by Chris Draper (episode 8 of 'Lives of Northern Anarchists')
IN 2017, Hull becomes Britain’s 'City of Culture' but don’t expect exhibitions or events celebrating the city’s anarchist heritage although the Daily Telegraph once claimed, 'Hull occupies a unique position in Anarchist propaganda' (5.6.1906).
Hull’s politics were conditioned by its strong maritime links with Hamburg which in the 1880’s provided a key route for the exchange of anarchist ideas, personnel and publications. According to 1884 press reports, 'A detective has had the so-called anarchist club at Hull under his observation for some time, and the means adopted on some occasions in smuggling the FREIHEIT (newspaper) into Germany were very ingenious, copies being placed in bamboo canes in some instances.'
'CLUB FREIHEIT', Hull’s 'so-called anarchist club' was started in 1882 by German-born activists inspired by the ideas of Johann Most. Unfortunately, for almost a decade, the local socialist movement was divided along language lines with English-speaking Hull activists preferring the Socialist League (SL). Run by a “soft-left” Fabian socialist, Eugene Teesdale, and inspired by a scheming statist, John Lincoln Mahon, Hull SL proved weak in both theory and practice and failed to stay the course. Fortunately, in 1890 the language and political gulf was bridged and 'CLUB FREIHEIT' was reborn as 'CLUB LIBERTY'.
Bridge Over Trouble WaterConrad Naewiger was ideally placed to bridge the rift between the English and German socialist communities. Born in Berlin in 1861, Conrad had emigrated with his parents, Michael Wilhelm and Louisa Elizabeth Naewiger, to England in 1865. Settling in Hull, Conrad followed his father into the tailoring trade but his dad wasn’t politically active. Conrad wasn’t either until he was almost 30. His first appearance in the local paper came in 1888 when he won £2 for writing an essay on 'THRIFT' for a 'Hull Savings Bank' competition.
Gospel of AtheismBaptised into the Lutheran Church, as 'Gustav Emil Conrad Naewiger' at St Jakob’s, Berlin, as an adult Conrad was a born-again atheist. A systematic study of world religions had caused him to conclude that God is a fiction and religion an organised conspiracy to exploit the ignorant. An enthusiastic member of the National Secular Society he was active as both speaker and local organiser and was elected Secretary of the Hull group. Putting his beliefs into practical effect he also supported the local branch of the Sunday Association which campaigned to stop Sunday being kept compulsorily sacred. The SA wanted museums, galleries and similarly educative institutions open to working people on the one day of the week they weren’t obliged to labour; a modest proposal fiercely resisted by the God-botherers.
Conrad realised that the forces of religious conservatism were strongly woven into a fabric of political reaction and widened the scope of his talks to include overtly political topics. In December 1890 he lectured at Hull’s Cobden Hall on 'Thomas Paine, His Life and Labours, after which came an animated discussion'. He followed this up with a talk at Gladstone Hall, Bond Street, on, 'The Life of Ernest Jones', the Chartist, to Hull Labour Church.
'No God, No Master'Whilst 'Revolutionary Socialism' was the characteristic creed of CLUB LIBERTY the politics of members stretched from Anarchism to Marxism. Naewiger was content to simply declare himself a 'Socialist' but in reality, although close to anarchism, his approach is probably best described as 'Libertarian Communism'. Whenever he lectured on socialism though, audiences could be certain a searing indictment of religion wouldn’t be far behind. It would have surprised no-one that the first piece he published in the Anarchist-Communist journal,
'LIBERTY' was entitled, 'Why I am a Socialist and an Atheist'. This article sold for years as a pamphlet. He also penned another couple of pamphlets entitled, 'God is Love: Is it true?' and 'Was Jesus Christ a Socialist, Communist or Wise Teacher?' Reviewing the latter, the Anarchist-Communist journal FREEDOM wrote: 'In it he exposes some of the absurdities of the teachings attributed to Jesus Christ and shows they are incompatible with a sane view of life…when we hear people referring to him as a Socialist it is time to protest and for that reason comrade Naewiger’s pamphlet may, we hope, do good.'
Conrad’s first article for FREEDOM condemned, 'The Workhouse' and the workers’ apparent indifference: 'how few of our younger generation realise the probability that they may end their days in the workhouse in spite of all the thriftiness and frugality on their part. Is the thought not galling?' His next piece analysed the 'Vilification of Socialism' before he embarked on a five-part series identifying the 'Enemies of Progress'. Predictably, foremost amongst these enemies, and the subject of part one was, “The Parson”, followed, successively, by; “The Philanthropist”, “The Parliamentarian”, “The Indifferentist” and, “The Capitalist”. Part three best captured the distinctively anarchist aspect of Naewiger’s “socialism”; “Parliamentarians uphold the present system of society and are the enemies of progress. When the people recognise this they will soon depend upon themselves. They have been too long in leading strings; let them learn to walk”.
Unity is Strength
One of Naewiger’s first political acts, in 1890, was unionising his fellow tailors. Speaking on the platform at the Sailors Institute alongside the President of Hull Trades Council he reminded his audience that despite the skill demanded of a journeyman tailor the wages were as low as a labourer and unemployment was rife. Writing to the local paper, as Secretary of the local Amalgamated Society of Tailors, he pointed out, “the tailor still gets the same wage he received 20 or 30 years ago in spite of the greatly increased price of commodities, higher rents and dearer food”. Characteristically his ingenious libertarian solution wasn’t the legal imposition of a minimum wage or any other statist device; “The AST meet the public by issuing a label which is sewn on every coat by employees supplied to employers who pay fair wages and have sanitary workshops. It is up to trade unionists to look for this label when buying suits…It is up to Hull tailors to join the AST (meeting place Shop Assistants’ Institute, Pryme Street), and take their stand for bettering their conditions”. He never abandoned the struggle and was still actively recruiting to the union in the year he died.
Revolutionary TributesIn 1891 Naewiger appeared for the first time on a widely advertised revolutionary platform, alongside anarchist comrades, George Cores, Andrew Hall and Gustav Smith. The venue was Hull’s Alhambra Palace, Porter Street and the occasion was a Commemoration of the Chicago Anarchists. Posters proclaimed; “WORKERS OF HULL! You are earnestly invited to commemorate in common with our fellow-workers in every part of the civilized world, the Murder, by Law of five Anarchist Labour Leaders in Chicago, on November 11th 1887 and also to protest against the life-long imprisonment of three others for having taken a leading part in the Eight Hours Agitation in 1886 and for having preached the coming Emancipation of the Workers and the Reign of Freedom.”
Conrad was already an active member of CLUB LIBERTY, organising open air meetings on Hull’s Drypool Green every Sunday morning. Every Sunday afternoon and evening, Conrad and co. hosted indoor lectures at Cobden Hall, School Street. One of his friends, Gustav Smith’s titles neatly encapsulated the group’s ideology, “Anarchism: Order Without Government”.
The local paper gave fair account of many of the club’s activities. In March 1893, a correspondent writes: 'Under the auspices of the Hull Socialists, the Paris Commune Commemoration was held in CLUB LIBERTY, Princes Street, on Monday evening, a large gathering of people being present and all available standing room occupied. The audience was very interested in the speeches and the hall remained crowded until the close of the various addresses. The chair was occupied by Mr G E Conrad Naewiger who was pleased to see such a large audience…the question of today was the same as the question of 1871 – the battle of Capital and Labour.'
Personal is PoliticalNaewiger married Rosina in 1887 and although the naming of their first-born, William Louis Conrad, was conventional in combining elements of his father’s and mother’s names with his own, the names of their next two offspring reflected a growing political awareness. Victor Hugo Naewiger was born in 1888 and his little brother Percy Bysshe Naewiger arrived the following year. Despite their radical names, neither son seems to have followed their father into radical politics.
Fisherman’s FriendAgitator, atheist, anarchist, angler! Conrad liked to fish and was secretary of the “Osborne Angling Association”. He fished competitively and it paid off! His efforts against 'Abercrombie Angling Club' won him a 'fruit stand', another contest yielded 'a tea set', while a third brought 'a pair of sheets'.
Conrad was also keen on cards and on occasions was able to combine comradeship with competitive whist. Not long before he died he played cards for a team from the Socialist Club that defeated the “City Club” 274 to 248.
Naewiger was also no musical slouch and was happy to entertain any of the organisations he supported with a turn on the piano or the banjo! In 1908 he was a prime mover in starting the “Hull Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Club” and served as the Honorary Secretary.
Mutual AidNaewiger didn’t just preach brotherhood he practiced as an energetic officer of the “Loyal United Order of Oddfellows”. The LUOOF was one of many Friendly Societies created by working men to provide for themselves and their families primarily in times of hardship, ill-health and bereavement. By paying in regular small sums when in work, the members were enabled to claim support when unemployed. Of course, there was also a strong social and emotional element and members who thus created sophisticated networks of mutual aid that, later in the twentieth century, became moribund once the State took over many of their more vital functions. In 1908 though the LUOOF was flourishing when it elected Brother Naewiger as its new Grand Master (illustrated above wearing ceremonial sash).
Class WarIn 1893, just as socialist ideas were taking off, Hull shipowners began a systematic campaign to import thousands of blacklegs to break the docker’s unions. The government sent soldiers and two gunboats, Hearty and Firefly, to protect scabs who were brought in from all over England. A real battle ensued with warehouses fired and pickets attacked by troops.
Naewiger reported on the strike for FREEDOM: 'The old town of Hull has been awakened into activity by a dispute of gigantic proportions between capital and labour…the scum of the earth had been gathered together by the clever capitalist to outwit honest labour…where once were quiet citizens, now soldiers with drawn swords, policemen with batons in their hands, riot, disturbance, fights, stone-throwing can be seen.' He was convinced that the stark nature of the dispute had radical effects; 'Many have been converted to Revolutionary Socialism who have up to now been halting between Revolutionary v. Constitutional methods.' Naewiger reported that, 'One unionist was shot in the thigh by a “free labourer”…The gunsmiths of Hull have been doing a roaring trade; one shop in particular having sold out the whole stock two or three times…This should be a lesson to all workers. If the police allow “free labourers” to carry revolvers the workers should also have some'!
Naewiger and his comrades did all they could to push the class war; 'Thousands of FREEDOMS, COMMONWEALS and tracts have been distributed amongst the strikers. Lectures have been given to the dockers by members of CLUB LIBERTY and our banners ( motto; “IS LIBERTY WORTH FIGHTING FOR?”) have done good service at all meetings and demonstrations….The workers are learning a bitter lesson.' Indeed they were and after seven weeks the strike ended in their abject defeat.
Bitter LessonsThe role of CLUB LIBERTY hadn’t escaped the attention of the authorities who used every trick in the licensing book to hound the club out of existence. Meanwhile, far from increasing militancy, after the strike the workers turned towards more constitutional methods and compromise. As the decade advanced and Britain drifted towards a second Boer War an outbreak of jingoism erupted, further undermining Hull’s working class solidarity. A prolonged rash of angry letters appeared in the Hull Daily Mail questioning the loyalty of the city’s German residents and in the years immediately before and after 1900 socialism in Hull collapsed.
As a socialist, Naewiger opposed Britain’s role in the Boer War but as Secretary of the Osborne Angling Club he appeared to support it! The problem arose after the Daily Mail launched a fund to 'Support Our War Effort' and other club members were keen to collect together a donation. Some anarchists would have resigned but it was typical of Conrad that maintaining his friendship with fellow anglers trumped his personal political philosophy. As a consequence, on 5th December 1899 he saw his name (alongside that of OAA) published in the newspaper recognising an 11s donation to the Mail’s War Fund.
Shoots of Recovery?There were hopes for renewed activism in November 1902 when a well publicised gathering decided, 'to work locally along the lines of pure Socialism independently of either of the established parties.' Nevertheless, evidence of decline over the previous decade was captured by press reports of the 1903 May Day; 'Those present at the May Day Labour meeting at St George’s Hall, yesterday could not help contrasting it with the large crowds which used to surround half-a-dozen platforms from each of which there was a flood of oratory in the palmy days of the trades union movement in Hull.'
It wasn’t until 1906 that Naewiger and comrades effectively restored revolutionary politics to Hull and then under an avowedly Marxist and statist banner. As the 8th October Hull Daily Mail reported: 'Last night the Social Democratic Federation held their first indoor meeting at the Friendly Societies Hall, Albion Street…the lecturer for the evening Mr E G Conrad Naewiger, spoke on the subject of Socialism'. Conrad had lost none of his political commitment but, pragmatically and emotionally, preferred to campaign alongside local militants than stand out, alone, for undiluted anarchism. Neither had he forgotten his experience of the 1893 dispute. When troops fired on Belfast strikers he assured his SDF audience, 'The soldiers were taken to Belfast not to protect the interests of the working classes but to protect the interests of the capitalist class…as soon as they (the workers) stood on the corn of the employer he was down on them at once' and reminded his comrades that, 'Police batoned onlookers during the Hull dock strike.'
Conrad’s stirring critiques of capitalism put iron into the soul of comrades and one regular attender of his weekly SDF meetings even adopted Conrad’s 1893 speculation about workers carrying firearms. According to the 6th November 1906 Hull Daily Mail: 'On the evening of 25 October, Elsie Batty, a typist, created a sensation at a Socialist (SDF) meeting in Hull…she was one of an audience listening to a lecture and occupied a seat near the door. Soon after proceedings began she left the hall and immediately afterwards a shot was heard. A member of the Federation ran out and found Miss Elsie Batty in the corridor with a revolver lying beside her. She was bleeding from the right temple.' Subsequently accused of attempted suicide Elsie informed Police Constable Cherry, 'I have carried the revolver for a long time as I like to carry one. They are my Socialist views.'
Friends and EnemiesElsie’s interpretation of socialism wasn’t Conrad’s only concern. The SDF’s own version of socialism was tainted by the peculiarly nationalistic opinions of their founder and leader, Henry Mayers Hyndman. Hyndman insisted that Britain should rule the waves and demanded ever bigger battleships and, in February 1908 wrote, “Germany is in an aggressive mood…When Germany is ready she will strike.” Such xenophobia was hardly likely to endear Conrad to party comrades never mind the general public and so during the course of 1906-7 the “Naewiger” family gradually transformed itself into the “Navier” family.
Conrad continued to campaign for socialism but as the decade advanced nationalism increased. When Zeppelins raided Hull on the night of 6th June 1915 anti-German demonstrations broke out throughout Hull and continued for three days before police restored order. Anything German was considered a fair target by the mob. Four German-owned shops on Hessle Road and a pork butcher on Charles Street were attacked by angry crowds of up to 700 people. Another pork butcher at 22 Princes Avenue was attacked several times. Eventually £258,000 was paid out in compensation but the long-term social damage was more significant. Hull’s German community never recovered its pre-war importance and Conrad’s heart was broken. Two months later, on Monday 16th August 1915, he died, aged just 54, in Hull Workhouse.
In the midst of war, Conrad’s Naewiger’s funeral brought together many otherwise disparate elements of the Hull community. The local paper recorded that, “The coffin was covered with wreaths, prominent amongst them one from the members of the Socialist Club, composed of red blooms, with the inscription, Con, we shall miss you. To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
Christopher Draper (September 2016)