NEWCASTLE was slow to embrace anarchism. Previous Northern Anarchist Lives instalments illustrated how Oldham, Leeds, Liverpool and Chesterfield all pioneered anarchy, but Newcastle soon made up for lost time. Once Francis Kapper arrived in 1889 he began a chain of events that gained Tyneside a unique position in international anarchist history.
Born in 1858 in the Bohemian town of Slany, twenty-five kilometres north-west of Prague, Kapper grew up in a cultural vortex of nationalist and revolutionary politics. Nowadays in the Czech Republic, Slany was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and more commonly referred to by its German name of Schlan. Inspired by the violent rhetoric of Johann Most, in 1882 Francis declared himself a revolutionary anarchist. When his activism attracted the unwelcome attention of the authorities Kapper opted for exile.
Around 1887 Francis arrived in London, where he worked as a ladies’ tailor and helped establish the Autonomie Club and its associated newspaper, “Die Autonomie”, edited by Norwegian anarchist Rasmus Gunderson. After a couple of years work dried up and Kapper headed north in search of employment. Settling in Newcastle, in November 1890 he founded the town’s first 'Anarchist-Communist Group'. By the middle of the following month he was confident enough to advertise weekly meetings at Lockhart’s Café, Bigg Market. Newcastle Anarchist-Communist Group’s (NACG) first guest speaker, on Sunday 28 December 1890 was 'Comrade Andrew Hall – the Socialist Navvy of Chesterfield' (see Northern Anarchist Lives 4), who 'addressed a large workmen’s
meeting on the Quay, and in the evening spoke against Parliamentary action.'
In those halcyon days before 'Labourism' suffocated activism, NACG wasted no opportunity in steering the local labour movement away from the illusory appeal of electoral politics. In the new year NACG hosted a series of public debates where anarchist speakers opposed the statist program of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In March the libertarians explained their positive alternative with a talk on, 'Organisation under Anarchism'. Underlining the revolutionary aspect of their politics, on “Monday 22, Comrade Kapper opened a discussion on the Paris Commune. The opening was a very interesting review of the Commune and the events which led up to it. Great interest was evinced by the asking of many questions afterwards.”
Lockhart’s chain of refreshment rooms was a much loved feature of old Newcastle and in 1892 NACG switched their Saturday 8.30pm open meetings from the Bigg Market branch to “Lockhart’s Cocoa Room” at 37 Clayton Street. In the same place on Mondays at 7.30pm, Kapper offered French classes to the general public. An accomplished linguist, Kapper wasted no opportunity for politicking by providing students with excerpts from Kropotkin’s books as translation exercises. The group also organised Tuesday classes at the Cocoa Room for the study of Herbert Spencer’s “Data of Ethics” and even the NACG’s street corner agit-prop invariably included elements of education. This reflected the development of Kapper’s own anarchism which had moved away from revolutionary violence towards voluntary cooperation, yet still accepting others might find themselves trapped in circumstances leaving little alternative.
With NACG well-established, at the end of 1892 Kapper moved a few miles south to Sunderland to take up a tailoring job with Alexander Corder, a prominent local shopkeeper. Corder had recently moved into prestigious purpose-built premises (now Grade II listed) at 21 Fawcett Street, Sunderland after his previous shop had burned to the ground. “Lady Clara Vere de Vere invariably consults Messrs Corder about her bewitching ball costumes, and there could be no more bewitching ball costumes! The firm have taken a workshop on the ground floor 36ft X 24ft for the confection of tailor-made dresses and have a most superior cutter on the premises so that an elegant fit may be guaranteed.” Alexander Corder proved a sympathetic employer and as a Quaker activist he publicly opposed the government’s “Irish Coercion Act” and he wasn’t the only patron Kapper acquired in Sunderland.
His new job didn’t divert Francis from politics as Freedom reported; “ A new group has been formed in Sunderland and as our energetic comrade Kapper is there now we expect it will soon be a big group”. In May 1894 the retail co-operative movement held its annual Congress in Sunderland and Kapper secured a ticket enabling him to attend discussions and debates. A few speakers urged the organisation to go beyond cooperative retailing to promote producer co-ops and this ignited Kapper’s imagination. Since translating Kropotkin’s books for his Newcastle French classes he’d pondered the idea of growing crops under glass in cooperative enterprise as “anarchy in action”. The Congress helped him formulate a cunning plan. Conversations with two inspiring individuals at the Congress provided further encouragement. Tolstoyan anarchist John Coleman Kenworthy (future biog) supplied ideological support whilst John Key, a government contractor and public house licensee offered finance.
In March 1895 Kapper and Key published a prospectus addressed “To all Friends and Sympathisers of Land Colonisation” and especially to the “more fortunate brothers and sisters” with jobs and therefore money to help launch “A Free Communist and Co-operative Colony.” Instead of waiting for the revolution, Kapper aimed to show Kropotkin’s theories of mutual aid and anarchist-communism could be effected immediately. He wrote asking him to act as treasurer for their intended agricultural colony, recognising that Kropotkin’s reputation would attract publicity and financial support for their scheme. Kropotkin replied: “By no means should I like to discourage you and your comrades…” but he nevertheless declined to act as treasurer as he “had little confidence in schemes of communistic communes started under present conditions.”
Kropotkin offered advice but other anarchists came up with cash. William Morris’s Hammersmith Socialist Society sent money, so did an anonymous “Wealthy London Anarchist” (possibly George Davison) whilst Nannie Dryhurst and her lover Henry Nevison sent eight pounds. Sufficiently encouraged Francis Kapper got on his bike (bought on hire-purchase) and cycled around looking for a suitable site before settling on a smallholding near Heaton on the north-eastern fringe of Newcastle. A couple of year later the Clarion concisely described the enterprise:
'Several Newcastle Communists resolve to test experimentally theories propounded by Prince Kropotkin in his work La Conquete de Pain. With that object they took a farm at Clousden Hill, consisting of twenty acres of inferior land… There is, we believe, nothing else like it throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles. It is an experiment in Communism as applied to farm life.'
There was huge interest in the scheme and lots of applicants asked to join. Although colonists came and went, a core of about twenty-four, including half a dozen children, settled. Of these, only about a third could fairly be described as anarchists with the rest assorted socialists (SDF, Home Colonisation Association and ILP). Some were local but they included Southerners, Scots, a Belgian, a German, a Dane, two Czechs and a Swiss. There were tailors, a shoemaker, a philosopher, coal miner, engineer, a clerk and a couple of gardeners but precious few had any farming experience. On the face of it, a mixed bunch facing a stiff challenge.
Even the anarchist faction weren’t of one mind and it’s worth examining who they were. Besides Kapper there were six more anarchists, four single men, Richard Gundersen, Christopher Davis, Ladislaus Gumplowitz and Francis Sedlak and married couple, “Frank” and “Elizabeth” Starr and their four year old daughter, Amy. Richard was the nineteen year old son of Rasmus Gundersen, Kapper’s comrade back in the days of the Autonomie Club. Frances Joseph Starr (1866-1931) and Amy Elizabeth Starr (b.1869) were a London couple keen to give practical effect to their Tolstoyan beliefs. Francis Sedlak (1873-1935) was a countryman of Kapper’s and a Tolstoyan who’d travelled widely, including a trip to Russia to meet the man himself. A determined pacifist, Sedlak had already seen the inside of several jails. Gumplowicz (1869-1942), an old comrade of Gustave Landauer, was a German
Professor of Law, recently released from a Berlin prison for upsetting the authorities by speaking up for the unemployed. Christopher Charles Davis (b.1863) was also not long out of gaol. Cruelly abused as a child by his father, in the words of his friends:
'Davis grew up to be a street-ruffian, a terror to all respectable folk, oftener in prison than out, until (in 1886) chancing to be on Clerkenwell Green he heard an exposition of Socialism…a hope was kindled in his mind…the old rackety life became a thing of the past”. In 1893 Davis made a dramatic political protest, smashing a Birmingham jeweller’s window with a brick and hurling the valuable contents across the highway. In court Davis made an impassioned political plea from the dock concluding with an invitation to the jury to refuse judgement and instead walk out of the building. They declined to do so and as he was sentenced to 15 months with hard labour he defiantly yelled, “Hurrah for Anarchy!'
At Clousden, even the jailbirds proved pacific. Chris Davies was celebrated for his entertaining recitations whilst one of the state-socialists, Rudolph Wunderlich (1869-1933), was a wizard on the mandolin but finance remained a continuing anxiety; there was sufficient to cover the lease but seeds, animals, greenhouses, tools and much besides also had to be paid for. A few colonists contributed a little capital to the scheme and Kapper kept working at Corder’s for a while to supply supplementary income but money was tight. When anarchist pioneer of the Garden City Movement, Bernhard Kampffmeyer, visited in October 1895 he reported his admiration and anxiety to Freedom:
'All that I saw there seemed to me very interesting; the men appeared to me skilful, practical, industrious and to possess the essential quality of being able to agree with each other. In short the general conditions promise a success in my opinion. But one thing is lacking: - Too eager to realise their ideal, too sanguine to wait any longer, these men made perhaps the mistake of starting without the necessary capital…'
Kropotkin visited in January 1896 and appeared reassured, “he was much gratified with what he had seen and the manner in which the farm was being worked.” Tom Mann, Jim Connell, Tom Maguire and Elisee Reclus all witnessed Clousden’s anarchy in action. There was so much interest that eventually the community asked intending visitors to book ahead and arrive at convenient times, allowing colonists adequate opportunity to work their smallholding.
Visited by a reporter from the Northern Echo in August 1896:
'Whilst we stood in the tomato house admiring the splendid fruit produced by the Excelsior, General Grant and Perfection varieties Mr Kapper related the conditions under which they first set to work. The holding consisted of twelve acres of grassland, six acres of standing oats and a quarter acre of potatoes. There was a house, barn, pig-sty, cow-byre, stable etc. and we took over for £100 the stock, implements, standing crop of oats and the hay crop. The latter was cut and we only had to stack it. The oats we mowed by hand and found it very stiff work. In November we purchased a cow which paid well for herself bringing in £1 a week for seven or eight weeks. We also fed up two pigs. We did what we could in the way of breaking up the ground with the spade for garden purposes. Altogether we brought about four acres of ground into garden state and planted it with peas (which gave a very good return) cabbages, potatoes etc.'
'We have bought' said Comrade Kapper 'about 2,000 fruit bushes – currants, gooseberries etc. – to replace the old wood that we found on the place when we took it. We are also starting a small orchard.'
Both Newcastle and Sunderland Co-operative Societies supported the project by purchasing produce and sales were generally good but production was problematic. The large glasshouse blew down twice in the course of construction and a tall chimney collapsed of its own accord because of inept, unskilled construction. Despite the colony’s formally stated principles, women ended up doing “women’s work” whilst many of the men did little work at all. In truth, most colonists rapidly discovered their view of living the good life on the land didn’t match the reality of long gruelling hours labouring in cold, muddy fields sustained only by idealism and a basic monotonous diet.
Despite the difficulties Kapper remained upbeat and in October 1897 travelled down to Essex to help fellow anarchist James Evans establish another settlement, as Reynold’s News reported:
'Mr Kapper the founder of the successful Anarchist colony at Clousden Hill Farm, near Newcastle-on-Tyne is a working tailor. The colony is managed on purely Anarchist principles. There is no Government Committee, no majority rule, all business being settled by unanimous agreement and in a public meeting of colonists. The question of wages has also received a solution, every member of the community taking sufficient for his needs from the wealth accumulated by the labour of all.'
To one disillusioned ex-colonist, Kapper’s encomium was a red rag to a bull as Reynold’s News observed: 'With reference to the Kapper Anarchist Colony at Clousden Hill Farm, Forest Hall near Newcastle, Charles Richardson, an ex-colonist, 54, Hall Street, South Shields, denies that the colony is a success. It is, he says, in debt and members are leaving for the towns to seek work. He also alleges that the majority of the members are not Anarchists, one member frequently blocking all business.'
The colony struggled on but the cat was out of the bag and confidence both externally and internally collapsed. Ideological fault lines widened into unbridgeable divisions and within a year all pretence of Anarchist-Communism was abandoned. The colony broke up leaving just two non-anarchist gardeners, Rudolph Wunderlich and Hans Rasmussen to run the smallholding on strictly commercial lines until their business was declared bankrupt in 1902.
Of the six anarchist colonists only Sedlak wanted to continue the experiment. He walked from Newcastle to join an Essex colony but on discovering that too had disintegrated, continued on to the Cotswolds. There he joined the Whiteway colony where he formed a “free-union” with anarchist author, Nellie Shaw, with whom he lived happily ever after until his death in 1935.
Kapper, in the worst anarchist tradition, neglected to evaluate the results of this unique libertarian experiment, reinforcing the opinion of critics who consider the failure of Clousden as the inevitable result of naive politics. After the collapse Francis resumed full-time ladies’ tailoring, moved to Southampton, embraced bourgeois values and in 1910 married tailoress Ethel May Slawson. Ethel Kapper operated her own business, “RITA – COSTUMIER & MILLINER” from Commercial Road, Southampton whilst Francis ran a separate tailoring business from home at 8 Cranbury Place. Kapper was only once reminded of Newcastle, when he supplied clothes to Charles Gulliver, an actor appearing in pantomime there. After Gulliver failed to pay his bill, Kapper had no hesitation in suing him for the money.
Francis Sedlak 'attributed the failure of the Communistic colony to the fact that theorists who promoted it looked only to the good qualities of mankind, forgetting the ill – Egotism is inherent in this – he said, and it is idle to pretend not to be conscious of it.'
Frank Starr largely agreed with this conclusion:
'The cause of its non-success was our poor human nature. All wanted to lead and none would follow…many had shirked the work, or had only done it when and how they pleased… None were there with a view to making money and if a few were the poorer for it they had gained experience and health, which as Emerson says is the first wealth…In conclusion, he said he had enough of Communism. We were a bit too previous. In another existence – say 5,000 years hence – a Communistic settlement might have a chance.'
In 1901 Whiteway also abandoned anarchist-communism as unworkable but unlike Clousden it didn’t disintegrate but instead embraced a more practical mutualist, Proudhonian model. Regretably, most anarchists ignored these practical demonstrations of Kropotkin’s over-optimism but we don’t know what Kapper concluded for he lost interest in anarchism; dying, aged 72 in 1930 in Southampton, a respected businessman.
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