Sunday, 31 January 2016

Mrs Wrigley’s Coffee Tavern in Oldham

by Chris Draper
NEVER mind Leningrad, Havana or Peking, the revolution might have started in Mrs Wrigley’s Coffee Tavern, Oldham. Every Monday night, at 7pm, Victorian socialists and anarchists gathered at Mrs Wrigley’s, in the Old Market Place, to foment social revolution.  Anarchist, John Oldman, of 57, Lansdowne Road, Chadderton, was the group’s leading light and his story, like that of most other activists outside London has never before been told.
John announced his intention of forming the group by speaking out and leafleting in Oldham’s Market Square on Sunday 14th June, 1885.  The following evening, Oldman, supported by comrade Bourne of Cheetham, founded Oldham’s 'Socialist League (SL)' group, although John didn’t need much encouragement as his activism stretched back a long way. 

Born in Norfolk in 1842, following in his father’s footsteps he worked on the land and was employed for a while on the Earl of Leicester’s Holkham Hall Estate.  Incensed by the injustice and inequality of rural life he later claimed to have, 'been an anarchist from boyhood and rejoiced to think that all his life he had been a notorious poacher'.  In 1870, Oldman upset the vicar and squirearchy when he publicly campaigned for Tittleshall Parish Reading Rooms to provide more than its narrow range of Tory newspapers.  He was rewarded with notice to quit from his landlord, the Earl of Leicester. 

When Joseph Arch, in 1872, started the 'National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU)' Oldman rushed to assist and was immediately engaged as a union organiser although the press preferred to describe him as a 'a professional agitator', no doubt realising this was no 'old-school', time-serving compromiser.  The Ipswich Journal, spotted the revolutionary implications:
'If Mr John Oldman of Norwich tramps the county with his peculiar logic and teaches the labourers that the classes above them are their natural enemies, we must expect a strange and unpleasant change.'

Following a NALU recruitment meeting at Hollesley in August 1872, a report in the Journal showed Oldman’s politics went far beyond adding a few pence to labourers’ wages.  He insisted, 'it was the struggle of labour with capital…the labourers had been stuffed too much with Christian tracts…the law was not equal…the Earl of Leicester put on his wagons The Right Honourable The Earl of Leicester but it should be DISHONOURABLE for he had in one part of the county enclosed a piece of common land.'
On a more personal note, 'Mr Oldman related an anecdote of his father, 72 years of age being refused relief by the Board of the Guardians of the Poor.'   John’s impoverished father died the following year. 

The Ipswich Journal described John as, 'an active-looking man, 30 years of age, about middle height and of spare wiry build, he looks as if tramping the country would be of little or no trouble to him. He was respectably dressed in a long summer overcoat of dark material with light summer billy-cock hat…Mr Oldman has a great command of language and a stentorian voice.' 

Oldman went down well with the labourers but upset the landholders and a few days after the Hollesley meeting a letter was published in the Journal from a George Ling urging his fellow farmers to organise themselves, 'for the purpose of stamping out the Union Epidemic as they would the Cattle Plague and treat all Unionists as infected persons.'  Subsequent public meetings turned nasty. Despite Oldman’s appeals for calm the police were called to restore order at Braintree Corn Exchange in October 1872.  In November, a speaker was set upon and attacked at a meeting in Coggeshall but labourers continued to join the union which claimed 70,000 members within the year.

In May 1873, despite rumours that farmers had recruited London thugs to rough-up the crowd and the Volunteers had been instructed to ride them down, Peterloo-style, a meeting of over 2,000 agricultural labourers on Market Hill, Sudbury passed without serious incident.  Addressed by NLA President Joseph Arch and John Oldman, there was a minor sensation when a union representative revealed injuries he’d received the previous day after falling
mid-speech from a cart from which farmers had maliciously removed the linch-pin from a wheel.

Tramping the country as a labour organiser and journalist John Oldman sometimes described himself as a 'commercial traveller'.  In truth he combined any activity he could to finance his political mission, at one stage pawning his watch to raise a pound to keep body and soul together. Fortunately his partner, Rebecca Culling/ Oldman was a widow with money and employment of her own so the pair could afford to raise a family.  Whilst John continued agitating around the country his family moved north, first to Cheshire, in 1874, before settling in Chadderton, near Oldham, a couple of years later.

After John started the Oldham Socialist League, besides indoor meetings at Mrs Wrigley’s the group also organised outdoor events at the Curzon Ground and in July 1885 at the Old Market Place where William Morris was the advertised speaker.  After the police repeatedly cleared waiting crowds from the advertised venue, Oldman led Morris to Tommy Fields (the later market place) where a most successful meeting was held. As the SL newspaper Commonweal  reported:
 'Oldman  wound up proposing a resolution condemning the authorities for their interference with the right of public meeting.'
 But, just as his rural masters had earlier responded to Oldman’s activism with eviction, now the urban authorities prosecuted him for having the impudence to organise public meetings and imposed fines and costs of £1 16s 9d. 

An article in the local paper in September 1885 shows he wasn’t intimidated, 'The Oldham Watch Committee having prohibited public meetings on the old Market Place, various sections of the community are resenting the decision. John Oldman, who, being a Socialist, declines to use the word Sir, Mr or Esquire, has informed the mayor that he will invite the public to meet in thousands and he asked that the police be kept away'!

Besides local activism over the next few years Oldman also contributed articles to Henry Seymour’s 'ANARCHIST' journal which in 1887 observed:
'Our brave and indefatigable comrade Oldman of Oldham is spreading the light of liberty in the north.  He has recently engaged in several debates upon anarchism with large and intellectual audiences in Manchester and contributes weekly to the Oldham Chronicle in exposition of anarchist philosophy.'

In 1890 John and his partner Rebecca combined a nostalgic family visit to their old Norfolk stamping ground with an extended propaganda tour.  In December Yarmouth SL recorded:
'Comrade John Oldman and his wife have been with us for several weeks doing splendid propaganda for the advancement of Revolutionary Socialism and our local comrades have been considerably enlightened in revolutionary ideas.' 
Commonweal detailed their activities, including:                       
'October 24th comrade John Oldman, Apostle of Anarchy, from Manchester, delivered a stirring address in the morning on Priory plain on The Voting Swindle…in the afternoon on the Fish Wharf comrade Oldman lectured on The Wage Swindle …on November 2nd on Hall Quay comrade Oldman lectured on The Morality of Force.” On Saturday 8th November both Oldmans addressed several Norwich meetings commemorating the judicial murder of five Chicago anarchists. The following day they repeated this in Great Yarmouth, where on 23rd November “a discussion on Anarchy was opened by John Oldman who gave a good explanation.'

Despite the gradual disintegration of the SL, the Oldmans kept the faith.  On May Day 1892 John Oldman spoke alongside a host of eminent comrades to a crowd of over a thousand assembled around the Reformer’s Tree in London’s Hyde Park.  As The Times reported, 'Behind the speakers were two large banners, one containing the words, "Anarchist Communism and Revolution and Anarchy", and the other, "If the people when oppressed are silent such is stupidity, the forerunner of the downfall of public liberty".  Immediately following  Louise Michel’s proclamation, 'Vive la Comune', John Oldman (inaccurately reported as “Oldham”) said 'what was wanted was revolution pure and simple (Cheers). The eight hour demonstration that day was simply boy’s play and babyism. They should strike at the root of that pernicious system of capitalism (Hear, hear).'

After that the trail goes cold.  Rebecca Oldman passed away in Oldham in 1904, John followed five years later and memory of their lives almost died with them.  Can you help?  Northern Voices is keen to discover more about Oldham’s first anarchists and the lives of similarly inspiring political pioneers.  We’re currently researching the lives of scores more neglected Northern anarchists and we’d love to hear from anyone who shares our enthusiasm. 

For Peace, Love and Anarchism
Christopher Draper


Trust no one only yourself said...

You are just like the local rags in Tameside. You print what they write.

Northerner said...

Last Sunday 'Trust no one only yourself' said:
'You are just like the local rags in Tameside. You print what they write.'

Alas, Oldham is not in Tameside! It's an entirely separate local authority next door to Tameside. That's the trouble with being a Southerner, they can't distinguish between us Northerners, and often call 'Tameside' - 'Thameside'.

Nick Heath said...

As I mentioned in my article on libcom , Revolt in a Norfolk seaside resort: anarchist-communism in Great Yarmouth

'John Oldman wrote to William Morris with the founding of the League that he had " been a Socialist for upwards of twenty years- actively engaged in propagating Socialistic principles--and am still in earnest".'
Rebecca ran a shop in Magdalen Street, Norwich before the Oldmans moved to Oldham.
In July 1885 John Oldman, who is described as a gardener by trade, was arrested for obstruction together with other SLers, Thomas Todd, David Whitwam and Thomas Britland at the Old Market Place in Oldham after tradesmen there had complained about the "intolerable nuisance" from "Socialists, Tichbornites, Anti-Vaccinators, Teetotallers, Blue Ribbonists, Members of Church of Christ etc", following which the Watch Committee issued a notice prohibiting such gathering. OLdman was fine 1 shilling and costs and cases against the others were dismissed.In late august he informed the mayor that he would invite the public to meet in thousands and he asked that the police be kept away. Mayor replied that police would attend and that as chief magistrate he considered it his duty to see that the law was respected.

Nick Heath said...

J. E. D. Bourne lived at 10 Herbert Street, Hightown, Cheetham.
Thomas Todd lived at 73, Book street, Oldham
Oldman made good on his promise to hold another meeting as a result of which he was arrested again and fined £1, 10 shillings and 9 pence plus costs. THe Social Democratic Federation, Marxist rival to the League, got up to their usual mischief making by claiming they paid the fine. They refused to print a rebuttal in their paper Justice.
Oh by the way that's a bit rich:"That's the trouble with being a Southerner, they can't distinguish between us Northerners, and often call 'Tameside' - 'Thameside'., when you can't tell the difference between a Cockney and a Brightonian e.g. me

bammy said...

Mistakes! We all make mistakes! So it should come as no surprise that when Nick Heath edited John Quail's 'The Slow Burning Fuse' for Freedom Press in 2014, he repeated Quail's own error on page 153 of the book by describing John Oldman as 'John Oldham'. I understand this error originated in The Times report on the 2nd, May 1892 of an anarchist May Day meeting in London:
'Louise Michel then spoke, in French, saying that as fast as anarchists were jailed new anarchists sprang up to take their place. John Oldham [sic] “rejoiced that all his life he had been a notorious poacher. He was one of those who refused to starve,” and Parker spoke on the anti-rent campaign......' (From The Slow Burning Fuse [2014] edited by Nick Heath)

bammy said...

Nick Heath writes that I (Bammy): 'can't distinguish between a Cockney and a Brightonian e.g. me.'
An authentic Cockney, I suppose ought to be born within hearing of Bow Bells, but I never said Nick Heath was a Cockney. What I said was:
'At that moment in walks Nick Heath, and treated me to a Cockney rendition of “You can f**k off, mate!”...'

Mr. Heath seems to be a bit thin-skinned and a rather humourless man, all I was doing was identifying Heath's rendition, who has lived for many years in London, as a 'type of talk', which is what George Orwell did when he categorised Auden and Spender as 'Parlour Bolsheviks': neither Auden nor Spender were born Bolsheviks -they became Bolsheviks at the time of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and later both ceased to be Bolsheviks.

Nick Heath said...

Wrong again. I didn't "edit" The Slow Burning Fuse, I merely wrote a new introduction and some biographies of anarchists mentioned in the book. I had nothing whatsoever to do with the main text.
Weasel words, and what else can one expect from Barmy Bammy,about his mis-identification of me as a Cockney.

bammy said...

That's strange! A Friend of Freedom Press who sent Northern Voices a copy told me that you had edited it. To be honest that Friend also apologised and told me that it had been done as a rush job at the time to get it out for the London Bookfair, and that it lacked an index as well as containing several errors. I fully understand Nick that were rushed off your feet at the time, and you have no need to apologise. I trust that you did read the book before writing the intro?

Nick Heath said...

I've read the book several times, and no, I repeat that I did not edit it, Barmy Bammy. Got that now or will you continue to insist that I did?

Nick Heath said...

As you have a copy of the book, or so it appears, then you will see that the front cover says "Foreword and Biographies by Nick Heath" . Not edited by...

Paul 'S' said...

Excellent. Why not make it a regular gig?

bammy said...

Nick Heath probably knows, as Chris Draper & Dave Goodway definitely do, that I - coming from an ethno / anthropological background distrust some of the claims of the historical narrative. However, Northern Voices' welcomes any contributions from those who have anything to offer to the historical debate. Naturally we are going to have our differences about interpretation of the data, but that shouldn't stand in our way.

Kevin said...

Some of your critics go far too far in their criticism of you in my opinion.

There seems to be a lot of backbiting at present.