by Christopher Draper
John Coleman Kenworthy was one of the North’s most original anarchists. In the 1890’s JCK was Britain’s leading Tolstoyan but his brand of thoughtful, exemplary anarchism is anathema to today’s intolerant adolescent agitators. His ideas are ignored and his life forgotten. Kenworthy didn’t get a mention in Peter Marshall’s monumental 'History of Anarchism', nor George Woodcock’s five-hundred page chronicle and David Goodway overlooked him in 'Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow'. Predating these publications, Max Nettlau’s 'Short History of Anarchism', provides a terse description, 'Christian anarchist writer and journalist' but perceptively emphasises Kenworthy’s Tolstoyan philosophy, 'is rich in libertarian insights we can find nowhere else.'
As a Northerner and friend of Jesus it’s unsurprising JCK is overlooked by modern Metropolitan anarchists and even Nettlau failed to accurately record his birth in Everton on 2nd May 1861. JCK’s dad, another John, was an often absent master-mariner who died in 1881 while his mother, Amelia nee Coleman, was a Manchester-born stay-at-home mum.
Raised as a well-educated Methodist, and early on influenced by the ideas of Emerson, Henry George, Ruskin and William Morris, from his late teenage years John was active in the Liverpool socialist movement. Kenworthy then joined Ruskin’s “Guild of St George” and in 1885 became an enthusiastic committee member of Liverpool’s Ruskin Society (LRS, founded 1883). The LRS programme of public talks brought Kenworthy into contact with a variety of interesting characters and he was instrumental in bringing William Morris to Liverpool to address the Society. By then he was already a family man, with a young son, having married local girl, Eleanor Emily Robinson on 11th September 1883 at St Catherine’s Church, Tranmere.
Throughout the 1880’s Kenworthy’s politics could be loosely described as Christian Socialist but reading a couple of Tolstoy’s books, 'My Religion' and 'What Then Must We Do', in 1890, prompted him to question received opinion of both Jesus and politics. Before arriving at any mature conclusion he departed for America to start a well remunerated career managing a big bacon factory.
Tolstoy Saves JCK’s Bacon
On Christmas Eve 1890 John Coleman Kenworthy and his wife Eleanor and three young children, George, Agnes and Frederick sailed aboard the Adriatic from Liverpool for New York but he never boiled any American bacon. After arriving in the States JCK read the Kreutzner Sonata and like a bolt from the blue realised commerce drove an immoral system and he must to strike out in a diametrically opposite direction, for as Tolstoy explained:
'We live as though we had no connection with the dying washerwoman, the fifteen year-old prostitutes, the woman fagged out by cigarette making and the strained, excessive labour of the old women and children around us who lack a sufficiency of food; we live – enjoying ourselves in luxury – as if there were no connection between those things and our life; we do not wish to see that were it not for our idle, luxurious and depraved way of life, there would not be this excessive toil, and that without this excessive toil such lives as ours would be impossible.'
Kenworthy abandoned business and sought the company of radicals like Ernest Crosby, the USA’s leading promoter of Tolstoy’s works and ideas. Tolstoy denied Christianity its pomp and pretension, insisting on the raw, radical teachings of Christ. Back to the basics of the Sermon on the Mount, 'Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.' Tolstoy’s respect for the Christian Church ended at the fourth century when it ceased opposing authority and climbed into bed with the Emperor Constantine. The Established Church abandoned the dispossessed to become the official religion of the ruling class, the Imperial Roman State. The Christian Church sold its soul for a mess of potage.
Tolstoy rejected the State which he recognised as the embodiment of force and violence and loyalty to the State amounted to idolatry. Kenworthy embraced Tolstoy as a Christian Anarchist comrade and so in New York he teamed up with John Edelman and ex-Manchester libertarian, William Charles Owen to found an American William Morris-style Socialist League. After a transformative eighteen months in the States, Kenworthy returned with his family to work amongst the dispossessed of London’s East End.
'Fellowship of the New Life'
On 29 July 1892, the Kenworthys arrived in England aboard the Mississippi. The family lodged at 6 St Andrew’s Road, Plaistow whilst John worked on various cooperative projects associated with the Mansfield House University Settlement Scheme. By exploiting old contacts, in 1893 JCK persuaded Liverpool’s Henry Lee Jones Charity to supply his projects with, 'two soup cookers and four children’s soup corners'. In 1893, he distilled his experiences and political thinking into book entitled, 'The Anatomy of Misery; Plain Lectures on Economics'.
During his time at Mansfield House Kenworthy lectured to The Fellowship of the New Life and wrote for their magazine, Seed Time, which introduced him to Edward Carpenter, Bernard Shaw, Agnes Henry, Henry Salt, Olive Schreiner, John Bruce Wallace and Havelock Ellis. In Seed Time he explained:
'In our bitterness of heart we have listened to the negations of Karl Marx and shut our ears to the words of the true prophets of the Reconstruction (Carlyle and Ruskin). The healing of society must come from within, through individuals and communities who by living and extending the new life, will at last cast off from Society the slough of the old.'
In 1894 JCK explained his libertarian approach to the anarchist journal FREEDOM under the heading, 'Reconstruction', he firstly expressed his disdain for electoral politics,'Why should we waste time, thought and energy in pulling the legislative jumping-jack which the exploiting classes have set up at Westminster for us to play with?' Latterly he outlined his constructive alternative:
'If a real co-operative union of workers on a Socialist and fraternal plan were once largely adopted by men and women who possessed the needed right spirit, our country – nay Europe might be fired to a revolution of peace and industry, more deadly to classism, exploitation and oppression of man by man than the whole sum of armed uprising which have been since the world began.'
During 1894 Kenworthy planted the seeds of this new society. He teamed up with John Bruce Wallace to found a 'Brotherhood Trust' in an attempt to organize a million enthusiasts within four years into 'a voluntary Co-operative Commonwealth'. In May he left the Mansfield Settlement (where Bruce Wallace subsequently became Warden) to act as 'Pastor' to a newly established Croydon Brotherhood Society (CBS). Nellie Shaw described the proceedings:
'Every kind of crank came and aired his views on the open platform, which was provided every Sunday afternoon. Atheists, Spiritualists, Individualists, Communists, Anarchists, ordinary politicians, Vegetarians, Anti-vivisectionists and Anti-vaccinationists – in fact, every kind of “anti” had a welcome and a hearing and had to stand a lively criticism in the discussion which followed…Tea was provided at a moderate charge in the adjoining room where under the gentle influence of the cup that cheers affinities got together, friendships were formed, barriers of class broken down and a feeling of good fellowship prevailed… It soon became apparent that the gospel of Tolstoy which Kenworthy preached was nothing more or less than Communist Anarchism.'
Having analysed the problems of society in his previous volume, in 1894 JCK published, 'From Bondage to Brotherhood', to argue that effective solutions required the creation of a new kind of co-operative 'Brotherhood' society to replace the cruel, competitive system that caused so much pain and misery.
Kenworthy didn’t confine himself to working within the Brotherhood movement. In March 1896 he followed Frank Kitz and preceded James Harragan, both high profile anarchists, onto the popular Clerkenwell Green 'Free Discussion' platform. In May he gave financial support to the 'Land Nationalisation Society – To restore the Land to the People and the People to the Land'. In July he explained the affinity of Tolstoy’s ideas with those of John Ruskin, William Morris and St Francis of Assisi in the columns of, 'THE NEW AGE' and in September LIBERTY’s libertarian readers learnt, “Why I am Called a Christian Anarchist.”
To some anarchists, Kenworthy’s Christianity was a red rag to a bull, and ex-Unitarian Minister turned born-again Secularist, Touzeau Parris pursued him relentlessly in print yet JCK retained widespread support. When a large public meeting to demand an amnesty for the imprisoned Walsall Anarchists was organised in April 1896 with Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and David Nicoll on the platform, it’s significant that Kenworthy was selected as Chairman. JCK’s name also appears on posters advertising the 1896 International TUC at Holborn Town Hall, alongside Kropotkin, Edward Carpenter, Louise Michel and Bernard Shaw. In 1897 Kenworthy lectured the 'Leicester Anarchist-Communists' on 'Fighting the System'. As he explained in FREEDOM, JCK advocated peaceful class-war, 'The only means to destroy the State is to withdraw from it, to consider all as traitors who in any way sold their labour power to maintain the State.'
From Russia to Leeds
Kenworthy travelled to Russia to visit Tolstoy in 1896 and afterwards the pair continued to correspond, which further increased JCK’s considerable prestige as a conduit of the great man’s ideas. Kenworthy believed Tolstoy had granted him exclusivity over publication of translations of his work in Britain. In January 1897, FREEDOM reported JCK had sent copies of the anarchist paper to Tolstoy along with his commentary on the recent progress of the libertarian movement in England. A trip to Yorkshire by JCK proved a great leap forward when local comrades established, “The Leeds Brotherhood Workshop” at 6 Victoria Road, Holbeck. “At present the efforts of the comrades are mostly centred in the making of bicycles and various electrical apparatus. One comrade makes the clothing that is needed by the others, whilst another mends their boots and soon hopes to be making them. Comrades wanting anything in the shape of bikes etc should make an enquiry…” As Billy MacQueen commented in FREEDOM, 'The experiment is extremely interesting to us who have approached Anarchy from another road'.
That was the beauty of Kenworthy’s politics, 'approaching Anarchy from another road' yet some saw only an unappealing prospect. Although FREEDOM opened its columns to Kenworthy it often appended editorial put-downs:
'Surely both Tolstoy and Kenworthy will admit that there are many things in Christianity which no sensible person can accept since it is a compost of the teachings of many and various individuals, to regard all this as the word of God is really too childish.' FREEDOM also wasn’t keen on Kenworthy’s advocacy of Tolstoyan 'Non-Resistance': “Since it is obviously a criminal thing to teach men to allow others to do as they please with them. It is simply a downright encouragement of all tyrannies and infamies that mankind has suffered through the long ages.”
This was a distortion of Kenworthy’s politics as “non-resistance” does not simply reduce to allowing others to do as they please. The crux of JCK’s argument is that moral force can overcome physical force as activists like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, CND and thousands of others have since demonstrated. In a nutshell, Kenworthy argued that there aren’t just two options, supporting the system or fighting against it. He promoted a third way, non-cooperation, doing things differently. It was an optimistic philosophy that believed in having faith in comrades to do the right thing. As Kenworthy explained in the Brotherhood’s magazine Seed Time:
'Our times impose upon us a necessity which was never before so extreme. We must organize, and that on a grand scale; we must confront capitalist organization by fraternal organization. The healing of society must come about from within; through individuals and communities, who by living and extending the new life will at last cast off from society the slough of the old.'
Whatever FREEDOM’s reservations Kenworthy’s Croydon Brotherhood flourished and as Nellie Shaw observed, fellowship trumped ideology. Kenworthy’s crowd created a society that radicals wanted to be part of. They were no sackcloth sect but knew how to enjoy themselves. A surviving sixpenny admission ticket for a January 1897 'Social Evening' promises; “Music! Dancing! Contraptions!” and includes “light refreshments” but advises at the bottom, 'BOMBS EXTRA. BRING YOUR OWN DYNAMITE.'
It was the aim of the Brotherhood to establish self-sufficient land colonies and in January 1897 Kenworthy led most of the Croydon crowd off to the promised land of Purleigh, Essex where they’d acquired land from a sympathetic farmer. Over the next couple of years the community grew to include about 65 adults and children with the original core being joined by refugees from foreign regimes where Tolstoyans were harshly persecuted.
JCK continued to spread the political gospel and in April 1897 with the help of local residents, including Eliza Pickard and Tom Ferris, set up a Tolstoyan bicycle workshop at 6 Victoria Road, Leeds. In November, Eliza Pickard, who was later to prove an invaluable comrade, contributed an article on “Anarchism” to Kenworthy’s Brotherhood magazine.
After making a couple of visits to Blackburn at the request of the local ILP, in 1899 Kenworthy succeeded in establishing a Brotherhood workshop there in 1899, with the assistance of Ernest Ames and Tom Ferris who had transferred from Leeds.
Meanwhile divisions of opinions arose at Purleigh over the question of whether anyone should be allowed to just turn up and join the community and at the end of 1898 a group broke away to found their own colony in the Cotswolds, naming it 'Whiteway' (which still operates). Kenworthy stayed in Essex where his two sons, John and George, attended the Quaker school at Saffron Walden.
By 1900, largely thanks to Kenworthy’s efforts, Tolstoy’s influence reached across Britain. There was a Tolstoy Society in Manchester run by Co-op socialist Percy Redfern, a London Society organised by libertarian publisher Charles W Daniels and a Tolstoyan circle in Derby around the Quaker pacifist William Loftus Hare. In Spring 1900, Kenworthy again travelled to Russia to consult with Tolstoy.
On his return, JCK continued to lecture around the country until, early in 1902, he was appointed editor of the “Midland Weekly Herald” and took up temporary residence in Bilston. It was to prove no sinecure and in July he was 'indicted for publishing in his paper an article whereby he attempted to pervert the course of justice'. It was alleged that Kenworthy, 'commented strongly upon the action of the police in the prosecution of a man who was committed for trial…Kenworthy contended that he had acted from a high sense of duty. A verdict of guilty was returned…and the accused was bound over.' After publishing another article that summer, 'that was derogatory to the King…on Tuesday night a crowd repaired to the residence of Mr Kenworthy… After booing they improvised a battering ram to smash in the door but the police prevented this. Mr Kenworthy appeared in the street and the crowd rushed him but the police again protected him from violence.'
In November 1902 the SUN newspaper published an article headed, “Among the Anarchists: The Gospel of Knife, Revolver, Torch and Bomb” identifying Kenworthy as a leading anarchist exponent of violence. JCK sued and clarified in Court that whilst he would readily describe himself as a “Christian-Anarchist-Communist”, 'his life’s work had been devoted to the warning of Anarchists from violence and of preaching the doctrine of non-resistance'. 'The jury found for the plaintiff' and Kenworthy was awarded £140 damages plus costs.
Trouble in Paradise
Whilst Kenworthy was at Bilston, the Blackburn Brotherhood moved en masse to Purleigh creating an unholy problem. Where Kenworthy promoted an inclusive, thoughtful, ethical and organised anarchy, Ames and Ferris and their acolytes practiced a primitive anarchism more akin to the seventeenth-century 'Ranter' tradition, 'Come one, come all!' The Blackburn bunch exhorted all and sundry to join them and put no store on sexual exclusivity and at Purleigh this erupted into an interminable rash of prosecutions. Bringing tramps into the community allied to a refusal to immunise caused a fatal epidemic of smallpox that infected the wider population and invited legal action from the local authority. One of Ernest Ames’ sexual partners, Eliza Jane Hepples, subsequently sued him for the maintenance of their three children when he abandoned her for a younger woman. Meanwhile the 31-year-old Tom Ferris seems to have started a sexual relationship with Kenworthy’s daughter, Agnes, who was less than half his age.
Whilst all this was going on JCK realised that exclusive right to publishing Tolstoy in Britain had broken down and various other imprints were operating. In June 1903 Kenworthy threatened to sue Aylmer Maude if he didn’t desist from publishing Tolstoy’s writings. Feeling under ever increasing pressure, on May 4th, 1904 JCK left Liverpool for New York aboard the Teutonic. He planned to spend time talking and relaxing with Alonzo Hollister of Mount Lebanon, Columbia, a leading authority on the Shaker movement.
War and Peace
On his return from America, assisted by an old 'Brotherhood' contact, Eliza Pickard, JCK tried to track down his daughter Agnes but with little success. In recent years former comrades had abandoned direct involvement in building 'Jerusalem in England’s Green and Pleasant Land' and instead pinned their hopes on electing Labour politicians to do the job for them. In the new century Tolstoy was but a fading star. Kenworthy was both politically and mentally bereft and his wife, Eleanor, was ill and had to move into a Kelvedon nursing home. In 1909 John Coleman Kenworthy had a mental breakdown and on 24th November was admitted to Essex County Lunatic Asylum.
After leaving their Saffron Walden Quaker school, both of Kenworthy’s sons moved to live at the Whiteway Community as farmers and as “essential workers” were able to avoid the attention of the military during the 1914 war. By then their mother was dead (1912) and their sister, Agnes settled. After a year in the Essex Asylum JCK showed no sign of improvement and so that he could be nearer Eliza Pickard at Leeds he was transferred first to Middlesborough Asylum and then to the 'West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum' (latterly “Stanley Royal Hospital”, Leeds). JCK spent most of the rest of his life in the asylum. Eliza never married and supported JCK so faithfully until her death in 1942, that she was identified at probate as, “Eliza Pickard or Kenworthy”.
Forgotten by erstwhile comrades, John Coleman Kenworthy lived out his final years in 'York City Mental Hospital' at Fulford where he finally passed away on September 13th 1948, aged 87. It would be facile to claim John Coleman Kenworthy was driven mad by an insane society but would it be entirely untrue? Perhaps his steadfast refusal to accommodate to the demands of an iniquitous system whilst all around voted for expediency isolated him beyond bearing but his anarchist gospel still inspires;
“Cease from following after those who dangle before you new Laws, new Acts of Parliament, who ask you to do nothing but – vote!...give heed to those who tell you that the first change is in your hearts, in your own ways of looking upon life and upon each other…if you workers so willed, the General Strike and General Co-operative would gain England for you in a week, and turn it into Paradise in a twelvemonth” (”From Bondage to Brotherhood”, 1894).
For Peace, Love & Anarchy
Christopher Draper, Llandudno (August 2016)