The third in a continuing series by Chris Draper of, 'Lives of Northern Anarchists'.
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by Chris Draper
IT was easy to spot a Victorian anarchist, he wore a black cloak with a tall hat and carried a fizzing bomb shaped like a bowling ball but William Hensby Chapman didn’t match the stereotype. He was better known for his nut pies, rational dress, bees and chess but was no slouch in the anarchy department. Chapman was a pioneer of William Morris’s 'Socialist League', founder and host of Liverpool Socialist club, anarchist street agitator, newspaper correspondent and recruiter of his son Edward to the cause. William Hensby Chapman was an anarchist practitioner of the “New Life”, a fascinating character who’s been ignored by historians ever since he disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
Born in Norwich in 1833 William moved around the country performing minor clerking and retail roles until in the 1860’s he settled down in Warrington as a live-in draper’s assistant. As soon as he secured suitable accommodation at 27 Golborough Street, Chapman was joined by his wife, Emily and their three boys, James, Edward and William. James, the eldest (born 1863) was employed as a clerk at a wireworks but died in the winter of 1884. This tragedy prompted William to fulfil a couple of long-held aspirations, signing up to Socialism and starting a food-reform business.
In 1886 William and his twenty-year-old second son, Edward Crook Chapman, joined the newly established Socialist League (SL). Chapman senior also donated a generous ten shillings to the SL newspaper, Commonweal, printing fund. William also opened, “Chapman’s Vegetarian Restaurant” at 1 Stanley Street (on the corner with Dale Street), Liverpool. In May 1887 the Vegetarian Society selected his restaurant as the venue for a 'banquet' to follow their national conference which was addressed by wholemeal enthusiast 'Dr T R Allinson'.
In an 1887 lecture William Chapman introduced his local 'Mutual Improvement Society' to 'Anarchism'. 'He affirmed that the government of man by man was oppression; and defined the ideal of the Anarchist as absolute liberty and economic equality and independence, which meant the substitution in the place of political rivalry and class antagonism, of a society based on voluntary co-operation…Owing to the novelty of the subject, Mr Chapman was allowed to answer each question in rotation.'
Chapman’s anarchism wasn’t the narrow-minded insurrectionary “Smash-the-State” sort but a constructive, holistic politics that promoted positive alternatives as much as opposing exploitation and authority. He was a regular contributor to, and living embodiment of, 'The Dietetic Reformer and Vegetarian Messenger'. Chapman was a Vice-President of the national Vegetarian Society, alongside pioneering animal-rights activist and libertarian, Henry Salt, and an active Committee Member of his local Liverpool Vegetarian Society (LVS).
Meetings of the LVS were held at the restaurant and from time to time William gave lectures and cookery demonstrations to members and guests. As the Liverpool Mercury reported in December 1894, 'the various dishes were handed around and partaken of by the audience and in every instance were most favourably received. The various recipes used were widely distributed on a printed leaflet…showing people how to prepare nutritious and savoury dishes at a very little cost without the aid of flesh meat…large number attended and a very pleasant evening was spent.'
Meetings at Chapman’s were invariably fun and the Liverpool Mercury typically observed that an 1896 meeting of the LVS featured 'a programme of music' and 'concluded with an amusing ventriloquial sketch.' At another visit by the Society in February 1897; “After a sumptuous vegetarian repast, the company was entertained by an exhibition of Mrs Jarley’s Living Waxworks…The figures comprised 17 characters, representative of ancient and modern life and by their action when wound up, combined with the humorous description of their history by Mrs Jarley and her son, Mr Ebenezer Jarley, formed the source of endless merriment”!
The restaurant’s agreeable atmosphere doubtless contributed to the 'Lancashire and Cheshire Beekeepers Association’s' peaceful resolution of the tricky issue of their proposed 'split'. Having been overwhelmed by their own success, the bee keepers convened at 'Chapmans' and happily agreed to form independent 'Lancashire' and 'Cheshire' County Associations to ensure their respective administrations remained small and friendly.
Chapman’s was also a popular venue with chess-players and the Mercury staged its annual Chess Trophy Competition there, 'Players will oblige by bringing their men with them: boards will be provided…Chess players who wish to win the trophy should try Chapman’s tea and coffee; an excellent 6d afternoon tea is always available.'
In 1894 the newspaper reported on Chapman’s pioneering of, 'Dress Reform in Liverpool'. 'Mr W H Chapman, who occupied the chair was attired in one of the reform dresses sketched by the lecturer, Miss Hope-Hoskins. It consisted of Irish tweed jacket and knickerbockers, made of pure, undyed wool, Jaegar collar, cellular underclothing, sandals and straw hat of novel construction… Her motto was Fashion without folly and elegance without extravagance… An interesting discussion followed and the lecturer was cordially thanked at the close of the meeting.'
'Rational Dress' sat comfortably alongside more spiritual concerns at Chapman’s and the venue occasionally hosted 'Gatherings' of the 'Liverpool and Birkenhead' apostles of the 'Light and Reason' movement of working class philosopher-poet, James Allen (1864-1912). Despite his eclecticism William’s personal politics remained irreducibly anarchist, never ossifying into Marxism nor dissolving into Labourism.
Chapman first tried to attract interest in the idea of starting a Socialist League branch in Liverpool in May 1889 but despite repeated appeals in Commonweal (on sale in the restaurant) it was months before there was enough response to convene a meeting at the restaurant on 17th September. William’s son Edward was appointed Secretary of the group that was constituted as an independent 'Liverpool Socialist Society (LSS)' rather than a branch of the Socialist League. This suggests some recruits weren’t entirely comfortable with the Socialist League’s anti-parliamentary approach but this didn’t preclude comradely cooperation. On the evening of October 1st Edward led a discussion which concluded with the members agreeing 'to commence work of a public character early in November'.
By the end of the year LSS was confident enough to invite 'delegates and friends from societies in Lancashire and adjoining counties to a conference to discuss the desirability of united action.' On the 11 January 1890 the conference took place at Stanley Street. 'Delegates were present from Sheffield, Salford, Blackburn, Rochdale and Liverpool…Comrade W H Chapman proposed, “That in the opinion of this conference it is desirable to form a Union of the North-Western Counties Socialists".' This was passed with Edward Chapman appointed acting secretary of the Union. It was further agreed to draw up a list of willing public speakers to facilitate the organisation of propaganda. 'At a later hour a conversazione was held, at which a number of pieces of vocal and instrumental music were rendered by members and friends and a most enjoyable evening was spent. W H Chapman superintended the arrangements for refreshments. On Sunday we held two open-air meetings.'
The following month both William and Edward debated with members of Liverpool’s Rathbone Literary Club, 'Is Socialism or complete Individualism likely to be the ultimate goal of human development?' The Chapman’s proposed the former whilst local Tolstoyan anarchist John Coleman Kenworthy (a future biography) demolished the argument of one of their opponents.
With support from comrades William was able to organise weekly outdoor Sunday morning (11.30am) lectures at the Mersey landing stage as well as indoor Tuesday night meetings at the restaurant. The LSS maintained its unsectarian approach, including Fabians like the aptly named Hubert Bland in its programme. In March William addressed a good crowd there, 'Numbers of dock strikers were present and applauded frequently.' At the end of the month the LSS were proud to unfurl their new flag before a landing stage audience gathered to listen to a lecture from Edward Carpenter on, 'The Breakdown of Our Industrial System'.
On Sunday 13 April 1890 'afternoon and evening, comrade William Morris lectured to good audiences at Rodney Hall on, The Development of Modern Society and,The Social Outlook'. Chapman had expected Morris the previous November but he evidently proved worth waiting for as, 'papers and literature to the amount of £2 9s were disposed of.' Morris’ Liverpool lectures fused the ideas of Ruskin and Marx with a dash of his own interpretation of Medievalism and were subsequently published in that summer’s 'Commonweal'.
Chapman and Samuel Reeves were regular Sunday lecturers and on Sunday 11 May they were joined on the landing stage by 'celebrity' anarchist Charles Mowbray who was on a speaking tour of Lancashire at the time. The following Sunday William’s son, Edward, reported that when the LSS group arrived at the landing stage , 'we found it occupied by a party of religionists from the YMCA who coolly told us to find another stand. We determined to move them' and so whilst our speaker did his best, 'the rest of us made such a noise by selling the Commonweal and Justice and reading from the former that we eventually upset them…Thanks to the Christian intruders we had the largest meeting yet held.'
Significantly, in May 1890 LSS donated 3s 8d to the Commonweal Guarantee Fund suggesting that the group was both financially secure and generally sympathetic to the anti-parliamentary politics of the SL. Even more significant was the decision to delegate William Chapman to the forthcoming sixth Annual SL Conference in London. Held at the Communist Club, Tottenham Court Road, Chapman was elected to Chair the conference by the other fourteen delegates that included William Morris as well as anarchists Charles Mowbray, Max Nettlau, David Nicoll, James Tochatti, Frank Kitz, William Wess and Sam Mainwaring. 'When tea was over Mrs Tochatti sang a few revolutionary airs...Comrade Coulon (CD: a police spy!) gave La Carmagnole in French. In the evening the hall was filled with comrades who passed a very agreeable evening. The more enthusiastic carried on the festivities till the dawn of the day.'
The following Sunday found Chapman singing revolutionary songs on the Liverpool landing stage; 'The YMCA people again occupying our usual stand. We, however, took up our position back to back with them. While they sang hymns we sang the Marseillaise …the audience giving three hearty cheers for the social revolution.' In June both Chapman senior (William) and junior (Edward) actively supported the successful strike of Liverpool tailoresses, addressing and encouraging the women and collecting monies and administering the strike fund.
When the Trade Union movement held its twenty-third Congress in Hope Hall, Liverpool on September 1, Chapman issued a general invitation to any socialist attending to drop in at Stanley Street for a bit of comradely support for the union movement was generally still saturated with Liberalism.
Around this time William moved his restaurant a little way along Dale Street to occupy the commodious “Percy Buildings, Eberle Street” (now a gay bar with 'Liverpool Artists’ Club' upstairs). The LSS moved with him, subsequently holding its weekly indoor meeting at Eberle Street every Tuesday at 8pm. From these new spacious premises William Chapman also published revolutionary propaganda leaflets (“6d per 100 or 4s 6d per 1,000”). He composed a satirical, “STRIKE! POLICEMAN, STRIKE!”, song, to be sung to the tune of “Wait for the Wagon”.
“O STRIKE! Blue Peelers boldly.
And quit yourself like men;
Protect no more the robber class,
But leave them in their den.”
The song included a repeated four line, 'Strike down the Tyrants!' chorus as well as nine further verses.
Unfortunately Chapman’s dynamic campaigning for the SL wasn’t replicated down south. As the LSS successfully promoted an inclusive, non-sectarian anti-parliamentary politics the London anarchists around Commonweal went the other way, effectively alienating first William Morris and then most of its other non-insurrectionary supporters. By the end of 1890 Commonweal was in trouble and the SL was collapsing as a national organisation. LSS continued but as the appeal of the SL shrunk, Chapman’s politics appeared less viable to sympathetic unaligned socialists who began to drift ever closer to state-socialism.
Chapman sought encouragement from anarchist comrades in Sheffield in both 1890 and 1891 and mounted the soap box on both occasions but Sheffield soon followed London and fell under the influence of exaggerated class-war rhetoric. Having created havoc in Sheffield, manically militant anarchist John Creaghe decided to move on in November 1891 and ominously announced, 'I may be able to do something here in Liverpool'! After writing off William Chapman as 'an academic Anarchist' Creaghe, fortunately, soon moved on again leaving LSS intact but diminished.
In March 1892 'Mr Chas E Dodd read a paper before the Liverpool Socialist Society at their rooms, Percy Buildings, Eberle Street on The Socialist Way Out of Darkest England'. It was a depressingly statist presentation. The very same month the Liverpool Mercury informed correspondent 'A.F’.', 'There is no branch of the Fabian Socialist Society in Liverpool, two attempts to start one having failed. For information about the Liverpool Socialist Society apply to Mr Chapman, Eberle Street.' 'A.F.' wouldn’t have long to wait for long-time SLL activist Samuel Reeves was about to take over as Secretary of the LSS and assert himself as an enthusiastically parliamentary Fabian. The Chapmans didn’t abandon anarchism but their libertarian influence was soon swamped by a rising tide of servile state-socialist Labourism. In October 1893 Blackburn journalist Jesse Quail reflected on the transformation, 'In Liverpool there was a local independent Socialist Society, but it dissolved itself some eighteen months ago and its members joined the Liverpool Fabian Society, which was then formed.'
In 1893, both Chapmans made substantial donations to support anarchist Christopher Davis, imprisoned for smashing a Birmingham jeweller’s window and scattering valuables across the pavement as a protest against poverty and unemployment. Despite the disappointment of the LSS William continued to supply practical as well as political support to the impoverished and in a period of economic depression in February 1895, 'During the past week about 100 free breakfasts have been provided daily at Chapman’s Vegetarian Restaurant but…it is Mr Chapman’s wish to provide two meals per day and he therefore begs to state that assistance, either goods or money, will be gladly received at 6 Percy Buildings, Eberle Street.'
Chapman helped local workers organise and in December 1895 his restaurant hosted a meeting aimed at establishing a branch of the 'National Clerks Association…After a discussion the nucleus of a branch of the NCA was formed and the members arranged to meet in the same room on Friday evening next.'
Cultural and political alternatives continued to flourish at William’s restaurant but it was lean years for Liverpool anarchism that would only reignite in the run-up to World War One and by then Chapman was no more.
Beneath the headline, 'FERRY-BOAT MYSTERY', in January 1910 newspapers reported that, 'The Wallasey police are endeavouring to solve the mystery connected with the disappearance of Mr William Hensby Chapman of Liverpool, who kept a vegetarian restaurant. He has been missing since Tuesday and was last seen on board a ferry-boat at New Brighton. There were few passengers on the steamer, the night was dark and he was not observed to land either at Egremont or Liverpool. Subsequently a coat was found on the boat. Attached to it was a paper on which was written, Adieu Chapman. Mr Chapman was 75 years of age.'
Christopher Draper (“NORTHERN ANARCHIST LIVES -3”)