In the 1890s, anarchism was seen by governments around the Western world as a threat as significant as Communism, and Manchester was one of the first cities in Britain where local anarchists clashed with the authorities. One of the young men involved was Alfred Barton, who later went on to an active career in left-wing politics and political writing.
Alfred Barton was born in the Bedfordshire town of Kempston in the late 1860s – 1869 according to the National Census but 30th July 1968 according to a 2009 article on his life. According to this article, “1893: The Manchester Anarchists and the Fight for Free Speech,” published on Libcom.org, he was the son of a foundry worker called Henry Barton and his wife Eliza Savill.
Young Alfred’s first job, at just 12 years old, was in a public library in Bedfordshire, and it’s perhaps through this that he started to educate himself, especially in history, philosophy and languages. According to the author of the Libcom article, Barton moved to Manchester in 1890, where he was first employed as a clerk and then at John Rylands Library. He also joined the Socialist League alongside another figure who would be significant in his life, such as Herbert Stockton. Despite its name, the Socialist League had pronounced anarchist leanings, and Manchester Anarchists started to hold a large number of meetings around the city – at Preston Park Gates on Sunday mornings, at Stevenson Square [in the Northern Quarter] on Sunday afternoons, in St Augustine’s Parish [near present-day MMU] on Sunday evenings and near the market during the week.
The anarchist periodical Freedom, in an issue dated August 1890, stated that, alongside activity in Leeds, Leicester and London:
“An extensive Anarchist propaganda is carried on [in Manchester] by the branch of the Socialist League. Several new stations have been opened lately, both in Manchester and the smaller towns round about. At one of these, in the City, where we hold very large meetings on Sunday evenings, the police have tried to stop us. They arrested Comrade Barton, but contented themselves with sending him a summons; the case is now pending. We mean to fight the authorities on this ground till their attempt at muzzling Socialism fails, as it must do. Salvationists and others may speak where Socialists cause an obstruction. It is our principles which are the obstruction in the eyes of the authorities. Our chief work lies in breaking new ground and pushing the propaganda where it has been a thing unknown. This kind of work is, as may be expected, of a very up-hill nature. No new branches or groups have yet been formed, though we have many in sympathy with our teachings. Being the only body of Anarchists in Lancashire, we are held at a stiff distance by our friends the Social Democrats. They seem afraid to permit the thorough Socialism of our speakers to be heard on their platforms. They are too busy endeavouring to get their fingers in the pie of government, municipal and otherwise, to care for Revolutionary Socialism. The idea of the General Strike is now received with enthusiasm by the workers at all our meetings.”
George Cores, a London anarchist organiser, recalled in his memoirs that:
“There [in Manchester] two lads, Alfred Barton, a clerk and Herbert Stockton (an odd job man and later an industrial insurance agent) commenced, with a group of other working boys and girls, to hold meetings at Preston Park Gates on Sunday mornings, at Stevenson Square on Sunday afternoons, in St Augustine’s Parish on Sunday evenings and near the market during the week. This was about 1886. Barton and Stockton were very sincere, brave lads and worked hard in the propaganda for many years. It is nothing against them that they supported the ILP in their older years. Bert Stockton went to prison for a month in the fight for Free Speech. An ironic feature is that his father was a warder in Strangeways Gaol while he was there. It is to the credit of the famous editor of Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, that he wrote a leading article in sympathy with Stockton. Barton and Stockton were the fearless pioneers in Manchester. The SDF made their initial start in Salford. All the other movements came later – Clarion, ILP etc.”
In April 1892 several thousand people attended a meeting in Stevenson Square, protesting the arrest of anarchist activists in Walsall. The speakers included Alfred Barton, along with Herbert Stockton and John Bingham, an anarchist from Sheffield.
By 1892 the Socialist League had had been replaced by the Manchester Anarchist Communist Group. In 1893 the Group started holding public meetings – mainly consisting of soapbox speeches – on Ardwick Green. Here, they clashed with local churchgoers, led by the Reverend Canon Nunn, described to Herbert Stockton’s grandson over a hundred years later as “a bit of a trouble maker,” and Manchester police got involved.
The story of the conflict between Manchester Anarchists and the police is told in detail – albeit one-sidedly – by Detective Inspector Jerome Caminada. He was one of the police called on the 4th October 1893 when Patrick McCabe, mechanic, 20, William Haughton, pattern maker, 20, Ernest Stockton, engineer, 19 (Herbert’s brother), and Henry Burrows, clerk, 19 were all arrested for refusing to leave Ardwick Green when ordered to do so. Caminada also became the subject of a taunting comic song by the anarchists, stemming from his having hit several of them with his umbrella at this October encounter.
Caminada later recorded of this first meeting that after the first speaker was ordered to get down from the soapbox he “walked away. His place on the chair, however, was immediately taken by a young fellow named Alfred Barton, who was at once pulled down… A young fellow named Barton seized the chair, which had served as a rostrum, and aimed a blow at me with it, hitting me on the chest, whilst some one struck me on the back of my head, knocking off my hat. To defend myself I grasped my umbrella and struck out right and left until I had cleared a space around me. ”
In court the following Monday, Caminada recorded that: “All, however, was not yet over, for immediately on hearing the decision one of the prisoners raised the cry ‘Hurrah for Anarchy,’ and this was taken up by Mr Alfred Barton, another of these renovators of the world, aged 25, and following the occupation of a clerk, who, on leaving the court, shouted “To h—1 with law and order.” This hater of the law was immediately arrested, and hauled before its representative. In answer to Mr Headlam, this terrible fellow, who proposed to turn the world upside down, admitted that he had made use of the expression, but only did so because he was indignant at the way in which his comrades had been treated ‘for doing their duty;’ the presumption, of course, being that their duty and obedience to the Anarchist group came before their duty as citizens, and ought therefore to be approved rather than punished. Mr Headlam, however, refused to take this view of the case, and Mr Alfred Barton was bound over, in his own recognisance of £5, to keep the peace for six months. Notwithstanding his hatred to all ‘law and order,’ he consented to be so bound, and the ‘tyrannical’ fines of his colleagues or ‘comrades,’ as they love to call each other, were paid.”
October 4th signalled the beginning of several months of hostilities between anarchists and the police. As news of the events spread, the crowds at Ardwick Green swelled to 3-4,000, according to Caminada’s figures, and the large numbers of police made themselves busy arresting increasing numbers of young anarchist men, including Herbert Stockton on October 29th. Some of the men accepted fines while others, including Henry Burrows, aged 19, went to jail. Caminada delighted in taunting the letters of those miserable anarchists who found the conditions in Strangeways prison too harsh. A letter from Burrows dated 27th December 1893 says:
” My dearest Father,
I am sorry to have to write this, but I am afraid my health is giving way. Will you go to comrade Barton and ask him to send sureties AS SOON AS HE POSSIBLY CAN. I can’t stand much more of this.
With love to all,
Your affectionate son,
Barton’s address is 13, Shaftesbury Street, C[horlton]-on-M[edlock].—H.B.”
On December 24th Morris Mendelssohn, aged 26, became the last man to be arrested on Ardwick Green. But this was only because the protests had moved to Stevenson Square, where they were joined by Socialists like William Horrocks and H. Russell Smart. Horrocks was arrested in January 1894 when he tried to speak in Albert Square alongside anarchists – including Alfred Barton. Despite the evil portraits painted of anarchists after events such as the Barcelona bombings of 1892, the Manchester Anarchists were also supported by high-profile figures such as CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
Although Manchester police, including Jerome Caminada, had succeeded in suppressing widespread anarchist activity in the city, the situation was summed up by Arthur Redford in his History of Local Government in Manchester in unflattering terms: “Though police successfully maintained public order it was at the cost of both unpopularity and ridicule.”
Alfred Barton, meanwhile, carried on his anarchist activities. In 1895, giving his address as Cottenham Street in Chorlton-on-Medlock, he published “Anarchism: an Introduction” in the Labour Annual. The article outlined the basic beliefs of anarchism. Which Barton summed up as “Anarchy means no government, no rule, no constituted authority, meaning by authority the power of some to impose their will and interests on others irrespective of their wishes. Anarchism is thus an ideal of society where freedom prevails and people associate with each other on the basis of individual independence, of mutual equality alone.” He accused the State of existing to ‘maintain wage-slavery’ and to “put down strikes and labour revolts, to suppress socialistic and revolutionary agitation, and to carry on wars with weaker and more “barbarous” peoples, as in Burmah, Soudan, Matabeleland, &c., to “open up trade,” that is new spheres of capitalist exploitation.” It rejected ‘the representative principle’ – liberal forms of democracy – as having been shown in Republican France to be “almost as tyrannical and as blind to the interests of the people as autocratic [then still Tsarist] Russia. He also pronounced himself “dubious of any form of State Socialism; to our minds that only means a change of masters and of the form of government, and would be equally as oppressive and tyrannical as any which has hitherto existed.” In this last opinion he was to change in the coming years.
As well as his political activities, Barton found the time to marry Eleanor Stockton, Herbert’s sister, known as Nellie. George Cores wrote of Nellie and her female comrades that “It was the custom to look to London for public speakers and I spoke at several of their open-air meetings. I felt very bashful in the presence of so many charming and enthusiastic girls. I was supposed to be very good. I only hope I was. One of Stockton’s sisters, Mrs Eleanor Barton (she married Alf Barton), was a very prominent member of the Women’s Co-operative Guild. She always spoke of herself as an Anarchist-Communist.”
Alfred and Nellie moved to Sheffield in 1897 where their politics shifted in a more moderate direction. Alfred Barton joined the Independent Labour Party and the Shop Assistants Union. He was a Union delegate to the Trades Council and in 1907 was elected as a city councillor for Brightside. In April 1908 Barton was also a delegate to the Sixteenth Annual Conference of the Independent Labour Party, held in Huddersfield Town Hall – others delegates included some of the most famous names of the early Labour Party, including Keir Hardie and Ramsay Macdonald. Barton himself tabled a question on the compact between Independent Labour and Liberal-Labour members of the House of Commons, and lamented the impacts of such collaboration on his local political situation in Sheffield, where Liberal-Labour candidates were seen as major competitors for votes. He also seconded an unpopular (and losing) amendment on women’s suffrage which was condemned by Keir Hardie as likely to “affect the progress of the women’s cause.”
Barton lost his Brightside seat in 1910 and only a year later had become sufficiently disillusioned that he left Labour and joined the British Socialist Party, winning Brightside in 1913 for the BSP without Trades Council support. He supported British involvement in World War One despite opposition to it from many of the more radical movements of his past, and held Brightside until 1920. At some point it also seems that he found time to write “A World History for the Workers; a Story of Man’s Doings from the Dawn of Time, from the Standpoint of the Disinherited,” published by The Labour Publishing Company in London in 1922. This book covers a broad sweep of world history, beginning with human evolution and ending in a heartfelt hope that the rise of socialism in Russia heralds a new age of equality and justice. Compared with many writings of the period it is very progressive – rejecting, for example, biologically determinist ideas that African, Asian and Australasian peoples are inherently less intelligent or ‘advanced’ those of Northern Europe.
After a brief flirtation with the Communist Party, Barton rejoined the Independent Labour Party but failed in two more attempts to be re-elected. Instead, he rejoined the Trades Council and became a Sheffield alderman in 1929. But Barton was only to hold this position for a short time, dying in December 1933. Nellie emigrated to New Zealand, where she died in 1960.
Article by Sarah Irving