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
(1886-1927)

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, publishing The Anarchist edited by Henry Seymour.

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

Freedom Press founder Charlotte Wilson

Wilson had first become interested in anarchism during the 1883 Lyons anarchist trial of 60 IWMA members which included, among others, the globally famed political philosopher and direct actionist Peter Kropotkin and when the Russian 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 would go on to declare himself overjoyed at the decision to settle, writing in Memoirs of a Revolutionist:

In 1886 the socialist movement in London was in full swing. Large bodies of workers had openly joined in all the principal towns, as well as a number of middle class people, chiefly young, who helped it in different ways … I was asked to lecture over the country, partly on prisons, but mainly on anarchist socialism and I visited in this way nearly every large town of England and Scotland.

Whether it was in the worker’s small parlour, or in the reception rooms of the wealthy, the most animated discussions went on about socialism and anarchism till a late hour of the night — with hope in the workingman’s home, with apprehension in the mansion, but everywhere with the same earnestness.

Wilson was heavily involved in this debate as a leading member of the Fabian Society, writing an account of anarchism’s theories in the fourth Fabian tract, What Socialism Is, which was published in June of that year, and in September she led led the anarchist faction against Annie Besant at the meeting which formally committed Fabianism to parliamentary socialism by a two-to-one vote, at Anderton’s Hotel in London.

Historian John Quail notes that Kropotkin’s move was to “found” a new anarchist-communist paper, suggesting that he and Wilson had decided to ditch Seymour’s English Anarchist Circle and The Anarchist early on, a plan which was duly achieved when Freedom began publication as a monthly in October, using the premises of the Freethought Publishing Company with the permission of Besant and printed at the Socialist League offices with the blessing of William Morris. Despite strong early links to the Socialist League however Freedom was projected 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” and quickly supplanted Seymour’s more mutualist effort.

Although the new Freedom Group concentrated on the periodical from 1889, it also produced other publications as Freedom Press — first pamphlets and then booklets and books. Mostly these were 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 British writers also featured such as 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 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, incorporating the Commonweal assets and formed almost the only anarchist-communist grouping in London.

Benefiting from an intake of resources from other collapsed groups, it acquired its own printing press and premises at 127 Ossulston Street, just north of what is now the British Library. The bulk of the money to do so was put up by Nettlau, with the rest coming from his friend Bernhard Kampffmeyer, an upper-class socialist sympathiser with roots in the garden city movement. 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”.

In April 1896 Thomas Cantwell, who had been brought on by Marsh the year before, installed the Freedom type and took over as editor serving until 1898, and again from 1900-1902 when he suffered a heart attack. His short tenure was marked by quarrels, with Marsh himself writing in 1897 to Nettlau that “you cannot imagine what a time I had. 2 ½ years with Cantwell is enough to kill anyone.”

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

The Press in 1898 was described by collective member Harry Kelly as follows:

Notwithstanding that Freedom advocates the most modem of social theories, there is an old world atmosphere about the office and an artistic charm to the people who conduct the paper. A small two-storey building situated in a back yard, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of London, houses it … The building had two rooms, one upstairs for the composing room, and one downstairs, the press room. The old press was of what we call here the ‘Oscillator’ type, and its vintage at that time was some 75 or 80 years. Here each month gathered Marsh, the musician; Turner, the trade union organiser; Tcherkesoff, the literary man; Nettlau, the philologist; Tchaikovsky, Miss Davies, Mary Krimont, and myself … (Cantwell and I were the only simon-pure workingmen in the group).

The press had neither power nor automatic sheet delivery, so it required three of us to operate it. Two or three of the men alternated in turning the crank, I fed the press, and Miss Davies, wearing always black gloves, hat and veil, took the sheets off as they were printed … With her face with its fresh color and her grey hair she looked the picture of an old master … We often regaled ourselves with kippers and tea after getting off a forme of four pages, and the others had at least two hours’ rest while the writer made the second forme ready … Sometimes when the men grew tired or short of wind, a navvy was stopped in the street and hired to turn the crank, and we soothed our consciences by paying him ninepence an hour instead of the dockers’ ‘tanner’ (sixpence).

After Cantwell’s heart attack the job of running the paper fell to Tom Keell, a jovial, hardworking and devoted soul and 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 Keell 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 from 1914, he was forced to take on Freedom’s editorial duties as well as business ones when Marsh became ill, 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. The press was raided on May 5th with a “van load of material” being taken away to Scotland Yard. As publishers, on June 24th 1916 Keell and Wolfe were tried under the Defence of the Realm Act, and the by now ancient printer was broken up by the officers. Both were imprisoned for two and three months respectively and Ossulston St was subsequently raided three more times over the next year by police.

The group so far responsible for the publication soon dissolved, the men hiding or going to the United States, and supporters Mabel Hope and Elisabeth Archer also soon going the same way. From 1918 it was mainly Keell alone who did all the work, occasionally helped by Percy Meachem on the practical side, and then more and more by William Charles Owen, who eventually came to live with Tom and Lilian (and their son Tom junior) in their house in Willesden.

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, 15 issues being produced in all.  At the same time, a rival Freedom was produced by opponents of Keell, principally George Cores, former railwayman J R Humphreys, Len Harvey, John Turner and Oscar Swede from 1930. This eventually merged with Glasgow paper Solidarity and ceased publication altogether in 1936 out of solidarity with Spain and the World (see below).

The situation was so dire that, writing in 1938, former Freedom collaborator Emma Goldman would remark in a letter to Helmut Rudiger that “the London Freedom group has been sleeping and quarreling for years”

Tom Keell and Alfred Marsh in the Freedom office

The Second Founding: Anti War Roots and Vernon Richards
(1936-1999)

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 Vero Recchioni (anglicised to Vernon Richards). Vero was the son of an Italian anarchist in Soho, who had started a newspaper in November of that year called Spain and the World in support of the anarchists fighting General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. After its first issue it became a Freedom Press publication, with Keell as publisher until his death in 1938 and Lillian Wolfe, now aged 60, as administrator. Wolfe, who commuted first from Whiteway and later from Cheltenham to work at the Press, often stayed in London with Vero and his companion Marie-Louise Berneri, administering and managing Freedom’s affairs until the age of 95 — she had by then spent 54 years with the Press.

Alongside her many of the old guard of Freedom resumed writing for the new international publication, such as Max Nettlau, leading Austrian figure Pierre Ramus (anonymously) and Emma Goldman. Through Berneri and her father Camillo, an active militant on the Iberian peninsula, Spain and The World remained largely on the pulse of what was happening in the war and was heavily critical of compromises being made by the anarchist CNT-FAI, placing Freedom in conflict with the union’s London bureau.

When the Spanish Civil War ended the paper changed its name to Revolt! and as World War II started, to the fortnightly 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 paper was initially published from a derelict backroom in Newbury Steet, since demolished, and put together in Vero’s flat, before the first Freedom Bookshop was opened in Red Lion Passage in 1940 — only to be destroyed in an air raid in May 1941. Sadly this raid also destroyed the entire remaining back catalogue of Freedom Press pamphlets that had been saved by Tom Keell — if they’d stayed with him at Whiteway they would have survived. The Press moved to Belsize Road and subsequently to Red Lion Street in 1945, where it would stay until 1960.

Nevertheless, the group, also at this time including Hewetson’s partner Peta Edsall and Fay Robertson (known as Fay Stewart at the time), continued publishing anti-war work as part of the newly-formed Anarchist Federation, with its first new book being Tom Brown’s Trade Unionism or SyndicalismWar Commentary made significant headway in the armed forces, alongside a privately-circulated bulletin, Workers in Uniform.

However as the war wound to a close the government began to crack down, opening with a series of house raids and arrests of supporters. One story told by Albert Meltzer in his book Anarchists in London 1935-55 recounts:

The police broke into the home of Fay Stewart. Her dog, Mickey, either not understanding the legal niceties of a magistrate’s warrant as regards unwelcome intruders, or determined to live up to the legacy of Michael Bakunin (for whom he was named), bit a police sergeant in the ankle. Many bones came his way from grateful but more inhibited humans.

Stewart was active in our movement throughout the war; she was tragically killed in a lorry accident at the early age of 30 while cycling to her work as an industrial nurse, in the last days of the blackout. Thanks to her vigilance, the addresses of our soldier contacts were saved from the police when John Olday was arrested. She resorted to the trusted English expedient of making them a cup of tea, taking care to light the fire with her files.

Others, such as Tom Earley and Cecil Stone, were arrested and charged with obstruction for selling copies of Freedom in Hyde Park.

This campaign of intimidation came to a head in April 1945, when the editorial team of Vero, Sansom, Berneri and another leading light, doctor 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 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, being deemed incapable of conspiring to commit a crime with her husband. Tragically, Berneri would die from complications following stillbirth, aged 31, in 1949.

A newspaper report from the time describes the case

At around the same time, Freedom Press was also subjected to a takeover attempt from within the Anarchist Federation, 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 publisher became “Vernon Richards trading as Freedom Press”.

The plotters were furious. The feeling among the anarcho-syndicalists was that they had been victims of a shameless coup by the pacifists and intellectuals who were out to sideline the class-struggle oriented anarchists and shift Freedom Press towards a more literary, artistic and academic focus. Four men, reportedly including engineering shop steward and leading syndicalist militant Tom Brown, Cliff Holden and Ken Hawks, 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, Direct Action. The four and two others, six in all, later smashed the printing forme, then met Richards in Angel Alley and beat him up.

The scrap killed off the AF, with the publishers of Direct Action going on to name themselves first the Anarchist Federation of Britain and then the Syndicalist Workers Federation (predecessor of the Solidarity Federation) while Freedom Press formed up with the London Anarchist Group and other comrades in Glasgow and Bristol to form the Union of Anarchist Groups, a split which led to years of acrimony.  

Bar a period of semi-retirement in the 1960s, Vero would remain the major decision-maker at the Press through to the late 1990s and as a result, having shed the War Commentary name, Freedom pushed down a path largely directed by him, with strongly anti-militarist politics which were particularly welcoming to individualist and intellectually-minded streams of anarchism. Catering to an audience that generally hovered around the 2,000 mark, 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 also contributed heavily to Freedom‘s output over the course of many years.

Artwork by Clifford Harper

Beyond its publishing ventures the the collective was active in sending speakers to Hyde Park, played an important role in supporting and publicising the Malatesta Club, where much of the organising of that side of the 1950s London movement took place, and ran a number of summer schools from 1947 onwards, comprising a gathering held in different cities followed by a camping holiday. Its membership largely overlapped with that of the London Anarchist Group, which can be seen in both its coverage of the 1961 Anarchist Ball and through LAG’s contribution to the formation of the League Against Capital Punishment, which went on to become the National Campaign For The Abolition of Capital Punishment.

In 1960 Freedom moved to Fulham, shifted to weekly publication and launched a more reflective monthly magazine Anarchy, which like Freedom would hover around the 2-3,000 sales mark as a more reflective effort edited by Colin Ward. Through its de facto industrial reporter Philip Sansom it also supported production of The Syndicalist for around a year before closing it cost grounds. Writing in History Workshop, former Freedom member David Goodway notes:

As editor of Anarchy Ward had some success in putting anarchist ideas ‘back into the intellectual bloodstream’, largely because of propitious political and social changes. The rise of the New Left and the nuclear disarmament movement in the late ’50s, culminating in the student radicalism and general libertarianism of the ’60s, meant that a new audience receptive to anarchist attitudes came into existence.

In 1963 Donald Rooum became yet another member of the Freedom collective to run into State repression over his anti-war activism. The cartoonist was approached by Met officer Harold Challenor while protesting against against Queen Frederika of Greece outside Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair, London. The former SAS man told Rooum “You’re fucking nicked, my beauty. Boo the Queen, would you?” and hit him on the head before planting a half-brick on the avowed pacifist.

Rooum successfully beat the rap by sending his clothes for forensic testing, showing no brick dust, and three officers were sent to jail for conspiring to pervert the course of justice — Challenor himself went to an asylum, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A whitewash inquiry was set up into the case, and for some time “doing a Challenor” became police slang for avoiding justice by claiming illness.

The ’60s boom and buying 84b

From the early ’60s the anarchist movement  expanded in earnest, driven in no small part by the rise of political squatting and the hippy link to anti-war activism. During this period Freedom Press backed the third iteration of the Anarchist Federation of Britain, a disorganised but increasingly large gathering which eventually incorporated nearly 200 groups across the country. Later in the decade IRA scares and a rise in left direct action would also lead to the resumption of political police raids — even the AFB secretary at the time, Peter Le Mare, was detained at one point to see if he was linked to the (Maoist) Red Army Faction. Bizarrely, Freedom was considered a possible hub of IRA activity and was raided by the bomb squad, which found nothing more outrageous than printer fluid — though officers still stole a haul of radical literature.

In 1968 Vero borrowed the money, in his own name, to buy the freeholds of both 84a and 84b Whitechapel High Street in Angel Alley, with a view to re-selling 84a to fund rebuilding 84b. A year after moving in however, with Express Printers taking over the basement, a particularly unfortunate run-in with the student squatting movement was reported in the October 25th issue. Hundreds of people had been evicted from the London Street Commune that September and organisers, eyeing the empty ground floor at 84a, were granted temporary leave to stay (though the Press was under no illusions that refusal would have made much difference).

The floor was occupied on October 4th, but due to what the editors referred to as “the nocturnal habits of hippies” the building was largely open 24 hours a day, and with organised crime at a high what happened next was largely inevitable — a group of heavy-set lads walked in, past the squatters, over to the iron-barred grate down to the printers, and smashed the place open. They stole large quantities of type metal, including for an upcoming Freedom supplement, and even stripped the windows of their lead.

This incident may have helped to explain the Press’s reaction when Albert 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 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.

More broadly, that split would continue to characterise two distinct, half antagonistic and half co-operative wings of the anarchist movement throughout the 1970s-90s which reprised the divide between “intellectual pactifist” and “class struggle” anarchists which had marked the 1940s. Indeed setting up his rival magazine in 1970, Meltzer noted:

When at a demonstration a policeman was alleged to have been injured falling off the horse on which he was dispersing the crowd, and the suggestion was made in Freedom that anarchists should get up a collection for him, the limit was reached. The former Cuddon’s group constituted itself into a Black Flag collective.

Nevertheless, the move was counted a success and the building was set up with a printers on the ground floor, shop on the first floor, storage and typesetting office on the second and on the third an archive of accumulated papers, books and pamphlets — later this was to become the store and office for A Distribution.

As the ’70s arrived however a lean time began for the press, particularly in the middle of the decade, with Vero having temporarily retired and a skeleton group working on bringing out the paper. Writing in Freedom / A Hundred Years former editor Dave Peers describes his recollections:

From outside, Freedom seemed a solid establishment. I moved to London in 1976 to help fold and dispatch the paper. The weekly routine helped outsiders to make contact, something which has since been lost. I was encouraged to contribute, and I had some inside information on a topical event (the attempt to nationalise the ship-building industry). I produced an over-extended, rambling piece (a habit which was to become repetitive). The next week I was amazed to find it on the front page. Emboldened, I submitted something for the next issue, turned up for the Thursday folding session and walked into what was then called a “heavy atmosphere”.

Most of the collective had walked out in a dispute over responsibilities, decision-making and established power. (A lesson which we were to repeat. They went on to launch Zero, which fell prey, among other things, to similar mistakes.)

I was enticed into the inner sanctum to help the rump with the next issue. Thus are innocent young people ensnared.

The next period was frantic. The production collective was down to three. We were producing a section weekly (eight pages A4, perhaps 8,000 words), setting it ourselves on battered IBM typewriters whose only concessions to modernity were electric power and proportional spacing. We then relied on the State, BR Red Star parcels, to get the completed artwork to our old friend Ian the printer (RIP) in Margate and bring back the paper. Gillian Fleming did most of the typing, Francis Wright most of the paste-up and I scurried between, doing a bit of each, writing last-minute fillers and acting as intermediary. Mary Canipa still worked in the bookshop and helped with the typing. There was too much pressure to bother with too many ideological disputes, and enough to give a few personal ones.

Pressure lessened as more people joined, including Steve Sorba, now with Aldgate Press, and Philip Sansom, rejoining what he has called ‘his first love’. Freedom still gave an impression of impenetrable solidarity. The Hastings Group, producers of one of the first of the welcome wave of local publishing, turned up to a readers’ meeting to slag us off and show us the error of our ways, and were astonished to find that the monolith, the ‘Establishment’ of British anarchism, was half-a-dozen people struggling along as best-as possible, much like them.

By the late 1970s we were a group of over a dozen. The big issue of the time was the ‘Persons Unknown’ case and a couple of us worked with the support group. Our own problem was lack of clear structure. We had grown haphazardly, coping as we could, and things were still so conducted.

By 1982 things had begun to fall apart again with internal arguments, but two major changes saw Vero transfer 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, and the founding of Aldgate Press, which still prints Freedom. 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

As the ’90s rolled around the anarchist movement was active in fighting jackboot fascism off the corners of East London, and as one of the movement’s few fixed points, Freedom was heavily targeted for reprisals. The bookshop was repeatedly attacked in the 1990s by fascists, including Combat 18. The worst of these incidents was a weekend assault by hooded neo-Nazi paramilitaries wielding wooden clubs, described to World in Action by then-editor Charles Crute:

It all happened very quickly, within two or three minutes they smashed anything to do with typesetting and then straight off out, this was definitely done with military precision. They knew what they were doing and left their calling card over the door, spraying “C18”.

The campaign eventually escalated to a firebombing in March 1993. The building still bears some visible damage from the attacks on the ground floor, and metal guards have since been installed on windows and doors, intended to ward against any further violence.

In 1995 Vero retired from activity, but continued to run the bookshop by letter and carrying out his wishes fell mainly to four comrades, Donald Rooum, Sylvie Edwards, Charles Crute and bookshop manager Kevin McFaul (the latter two being paid), 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
(2001-Present)

Speaking in a 2016 interview, Donald Rooum recalled:

After Vero’s death we carried on and I was not too happy with the attitude of the comrades who were running the thing, because Vero had quarreled with Albert Meltzer who had managed to get most of the London anarchists on his side and opposed to Freedom Press. Vero had counteracted that in 1996 with an article about Meltzer’s death titled ‘Instead of an Obituary’ which was very rude, and I wrote an article about Albert’s funeral which was rejected on the grounds it presented him as having too many followers.

I would have liked to make overtures to the rest of the movement after [Vero passed] but Charlie especially was very much anti the rest of the movement, which I thought was inappropriate. So we were just plodding along …

Later that year, a major upheaval occurred following the entry of a new volunteer, Toby Crowe. A large, energetic young man who had recently jumped ship from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Crowe “just walked in with no invitation at all” to a group consisting of two paid members, barely enough volunteers to function and a rapidly draining bank account, and working almost full time, immediately set about making major changes leading to the resignation of first the shop manager, then the editor. Hailing from a class-struggle oriented background as a former activist with the SPGB, Crowe intended to invite in the movement’s anarchist-communist and anarcho-syndicalist currents, upsetting supporters who well remembered the bitter arguments of the past.

Rooum however, the length of whose association with Freedom had by now surpassed even Lilian Wolfe’s, lasting from the late 1940s through to 2017, backed Crowe’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.

Crowe’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 2004 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 itself was also suffering from years of neglect. Former Freedom editor Rob Ray writes:

When I first arrived in 2004 Freedom was already in fairly obvious decline. Aldgate Press having long since cleared out to a warehouse unit across the yard, the ground floor room was stacked almost to the ceiling with boxes, so high in fact that it was difficult to see what they all were even when the lights were on. To get to the back wall you had to climb over piles of unsold Ravens, past colourful stacks of Wildcat and unsellable books stretching back to goodness knows when. At the right-hand corner of the room was a doorway leading into a lean-to, which was totally full of rubbish — this had previously been a dark room for developing photos, but now stank of damp and mouse excrement.

The walk to the first floor was revolting, up stairs covered in a carpet which must not have been cleaned in years, which stuck to the feet. On the first floor there was an ill-defined “Hacklab” comprising one rickety computer terminal, and in the other room the shop, where the lino was worn down to the wood and dust-covered windows let just a little light into a dingy space stuffed with books, which deadened the sounds of life outside to a distant wheeze. Further up the stairs, a half-finished paint-stripping project had left raw wood paneling and banisters splotched with a patina of bright red and dysentery yellow paint from the previous decorations.

The second floor, where an editorial office and the (usually empty) Autonomy Club were set, was a little better, though piles of byzantine paperwork covered most table surfaces, while on the top floor was a small, locked office where A Distribution kept their stock and an attic space, in which thousands upon thousands of copies of Freedom sat, unsold and undistributed.

The place was a wreck.

The building was kept open during this period largely through a series of bequests in the wills of former supporters, but there was little energy in the collective and 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 and a much-needed move of the shop downstairs 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 in the early hours of February 1st 2013, caused significant damage on the ground floor and the destruction of hundreds of books and pamphlets — as well as the partial burning of the Freedom newspaper archives (fire damage can be seen on many of the scans in our digitisation project).

An outpouring of 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 Collective’s ability to function, forcing Freedom’s closure as a monthly publication in 2014 — though free versions of the paper and its regularly updated news site continue to be produced.

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

In 2017 Freedom formally launched a digital archive of the paper covering issues from 1886 to today, which has since grown to more than 1,100 issues. In 2018 Freedom was made a core participant in the Mitting Inquiry, after revelations that leading spycop Roger Pearce infiltrated the paper in the 1980s.


References

  • Heiner Becker, Nicolas Walter, Philip Sansom, and Vernon Richards (1986) Freedom / a Hundred Years
  • Heiner Becker, (1986) ‘Notes on Freedom and the Freedom Press 1886-1928’ The Raven (1) vol 1
  • Mark Bevir (1996) Fabianism, Permeation and Independent Labour
  • Richard Boston ‘Anarchy among the Anarchists’ The Guardian 16 November 1996, reprinted as ‘Mere Anarchy’ in Starkness at Noon Five Leaves Publications 1997;
  • Charles Crute (1995) Combat 18 investigation, World in Action
  • David Goodway (2014) ‘Freedom, an Obituary’, History Workshop 
  • Editors (Oct 25 1969) ‘The Cost of Being Anarchists’, Freedom 
  • Harry Kelly (May 1913) ‘An Anarchist in Evolution‘, Mother Earth 8, no. 3
  • Vernon Richards (anonymously) (1986) Friends of Freedom Press Ltd.
  • Albert Meltzer (1976) The Anarchists in London 1935-1955
  • Albert Meltzer (1986) ‘Liars and Liberals’ Black Flag Supplement no. 3;
  • Albert Meltzer (1996) I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels
  • John Quail (1978) The Slow Burning Fuse
  • Donald Rooum (2008) Information for Social Change Number 27
  • Nicolas Walter (2007) The anarchist past and other essays edited by David Goodway, Five Leaves Publications 2007.