Nellie and Jim
by Christopher Draper
(Lives of Northern Anarchists - part 9)
THERE are two versions of education. One encourages kids to explore the world so that they may in time confidently create their own future. The other moulds youngsters into adults able to perform predetermined roles in pre-existing society. The latter authoritarian tradition controls State schools but, as seeds beneath the snow, there have always been individuals fighting for the liberation of learning and practising alternatives. Jimmy Hugh Dick opened an anarchist school in Liverpool in 1908 and for almost half a century continued to preach, practice and promote “free-education”.
Born on 15 November 1882 to James, a Scottish policeman, and Barbara, a Cumbrian housewife, James Hugh Dick grew up in Toxteth surrounded by a large bunch of brothers and sisters. Although Liverpool was a political city, as a youth Jimmy wasn’t interested in politics. Initially, perhaps influenced by his mother’s Quakerism, he was a mild, teetotal secularist employed as a grocer’s assistant. With an undemanding job and a yearning for 'self-improvement', in his early twenties Jimmy enrolled at a local Commercial College where he befriended Lorenzo Portet, a young Spanish anarchist employed as a language teacher.
Jimmy was soon won over to Portet’s syndicalist politics and as a friend of Francisco Ferrer, and a teacher himself, Portet was keenly interested in education. When Ferrer visited Portet in Liverpool in 1907 Jimmy was inspired to drop the groceries and take up teaching.
Anarchy in Action
Supported by enlightened parents of the Liverpool labour movement, in 1908 Jimmy started an Anarchist-Communist Sunday School in the old Toxteth Co-op hall in Smithdown Street. As the hall was about to be rebuilt, in 1909 James and his 38 students transferred to the ILP (Independent Labour Party) rooms in Tagus Street.
Jimmy supported Ferrer’s international approach to education and was keen for the school:
'To break down national prejudices and that patriotic piffle which is inculcated into the children of our present-day schools.' He believed the kids should exercise initiative in learning but he also laid on overtly political lectures. The school’s 1909 season included, 'The Paris Commune' by Matt Kavanagh, 'Whiteway Colony' by Chas Keane and, intriguingly, 'Faeries' from local syndicalist stonemason, Fred Bower.
The school developed within a flourishing syndicalist mileu. Industrial syndicalism appeared increasingly attractive to the labour movement as, according to one observer:
'To many it appeared that the incorporation of union officials within bargaining institutions had succeeded in defusing their earlier radicalism.'
It was time to take up direct action and Jimmy’s 1908 reports for the anarchist newspaper FREEDOM, emphasised the, 'class-conscious and anti-parliamentary viewpoint' of not just fellow syndicalists but also, increasingly, of Liverpool ILP and the SDF comrades.
Liverpool International Club
Jimmy saw learning as liberation, not just something we do to kids but a definitively political process that we’re all involved in, and inherently anarchist. Besides the school and his labour activism he was a key member of Liverpool’s International Club in Canning Place. Fellow club members included Fred Bower, Lorenzo Portet and the radical painter Albert Lipczinski. Through such club contacts Lipczinski came to paint both Tom Mann and Jim Larkin and according to David Bingham the latter portrait came to a dramatic end after it was, 'held as a banner by the Irish strikers in Dublin prior to the Easter Uprising and while being held aloft in this way, it was targeted by the infamous Black and Tans with their weapons and destroyed with gunfire.'
Talkin’ About a RevolutionJimmy attended the huge, First Conference on Industrial Syndicalism held at the Coal Exchange, Manchester, in November 1910 as one of Liverpool’s two Revolutionary Industrialist delegates, the other was Peter Larkin. Lorenzo Portet attended as a delegate of the International Club whilst Fred Bower represented the Liverpool stonemasons. Although the gathering marked a real syndicalist advance it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy Jim’s revolutionary ardour. He detected a residual belief in Parliamentary methods amongst delegates and informed FREEDOM that while, “it was obvious that the general feeling of the meeting was to shake off the political element” he still felt most, “were like the slaves of all superstitions, who hate the chains yet cling to them madly.” This insight informed and drove both my own and Jim’s lifelong commitment to liberated learning.
Humans aren’t entirely rational beings driven to act solely by the logic of reasoned argument otherwise we’d long ago have overturned a system that provides Philip Green with a yacht and his workers with the sack. Our underlying psychology and feelings of empathy and solidarity develop in infancy, or not, and if we’re shaped by authoritarian social structures we grow to crave authority and leadership instead of independence, autonomy and freedom. Anarchists from Eric Fromm to Colin Ward have since sketched in the details but Jimmy Dick pioneered the liberation of learning in Liverpool in 1908.
Marching OrdersAt the end of 1909 the school moved again to another ILP building at 1 Clarendon Terrace, Beaumont Street, though Jim was openly critical of the didactic moralising of the ILP’s own approach to education. He complained to FREEDOM:
'One thing that seems to mar the socialist Sunday Schools is the repetition of the silly platitudes and a declaration known as the Socialist Ten Commandments. Who had the audacity to draw up such a series of impositions and dare to cram them down the child’s throat, I do not know…Let us have done with this ceremonial business. Stereotyped characters are not for the new era. We want to make men and women not virtuous automatons.'
Jimmy was happy to observe that even national newspapers began to appreciate the unique character of his libertarian venture, “We have it on the authority of the Fortnightly Review that our school is the pioneer school.” Unfortunately, a reactionary storm was unleashed by sensationalist reporting of the “Houndsditch Affair”, when newspaper inaccurately identified murderous robbers as anarchists. Utterly wedded to electoral politics the ILP got cold feet and pulled the plug on Jimmy’s enterprise. There were no votes in accommodating anarchists so in January 1911 Liverpool’s “Independent Labour Party” kicked them out. The school was homeless.
In February 1911 Jimmy finally managed to re-locate the school to Alexander Hall, Islington Square, Liverpool but it was a long way for the kids to travel and attendance began to decline. In May Jimmy reluctantly decided it would have to close and his thoughts began to focus on his own political educational.
Meeting of MindsIn the autumn of 1911 Jimmy Dick moved down to London and enrolled at the Central Labour College, a syndicalist-inspired breakaway from Oxford’s Ruskin College which had proved useless to militant working class students itching to advance the class-struggle.
Back in Liverpool Jimmy had written a children’s column for The Voice of Labour and one of his devoted readers, Naomi Ploschansky, following Jimmy’s example had in 1912 started her own anarchist school in London’s East End. On May Day 1913 “Nellie” (as Naomi was familiarly known) took her school students along to join the celebrations in Hyde Park (“we carried a banner, Anarchist-Socialist School”) where she spotted the Central Labour College banner. “So I went up to ask for “Uncle Jim”. I saw a young man with grey hair who looked gentler than the rest and I asked him if James Dick was there. He bowed: “I’m James Dick” he said.” It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.
Nellie and JimNellie had arrived in London from Kiev as a baby in 1894 with her impoverished Russian family. Both her dad, Solomon and mum, Hanna, had since abandoned the synagogue and embraced anarchism. Attending the Jubilee Street anarchist club with her parents provided Nellie with the contacts to start her own Ferrer School, although she was only a teenager herself.
As Jim and Nellie’s friendship developed he agreed to assist her as co-director of her anarchist school and in 1914 they moved in together. As at Jim’s Liverpool school, the London students controlled their own learning but were encouraged to engage with wider political activities and demonstrations. Rudolf Rocker and his older son assisted at their London school and Rudolf jnr subsequently opened his own libertarian school in Canada.
When war was declared, Rocker was imprisoned and as the kids handed out anti-war leaflets the police were encouraged to raid the premises. After conscription was introduced Jim and Nellie, in 1916, got legally married to avoid the draft but soon that exemption was denied and the couple decided they should emigrate to assist the Free-Schooling movement in America.
Anarchist Education in AmericaNellie, 22 and Jim, 34 sailed from Liverpool to New York aboard the St Paul on 30 December 1916. They were welcomed to America by anarchist comrades but Nellie was shocked and disappointed on visiting Emma Goldman to discover that she employed her own personal black maid!
Almost immediately the pair settled into an anarchist community at Stelton where they ran the school on the same libertarian lines they’d developed earlier in England. For the next forty years, including a period running a similar venture at Mohegan, Jim and Nellie pioneered anarchist education along with encouraging, visiting and corresponding with comrades around the world similarly committed to the liberation of learning.
Eventful VisitsAfter the 1917 revolution, Nellie’s parents both returned to Russia whilst her sister Dora trained first as a nurse and then as a teacher in America. Nellie and Dick visited Britain together in 1919 and their only son, Jim jnr, was born here on that visit but at the same time Nellie’s brother, Samuel, was caught shop breaking by PC Clarke. He was convicted, sent to prison for a year and then deported back to Russia.
In 1931 Jimmy came to England to attend a conference on progressive education and visited Summerhill, Britain’s flagship free school, at the invitation of A S Neill. Jimmy also took the opportunity to meet up with old comrades like Will Lawther and Tom Keell.
Having been welcomed to America by exiled Russian anarchist Bill Shatoff in 1917, when Jim, Nellie and Jim visited Russia in 1933 they were keen to meet up with him again. Shatoff had since returned to his homeland to help the Bolshevik revolution without ever abandoning his own anarchist principles. He never turned up at his apartment and was subsequently reported to have been arrested and “liquidated” by Stalin.
Legacy?Jimmy continued to teach into his seventies before ill health forced retirement. Despite their age, when the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 it was Nellie and Jim who stepped in to look after their kids. Their final anarchist educational venture, Lakewood Modern School which they had founded 25 years earlier, closed its doors in 1958 and Jimmy died seven years later, in 1965 aged 82. During my own half century in education I met very few teachers in England who’d heard of Jimmy and a tragically diminishing number who practise his approach to schooling. Hidden away in a few schools there are still anarchist “seeds beneath the snow” but there’s been a very heavy snowfall over the last couple of decades.