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.
The glorious Mildmay Club on Newington Green was part of 'Open House London' last weekend, and I took the chance to make another visit. It was also an opporunity to look again at the terrific collection of letters from club members serving in the First World War thanking the club for food and 'baccy parcels.
These were on display in what was the club library - and is now a room off the bar. And I noticed for the first time a board commemorating the Mildmay Chums - a roll of honour of sixty names. Six of those listed had 'Gone West' - soldiers' slang from the First World War for death (perhaps because that's the direction of the setting sun).
The WW1 'pals' were groups of volunteers who enlisted in the army as a group and served together often constituting a full battalion (which consists of somewhere between 300 and 1,000 soldiers). The Grimsby Chums were the only pals battalion to used the word 'chums'. The Mildmay Chums may have been a smaller and more modest version of these pals battalions - but it had a history which pre-dates the war.
There's little online about the Chums, but a post on the excellent Spitalfields Life site about Ken Sequin's badge collection includes this item. The Mildmay Chums also get a mention in the London Gazette in October 1910 - four years before war broke out. Perhaps this was a self-help society which became a group of friends who enlisted.
The sixty 'chums' listed on the roll of honour are certainly not the only members of what was then the Mildmay Radical Club who served in the forces during the First World War. Elsewhere in the club there's a huge board commemorating hundreds of members who died during the conflict.
What was the purpose behind the Chums? Anyone recognise any of the names on the roll of honour? And why are they not listed in alphabetical order?
This striking design depicts a mural painted in 1911 or thereabouts for the main hall of Mildmay Radical Club in North London. It seems to have been one of several murals commissioned for arched recesses in the main hall. The club is still going strong, the hall is very much there, but the murals (and indeed the arches) are no longer visible - though it is at least possible that they are concealed under subsequent layers of paint, paper and renovation.
A representation of the mural survives only because it was proudly placed on the cover of the club's half-yearly report and balance sheet (and library catalogue!) for the latter part of 1911. This is on display in a cabinet on the first-floor of the club. Whether the artist, W. White, was a club member or someone commissioned to undertake the murals is not clear.
The design is intriguing - a flat capped working man surrounded by men all with different headgear and working dress who seem to represent international labour: one looks Indian, another perhaps Turkish or North African and the others, well, perhaps Australian and American.
Some of the imagery is puzzling - a curious shaped container, with a dragon's tail, is spilling out jewels and other items of value ... perhaps the wealth that comes from fraternity and cooperation. There's clearly an Imperial angle here, but it's difficult to read the artist's message (if he had one). It is of course very masculine - apart from a rather aethereal likeness of a woman representing, of all things, 'fraternity'. In the foreground there's a beehive, a common representation of useful toil, along with a cornucopia of fruits and flowers.
There are some points of comparison - check out the headgear! - with the socialist Walter Crane's design from some years earlier on the same theme - fraternity.
There's an even more striking analogy with a couple of the plasterwork figures - attributed to Walter Crane - in the grounds of the King's College Library off Chancery Lane, a remarkable series of plaster panels about which I have blogged before:
I am not suggesting that Crane's work provided the model for the Mildmay mural ... but they do have something in common, especially the hats, caps and turbans!
LATER: Prompted by the comment from Felix Driver, an historical geographer who has written about Walter Crane and his depictions of Empire, I am also posting Crane's imperial map - which posits 'fraternity' as well as 'freedom' and 'federation' as the virtues of Empire:
For the first time, as far as I can recall, I am now a member of a club - not a stamp club, or a chess club, but a club of the sort that has premises of its own. The Mildmay Club. A wonderful old pile on Newington Green which I've blogged about before - established towards the close of the nineteenth century as the Mildmay Radical Club (that middle word was dropped, sadly, in the 1930s).
I popped in last night to collect my membership card - and a rule book - and a rather curious Club and Institute Union Card (see above) - a smaller version which seems to fulfil the same purpose - a key card so I can actually get into the club - and a receipt. Phew! And that membership card is 'No. 8'. Quite a kerfuffle getting this far - having to be nominated by two current members during a fairly short window for new applications, and then being interviewed (OK, so there were no awkward moments - apart from a rather poor reception to my suggestion that jazz nights might usefully supplement the Saturday evening line dancing sessions). Anyway, as you see, I seem to have passed.
Though Sunday evening is clearly not the highlight of the week at the Mildmay. At 9 in the evening, I was the only soul there - apart from the barmaid, and a cat asleep on the comfiest chair in the bar. And I could have any draught beer I wanted - as long as it was John Smith's.
And to think, I joined to give a new edge to my social life!
A rare privilege this week, to see inside the Mildmay Club on Newington Green. A big barn of a building which has seen better days, but seems to be slowly, slowly bouncing back from the prospect of oblivion.
The Mildmay and a raft of other local radical clubs were in the second tier. Hardly any are still going. This club has had a chequered history, and only moved into its current home after the heyday of late-Victorian radicalism, but it's still hanging in there. Just. And there was something both sad and wondrous about looking round this time-locked sarcophagus of a club - thinking back to what it once was, and ahead to what it could become.
Hackney's appraisal of the Newington Green (North) conservation area - which focusses on such fine buildings as the nearby Unitarian Chapel established in 1708 - offers a potted history of the club (and I've nicked the photo from there as well):
The renaming of the club was a clear statement that it had abandoned its radical pedigree. But in earlier years, the Radical in the club's title meant just that. A local vicar complained of the club's 'pernicious influence' - radicalism at that time often went hand-in-hand with freethought. And Tommy Jackson, later a leading Communist, recalled with gratitude help from the club when an anti-Boer War street meeting at Highbury Corner came under attack. Barry Burke and Ken Worpole take up the story:
The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up: the Radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club (Newington Green) to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local S.D.F., who, when the fight started, were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting, the Socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them ‘with great slaughter’
Walking round the club, it's cavernous - on every floor. A snooker room, dark, slightly spooky, with a dozen or so tables ... a bar that's bigger than most pubs ... a big hall with stage, festooned as if for a 1960s talent night, which could easily take a couple of hundred ... a smaller hall in itself the size of many working men's clubs ... and at the top of the building, three (now empty) one-bed flats. There are city states, UN member nations indeed, smaller than this!
Once the Mildmay Club had a membership to match. Outside the hall, there's a large varnished wooden board listing the club's wartime casualties (at least, we think that's what it is - the top of the board has been obscured by a rather hamfisted renovation). There are close to four-hundred names.
And in the Conservation Area appraisal, there's a couple of grainy old black-and-white photos dating (it says) from about 1905, one of the theatre/hall and the other of the snooker room. Take a look:
It strikes me that, more than a century later, the snooker room may still have the same lino. If not, it's a close lookalike.
And the snooker hall - they should film Sherlock Holmes in here, and ghost movies, Edwardian thrillers ... it's eery, with a Martian-style greenish light intensified by the lime coloured walls.
There are still gas light fittings, adding to the spectral feel and looking sinisterly like secret police torture equipment.
Then the most macabre aspect of the room - the walls are lined with snooker cues in their cases, some locked into position. Dozens and dozens of them. In a snooker hall, where on Thursday night, just two of the tables were in use. Some have names and numbers inscribed in a style resonant of a bygone era. I am fairly sure quite a few must once have been wielded by players now seeking out record breaks in the greater snooker Valhalla in the sky.
And the bar? Well to judge by the meagre attendance last Thursday, if they sell twenty pints on a weekday evening they are doing well. Which makes you wonder whether this sign really is necessary ...
And I mentioned the tentative bounce back in the club's fortunes. Well, it's not going to be sold off for development - details here - and the club committee, whose orders are of course the last word, has had an infusion of new blood. Whether there's new signage to follow, well, I'll let you know.
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