I talked to the veteran socialist Fenner Brockway (1888-1988) - then Lord Brockway - in an interview room at the House of Lords in February 1981. It was largely a consequence of research into radical and socialist movements in Clerkenwell. The interview wasn't intended for broadcast and was recorded on a dictaphone, which explains the indifferent audio quality. but the content is fascinating, covering his early political activity in London in the years before the First World War.
FENNER BROCKWAY TRANSCRIPT
FB: Let's speak about the SDF [Social Democratic Federation] first. I knew I was a socialist, and I attended an open-air meeting in Regent's Park, where the SDF held meetings on Sunday. And Herbert Burrows made a very persuasive speech, and partly by his persuasion and partly by the persuasion of a very attractive American actress who was a member of the SDF, I agreed to join the local SDF. And we met in an upper room in Prince of Wales Street - where the [Kentish Town} Baths are - Camden. And I was rather dismayed at the first meeting, where a discussion took place whether we should support or oppose Labour Party affiiation to the Socialist International. And there was a very strong view in the branch that Labour Party affiliation should be opposed because it was not sufficiently Marxist. The SDF in those days was very Marxist. I was dismayed by that because I took the view, even at that young age - oh I suppose I was bout 19 or 20 - that we ought to bring in the whole of the working class. And if the Labour Party then wasn't sufficiently socialist, by our association with the working class to encourage them to become socialist. That was my first development. Then there was a strike at - I forget the name - the big drapery store in Camden High Street, and the SDF recruited pickets for it. And I had my first experience when I was about 19 or 20 in the picket line outside that strike which was being conducted by the shop assistants. I then, perhaps for the first time, took a rather contrary view to the attitude of the police, who seemed to us to be very severe on the pickets, insisting all the time that we were on the pavement outside the shop that we should move on, move on. And that was my first experience, really, of a strike, and for that I was very appreciative of the activity of the local branch of the SDF. Then we had a public meeting at the Prince of Wales Baths, addressed by Harry Quelch. His speech was very different from the speech of Herbert Burrows which led me to join the SDF. Herbert Burrows had been humanitarian and persuasive. Harry Quelch was very aggressive, very class war, very negative, and I was repelled by it. Shortly after that I came into touch with the ILP, the Independent Labour Party.
AW: Before you go on, could I ask you about the SDF branch: what sort the active membership was, how big it was? Was it mainly manual workers or was it a mixture? And was it predominantly make, or were there some women members as well?
My memory is that our branch meeting we had about 12. It was in a comparatively small upper room over a shop in Prince of Wales Road. I would say they were mostly men, about three or four women. And it was a mixture of very working class people with - I won't say intellectuals - with artistic types, of whom the American actress was rather typical. i wouldn't say that I saw within it much conflict between the intellectuals and the working class. i did find that later in the ILP.
AW: Where were you living at this time?
At that time I was in digs, four or five of us were in digs. And we felt we were being overcharged. Mornington Crescent, is that right? And we all left together, we all went on strike, and took other digs. And then the new digs, we paid only for our beds, and each of us in turn bought enough for tea and breakfast, and coffee at night. When we went to these new digs I joined the ILP.
AW: Was this in the Finsbury area?
No, this was still in the Camden Town area. It was a house just near South Camden Town station. And each of us took it in turn to buy the provisions in, and if we spent more than five shillings a week each we got into trouble. Which indicated the cost of goods at that time. Do you want me to go on talking about that?
AW: I wonder if you could tell me more abut the situation when you moved to Finsbury, and became involved in the Finsbury ILP? I know for a time you lived with Harvey-Smith in Myddelton Square.
Surely. I had gone to live in a settlement run by the Claremont Mission, Congregational Mission. Its front was on Pentonville Road, and the back of it was on some street, White something, White Lion Street.
AW: That was one of the famous meeting places in the 1880s. It was where one of the secular societies met, and there was a socialist society active there in the '80s and '90s. I wonder if there was any continuity between the people who had been active in that socialist society and the period when you were there. Did you know of any?
No. I'm very interested in this, because evidently the atmosphere had changed. I lived there, I was fairly active there. I was overwhelmed by the poverty of the people. Most of those living there, the back of White Lion Street, were unemployed half the week, casual labourers, no unemployment benefit at all. The only help which they received would be to go into the workhouse where man and wife would be separated, any children taken into charge. We ran a children's Sunday meeting and children came to that Sunday meeting who were hungry. They were hungry every day when they went to school. I got very interested in the conditions of home workers, making cardboard boxes, artificial flowers, and - astonishingly - putting the pricks into toothbrushes. And they were doing this in vermin-walled rooms and I wondered whether the toothbrushes were so hygienic, as they were supposed to do. They worked all the hours of the day and night. There were three women who were doing cardboard box making. One of them died. And even with her coffin in the room the other two women had to go on making their cardboard boxes just to get enough food to exist. And I was appalled by all that poverty. And I joined the local branch of the ILP. I was nominated to stand as a candidate for the Borough Council.
AW: Was this while you were still living in the Claremont settlement, or when you were living at Myddelton Square?
I was nominated while I was still living in Claremont settlement. And when the parson in charge found that I was to be nominated as a socialist candidate he said I could not continue to live there. And that's in contrast with what you said, that there was originally a socialist society And I then went to join Harvey-Smith, who was the secretary and branch chairman, and about half-a-dozen of us youngsters all lived together in Myddelton Square. And socialism just became our religion. We never had any idea of personal careers, of getting-on. It was all service to socialism. The Labour Party had just formed a group in the House [of Commons]. Everyone was talking about socialism. Papers were full of it. We used to go on Sunday afternoons to Whitfield's in Tottenham Court Road. Used to get up late on a Sunday, just go to a little cafe on a road off Camden leading to Regent's Park Road. Little cafe there. And then we went to Whitfield's where for sixpence after the meeting we could eat as much as we liked - that was marvellous. For a time we heard that at the Baptist chapel in Bloomsbury they only wanted fourpence. So we transferred to Bloomsbury. We didn't stay there very long because the meetings and speeches at Sylvester Horne's were so much better. He used to really get the man or woman of the week there, and many of them were newly elected Labour Members of - . Socialism was in the atmosphere of that time as I've not noticed it since. I wish I could notice it since.
AW: How did the Finsbury ILPers get on with the SDF in the Finsbury and Clerkenwell area, and perhaps - I don't know if you ever came across Guy Aldred and the anarchists in that area?
No. I've got no memory at all of any relationship with them.
AW: Were you aware that they existed?
Yes. Whilst I was at Claremont I formed a Parliament, and there were SDF members belonging to our socialist group. Milligan, or some name like that, and he was very able, very brilliant indeed. I was the leader of the socialist group in the parliament. My memory is that they were more associated with Islington than with Finsbury. They used to hold meetings at Highbury Corner every Sunday, and they were active. We co-operated, there was no antagonism - no conscious antagonism.
AW: Were there still meetings then on Clerkenwell Green.? Regular Sunday meetings on the Green, or at Garnault Place, or any of those locations which were once popular speaking places?
I've only memory of one meeting there, I remember by accident being on the outside of the crowd. So they must have held meetings at that time. Fairly good meetings, I mean a crowd of a hundred perhaps who were meeting there. And I'm not sure under what auspices. I should think probably at some kind of joint gathering, some immediate issue. I spoke there, I remember speaking there, and having quite a good crowd. Clerkenwell Green that was, just opposite where there was that Marxist college or museum. These are very distant memories.
AW: Did the Finsbury ILPers have any contact with the radical working men's clubs? I think the Patriotic Cub was still going somewhere in Clerkenwell at that time, and there was the North London Working Men's Club in Pentonville in Rodney Street. Did the ILP have good links or provide regular speakers, or find much sympathy amongst members?
Yes. I don't know how. I can't say what the links were, but we had some links, Because when I was a candidate for the Finsbury Borough Council - I'm not sure that I was legally a candidate, I wasn't 21 on the nomination day. But I went there as a candidate and spoke there. That was in Pentonville Road I think. That it? The Working Men's Club.
AW: What sort of people would be in the Finsbury ILP? men/women, manual workers/artists, intellectuals?
Again - this is very interesting - there were two quite distinct sections. There was a working class section, trade unionists. Two of them had actually been elected on the Finsbury Borough Council. Harry Adams was one. Grassroots, working class trade union representatives. And they used to call themselves the industrial section of our branch. Our group built round ourselves a quite extraordinary number of young - I suppose you'd call middle class people. We produced a paper. We took over a large shop near the Angel, on Goswell Road, converted it into a Hall.. The industrial section painted it and made it very attractive. We had crowded Sunday meetings there. We had a little orchestra. I can't tell you who came and - Bernard Shaw came to speak to us, H.G. Wells came to speak to us, Edward Carpenter came to speak to us, the Reverend R.J. Campbell of the City Temple was our President. He came to argue against socialism at a meeting with R.C.K. Ensor, who was then a member of the National Council of the ILP. And Campbell had the honesty to say at the end of the debate that he had been converted. And Campbell then became the President of our Finsbury ILP. Shaw and Wells, Slesser - who became Judge Slesser - he took our classes in socialism. We were amazingly active.
AW: And who were the prominent figures in the branch at that time? There would be yourself and Alfred Harvey-Smith -
Oh very much Alfred Harvey-Smith; Adams; Clem Bundock, who afterwards became the Secretary of the National Union of Journalists. Forget names. But Alfred Harvey-Smith afterwards went to British Columbia, and became the first socialist member of the legislature in British Columbia. We were very great friends. I married one of his sisters. In a sense we youngsters were different then from youngsters today. Boys and girls living together, but we didn't have sex - there wasn't the sex freedom then. Though we mostly married each other, eventually, That was distinctive of this time.
AW: The ILP branch you describe it was almost exclusively of young people. Was that true generally speaking? Or did you get elder people coming along to meetings or giving support?
My memory isn't really very clear. I should have thought that it was a very cross-section. There may have been some old people in it. We were very active on the unemployed issue. I mean, the first speech I made publicly was to demand benefits for the unemployed. Work or maintenance, that was our slogan at that time.
AW: This would be fighting for the Right to Work Bill, and trying to get the Labour MPs to support that bill?
That'sright. And Keir Hardie came of course.
AW: How popular did you find that campaign? Did you get substantial support from local people?
Oh very. I mean. for example we had a Liberal Indian as our Member of Parliament, who was a Radical. And we were aiming at the next election of, in his place, having a real Labour member. And W.C. Anderson, who was chairman of the ILP for a time, floated with the idea of becoming our candidate. We used to speak at men's meetings in connection with the churches, very popular at that time, And I remember speaking at one, what - Middleman Street? - quite a big meeting. It was before some procession and celebration. The army and navy was going to be there, and my speech was in favour of a procession of craftsmen and working class women workers.
AW: There were obviously some women involved because, from the way you speak, there were some women living in Myddelton Square. But again primarily men in the majority in the Finsbury ILP, as in the SDF?
Possibly so, but I wouldn't say nearly so much so. I mean, we had school teachers; we had Dolly Lansbury - I think she became an actress afterwards, didn't she; we had the Harvey-Smith girls; we had Edith or Ethel Baker. We had a large number of young women, particularly young women.
AW: And what were your relations like with the trade unions, local branches of trade unions?
Not as strong as they are now. Our relationship with them was with, what, the Islington Trades Council. I wish I could remember the other name, Adams and someone else. They had been elected to the Finsbury Council, not very definitely as socialists.
AW: Was this Colman and King?
That's right - Colman, King, Adams. Three.
AW: At that time Clerkenwell was still one of the centres of the jewellery and watchmaking trades -
Very, very much so.
AW: Were those watchmakers and jewellers at all politically active as a group? Or were individuals among them active in the ILP or other groups?
I find it difficult to say because they were not in our branch of the ILP. I think probably they were in some local SDF, because the SDF was stronger in Clerkenwell and Islington. We were stringer in Finsbury, inbetween. But I can only say from memory, very much in my mind the jewellery workers there. Find it difficult to say what the actual incidence were. I'm very well aware of them though.
AW: What other trades would be well represented in that are, in the Finsbury are a that time?
AW: Would there perhaps also be skilled workers, artisans, compositors, or would they mainly be in other parts of the district?
They may have lived there. I don't think they had factories there. Don't think so.
AW: How would you summarise the political debate at that time locally? Was politics one of the major topics, or was there a general apathy which was only broken at rare times, at elections? Could you actually find a ready audience for your ideas without difficulty?
During those few years there was great political interest, in the public. For the first time a Labour group- Victor Grayson winning Colne Valley - his suspension from the House - Keir Hardie's leadership of the Labour group. And there was very great political interest and tremendous discussion of socialism as socialism. More in those few years, a discussion of socialism as socialism, than I've known since. Ever since, Labour politics has been concerned with particular evils of the time - unemployment now you see, there've been two wars. Then it was a discussion of the fundamentals of socialism, of a new society.
AW: But didn't you find it hard to break many working men away from their allegiance to the Liberal Party, which was perhaps strong in an area, an established working class area such as Finsbury?
A little, because our Member of Parliament called himself Labour as well as Liberal, and undoubtedly he was a Radical. And certainly that was difficult. And even the Labour Party when it got into the House, under Ramsay Macdonald's influence, was very Lib-Lab, with arrangements in two-barrel constituencies for a LIberal and a Labour. And therefore at that moment except for Keir Hardie, there was not much conflict between the Labour and the Liberal Party. Keir Hardie saw, yes, he saw that Labour must defeat the Liberals before it would get the opportunity of gaining strength. My first book was called Labour and Liberalism, with an introduction by Hardie, because I was very much his protege.
AW: Did you get the impression that the ILP and other left groups were more successful in Clerkenwell, Finsbury and Islington, that area, than they were in other parts of London? Had you a bigger branch, or a more active branch, than similar districts?
I think quite likely so, because people used to come to us from different parts of London. Because we were more active. So I'd say if we were a centre of activity in north London; in east London, Poplar SDF.
AW: So your branch covered much more than the local Finsbury area? You had people travelling from further afield?
They didn't join our branch.
AW: But they joined in your activities?
Tremendously I mean, Dolly Lansbury is typical, and the boy she married who afterwards became an MP - Thurtle, was it? I don't know. All kinds of people were attracted, mostly to our young group.
AW: Were there any particular peculiarities or anything exceptional about the make-up of the Finsbury ILP, compared to ILPers elsewhere on London? Did you find you had more manual workers, or more women, perhaps, than other branches?
I think we should have more middle class, and more women. Though, as I've indicated, we did have a strong industrial section. We felt ourselves to be two sections, though we were friendly and co-operative. We used to laugh at each other a bit. They were really industrial. I, at a very early age, began speaking in other parts of the country. Britton Ferry in South Wales I think was the first time. They were much more working class, miners. It's a bit later I used to travel to the north of England, after I'd gone to the 'Labour Leader'. But much more working class than our branch was in Finsbury.
AW: How long did you live in Myddelton Square?
Let me try to think. I should have said from 1907 to 1910 or '11. Then I was appointed assistant editor of the 'Labour Leader' which was in Manchester.