Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Louise Michel: a Paris Communard in South London

The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam is probably the most significant archive of radical movements in Europe. Recently it has made accessible large parts of its archives in digital form, including the papers of Louise Michel.  This has enabled me to solve something that has been bugging me for a long time - where did she live in South London? As I wrote here before:

'Louise Michel (1830-1905) was a celebrated figure in 19th century French politics, an anarchist who fought at the barricades in the Paris Commune of 1871 and was subsequently exiled to New Caledonia. Returning to France in 1880 she was frequently in conflict with the authorities, and decided to flee France for London in July 1890, shortly after being arrested following May Day riots'.

 According to Edith Thomas's biography, Louise Michel lived at one point at '79 Arspley Terrace' in East Dulwich, an address I have never been able to find, but I now think may have been an error.

Louise Michel
I believe that Louise Michel's first visit to London was in 1880. After being released from New Caledonia, a French colony in the Pacific, she and other amnestied Communards were taken to Sydney, Australia, from where they travelled on the mail ship 'John Helder' to London. As the ship waited in the fog in the Thames Estuary to be guided to port, French exiles in London made their way to greet it in small boats, singing Communard songs to their comrades (Butterworth, 2011, p.62). On this occasion, Michel only stayed for a couple of days before returning to Paris, but she mentions that with her friends she smuggled five cats from Nouméa (capital of New Caledonia) 'down the gangplank in London' and that 'Once in London, in front of a fire, with an enormous bowl of milk my friends brought them, they began to stretch out, yawning' (Michel was a big animal lover).

In 1883 she returned to London on a speaking tour, where among other things she visited a workhouse in Lambeth. Her account in her memoirs shows that she had become quite a Londonphile: 'London! I love London, where my exiled friends have always been welcomed, London, where old England, standing in the shadow of the gallows, is still more liberal than the French bourgeois republicans are'. All this despite the weather - 'the black London winter on which a cloud of fog floated. Raindrops condensed in an unceasing mist and now and again came in broad sheets... a frozen evening in the large, cold meeting hall in front of a cold and correct audience drawn from the grand neighbourhood of immense palaces under which the wretches have holes like animals. But despite that, I felt an impression of human honesty persisting regardless of the accursed chains that people interminably fasten on each other' (Michel, p.148)

She did flee to London in 1890 and apparently stayed here until she returned to Paris in 1895, but she continued to spend time living in London on and off until her death in 1905. She definitely lived for some of the earlier period at 59 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square - an area where many radical refugees hung out. The earliest reference I have to a definite address n East Dulwich is from August 1894, when Louise Michel sent a letter to the artist Lucien Pissarro (son of Camille) from '15 Ardley Terrace, East Dulwich' (this letter is in Ashmolean Museum collection).

The IISH archive includes a letter written in 1897 or 1898 in Michel's own hand with this address: 15 Ardley Terrace, Placquet Road, East Dulwich:

There is also the envelope of a letter written to her here in July 1898. People do make mistakes when writing addresses which causes problems for later historians! This one does read more like Ardsley, and I wonder the 'Arpsley Terrace' false trail might have arisen from copying such a mistake. 

Placquett Road no longer exists, but the 1893-96 Ordnance Survey Map shows that Placquett Road was the East Dulwich end of what is now Copleston Road, which at that point hadn't been extended to join up with Copleston and hence renamed. Note that what is now Oglander Road was then Wildash Road. It seems that the houses on Plaquett Road were demolished and replaced with new housing in 1900s, so the building that Michel lived in is no longer there.

Thomas mentions that Michel was visited in East Dulwich by a number of French journalists and by fellow Communard Charles Malato, who found the then 62 year old Michel surrounded by cats, dogs and a parrot that cried 'Long live anarchy!'. Michel was 62 in 1892, so that would suggest she was living in East Dulwich by then, and perhaps at the Ardley Terrace address. She may also have been at that address when in December 1893 a United Press representative interviewed 'the notorious woman Anarchist, who occupies a little house at East Dulwich, a suburb of London' (New York Times, 19 December 1893):

'A union of the strong against the weak has existed since Governments existed. The masses can unite equally against a common enemy. They may rise like the springtide of the ocean, and overflow the world' (Louise Michel, interviewed in East Dulwich, 1893)

Houses at East Dulwich end of Copleston Road, originally Placquett Road

Thomas gives another East Dulwich address in her book, stating that when Michel returned to London in December 1899 'She was still living in East Dulwich at this point, though no longer at 25 Chesterfield Grove' - so she must have lived at the latter, still standing and in fact recently sold:

25 Chesterfield Grove, East Dulwich.
Thomas also states that Michel moved again in March 1900 to 'to join Charlotte's father at 8 Albion Villas Road, Sydenham'. Charlotte Vauvelle was Michel's long term nurse and companion, and her father was Auguste Vauvelle. The 1901 Census for 8 Albion Villas lists Auguste, Charlotte and her brother Achille, with Louise Michel as 'boarder' described as 'authoress. Achille Vauvelle is listed as a 'Chromo artist' (i.e. chromo-lithographic printer) - he later worked with Waddingtons.

The house in Albion Villas is still standing:
8 Albion Villas today

Finally the archive has some letters sent to Louise Michel at another address in December 1903, 53 Dahomey Street, Mitcham Lane.

This is now Dahomey Road, Streatham SW16. Must admit I haven't been there, but from Google streetview, I think this is the house:
53 Dahomey Road SW16
Louise Michel died in Marseille in 1905, this picture shows her in bed in Toulon in the previous year, with Charlotte Vauvelle at her side:

Here's a flyer form October 1896 for a meeting of 'London Anarchist Communists' to 'bid farewell to Louise Michel and Pietro Gori on their departure to America on a lecturing tour' (Gori was an Italian anarchist poet). The meeting at the Club & Institute Union Hall in Holborn also featured the prominent anarchists Errico Malatesta and Sebastian Faure, as well as Tom Mann (later of Brockley), one of the leaders of the 1889 dock strike in London.

Speaking to some friends at the Radical Bookfair at the Bishopsgate Institute last weekend, we came up with the idea of doing something over the summer to mark Louise Michel's time in the area, possibly linked to some kind of Sydenham/Forest Hill radical history walk finishing with a picnic and some Communard songs. Let us know in comments or by email if you're interested.

Update September 2015:

In August 1897, Louise Michel spoke at a public meeting in Southwark Park in support of anarchist prisoners in Spain (Reynolds's Newspaper, Sunday 08 August 1897):


Butterworth, A. (2011), The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, London: Random House,p.62.

Michel, L. (1981), The Red Virgin: memoirs of Louise Michel, Alabama: University of Alabama Press.

Thomas, E. (1980), Louise Michel, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980.

[updated July 2020 - earlier version wondered whether current houses in Copleston Road included Louise Michel's former Placquett Road house, but comment pointed out that street seems to have been rebuilt since she lived there]


runner500 said...

A fascinating piece and some great detective work

Anonymous said...

A fantastic post, and I'm fully supportive of the event mentioned at the end. Who should I email with my details?

Here's a much much less researched thing I once wrote about Louise Michel in London,

Tim Lund said...

Thanks for that. Attributed in this Sydenham Town Forum post

Vive la Révolution, Albion Villas Road!

Anonymous said...

Another great post on LM....She was greatly influential in the life of 'Children's Champion Margaret McMillan who taught at a school run by LM & was a friend of Cuban/Spanish Anarchist Fernando Terrida Del Marmol both of whom are buried in Brockley & Ladywell Cemetery....

Paul Mason talks to Matthew Parris! on his admiration for her life and political struggle..


Mike Guilfoyle
Vice-Chair Foblc

Ian Bone said...

top piece of research - look forward to the summer event. Speakers line-up in the flyer don't look half bad does it.


Any idea which workhouse in Lambeth she visited?

Brian said...

I think the workhouse reference comes from Michel's memoires, where she refers to the workhouse merely as "Lambeth". "Une chose me frappa en Angleterre, [...] c'est le soin avec lequel dans quelques work houses, Lambeth par exemple, ..." (One thing struck me in England ... is the care with which in some workhouses, Lambeth for example, ...)

Anonymous said...

The local choir, The Strawberry Thieves, sing a song attributed to Louise Michele, "Danse des Bombes"
which is much enjoyed.

Nick Heath said...

I would be willing to help and both provide Communard songs and one about Louise by the French anarchist singer Serge Utge -Royo as well as speak on her life if necessary

. said...

Thanks Nick, will be in touch. Nick Heath and Ian Bone in the line up - almost up there with Malastesta and Sebastian Faure on that 1896 flyer

. said...

Yes Brian/Ruinist, that was my source and it doesn't say anymore than it was in Lambeth.

Anonymous said...

There is a Historical google map you could try.

Nick Heath said...

Any news on this?

DC said...

Very interesting.
This was brought to my attention as I live opposite the property in Chesterfield Grove.
With regards to the house on Copleston Road, I think the ones at that end of the road have the "All's Well" motto of the old Camberwell Borough which itself, I believe, dates from 1900?
Anyway, the link below would suggest that the properties in what was the Placquett Road might have been demolished and rebuilt in their current form circa 1903 - so after Louise Michel would have lived there?
Best wishes, DC

raeblodmas said...

Hi there!

This is great – thanks so much for taking the time!

I wanted to ask if you might know the place to which Emma Goldman is referring to here in this (rather strange!) letter to Magnus Hirschfeld in 1923: "The little cottage she [LM] lived in in London was a perfect menagerie of stray cats and dogs that she picked up at night on her way home". [link:]

Seems like she's referring to 1899/1900.

I wondered if you knew anything of LM's relationship to animals and if there's anything on this particularly relating to her life in London also?

Thanks !