This is a wonderful piece of political memorabilia - ephemera feels too insubstantial a term - from the London radicalism of 160 years ago. It's a membership card of the Land and Labour League, an organisation which is not well known and only survived a few years, but was of real importance in the development of a determinedly radical tradition within the movements for political reform and social justice.
Many thanks to Richard Gold for recognising its importance and steering it in the direction of one of small band of political anoraks who collect this sort of thing (viz the author).
The Land and Labour League consisted largely of supporters of the Chartist radical Bronterre O'Brien (died 1864), who is sometimes regarded as a proto-socialist. They had mustered in force in some of the central London branches of the Reform League.
O'Brien's followers - many of them self-educated artisans - were strong advocates of currency reform, land nationalisation, rights for women and - though it's not on the League's list of founding principles - republicanism. The paper associated with the LLL was called the Republican. It was published for two years from 1870, and so through the period of the Paris Commune, which many LLL members supported. The O'Brienites were also instinctively opposed to class collaboration and to working with Liberals.
The story of the Land and Labour League has been told by the historian Royden Harrison in Before the Socialists. As well as establishing the League, many O'Brienites were also active in the International Working Men's Association (the First International) where they worked with Karl Marx and other emigre socialists living in London.
Marx had a mixed opinion of his O'Brienite allies, writing of the followers of 'the sect of the late Bronterre O'Brien, [who] are full of follies and crotchets such as currency quackery, false emancipation of women, and the like. In spite of these follies, they constitute an often necessary counterweight to trades unionists on the Council [of the IWMA]. They are more revolutionary, firmer on the land question, less nationalistic and not susceptible to bourgeois bribery. Otherwise they would have been kicked out long ago.' Given how irascible Marx often was, this is almost an endorsement!
Later the O'Brienites devoted much of their energies to an ultimately unsuccessful venture to establish a cooperative colony in Kansas - the sort of 'crotchet' of which Marx would have disapproved. They also established the Manhood Suffrage League. And a few of O'Brien's followers were still around in the 1880s to enlist in the ranks of the Social Democratic Federation.
The early 1870s were a high water mark in what was sometimes called social republicanism - the movement demanding the abolition of the monarchy not as an end in itself but as a step towards a truly representative system of governance which would work towards achieving social justice.
A century-and-a-half later, we haven't progressed very far down that path!
Eleanor Boon was briefly a figure of some import in London radicalism - in the late 1860s, she set up the Ladies' Secular Association and was invited to become a vice-president of the National Secular Society. But as her husband became more prominent, Eleanor retreated from public view.
Martin Boon's life came to a sad end. He moved to South Africa, ran a general store near Rietfontein in the Transvaal and was involved in prospecting for gold - though in the wrong part of the Transvaal. In December 1888, it seems, he took his own life.
'I suspect he was not very good with money', Laura writes. 'His estate papers indicate he was near bankrupt when he died from having extended too much credit to too many of his customers. I think the attempt at gold mining was a last ditch effort to rescue his affairs. And when I read notices in English papers about his bankruptcy before his departure for South Africa, I thought that financial troubles might well be behind his suicide.'
Laura Boon says Matt Ridley Boon - Martin's son and her great-grandfather - is the hero of the family South African story. 'Eleanor appears to have somehow pulled the family out of debt and they continued to own the general store and to farm, acquiring several farms along the way. Matt persuaded Paul Kruger, president of the Boer Republic in the Transvaal, to divert a planned railway line in their direction, and so the township of Boons, near Koster and Rietfontein, became a stop on the line and the general store thrived. He refused to take sides in the Anglo-Boer War, saying he had friends on both sides. He and his wife travelled quite a bit, visiting relatives in England and Canada. One of his sons, Paul Verdoes Boon, fought for the British in the First World War and died in a concentration camp. His mother, Eleanor, was the local midwife and all the farmers used to come to her for treatment of minor ailments.'
The tiny township of Boons, which took its name from the Boon family, still has a railway station - though not very much else. You can get a sense of its location here. And if you search for and zoom in on Boons, you can see the precise site of the station, and a smattering of public buildings which retain the Boon or Boons name. Laura's cousin still lives, and farms, in the area.
In the post today, I received this rather wonderful book - published in 1885 by the noted, and distinctly quarrelsome, radical Martin Boon.
Yes, it's an odd volume - both volumes together would have been well beyond my pocket.
Boon is a hugely interesting figure in the annals of radicalism. He was born in 1840 in Clerkenwell, greatly influenced by the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien, active alongside Karl Marx in the First International and a lively and quixotic campaigner above all for land and currency reform. There was also a distinct puritan streak to his views - he disapproved both of lasciviousness and of contraception.
In 1874, Martin Boon - who had campaigned actively against emigration - emigrated. To South Africa. There he made himself hugely unpopular by tilting at just about every windmill he could find - Boers, Jews, and black South Africans all came under his withering gaze. He wrote prolifically about the place, and didn't find all that much positive to relate. This book concludes: 'I HAVE NOT WRITTEN TO PLEASE, BUT TO REFORM.' He certainly didn't please, getting himself involved in a succession of court cases and public rows.
Boon played a part in the development of the goldfields in the Transvaal. He died there - apparently taking his own life by jumping into a mine shaft - on December 27th 1888. I realised with a start that today is the 125th anniversary of his death. For all his idiosyncracies and often intemperate views, he deserves remembrance.
Martin James Boon, 1840-1888: land nationaliser, currency reformer, radical propagandist and pamphleteer, settler in and chronicler of South Africa.
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