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Pioneers of British anarchism: Alfred Marsh

Pioneers of British anarchism: Alfred Marsh

From 1895-1913 Alfred Marsh was editor of Freedom when it was the only anarchist paper to survive the collapse of the movement in Britain at the turn of the century — and without his grit and fortitude there is no doubt that it too would have been shut down along with the likes of the Commonweal. Below, we reproduce the November 1914 obituaries which appeared in Freedom to mark his passing, just weeks after the opening shots of World War I.

In some ways Marsh was fortunate to avoid the sad outcome of that conflict, as his idol Kropotkin clashed with his friend Tom Keell over the question of how anarchists should respond to the war, causing a catastrophic split that fatally wounded that iteration of the paper which he had dedicated so much of his life to. All of these obituaries, as well as the topics being discussed around them, can be found in the Freedom Digital Archive.

We deeply regret to state that our comrade Alfred Marsh, the editor of Freedom, died of cancer on October 13th, in his 56th year. His health of recent years had been rather indifferent, but few suspected cancer as the cause. Two weeks before his death an operation was performed, which gave a slight relief; but the disease had got too firm a hold, and the end came very peacefully. He was cremated at Golders Green on October 16th, the ashes being interred at Hastings Cemetery the following day.

For more than 20 years Alfred Marsh had been closely connected with Freedom, and its existence today is almost solely due to his courage and his faith in anarchism. His pen and his purse were always at its service, and on several occasions his last half-sovereign ensured the publication of the paper, especially during the Jingo reaction of 1899-1902 (this refers to the aggressive patriotism stirred by the Boer War ~ed), when the movement was at its lowest ebb. As a writer, he was simple and clear, avoiding bombast and verbiage, his “ Notes ” on the front page being models of conciseness. To him, the social revolution meant a revolution in ideas and a clean sweep of the mass of superstition — economic, religious, and sexual — which at present clogs the minds of the people. He believed strongly in the efficacy of cheap literature, and when the opportunity presented itself he always replenished the stock of pamphlets at Freedom’s office.

As a comrade and friend, Marsh was true to the core, and during my 12 years’ association with him on Freedom the work was made much lighter by his sympathy and consideration. Although of recent years he had wished to resign his editorship on account of failing health, he continued to write as usual; and his lifelong work for anarchism should inspire others to follow his example. By his death, the anarchist movement loses a whole-hearted supporter, and his comrades a lovable and devoted friend.

Tom Keell

In Alfred Marsh we have lost a comrade with whom we have been working in full sympathy for more than 25 years. Neither physical fatigue nor a hard struggle for life could keep him aloof from the fight for our ideas of freedom and happiness for all. We feel his loss the more as it comes at a moment when an immense effort has to be made to save from a general wreck the principles of civilisation, brotherhood, and progress which are trampled under in the present war.

Alfred Mursh’s clear comprehension of the great problems which stand now before mankind, combined with absolute sincerity and an extreme modesty, made all of us love him not only as a comrade but also as a man with a great heart, aud it is always to the heart that all of us owe our best ideals and the strongest inspirations which make us fight for them. Having begun to respect in Marsh a comrade, deeply enamoured with our cause and never tired of making all the effort necessary to support it, I came during these long yoara to love him more and more, so that for the last few years we began to look upon each other as more than comrades, more than mere friends. I loved him as a brother.

We lose him at a time when he had reached his full development, and when, looking deeper and deeper into the great problems of the day, he grew every year more and more convinced of the beauty and the justice of our ideals.

The work he has done will live, and the collection of Freedom will show to the younger generation what a man can do when he remains true to his principles all his life, and combines with intellectual capacities the feeling of intimate comradeship with all the many contributors to the paper, without ever trying to dominate them and to submit others to his own personal ideas.

Peter Kropotkin

Ono of the truest and staunchest of comrades is dead. Alfred Marsh, for nearly 30 years a never-ceasing worker in the anarchist ranks, has gone to his final rest. Though unknown outside a comparatively small circle, or even to a large proportion of the small but wide-spread movement, few, if any, among English anarchists have worked as hard for the cause, or been as devoted to its principles as he.

That he should have become an anarchist is not surprising. His father was one of the old school of radicals and freethinkers, now all too rare, and a close personal friend of George Jacob Holyoake. It was, after all, only the application of the principles of “ Freethought ’ to social and political affairs, as well as to religious questions, which made him an anarchist. That the father should rebuke the son for daring to go further along the road he had himself travelled, was only to fulfill the usual function performed by most fathers in the past.

The first time I met Marsh was at the old Phoenix Social Democratic Club in Hatton Wall, Hatton Garden. If I remember rightly, it would be about 1886. At that time I was an enthusiastic young’ member of the Socialist League; he was still a member of the Social Democratic Federation. Kropotkin had recently arrived from France, and Freedom had just been started. The articles, at that time written by Mrs Charlotte Wilson, sharp, simple, straight, with their direct appeal to the workers, stirred the minds of many socialists. They swept on one side all the democratic electioneering dodges put forward as the way to realise socialism, and laid bare the inherent infamy and tyranny of the modern political State.

Many were the warm discussions that took place in the hall of the club, particularly after the Sunday evening lectures. Marsh, I think, soon became identified with the Freedom Group. Anyway, it was at the Phoenix Club we first knew each other, and founded a friendship which lasted till his death. Of all the comrades I have ever known, he was one of the most modest. He never spoke of what he did. Yet how much the movement is indebted to him!

What Freedom owes to Marsh during the last 15 years will never be fully known. As I have said, he would never talk about what he did. Neither would he speak in public if he could possibly avoid it. He shrank from publicity, just as some natures seek it. In the same way will never be known the many acts of personal kindness he has done, especially to comrades in distress. Only the memory of them will linger in the hearts of the recipients. If his was a shrinking, it was also a loving, disposition, with a vehement dislike of all forms of tyranny and oppression.

He was just as modest about his musical talents as everything else. It was a pity he had not more confidence, for many with less ability secured popular favour and financial success where he remained obscure. Those who have been fortunate enough to enjoy his playing as a violinist will realise this. Had he enjoyed good health, and lived a few years longer, probably some more of his musical compositions would have been successfully published.

There is little doubt that he hid his physical sufferings even from his friends, as far as possible. Few even of those who knew him best imagined that cancer was eating his life away. But, well or ill, Marsh was always keen where the movement was concerned. It was a part of his life, the largest and most important to him.

As I waited with a few friends at Golder’s Green, previous to the cremation, my mind ran back over the last 30 years, and the part that Alfred Marsh had played in the struggle for human freedom during that period. Only a few who knew him and loved him were there. It was just as he would have wished. No-one spoke. It was unnecessary. We all knew equally well the good work he had done, the generous part he had played. Besides, speaking for myself, I was too overcome with emotion to be able to say what I felt. If to speak of the soul of a man means the sum total of those varying qualities which sway his life’s conduct and mould his character, then the soul of our dead comrade was one of the finest and truest I ever met. All who knew him are indeed the poorer as a result of his death, and the anarchist movement of this country has lost one of its staunchest workers and adherents.

John Turner

More on this period of Freedom’s history and Alfred Marsh’s part in it can be found here, and in our history book charting the full 133-year history of Freedom Press, A Beautiful Idea.

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