Pioneers of British Anarchism: George Barrett

To mark the launch of new Freedom Press title Our Masters Are Helpless, we will be publishing a number of historic reprints about historic anarchist figures from our 130-year store of articles, starting with the firebrand himself, George Barrett. Originally written in 1947, this essay by Mat Kavanagh (himself a figure of note) was part of a series which attempted to rescue British activists from the obscurity that seemed destined to be their lot in the aftermath of World War I and II.


THIS brief sketch is a slight tribute to the memory of a young comrade who died at the early age of 33 after a long and hard struggle with consumption.

It can safely be said that George Barrett was one of the clearest thinkers and one of the most brilliant speakers of his day. He had every asset a speaker needs; tall and of good appearance, a ready wit and an exceptionally good flow of cultured English. Either as a speaker or writer he went straight to the root of things, pushing all superfluous matters on one side.

It was his grasp of scientific and economic truths that enabled him to see the necessity for revolutionary thought and action. He knew that nothing short of a complete revolutionary change in the basis of society would be of any social value. He would never compromise with his ideas, and his integrity was always apparent and above suspicion.

One is tempted to look back and wonder what he would have written and said of some of his erstwhile active and good comrades: one, a Cabinet Minister now — Jim Griffiths; the other a reactionary jingo leader of the Miners’ Federation — Will Lawther!

The first stage of Barrett’s activities was in the Bristol Socialist Society. His straightforward revolutionary views and outspoken denunciation of the parliamentarians made it impossible for him to remain a member of the society, however, and soon after he left he came out as an open anarchist. Shortly afterwards he came to London, and started to work at Waltham Abbey as a draughtsman. He at once joined the Waltamstow Anarchist Group, then a virile group of working men who did good work locally. Barrett’s energy was tremendous. He spoke almost every night in the week, and would often cycle 20 miles each way to address a meeting, and that after a day’s work.

After a propaganda visit to Glasgow he was keen on settling there, for he saw the latent possibilities of a strong movement. He succeeded in getting work in Glasgow, and with the financial assistance of George Davidson, he was able to start a weekly paper The Anarchist, of which 34 issues appeared. He threw himself heart and soul into the work, doing his editorial work after his day in the office. But he also addressed evening and dinner-hour meetings, and at one such meeting of strikers he led an attack on one of the wharves where blacklegs were working. The police arrested him, but later decided that it was .better to leave the strikers alone and so dropped the charge. Nevertheless, the incident cost him his job, and because of it he changed his name from Ballard to Barrett, the name by which he is chiefly known.

Both before and during his editorship of The Anarchist he had most successful lecturing tours through England and Scotland, often touching towns where the message of revolt was heard for the first time. On these tours he formed groups which remained active until World War I scattered them, and now not even a trace of them seems to remain.

Some of the work done in those days by the Glasgow group is still secret history, but one incident to their credit should now be made public. When Jim Connolly’s paper The Harp*, was suppressed and their machinery dismantled by the Dublin police, Barrett at once got into touch with Connolly, and the paper was printed at The Anarchist’s printery and successfully smuggled into Ireland. The police raided Freedom in London, and every other likely place, but never the right one. The Glasgow comrades acted in the traditions of anarchism, that every invasion of human rights should be resisted. The first number of The Anarchist came out on May Day, 1913.

Barrett made his last speech at a demonstration at Edinburgh. A t this meeting he caught a chill and consumption rapidly developed. After a terrific struggle he died at Torquay in January, 1917. He lived to see much of his work undone by the war. Yet his ardour and his faith never faltered, even when he was badly smitten. In his magnificent pamphlet The Last War, he showed that the workers are fighting to settle their masters’ quarrels, and that the real war is fought to take over the mines, railways, factories, and fields.

This pamphlet was condemned by the government— But not before 10,000 copies had been sold. Later on Freedom Press published two other pamphlets by him, The Anarchist Revolution and Objections to Anarchism. The collected essays of George Barrett would make a fitting memorial to his brilliant abilities.

Mat Kavanagh

Our Masters Are Helpless, a collection of Barrett’s key essays along with a number of articles originally written for Freedom, is out now.


*Ed’s note: Kavanagh misremembers a little here. Barrett did contact Connolly, but is was related to the shuttering of the Irish Worker. A separate article going into more depth on the subject will be published at a later date.