled from the SDF in November 1888 and threw himself eagerly into leading the practical relief work among the strikers. He persuaded the strike committee to issue one shilling food tickets and got local tradesmen to honour them. Tom Mann took charge of the task and told in his memoirs of how he faced the first crowd of hungry dockers:

I put my back against one of the doorposts and stretched out my leg, with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men and passed each man in under my leg!

Tillett wrote of this event:

I can see Tom now, with his back against the door of Wroot’s Coffee House, keeping back a yelling, hungry mob, while Nash and Smith shivered in the pay room. 

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Eight relief centres were established in the East End of London, tickets being issued on production of a union card. This was not only a rational way of issuing relief but served to build the union, twenty thousand cards being issued for the twopenny membership fee. Contemporary reports tell of women and children feeding in the streets and the photograph above shows women with their meal tickets pinned to their hats and dresses, feeding their children outside one of the union centres. At the peak of the struggle, twenty-five thousand meal tickets a day were being issued by the union. Eventually, on 14 September 1889, a settlement favourable to the dockers was reached. The story of the strike for the ‘dockers’ tanner’ is legendary and the engravings from The Illustrated London News of 1889 and a few contemporary photographs of the strikers are familiar enough. However, the photograph from the SDF slide set, entitled women and children of dock strikers being fed in the street was not published until 1980. It is a rare relic from that epic fight which heralded the ‘new unionism’ and the organisation of the unskilled.

The Tea Operatives Union which began the strike with a few hundred members finished it with a few hundred thousand and the ground was prepared for the building of the great Dockers’ Union, ‘the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. The photograph below shows victorious strikers, greeting the end of the strike, one of the most significant in the history of British trades unionism. The Socialists as a whole gained considerably in prestige from their association with the New Unionism which developed from the late 1880s onwards. The example of devoted leadership that they gave was only rarely spoilt by errors of judgement. As Champion himself recognised at the time, it was not for the purity of their Socialism that they were respected by the workers, but for their willingness to throw themselves into the day-to-day tasks of union organisation. But the political leaders at the dockside were careful not to take advantage of the strike to advance the Socialist cause. Hyndman had wanted John Burns to display a red flag during the dock strike, but Burns had refused because he knew it would be inappropriate to do so.

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John Burns resigned from the SDF after the strike but still regarded himself as a Socialist, and the movement could only gain from his popularity, and that of Thorne and Mann, who now occupied key positions in the New Unions. Furthermore, the principles of New Unionism were socialistic in tendency, basing their tactics on the principle of advancing the interests of the working class as a whole, which is clearly indicated by their willingness to accept all types of workers for membership. This brought the new unionists into sympathy with the basic conception of Socialism and made them favourable to the Socialist demand for an independent labour party in Parliament. The new unionists had nothing to lose and a world to gain by a policy of political action such as the Socialists were advocating. It soon became clear to them that the gains they made by industrial action were not easy to maintain. The success of the Championite Socialists in taking the lead in the formation of the new unions was largely due to the lukewarm attitude of the established ‘craft’ unions. The echoes of New Unionism were meanwhile resounding throughout the country, and struggles of less importance but sometimes greater intensity and bitterness were waged in provincial towns and ports. The letters of Engels reveal something of the intense excitement of the period, especially one he wrote to Sorge in December 1889:

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to ‘Tussy’ (Eleanor Marx) women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for.

But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlikethe old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long. …

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Engels’ optimism was based not only on the success of the Socialists in capturing the new unions in London but also on the successful reconstitution of the ‘International’ in the autumn of 1889. There had been two separate Socialist and Labour congresses held simultaneously in Paris: one was backed by the orthodox followers of Marx and Engels, and also attended by a number of British Socialists including William Morris and Keir Hardie; the other, summoned by French reformists opposed to the Engels group, was attended not only by the Fabians and by a number of the craft unionists, but also by Hyndman and other members of the SDF. It was due to Engels’ hostility that the SDF delegates were forced to consort with conservative trade-union leaders and the foreign reformists rather than with the Marxists.

Fortunately, however, for the sake of the future of the movement, the two congresses finally joined together to form the Second International. As a consequence, this was much more real as an organisation than its predecessor of two decades before, embracing strong parties from a variety of countries. One notable outcome of the foundation of the Second International was the decision to make a demonstration of labour solidarity on May Day, 1890. The London Socialists busied themselves with preparations for a great demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May, the result being a remarkable display of the forces of New Unionism and its solidarity with the Socialism. The attendance was impressive, and Engels, who watched the scene from the top of a goods-van, was almost beside himself with enthusiasm. He proclaimed in the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung:

On May 4th, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. … The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. 

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

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But in his more sober moments, Engels was well aware of what he called the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. Although the new unionists made an impact on the TUC in 1890, they were not sufficiently numerous to outvote the craft unions, most of whom retained their prejudices and patronising attitude towards the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Socialist League in London was falling apart. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax were feeling, as Hyndman had done, that Socialism should engage with the parliamentary system. The withdrawal of this ‘Parliamentary’ element caused the Socialist League to fall more and more into the hands of the Anarchists, who voted Morris out of his role as editor of The Commonweal at the 1890 conference.

016 (3)Morris himself became increasingly uncomfortable with their activities until in November 1890 he decided to cut his losses and withdraw from the League, together with the Hammersmith branch, which remained loyal to him. Without his funds and moderating influence, the League then disintegrated. Morris continued to work for Socialism, but at a reduced rate which was all his health permitted; he chaired meetings of what had become the Hammersmith Socialist Society and continued to speak at outdoor meetings. He still hoped for a united British Socialist Party, and negotiated, unsuccessfully, to bring that about in 1892. He was pleased with the election of three ‘Independent Labour’ MPs, regarding…

… this obvious move forward of the class feeling as full of real hope. 

The growth of the waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed spectacularly with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded membership had penetrated deepest into Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and into South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, rural Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise of agricultural trade unions in the early 1870s. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer co-operatives. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire had 112, followed by Durham (28), the Northamptonshire footwear district (21), Northumberland (18), and Cheshire and Derbyshire (17). At this stage, there were only six societies within a twelve-mile radius of central London.

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Wherever the Chartist legacy had been strong, and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, co-operation took root.  Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made it compatible with popular pleasures like football and seaside excursions, as more people could afford to save and spend, or to save in order to spend. Co-operation became a mass movement and by 1899, 1,531 co-operative societies in Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a ‘co-operator’. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time. Co-operatives and the trade unions rarely collaborated, except when local societies gave special support to strikers.  As a widely supported movement which drew in women as well as men, the Co-operative Movement, with its proto-feminist Women’s Guild, had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade unions. The relaxation of draconian anti-union legislation in the 1870s and rising affluence among unskilled workers in the 1890s had enabled them to take part in the union movement, while co-operative societies encouraged ‘Self-help’ by dividing profits among their members. The geographical influence of the two movements is best understood if they are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

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The photograph above shows the Radcliffe Co-op in Lancashire, typical of the early co-operators and their belief in Robert Owen’s great discovery that the key to a better society was ‘unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life’. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton in for inspiration and advice. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished with reading rooms, educational classes, the Women’s Guild interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce and a growing number of branches.  

The Advent of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-95:

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Although aloof from the fray over these early years of the 1890s, the fact that Morris was known to be speaking not for one faction but for the interests of Socialism as a whole actually increased his influence.

At the beginning of 1893, the inaugural conference of the Independent Labour Party took place at the Bradford Labour Institute. The hall’s history was symbolic of working-class causes both religious and political to date. It had begun life as a Wesleyan Reform Chapel and had later been used by the Salvation Army. It was surrounded by the mills and warehouses on which the trade of Bradford depended. Against this backdrop, the opening of the conference presented like a scene from a novel depicting British political history.

William Morris was not there, but there were certainly many faces to be seen which belonged to characters who had already played major roles in labour politics including Mahon, Donald, and Aveling, Hardie, Tillett and Shaw. Hardie was elected to the chair, and he immediately faced difficulties over whether the two London Fabians should be admitted as delegates. Shaw was one of these, but the ‘permeation’ tactics of the Fabians were unpopular among the rank-and-file of independent labour, especially as it was widely known that they had no intention of abandoning their positions of influence inside the Liberal Party. On the night before the conference, Shaw had addressed a meeting of the provincial Fabian delegates and had suggested that the whole idea of immediately establishing an independent party was premature. Reports of his speech circulated overnight, so it was not surprising that the credentials of these two delegates were disputed and only approved by a margin of two votes. Thereafter, Shaw’s contribution to the discussions was of considerable value. The principal questions with which the conference had to deal were the choice of the party’s name, the drafting of its constitution and programme and the election of an executive. The choice of name was obvious to the English delegates, but the Scottish Labour Party colleagues the title of ‘Socialist Labour Party’. Joseph Burgess and Katherine Conway argued that the new party had to appeal to an electorate which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism. Ben Tillett supported this point, adding that:

He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were Socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed.

Tillett followed up this attack on the Hyndmanites with a gratuitous one on the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists, a remark which offended Eduard Bernstein, the able London correspondent of the German Social-Democratic paper, who was later given the right to reply. The decision to leave the title as ‘Independent Labour Party’ reflected an awareness of the origins and roots of the party in the local labour unions and parties, some of which were not explicitly committed to Socialism. The primary object of these bodies was to build a Parliamentary party on the basis of a programme of labour reform, and the principal allies of this party were to be, not the existing Socialist societies, but the trade unions, whose leaders were in most cases still to be converted to the independent policy. In this decision the fundamental differences between the ILP and the earlier Socialist societies were revealed: the means of political action were regarded as of primary importance, and the theoretical approach gave way to the practical. But this did not mean that the party was not to be a Socialist party. The proposal to define its object as to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was carried as a substantive motion by an almost unanimous vote. The conference was evidently strongly Socialist; this was confirmed when the programme came to be discussed and, with the help of Aveling and Shaw, the Marxist and the Fabian, it provided the new party with a concise and clear-cut programme without inconsistency or divergence from basic Socialist doctrine.

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The Bradford Conference had raised high hopes of the new Independent Labour Party, which was intended to rival the Liberals and Conservatives in the fight for Parliamentary power. But the reality of its position fell far short of what its supporters at first imagined was possible. The ILP was able to rely on many of the remnants of the Socialist League, especially in Yorkshire, but the SDF had strengthened itself at the expense of the League in London and had also rapidly extended its hold in Lancashire. In June 1893, the SDF claimed sixty-two branches, a total larger than ever before except for its temporary boom during the strikes of 1887; in August 1894, the official total was ninety-one. Although never as large as the ILP it was always a formidable competitor.

Champion manoeuvred his way back into the political limelight in association with Maltman Barry, described by one rival as that most Marxian of Tories and Toryest of Marxians, now openly boasting his connection with the Conservative Party, as its paid agent, in a letter to the Workman’s Times of September 1892, which made him a sinister influence to the purists of independent politics. The national press was overwhelmingly hostile to the ILP and anxious to misrepresent any indiscretion or sign of weakness, and the agents of both the ‘great’ parties were seeking to break down the policy of independence by offers of financial assistance or by promises designed to satisfy personal ambitions.

Fortunately for the ILP, despite its internal financial and organisational difficulties, political factors in the country were strengthening its position. Hardie’s vigorous propaganda, up and down the country as well as in Parliament was breaking through and stiffening the members’ attitude on the issue of strict independence. The political situation was one of which he could take advantage since the Liberal government were showing no signs of dealing with the relief of the unemployed or of accomplishing important reforms. The problem of unemployment was very severe, with distress on a national scale, and Hardie calculated, with good reason, that there were over a million out of work. Throughout the country, local ILPs took the initiative in forming distress committees to provide food and shelter for the needy and to press public bodies to assist by offering relief work. The SDF methods of organising demonstrations of the unemployed were revived, and many industrial towns echoed to the tramp of their marching feet and the pathetic sound of their song, The Starving Poor of Old England.

But it did not take very much to persuade the Fabians to turn around once more and reassert their alliance with the Liberals. The ILP, they were convinced, could not succeed without official trade-union support. It was in vain that Hardie attempted to explain to them the fighting attitude of the local ILP branches in the north of England. He took part, with Tom Mann, in an informal Fabian-ILP conference in January 1895, and also lectured to the Society in London, telling them:

To reach the masses of the people, something more than academic education and discussion on abstract propositions is necessary. The workers will only rally to a fighting policy.

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After Hardie’s lecture, Curran reminded those present that London is not England, a reminder that, for all their claims of intellectual superiority, they often seemed incapable of fully appreciating. In the 1895 General Election, although the ILP fielded twenty-eight candidates, polling 34,433 votes (1% of the total votes cast), and failed to get a single MP elected. Even Keir Hardie, standing again in West Ham, and his two colleagues lost their seats.

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‘Merrie England’ – Popularising Socialism in the Countryside, 1894-95:

Allied to the ILP in the North and Midlands, journals like The Clarion had a wide appeal because of its brilliant journalism. Robert Blatchford founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of Socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford’s series of articles inviting John Smith, the typical working man, to join the ranks of the Socialists was published as Merrie England, and when issued as a book it sold twenty thousand copies at a shilling each. Wanting to reach out further he issued a penny edition issued in 1894 and sold three-quarters of a million copies in a year, giving a great lift to the circulation of the Clarion, sales of which reached sixty thousand. The features of Merrie England that made it so popular were its simplicity and directness of style, and its engaging enthusiasm for the ordinary pleasures of life that had been submerged by industrial civilisation, as the following extract from Blatchford’s writing demonstrates:

I would stop the smoke nuisance. … I would have towns rebuilt with wide streets, with detached houses, with gardens and fountains and avenues. … I would have public parks, public theatres, music halls, gymnasiums, football and cricket fields, public halls and public gardens for recreation and music and refreshment. …

015 (2)How could all this be done? Blatchford demonstrated that the working class, who were seven-eighths of the population, received little more than a third of the national income. He also argued, principally on the basis of an article by the Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin, that Great Britain and Ireland could be self-sufficient in agricultural production. The whole problem, therefore, he maintained, could be solved by nationalising the land, industry and commerce, and by limiting industrial production to the extent actually required for the supply of the people of Britain. Thus the doctrines of Marxian Socialism, as transmitted to Blatchford through the agency of Hyndman and the Fabians, were transformed into a policy of national autarky which, at the time it was propounded, could hardly be taken seriously by those who knew anything about Britain’s position in world trade. But the economic arguments in the book did not really matter. Blatchford was not equipped to deal with the practical problems of political administration. He was, however, in his element as a popular journalist who could stir the public imagination with his vivid writings.

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Blatchford found other ways, too, of exploiting the interest in Socialism. Clarion Clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of Socialism to countryside villages. Blatchford’s supporters became known as ‘Clarionettes’ and in 1894 he founded the Clarion Scouts, bodies of young Socialist pioneers who were to spread their faith by such original methods as leaflet raids by bicyclists. These propagandising methods both improved the Clarion‘s circulation and spread the idea of Socialism in directions where it had not previously penetrated. He encouraged the formation of a Glee Club, a Camera Club and a Field Club, and for a time ran a special supplementary paper, the Scout, to support their activity. These were followed by numerous cycling clubs. One reason for the establishment of the Clarion Scouts had been to find a way of bringing Socialism to the agricultural areas. In 1895 a few Manchester Clarionettes borrowed a horse and van and set off for Tabley in Cheshire to camp with eight Clarion supporters. The idea of the Clarion vans was born, and, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature the vans were mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time, until the last one, designed by Walter Crane (1845-1916), the great Socialist artist-craftsman and William Morris’ associate, was built and dedicated in the market square in Shrewsbury, photographed below, just months before the First World War began.

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Blatchford’s conception of Socialism was a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and the 1895 ILP annual conference followed his lead by adopting a long and detailed list of agricultural reforms including nationalisation of land values and placed these prominently at the head of its programme. These policies aimed at catching the eye of the rural voter, but it was all to little avail: the general picture of the party’s activity in the first year of its existence remained one of great vigour in the industrial North of England, especially the woollen areas, with pockets of strength in parts of Scotland and the Midlands. ; but it remained weak in London and other southern towns, and completely absent from nearly all the rural areas. The ILP Directory, published in 1895 showed that out of the three hundred or so party branches listed, a hundred were in Yorkshire, mostly in the West Riding, over seventy in Lancashire and Cheshire, forty in Scotland, mostly in Glasgow and Strathclyde,  and thirty in the London area. Of the sixty remaining branches, most were in the Midlands and north-eastern counties of England, leaving Wales, Ireland and eastern England virtually without representation. It was primarily an industrial working-class party with a strong presence in particular localities in the textile towns and in the more scattered engineering districts of England. By replacing the cosmopolitan Socialism of the eighties with a national party, the ILP had merely succeeded in establishing itself as a provincial party by the mid-nineties.

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In 1896, Walter Crane had published Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-96, printed by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at Clerkenwell Green in London. As John Betjeman, the later poet laureate wrote in his foreword to its reprint in 1976, Crane’s cartoons are of historic interest as period pieces when high-minded Socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris. Crane was prominent among them, the first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild, an ardent ‘Guild Socialist’ and Positivist. Betjeman also wrote that:

Crane was no William Blake but a brilliant decorative artist. … Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all. … 

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The designs which are shown here are taken from Crane’s ‘portfolio’ and were done from time to time over the decade from the summer of 1885 which, as Crane wrote in his preface, had been a period of remarkable progress in the knowledge and spread of Socialist ideas.  They served on different occasions the Socialist movement, appearing in various journals devoted to ‘the cause’, including Justice. The year of publication was marked by the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress in July when workers and Socialists from all parts of the world met in London. It was hoped, as Crane wrote, that the event would …

… be the means of strengthening the ties of international brotherhood, and consolidating those common interests of humanity which makes for Peace and social progress; as well as giving an immense stimulus to the great movement towards the new era, when, society renewed upon a sound economic basis, the earth shall be for man and the fullness thereof.

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

The possibilities of life on the earth under such a change of system – and it is only a change of system – are as yet but dimly and partially apprehended; but to anyone who can read the signs of the times everything points to the approach of such great economic changes as those indicated, and consciously or unconsciously we may be all, whether rich or poor, factors in their evolution …  

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

Meanwhile, the Hyndman group continued to dominate the politics of the SDF, greeting with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an uncompromising hostility to all other parties. Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabian leaders were especially singled out for criticism. When, in 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to speak in his manifesto of the transformation of society by peaceful means, he was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his apparent abandonment of what the latter saw as the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of these defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the ILP as the leading Socialist party. In 1898 it claimed a total of 137 branches, twice as many as it had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure.

Since the 1895 General Election, it had gained ground at the expense of the ILP and its leaders were willing to support a merger with the ILP since they knew they would no longer be submerged. It was more overtly ‘Socialist’ both in its title and programme. Members of the Federation were expected to make a real attempt to master the theory of Marxism, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’ ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’. This was far more than the ILP branches were prepared to do. Also, there were many who had joined the SDF because they were hostile to the ILP for a variety of reasons, not least because it was not sufficiently democratic, a criticism shared by Blatchford. It was for these reasons that William Morris rejoined the party a short time before his death in 1896. Morris had come to accept the need for political action but was suspicious of Hardie, dating from the days when the latter was closely associated with Champion. In 1894, a young member of the SDF heard Morris speaking for the party in Manchester:

The last time I saw Morris, he was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal. … It was a wild March Sunday morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he had expressed a desire to do so, and so there he was., talking with quiet strenuousness, drawing a laugh now and then from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and on the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. He wore a blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat; and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. … In spite of the bitter cold of the morning, scarcely a man moved from the crowd; though there was comparatively little fire or fervour in the speech, and next to no allusion to any special topic of the hour. Many there were hearing and seeing the man for the first time; most of us were hearing from him for the last time; and we all looked and listened as though we knew it.

When Morris died two years later, aged sixty-two, the sense of loss which was felt by fellow Socialists was summed up by Robert Blatchford, the ILP’er and editor of The Clarion:

I cannot help feeling that it does not matter what goes into ‘the Clarion’ this week, because William Morris is dead. And what Socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact?  … He was our best man… It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater … Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike him where you would, he rang true…

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Morris’ greatest contribution to the socialist movement was the inspiration he provided, as Blatchford suggested, more as a man than as a theorist. In fact, the future for British Socialism lay not in revolution, as Morris had thought, but in a gentler, reformist approach, specifically through the election to Parliament of the ILP candidates. Nevertheless, the Socialist League in its short life played a vital role in forming that party; its stronghold was in the north, not in London, and this is was from these roots that the party sprang, whereas the SDF was strongest in the south. Morris did, to some extent, succeed in educating the working classes in Socialism, even though the results were not exactly what he had hoped they would be. It is more difficult to assess his influence on Socialism and socialist thought in the longer term. Recent revaluations suggest that his contribution in this area may have been undervalued and that he was a more substantial political theorist than has been realised. The ‘Marxist’ historian E P Thompson suggests that Morris’ essential contribution to British Socialism was his stress on a moral and humane element, on the importance of community and fellowship, and that this was a necessary complement to the more cerebral Marxist economic analysis.

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

The final years of the century were a time of sharply rising industrial militancy and the ‘imperial issue’ of Ireland: Of all these issues around the world, the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the one that  roused most interest, not simply because it was the closest to home and mixed with religious differences but also because it divided the Liberal Party as well as the workers. But it was the issue of poverty which began to attract men of social conscience, most notably the shipowners Charles Booth and the chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, quantify it and to record its reality and extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. At the beginning of the 1890s, thirty per cent of London’ population fell on or below Booth’s ‘poverty line’, which increased to 68% in Southwark and 65% in Greenwich, and Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was not much lower than these. Cases of real want could no longer be dismissed as unrepresentative. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes which were below the level needed for the maintenance of physical health and strength even if excellent housekeepers had been available to ensure that not even a farthing was spent on non-essential items. Rowntree calculated that in York in 1899, almost ten per cent of the population (15.5% of all wage earners) lived in primary poverty, below the ‘poverty line’, and this figure was considered to be not untypical of other provincial towns.  It was small wonder, therefore, that just over a third of those who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1902 were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators ‘arithmetic of woe’.

004

Above: A Sunderland slum, c.1889: Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class. By-laws regulated new building, but slums like these were to take another forty years to clear.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought was aggravating the problems of the poor also made it possible to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services and local government expenditure began to increase. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s, electric tramcars, together with the availability of cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled wage-earners to escape from overcrowded town centres to the suburbs. And the spread of multiple shops such as Sainsbury’s and Lipton’s from the 1860s onwards was also an urban phenomenon, as were Saturday afternoon sporting events, excursions by train, and the music halls.

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The preference for smaller families, which became more marked among the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, was beginning to spread to the working classes, thus making the lives of married women considerably better, but this was a gradual change. The photo (right) shows the Gulliver family in c.1899, the children of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant, on the steps of their cottage in Ufton, Warwickshire. A further seven siblings were added in the following decade. There were also the beginnings of greater employment opportunities for single women. The reforms of secondary education after 1870 led to new grammar schools offering scholarships to bright young people of both sexes, providing them with a better start in life than their parents had had. There was also more time for leisure. C Stella Davies recalled her memories of the Clarion Cycle Club at this time:

At the club-house, after a ride through the lanes of Cheshire or over the Derbyshire hills, we ate an enormous tea of ham, pickles, jam and cake of such solidity that we called it a “tram-stopper” … Washing-up followed, after which we cleared the tables away for either a meeting, a play or a concert, finishing the evening by dancing … By ten o’ clock we were shooting down Schools Hill, bunches of wild flowers tied to our handle-bars, apples in our pockets, the wind lifting our hair …

The State of the Socialist ‘Cause’ & Labour’s ‘Turning Point’:

The Socialists, whether in the Socialist League, the SDF or the ILP, were the only active political group who were interested in bringing an independent working-class political party into being. They alone could provide a programme which would make it distinct and separate from the existing parties. Without such a programme, as Engels realised, there could be no such party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Even after the foundation of a Labour Party by the coming together of the trades unions with the socialist societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, its political independence remained in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, the Socialists possessed faith in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This ‘faith’ was based, ultimately, on the analysis of society first presented by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 and elaborated in their subsequent writings. This analysis was modified by Hyndman and the Fabians and simplified for popular consumption by Morris, Blatchford and Hardie. To its working-class adherents, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in their class consciousness; to middle-class progressives, it afforded the consolation that they were working in harmony with contemporary social change.

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Socialism had the dynamic quality of a faith devoutly held which was capable of conquering social realities. It had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. Just as now, it led them into making foolish statements, such as…

If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work, or this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population. 

But ‘the faith’ did not stand or fall by the publication of illusory and inaccurate figures: it depended much less on ‘reason’ than on deeper and simpler forces in human nature. G. B. Shaw summed this up in his 1897 article, The Illusions of Socialism, in which he wrote:

Socialism wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond.

It was this crusading zeal which drew attention to the Socialists in the eighties and enabled them to have an influence in British politics far beyond what their numbers justified. They made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers: in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed a political élite.  When it came to fighting elections, speaking at street corners, canvassing and delivering manifestos, the man with the red tie was worth a score of his more easy-going trade-unionists, a fact that the union leaders were obliged to take into account in drawing up the terms of the alliance in 1900. Not all the Socialists, however, could claim to have made a valuable contribution to the formation of the new party. The SDF had originated in a labour revolt against the National Liberal Federation, yet in the course of a few years, it came to embody a sectarian exclusiveness and hostility to all save the adherents to its own narrow creed. Engels himself resented the way it had managed to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. Hyndman’s was a doctrinaire radicalism, full of echoes of Tom Paine and the Jacobins, but devoid of any astute revolutionary technique. It was primarily to defend his more collaborative strategy that Hardie fought tooth and nail against a merger with the SDF. His attitude was justified by the attitude of the SDF leadership at the critical moment of the formation of the new party and their decision to secede eighteen months later.

The fact was, as George Lansbury understood better than Hyndman, that the British working class as a whole had no use for the concept of violent revolution, and that any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early period of the industrial revolution: the Norwich shoemakers who joined the Socialist League were, like the Chartist hand-loom weavers before them, making a protest against an industrial system which had no place for their craftsmanship. But fractures and dislocations of this kind were transitory events: a permanent political organisation of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively move forward to the formation of a Labour Party. The Fabian Society performed the essential service of adapting Marxist theory to a form compatible with British constitutional practice, drawing heavily on indigenous radical and liberal ideas. But the Fabians had no direct involvement in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee and were never ready to believe that the time was ripe for the creation of a new party. The failure of their policy of permeation, in which they had placed such high hopes, turned their complacency to depression, and by the end of the century, most of the members of the Society were beginning, like Shaw, to distrust existing democratic processes.

Apart from the early efforts of Engels and the Marx-Avelings, it is Champion and his associates who deserve the credit for devoting themselves to the formation of a Labour Party. From 1893 onwards, the ILP began to provide examples of the value of independence. It had the initial support of Engels, and Aveling helped to draw up its programme. Within the limits of constitutionalism, it seemed to be determined to fight its battles without compromise. It governed itself by means of a supreme annual conference, a democratic device inherited from the trades unions, but not at that time adopted by any political party. The ILP also showed that poor as it was, it could fight elections against both Liberals and Conservatives and yet secure polls that were no discredit to the cause. Yet it was clearly a party with a future; and, given the support of the trade unions, it was obvious that the future would be rich in Parliamentary success. The greatest achievement of Keir Hardie and his ILP lay in the capture of trade union support as early as 1900. In the same year, Pete Curran of the ILP Council addressed the Congress of the Second International, striking a self-confident tone about the state of the labour movement as a whole in his critique of imperialism at home and abroad:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests … But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words … And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

The whole strategy of the ILP from its foundation had been based on the conception of collaboration with trade unionists with the ultimate objective of tapping trade-union funds for the eventual attainment of Parliamentary power. Eventually, even William Morris had to accept that the purity of the Socialist Cause was worth nothing without the power to enact its policies and that this power could only be enacted through parliamentary means and pluralistic methods. That may be a lesson that its current adherents in the Labour Party need to learn afresh. Let’s hope it doesn’t take them a further thirty or forty years to do so; at least they are not building from scratch.

 

Sources:

Christine Poulson (2002), William Morris. Royston: Quantum Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walter Crane (1896; 1976), Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. London: Twentieth Century Press/ Journeyman Press.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Walton et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted December 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Austerity, Baptists, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, democracy, Demography, East Anglia, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Fertility, History, Home Counties, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, Monuments, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Population, populism, Poverty, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Recreation, Scotland, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, West Midlands, William Morris

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