Charles Bradlaugh was the Tony Benn of his era: a radical MP and inveterate campaigner who sometimes courted controversy; an advocate of political reform; an outspoken champion of causes such as atheism and republicanism. And much like Tony Benn, he was lionised by his supporters and detested by his detractors.
When Bradlaugh died in January 1891, hundreds of condolence letters poured in: from local branches of the National Secular Society, which he founded; from India, whose interests he had sought to represent in Parliament; from well-wishers and supporters; and from scores of radical working men's clubs. This deluge of correspondence has, rather wonderfully, been preserved among Bradlaugh's papers at the Bishopsgate Institute - which has very kindly given me permission to post a couple of the letters here.
The letter above came from the Mildmay Radical Club and Institute then at 36 Newington Green Road. It later moved to much grander premises on Newington Green and later still dropped 'Radical' from its name. The Mildmay Club still survives - and I've blogged about it before,
This blog is not so much about Bradlaugh as about the early history of the Mildmay Club - which is, shall we say, a touch opaque.
Among other letters sent to Bradlaugh's daughter at his death is this one, from exactly the same address as that given by the Mildmay Radical Club -
So the Balls Pond Secular Hall Society was also operating from 36 Newington Green Road. Secularism was then a substantial national movement, challenging the power and privilege of organised religion - and while there were competing strands within the secularist movement, Bradlaugh was their best known and best regarded leader.
The 'hall' on Newington Green Road was quite possibly simply a decent size room - perhaps rented for different purposes on different evenings. These small clubs would stage meetings, debates and entertainment - and the drink offered (some clubs were teetotal, but most made their money from alcohol) might simply be beer bought in gallon flaggons.
A web search on 36 Newington Green Road also produced some intriguing new information - from the other side of the world. Virginia Rundle in Sydney has a website devoted to her British forbears (many thanks for her permission to post the handbill below). Her great-grandmother Harriett Fuller is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington. According to her death certificate, she succumbed to typhoid on 29th April 1887 ... at 36 Newington Green Road. Her husband, John Fuller - described as a 'tenor vocalist' - was present at the death.
John Fuller was known as the 'silvery tenor' and performed with the Mohawk Minstrels - Virginia has researched in depth his performing years in London before emigrating to Australia. His children formed a family musical troupe. They not only lived at 36 Newington Green Road - they performed there.
Virginia has John Fuller's scrap book - and it contains the following notice of a performance at the Balls Ponds Radical Club at, as far as can be made out, 36 Newington Green Road. Although someone has written '1886' on the handbill, Virginia believes it dates from 1888. The performers were Fuller's and Ison's Juvenile Black Blossom Minstrels - all apparently youngsters under fourteen. The kids would almost certainly have been in "black face" - a form of entertainment which is now unacceptable but was popular at that time (and let's not forget that the Black and White Minstrel Show ran on BBC prime-time television until as recently as 1978).
This is another sliver of evidence indicating of how the roots of the Mildmay Club lay in the vibrant North London secular movement.
That's confirmed by an article in the Club and Institute Journal in 1951 - based in part on the recollections of a founder member of the Mildmay Club. It states: 'Sixty-two years ago, members of the Balls Pond Secular Club, Newington Green Road, ... saw their club "go on the rocks." While some lamented this catastrophe, others saw in it an opportunity. Sixteen of them subscribed ten shillings each towards the first month's rent, and thus it came about that the Mildmay Radical Club was formed.'
This article also reports that in 1891, the club bought 'an old mansion at 34, Newington Green comprising 12 rooms and with spacious grounds'. Most of this old pile - one imagines - was pulled down to make way for the grand premises built in 1900 which remain the home of the Mildmay Club.
The generally accepted account of the club's early history is given in the listed building entry on the Historic England website. This states:
'The Mildmay Club was founded on 18 August 1888 as the Mildmay Radical Club and was originally located at 36 Newington Green Road, Islington. The club was actively involved in radical politics and social campaigns. In 1894 it moved to new premises at 34 Newington Green, gifted in the will of two local sisters. ... The Mildmay Club was recognised as one of the largest and most politically active of the capital’s working men’s clubs.
On 27 October 1900 the foundation stone was laid for a new clubhouse designed by a member of the club, the architect Alfred Allen. The new building, which may have incorporated fabric from the existing houses on the site, included two halls, a reading room, meeting rooms and a billiard hall. ...'
Quite how the story of the sisters' will fits with the account of the club buying the existing building is not at all clear. Anyone know?
There's another intriguing element to the story, gleaned from the pages of Club Life, a weekly journal 'written by Clubmen for Clubmen'. It started in 1899 but the British Library's copies for that year, and for 1901, are too fragile for consultation. The issues for 1900 are available, and they make clear how prominent and successful the Mildmay Radical Club had become. The journal gives information about the Mildmay's political activities and more so about the entertainment offered there - and it also chronicles the step-by-step rebuilding of the club house.
Another prominent club whose activities are listed is the Bradlaugh Club and Institute at - you've guessed it! - 36 Newington Green Road. So all those years after the Mildmay Club had moved from Newington Green Road, their old premises were still the home of a working men's club, and to judge from the name, in the radical and secular tradition.
This blog started with Charles Bradlaugh - and it ends with the club that took his name. There's more to be discovered. All leads, information and help welcome.
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