A History of Freedom Press

An edited amalgamation of several different accounts, this essay only really skims the surface of Freedom Press’s long and storied history. More about its early period can be found in John Quail’s book The Slow Burning Fuse, via Donald Rooum’s historical recollections, and through the pages of the paper itself, archives of which are held at the Bishopsgate Library, Sparrows’ Nest, Libcom and the British Library. Our own digital archive can be found here

Freedom’s Founding: A Journal of Anarchist Communism

The first Freedom emerged from the British socialist movement in the early 1880s. At that time there were several overlapping organisations with associated periodicals – the Social Democratic Federation with Justice and Today, the Fabian Society with The Practical Socialist and Our Corner, the Socialist League with The Commonweal, and so on. Anarchists were active in all these, but there were no separate anarchist initiatives in the country until the formation of a “Circle of English Anarchists” in May 1885.

This group included both Continental émigrés (Such as Nikola Chaikovski and Saverio Merlino) and native British anarchists. Among the latter the leading member was Charlotte Wilson, who was both well educated and well off, and who was an active writer and speaker advocating anarchism in socialist organisations and publications from 1884.

Freedom Press founder Charlotte Wilson

When Peter Kropotkin, the best-known figure in the international anarchist movement, was released from prison in France in January 1886, Wilson was responsible for inviting him to come to Britain to join them. He settled in England two months later, and the group decided to produce a new anarchist paper after their separation from the English Anarchist Circle and The Anarchist, edited by Henry Seymour.

Wilson wrote an account of anarchism in the fourth Fabian tract, What Socialism Is, which was published in June of that year, and led the anarchist faction at the meeting which committed that society to parliamentary socialism by a two-to-one vote, at Anderton’s Hotel in London in September.

The time had clearly come for a new anarchist initiative, and Freedom began publication as a monthly in October. From the start it was intended not as the organ of a particular group but rather as an independent voice in the wider movement. At first it was described as “a journal of Anarchist Socialism,” but in June 1889 it became a “Journal of Anarchist Communism”; it has always represented the mainstream tradition of anarchism, through giving a voice to differing views.

Although the Freedom Group concentrated on the periodical from 1889, it also produced other publications as Freedom Press — first pamphlets and then booklets and books, mostly works by foreign writers (Kropotkin above all, but also Errico Malatesta, Jean Grave, Gustav Landauer, Max Nettlau, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and many others) but also by British writers (including Herbert Spencer and William Morris). And from the start there were regular discussions and occasional public meetings.

For most of the first decade Freedom was edited, published and largely financed by Charlotte Wilson, although its most important contributor was Kropotkin and it became the main English language anarchist paper in the country, alongside Commonweal. Taken over by Alfred Marsh on Wilson’s retirement in 1895, and amidst a general collapse of the movement in the wake of the Greenwich Observatory bomb attack (see Slow Burning Fuse) it became the only anarchist paper as of 1897.

Benefiting from an intake of resources from other collapsed groups, it acquired its own printing press in 1898 and premises at 127 Ossulston Street, just north of what is now the British Library. The hand-operated press dated from about 1820, and needed three operators; two to load the paper and pull the handle, and one to take the paper off. Around 3,000 copies of each issue were printed, leading the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald to rather optimistically declare in its Friday September 23rd 1898 edition that “the English Anarchists may amount to as many as 5,000.”

The inner courtyard at 127 Ossulston Street in the mid 1920s

By 1910, when Marsh retired due to ill health, the Press was seemingly ticking over well. The group was internationally known for its longevity with 28 years of publishing to its name and Tom Keell, a jovial, hardworking, and devoted soul, was a competent figure running its business affairs.

However editorial support for the paper was lacking, largely in Keell’s view due to a more general malaise in the wider London movement and despite an influx of new people led by Fred Dunn and Lilian Wolfe who produced Voice of Labour through the Press, he was forced to take on Freedom’s editorial duties as well as business ones when Marsh became ill, eventually becoming “acting editor” in 1913 and getting embroiled at the heart of a major movement split over engagement with World War I.

Historian Max Nettlau would later argue it was inevitable, in an era where nationalism was scorched onto the psyches of all, that even among the anarchist movement many would take sides on the Allies vs Central Powers question, and the argument kicked off in earnest in November 1914 following an edition of Freedom in which Kropotkin and others made the case for supporting the Allies.

Keell, though anti-war, carried the articles verbatim along with criticism from many others, but would go on to place himself squarely against the “secular saints” who were advocating getting behind the Allies. He would be exonerated by a gathering of the movement in April 1915, but the damage had been done and the support of many comrades was lost.

After the passing of the Military Service Act in January 1916 both Freedom and Voice of Labour soon ran into trouble, first for an article, “Defying the Act,” which was published front page in the April issue of the Voice. As publishers, on June 24th 1916 Keell and Wolfe were tried under the Defence of the Realm Act. Both were imprisoned for two and three months respectively and Ossulston St was subsequently raided three more times over the next year by police.

After World War I however anarchism seemed eclipsed by the rise of Bolshevism and fascism abroad and parliamentary socialism at home. Despite heroic efforts from Keell in particular Freedom ceased regular publication in December 1927 after the demolition of number 127 as part of a slums clearance programme. All that was left was an irregular Freedom Bulletin, which continued to be published into the 1930s by Keell from his home with Wolfe at the Whiteway Colony. At the same time, a rival Freedom was produced by opponents of Keell, principally John Turner and Oscar Swede, from 1930-1936. This ceased publication in favour of Spain and the World.

Tom Keell and Albert Marsh in the Freedom office


The Second Founding: Anti War Roots and Vernon Richards

When the Spanish Revolution began in 1936, Freedom Press helped to revive the anarchist movement in Britain via a new collective based around 22-year-old Vernon Richards. Richards, known as Vero, was the son of an Italian anarchist in Soho, who had started a newspaper called Spain and the World in support of the Spanish anarchists. After its first issue it became a Freedom Press publication, with Keell as publisher and Wolfe, now aged 60, as administrator. Wolfe often stayed in London with Vero and his companion Marie-Louise Berneri, administering and managing Freedom Bookshop until the age of 95.

When the Spanish Civil War ended the paper changed its name to Revolt! and as World War II started, to War Commentary. Several contributing members were refused registration as conscientious objectors at this time, with Albert Meltzer called up into the Royal Pioneer Corps, Vero and Philip Sansom serving prison sentences and John Olday, a deserter from the Royal Pioneer Corps, sent to military prison.

The group continued publishing anti-war work however and in April 1945 the editorial team of Vero, Sansom, Berneri and John Hewetson were charged with conspiracy to cause disaffection in the demobbing armed forces with an article calling for the formation of soldiers’ councils and for a refusal to fight further. The civil liberties case swiftly became a cause célèbre and famous names including Herbert Read, George Orwell and Benjamin Britten rushed to form a Freedom Press Defence Committee, but all bar Berneri were eventually sentenced to nine months — she was let off on a technicality.

A newspaper report from the time describes the case

As the prosecution was being prepared Freedom Press was also subjected to a takeover attempt, with a late-night vote set up after the editors left a general meeting proposing under “any other business” that they should be replaced by two anarcho-syndicalists. The motion was carried by a majority, however the plot failed. Earlier in 1944, Scotland Yard detectives had called at Freedom’s office and threatened the editors with closure if they didn’t co-operate with inquiries, as it was not registered under the Business Names Act. Vero and Hewetson had therefore registered themselves as proprietors and when they were sacked they simply refused to go.

The plotters were furious. Four men visited Richards and Berneri at their flat, pointed a pistol and refused to leave until Richards gave them a cheque for £25 (about six weeks’ wages) to start a new anarcho-syndicalist paper. The four and two others, six in all, later smashed the printing forme, then met Richards in Angel Alley and beat him up.

The publishers of Direct Action called themselves the Anarchist Federation of Britain while Freedom formed up with the Union of Anarchist Groups, a split which led to years of acrimony. As a result, Freedom pushed down a path largely directed by Vero, tending towards strongly anti-militarist politics which were particularly welcoming to individualist and intellectually-minded streams of anarchism. Vero was able to draw on well-known names for articles and alongside works by Read, writers such as Colin Ward, George Woodcock, Murray Bookchin and Nicolas Walter were brought through — Ward in particular became a longstanding Freedom contributor throughout his life. Artists such as Olday, Rufus Segar, Donald Rooum and Clifford Harper contributed heavily to Freedom‘s output over the course of many years.

Artwork by Clifford Harper

In 1961, while the then weekly paper continued, Freedom Press also launched a monthly magazine, Anarchy and in 1968 Vero borrowed the money, in his own name, to buy the freehold of 84b Whitechapel High Street, an empty building on the other side of Angel Alley. The publisher became “Vernon Richards trading as Freedom Press” and, bar a period of semi-retirement in the 1960s, Vero would remain the major decision-maker at the Press through to the late 1990s.

Meltzer, now running his own outfit under the name Wooden Shoe Press, wrote suggesting he should hire a room in the newly-owned building, contributing to the mortgage repayments. Learning that Wooden Shoe had defaulted on three years of rent at their previous offices however Vero wrote a woffly letter, turning down Albert’s offer without mentioning the real reason, sparking a feud which lasted until both Meltzer and Vero were dead, though co-operation did not entirely cease.

In 1982 Vero transferred ownership of the Freedom building to the dormant company Friends of Freedom Press Limited, who continue to hold the building in trust for the movement today. The 1980s also saw publication of quarterly journal The Raven, featuring works both unique and reprinted from across the anarchist movement.

Angel Alley and Freedom Press in the 1980s

The bookshop was repeatedly attacked in the 1990s by fascists, including Combat 18, during street conflicts between fascist and anti-fascist groups in the East End and eventually firebombed in March 1993. The building still bears some visible damage from the attacks, and metal guards have been installed on the ground floor windows and doors, intended to ward against any further violence. In the late ’90s Vero retired from activity, and running the bookshop and paper fell to two comrades hired by Vero, leading to a period of slow going which persisted after his death in 2001, though important writers continued to engage within the newspaper’s pages, including Ward and author China Meiville.

Freedom and the New Millennium

In 2001, a major upheaval occurred following the entry of a new volunteer, Toby Crow. A large, energetic young man who had recently jumped ship from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Crow joined a group consisting of two paid members, barely enough volunteers to function and a rapidly draining bank account, and immediately set about making major changes leading to the resignation of both the editor and the bookshop manager. Hailing from a class-struggle oriented background, Crow intended to invite in the movement’s anarchist-communist and anarcho-syndicalist currents, upsetting supporters who well remembered the bitter arguments of the past.

Donald Rooum however, whose association with Freedom was perhaps the longest of any bar Lilian Wolfe’s, lasting from the late 1940s through to 2017, backed Crow’s view that the Press, which had accrued a reputation for sectarianism, needed to reach out beyond its established base and embrace co-operation with other anarchist groups.

Crow’s tenure however only lasted three years, and he subsequently left to become a Church of England priest. During and after his departure a succession of new editors, all in their early 20s, were brought on board, including members of what would become the libcom library collective. But a relative lack of handover and a falling off of Freedom’s older support base heavily affected its output — between 2003 and 2008 even the paper’s editor didn’t live in London — and sales, which had by this point declined to a few hundred, would remain stubbornly low.

The building was kept open during this period largely through a series of bequests in the wills of supporters, but amid a mid-2000s decline in the movement, rising business rates, ongoing wage costs not matched by income and a series of large-scale print runs which failed to sell this money slowly drained despite bringing in groups such as the Advisory Service for Squatters to help share costs until, ironically, the advent of another fascist attack forced a reappraisal of the Press and its modern function.

The incident, which saw a break-in and attempted arson on February 1st 2013, caused significant damage. Donations allowed the Press to survive, but a review of the paper found that the losses being incurred and the efforts being spent speaking to an audience in the low hundreds were damaging the Press’s ability to function, forcing its closure as a monthly publication in 2014 — though free versions of the paper and its regularly updated news site continue to be produced.

The book publishing strategy was also revamped, and Freedom currently specialises in shorter, more flexible runs of titles both classic and new. A re-evaluation of the Freedom building’s use meanwhile has led to six other groups sharing the space, with the bookshop itself remaining, 50 years after its original purchase, a first port of call in London for anarchists and the anarcho-curious from all over the world.