Sunday, September 22, 2013

Commonweal: late 19th century socialism in South London

The Socialist League was a significant force in radical politics in the late 19th century (it existed from 1885 to 1901), most famously associated with William Morris. Its newspaper Commonweal is now largely online and is a fascinating source for London politics in that period, with its listings of meetings and branches.

For instance in 1889 there was a Walworth and Camberwell branch committee 'meeting every Monday, at 7.30 p.m., at 3 Datchelor Place, Church Street, Camberwell Green'. At this time there doesn't seem to have been a fully established branch in Deptford - 'Persons wishing to join branch now forming are requested to communicate with G.W. Leach, 72 Gosterwood Street, Deptford' (10 November 1888). B
ut socialism was on the agenda at the Deptford Liberal Club on Deptford Broadway. In September 1889, George Bernard Shaw spoke there on "Radicalism and Social Democracy" followed on 6th October that year by future Labour Prime Minister J.Ramsay Macdonald on "Socialist Programme for London." The social question was also being discussed at the West Deptford Reform Club (31 Reculver Road), where in December 1888 the Rev. Stewart Headlam was speaking on "The Unemployed" (Headlam was a Christian Socialist pioneer who later stood bail for Oscar Wilde). Other meetings listed took place at the Hatcham Liberal Club (then at 98 New Cross Road), the South Peckham Liberal Club (19 Linden Grove) and the Star Radical Club (8 Mayall Road, Herne Hill).

On 7 January 1888, the paper reported this sad story of destitution in Deptford:

'Thos. Ansell, of Deptford, 88 years old, and his wife, who was 77, were very obstinate people who would not go to " the palatial dwelling miscalled a workhouse," because of the inhuman treatment they knew awaited them. Rather than be put asunder after 56 years of love and mutual aid by the red-tape of Bumbledom, they kept on battling against increasing infirmity until they could do no more. Then " the parish" gave them "outdoor relief."

The two poor old people were accorded the princely sum of 3s. 6d. per week, out of which they had to pay 2s. rent and "live" on the  balance. Ansell is dead of hunger and cold, and his brave old wife  is undergoing at last the torture she avoided so long - the slow death  of the workhouse. Such things add a bitter point to Cardinal Manning's attack on the present method of " relief." 

Day after day, as we have been reading on the one hand of great feasting by the fortunate, and also of their loudly-vaunted "charity" to their more hapless fellows, so on the other hand have come reports  of deaths from hunger, and horrors unspeakable, the fruit of poverty and degradation. At no time is the baleful effect of the present system shown so clearly as at periods like that just past, which custom  has decreed a festival-tide. But the time passes by, and the lesson is  unlearnt, or if learnt is unapplied. How long will it go on ?'

Where to get Commonweal - a list of South London stockists (December 21 1889)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where can I find copies of Commonweal published between 1898-1901?