Saturday, 30 April 2016

Chesterfield’s 'Anarchist of the Abyss'

by Christopher Draper

FOR seven weeks in 1903 Jack London dossed down with drifters and derelicts in East End lodging houses.  On returning to America, Jack famously published his account of these exploits as the hugely influential, 'People of the Abyss'.  Three years earlier, a Chesterfield anarchist published an account of life in common lodging houses drawn from a lifetime’s experience tramping around the North as a militant navvy.  Andrew Hall’s historic account has been completely ignored and his activism unappreciated, until now.

Hall was defiantly bottom drawer, a navvy who looked, lived and spoke the part and no intellectual slouch. According to the local paper, at a Hull 'Paris Commune Commemoration' in 1893, Andrew 'traced back the history of the fight now pending for more bread and more pleasures of life for the toilers…He held that it was better to die fighting than starve like a rat in a hole.'  Andrew Hall was a navvy with attitude.

Born in Coatbridge in 1851, as a teenager Andrew laboured in coal mines until, aged 17, a protracted strike forced him to leave home and seek work south of the border.  On the tramp around Newcastle, Bishop Auckland and Durham, Andrew slept in common lodging houses until he found employment navvying on the railways. After a period in the early eighties employed on the 'Hull to Barnsley', Hall followed the line south to London. 

Years wielding a pick in cold, wet, dangerous conditions meant “Navvy Hall” didn’t need lectures from metropolitan soap box agitators to hate bosses but he lapped up their ideas of an organised fight back. In 1886 Andy joined the Hampstead branch of Britain’s first Marxist party, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

To militants of the SDF Andrew certainly looked the business. In complete contrast to frock-coated, top-hatted stockbroker Henry Mayhew Hyndman, the party’s self-appointed leader. Hall’s fustian jacket, flat cap and twisted muffler shouted “navvy”. Both cap and jacket were flamboyantly discarded as Andy invariably introduced himself to audiences with the words, “I’m Andrew Hall the navvy!” Crowds loved him but the authorities despised the rabble-rousing “Navvy Hall”. 

Hall’s agitational ability was immediately exploited by the party elite who allotted him a prime spot on the “Number 2 platform” at the NW corner of Trafalgar Square for their Sunday 29th August 1886 demo. The rambling resolution put to the crowd concluded by urging the SDF, “to secure for the producing classes collective control over the railways, shipping, mines, factories, machinery and land…and to recommence at once their vigorous agitation in favour of the organization of the labour of the unemployed.”

The press denounced the rhetoric but praised the attire of most platform performers, 'Nearly all the orators wore red ties, scarf, rosette, ribbon or red flowers. Not a few were well dressed and wore top hats'. Sartorial standards were maintained by the socialists at the evening’s celebratory dinner, 'The company might have been one entire and perfect bourgeoisie in the predominance of black coat and the hat of civilisation…one of the few exceptions was the navvy Hall, who literally came in his working clothes, though they were very clean ones and who sat at meal with his shirt sleeves tucked up and showing the brown arms as high as the elbows and in his belcher twisted with nautical freedom round his sinewy throat.'

In September Hall was arrested for “obstruction”, along with comrade Ernest Rossiter, for speaking from a chair in Bell Street, London. According to police, “He was surrounded by about 500 people, entirely blocking the roadway and footway…During the meeting three cabs passed along Bell Street and had to pull up and stop, while the speakers got off their stand and a way was made through the crowd for them to pass. The cabmen and the fares were booed by the crowd and one cab and fare was followed and chased into Edgeware Road.”
Religionists and temperance soap-boxers who caused similar obstruction were ignored by public authorities who confined their efforts to driving socialist agitators off the streets.

A month later, the Sussex Courier, suggested the SDF’s new roving agitator was guilty of more than obstruction and dress-code faux pas, intimating that, “Navvy Andrew Hall whose outrageous threats and language towards the upper and trading classes” had incited Tunbridge Wells’ socialists to embark on an incendiary spree causing considerable damage to three commercial premises. 

On 9 November 1886, the day of the London Lord Mayor’s Show, Andrew Hall, Tom Mann and comrades organised an unofficial Trafalgar Square counter-demonstration to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed and the public’s right to free speech. It was promptly banned by the authorities but as a defiant crowd gathered, “Andrew Hall -  who previous to addressing the crowd, took off his coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves – said, amid great cheering, that they meant to show Sir Charles Warren that no unauthorised and irresponsible Chief Constable was to be allowed to proclaim a meeting of British subjects…at no distant date the working men would raise in their strength and sweep away the last vestiges of despotism…The speaker’s gesture bespoke a considerable acquaintance with the art of self-defence – Looks as if he wanted to hit him a clip under the jaw – remarked a critical bearer – and this won him the sympathy of the crowd.”

“The resolutions had scarcely been passed when the police…commenced to clear the Square. The foot police pushed and elbowed the people off as well as they could and were aided by mounted police. A body of Life Guards was sent by Sir Charles Warren and immediately rode up”. Andrew’s politics were too revolutionary for the SDF, not straightforward Marxism nor undiluted anarchy but more an iconoclastic libertarian communism. He was deeply suspicious of constitutional politics and a powerful advocate of insurrection. 

After the Trafalgar Square demo the SDF sent Hall north. According to the Times, “The relief of the unemployed is becoming a serious question in Northampton. Many persons are out of employment and meetings of Socialists and the unemployed are held on Sunday mornings. A London Socialist named Hall appeared at the police-court yesterday with a following of unemployed and Socialists. He asked the magistrates for assistance and on account of his behaviour was ordered out of the place. Hall then harangued the crowd outside the Town-Hall…Hall advised the men to attend the police court in hundreds next morning and show the magistrates they would not be trampled on by the police nor by the upper classes…The following day police arrested two local men assisting Hall’s campaign. They were questioned and following their eventually release an open-air demonstration was held on the large market square, when the navvy Hall made a bitter speech against the Corporation.”

The following Sunday Andrew was recalled to London to speak from the platform at another mass demo in Trafalgar Square. “Sir Charles Warren has at his disposal not less than 4,000 men, nearly a hundred of whom are mounted… and two guns of the Royal Horse Artillery battery will be located in the vicinity of Charing Cross…loose stones and debris, which might be used as missiles were removed from the streets…” but they needn’t have worried, the socialists were well behaved. Not so the following February when Hall played a leading role in disrupting a religious service at St Paul’s Cathedral. The SDF issued the following (abbreviated) statement, “The Archbishop of Canterbury has been asked to preach to the unemployed next Sunday in St Paul’s Cathedral on a text chosen by one of our comrades, Let him that stole steal no more but rather let him labour…Modern Christianity is essentially a middle-class creed with a capitalist paradise here and hereafter held up before its votaries to cheer them on in their struggle for personal gain on earth and individual glorification in Heaven.” Andrew and chums secreted themselves inside the Cathedral whilst most of the demonstrators stayed outside with banners and flags, “Most of which were red but some were black with white letters…one sentence ran, I was hungry and ye gave me no meat . Another was, I was naked and ye clothed me not. The red flags were
surmounted by caps of Liberty”. “That the purpose of the gathering was to disturb the congregation and to scoff at religion was very early seen…The doors were closed and then there were heard by those under the dome the sounds of speech-making and cheering…from the spot where the disturbance occurred came the navvy Andrew Hall.” No arrests were made and Navvy Hall continued campaigning for revolution without regard for the approval of the authorities or the party hierarchy.

In February 1887, after the authorities banned a torchlit parade Andrew had organised to pass through the West End he held a token demonstration at Clerkenwell Green. Torches were defiantly lit, Hall’s incendiary rhetoric delivered and an hour’s frenzied window smashing and riot ensued before the police finally regained control of the streets. A few weeks later, after one of Andrew’s SDF colleagues was harassed and then arrested by police, Hall organised an “Indignation Meeting” at Marble Arch that thousands attended. “Mr Hall (a navvy who took his coat off to speak though a few snowflakes were falling) said that for the future when one comrade was arrested Sir Charles Warren would find that ten men would jump into the breach (Cheers).”

By 1888 Andrew had already accrued eleven arrests and considered it expedient to go navvying on the “Towcester & Olney”. Revisiting Northampton he supported the SDF election campaign with Hyndman but his help proved a two-edged sword as the local candidate observed, “The press boycotted (his campaign) until the services of Navvy Hall were obtained and no sooner did he use rough language that his remarks were inserted.” Hall’s rough language offended polite society and Mr Hyndman was not amused but this only encouraged Andrew to ditch SDF Marxism and embrace the anti-parliamentary politics of the Socialist League (SL).

In 1889 Navvy Hall moved north to Chesterfield where he helped Raymond Unwin start an SL inspired socialist group and attracted the favourable attention of Edward Carpenter. In June, Edward cycled over from Millthorpe with his friend Jim Shortland, “with a bicycle between us, to Chesterfield for an evening meeting in the market-place. There is a navvy there – Andrew Hall – a regular rough looking chap who lives in a common lodging house, who speaks on Socialism every Sunday evening. He has read a lot of history and all sorts and speaks well. There was an attentive audience of 400 to 500.”

On Sunday 1st June 1890 the pair shared a platform, “In the morning Andrew spoke on Brimmington Common and in the evening a large audience assembled in the Market Place and in spite of the rain kept together and listened attentively to the addresses given by comrades Hall and Carpenter”. In Sheffield, a couple of weeks later, “Our comrade Andrew Hall, from Chesterfield, addressed some very large meetings.” Two weeks after that, in Nottingham, Andrew addressed a conference of socialist clubs. Hall returned to Nottingham in late July where his militant brand of socialism was much appreciated, “Andrew Hall of Chesterfield gave three stirring addresses to very large audiences. He created great interest by the way in which he spoke of gaining our object by any means. He advocated the same methods in defence of our cause as were used against us. We are expecting some lively meetings when our comrade again visits us which he has promised to do in a few weeks time.” When he visited Leicester in early August, “Hall’s evening address was truly eloquent and the audience was much impressed.” The Hull dockers were equally impressed a couple of weeks later, though the unappreciative police arrested him for “obstruction”. Fined five shillings plus costs, Andrew refused to pay and was sent down for seven days. When Tyneside libertarians founded Newcastle Communist Anarchist group in December, Navvy Hall was the man they chose to headline their first public event where he “addressed a large workmen’s meeting on the Quay and in the evening spoke against Parliamentary action.”

Andrew’s fiery spirit struck a chord with Sheffield navvies who begged him to represent them against the bosses. In autumn 1890 the Working Man’s Times reported that, “Mr Andrew
Hall, the Secretary of the Sheffield and District General Labourer’s Union has been actively engaged during the past weeks organising men at various firms in the town and much credit is due to him for the energy he has shown in that direction…We are bound to admit that whilst admiring the ability of the lecturer, we think such statements as ”that if all capitalists went to ---- tomorrow we could do without them”, are calculated to do more harm than good and would counsel moderation on some of these points.” Forty years on one old labourer recalled Andrew’s militancy in the Sheffield Daily Independent, “Navvy Hall’s policy was Strike first and negotiate afterwards!”

It wasn’t long before Andrew’s men exercised their collective muscle as trouble erupted at Messrs Samuel Osborne and Company’s Rutland Works. After a foreman tried to discipline eight labourers the rest came out in sympathy and instructed the management to negotiate through Secretary Hall. “The men have today chalked the walls with the word STRIKE and on the door has been written: Don’t come to work here there is a strike!” 

Invariably labelled “Socialist”, Navvy Hall’s politics were roughly anarchist and he often accompanied well-known libertarian speakers on the most advanced platforms. In November 1890 Andrew commemorated the judicial killing of the Chicago anarchists alongside Cores, Samuels, Charles and Maguire at Leeds. At another Commemoration alongside Cores, Creaghe, Samuels et al at Sheffield Hall was “received with the utmost enthusiasm by the large audience”. By then Andrew’s fiery rhetoric had begun to worry the more pacific Carpenter faction. George Hukin recorded his own anxiety in a letter to Carpenter, “I suppose you’ll have heard how Andrew Hall during his speech dropped to his knees and, well I’ll give you his own words; “With the shadow of the rope hanging over me, I call upon each of you to vow with me that we will never rest till the murder of our Comrade has been avenged, blood for blood and life for life” and etc. There was a good big meeting and nearly everybody held up their hands for the vow. I must say I didn’t like the proceedings much – too much blood and vengeance about it.”

Undeterred, in 1891 Andrew commemorated Chicago at the old Alhambra Palace in Porter Street, Hull alongside anarchists Naewiger (future biog), Gustav Smith, George Cores and Chas Reynolds. His political principals proved more enduring than his union career. Despite adding the endorsement of Tyneside labourers to his appointment by the Sheffield men he soon met opposition from union “moderates”. As local unions merged to create a national organisation a bureaucratic mentality and strike-averse policy developed, which Hall virulently opposed and he didn’t expect any support from Sheffield Trades Council; “The gravamen of the charges was that that body was the tool of the Liberal Party and that it was doing nothing in the interests of the working classes…The working classes did not get a fair share of what they produced and would not do so as long as they had trade union officials who were drawing their £2, £3 and £4 per week for doing nothing. He did not believe in paying such high salaries. They ought to be paid at the same rate as when they were working in the shop and then they would not go among the better classes for he found when they did and they got onto Town councils and other offices they were no good to working men.” In 1892 Hall resigned in disgust from the union he’d help create. 

Throughout the 1890’s Hall was based at the Beehive Common Lodging House, Knifesmith Gate, Chesterfield. The Derbyshire Courier published a brief description, “The rooms on the ground floor are dark and the ceilings low and broken. The walls of the bedrooms on the ground floor are damp and the floor is paved with bricks. The living room for the lodgers is dark, its floor is in bad repair and it is unfit for use. The scullery and pantry are roofed with glass skylights which are in a very bad state of repair. The back yard is small and its surface in bad repair as are the also the floors of the slop-closet privies. Only three of the eight bedrooms on the first floor are fit for use…” but according to Andrew it was preferable to other doss houses. At Alfreton “there’s three men, or if there is a double bed, six men for each bed (or rather bundle of rags, which is a more accurate description) every 24 hours: the moment one man gets out there is another waiting to take his place”.  

In March 1893 Andrew Hall revisited Hull to speak at the Liberty Club Commune Celebration (as referred to in the introduction). Andrew “held that the worker was kept, in a large extent, in ignorance by the parson who sometimes stated that it is God’s will that some people should be poor…it was the will of the profit monger and sweater. He referred to the gallant conduct of the soldiers of ’71 who, when ordered to fire on the people, refused to do so, and fraternised with the people. He held that it was better to die fighting than starve like a rat in a hole; and a bullet at a barricade was more preferable than a crust in a slum. He held that a man who starved was a coward.” 

Andrew spent the summer of 1893 navvying at the Loughborough sewage works. By September he was back at the Beehive when a fellow lodger and his mate were killed navvying in separate incidents at Calow tunnel. Thomas Carrigan was crushed by a fall of dirt in a “shoot hole” following the death just the day before of John Morris who was hit by a runaway wagon. Mr Busby, the coroner made no criticism of safety on site, simply recording both fatalities as “Accidental death”. 

Without abandoning his revolutionary ideas in 1893 Andrew Hall joined the newly founded Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the following July at a huge gathering in Sheffield he spoke from the platform alongside Labour luminaries Keir Hardie, Pete Curran and Emmiline Pankhurst. Ignoring ILP policy, Andrew continued to also speak up for anarchism. As late as November 1896 Hall was billed alongside Louise Michel, Joseph Perry, Alfred Marsh, John Turner, Will Banham and Herbert Stockton (future biog) at what Freedom described as “the largest ever commemoration of the Chicago anarchists” at Holborn Town Hall. 

As the century came to a close so (almost) did the English anarchist movement, eclipsed by Labourism. Andrew Hall was too old for navvying and in September 1900 was glad to accept an offer of employment as live-in manager of the Beehive. As a local personality, the editor of the Derbyshire Times commissioned Andrew to reflect on his lifetime’s experience of common lodging houses across the North. The result was a fascinating series of articles published in the paper as, “Sketches of Lodging House Life”; and then nothing.

In 1905 Chesterfield Council condemned the Beehive as “unfit for human habitation” and it was pulled down without a murmur from Andrew. Where was he? He wasn’t among a handful of anarchists whose activism survived until the 1910 syndicalist revival and he never rose through the ranks of the Labour Party. Did he just retire from activism or perhaps succumb to early death and an unmarked grave? 

Peace & Love
Christopher Draper
(Northern Anarchist Lives – 4)
(NAL: 1 Oldham Anarchism, 2 Lupton from Leeds, 3 A Liverpool Nut Case…next month… NAL 5 – “Frank Kapper’s Cunning Plan”)

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