Friday, 9 June 2017

Who Was Guy Bowman?

 by Christopher Draper

Fortunately for the rich, World War I transformed Britain’s raging class war into a murderous conflict between Nations.  Pre-war militancy was inspired by Syndicalism, a scheme for workers to organise into one big class-conscious union to run their own industries and revolutionise society and the prime movers were Tom Mann and Guy Bowman.  Curiously, whilst Mann’s story is well known the life of Guy Bowman remains a mystery.

Manchester’s Massed Militants
Britain’s first national syndicalist conference was convened by Bowman at Manchester Coal Exchange on 26th November 1910. Two hundred delegates representing sixty-thousand organised workers gathered with the speakers including Liverpool stonemason Fred Bowers, Huddersfield socialist Fred Shaw, Irish activist Jim Larkin and Spanish anarchist Lorenzo Portet. Tom Mann moved the founding motion; “That whereas the sectionalism that characterises the trade union movement of today is utterly incapable of fighting the capitalist class and securing the economic freedom of the workers, this conference declares that the time is now ripe for the industrial organisation of all workers on the basis of class – not trade or craft – and that we hereby agree to form a Syndicalist Education League to propagate the principles of Syndicalism throughout the British Isles with a view to merging all existing unions into one compact organisation for each industry…”

Don’t Shoot!
The authorities responded to strikes by sending in the army; shooting dead a miner at Tonypandy, killing 2 railwaymen at Llanelli and 2 dockers in Liverpool.  Unbowed, in 1912 Guy Bowman published in”The Syndicalist” a “DON’T SHOOT!” appeal to soldiers to refuse to fire on fellow workers and was sentenced to 9 months with hard labour as a consequence.

International Man of Mystery
Despite more than a decade of high profile activism Bowman revealed little of his personal life and what he did say is difficult to substantiate.  He claimed to have been born in St John’s Wood, London in 1871 to a French mother and Scottish father yet there’s no official record of his birth.  As an anarchist he might well have chosen to dodge officialdom yet at the height of his political activism he duly completed the 1911 census form, which bears his characteristic signature, yet he’s oddly absent from records covering both his pre and post-political years.

Guy Takes a Bow
Guy’s claimed birth year seems about right so he was already in his early thirties before he became known to English activists.  In 1906 he popped up in London as a journalist claiming specialist knowledge of European political movements.  Joining the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) he pursued a journalistic interest in the recent anarchist assassination attempt on the Spanish king. The founder of the International Modern School movement, Francisco Ferrer, had been arrested by Spanish police and charged with complicity in a move widely interpreted as a political frame up. In September 1906 Bowman published an article in the SDF’s newspaper “Justice” defending Ferrer and the following month he travelled to Spain to cover the continuing prosecution.

On Tuesday 23rd October Guy Bowman was arrested in Madrid and interrogated by Spanish police for two days before being “conducted over the border” into France.  It was variously speculated that the police had been tipped off by either the Spanish Embassy in London or the British Government that Bowman was an undesirable alien intent on promoting anarchist insurrection.

Meeting of Minds
Thanks to the campaigning of Bowman and other activists around the world in June 1907 Francisco Ferrer was released after a year’s imprisonment. Immediately resuming his promotion of libertarian education Ferrer made an extended visit to England over the springand summer of 1909 (21 April to June 12). Bowman was then employed as General Manager of the SDF’s print & publications department, ”Twentieth Century Press” and was living at 4 Maude Terrace, Walthamstow (outer East London).

During his time in England Ferrer met the respected anarchist Peter Kropotkin and was reacquainted with his old Spanish comrade Lorenzo Portet. Ferrer entrusted Portet to continue his educational work (LP founded a “Modern School” in Liverpool) in the likely the event that the Spanish authorities would ultimately succeed in silencing him.  A few weeks later Ferrer was duly silenced.

On his return to Spain he was arrested, subjected to a show trial and shot dead by firing squad.

The French Connection
Bowman supported Ferrer’s educational ideas but was ultimately more interested in French Syndicalism. Guy was particularly impressed by the approach of the French Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) trade union. So much so that when leading labour activist Tom Mann landed at London’s Victoria Dock on May 16th 1910 (having returned from 8 years organising overseas) Guy persuaded Tom to accompany him to Paris, “to meet the men of direct action”. On their return to the UK the pair commenced publication of The Industrial Syndicalist (with Bowman as publisher, Mann as editor) and set about organising a national conference in Manchester.

Bowman’s French connection is intriguing. He spoke fluent French as well as English and German and it was frequently noted that Bowman didn’t look or sound English. Newspapers repeatedly questioned his claimed origins with the Globe typically asserting, “Bowman, of olive complexion and with pointed grey beard and hair brushed back has the appearance of a foreigner. In fact he speaks with a pronounced foreign accent, but is stated by his friends to be an Englishman.”  The Pall Mall Gazette observed,  “Guy Bowman is an Englishman who looks like a Frenchman”.

Bowman was certainly in Paris in 1905, where he attended the International Freethought Congress. After meeting Gustave Herve at the Congress he agreed to translate his “Leur Patrie” for an English edition published as, “My Country, Right or Wrong”, but was Bowman there as a French resident or merely a roving English reporter?  Everyone recognised that Bowman was a highly educated and fluent linguist so how did he acquire this learning?  Where was he educated and who were his parents?

Don’t Shoot!
When a DON’T SHOOT appeal to strike-breaking soldiers appeared in the January 1912 Syndicalist, Guy Bowman as the publisher was arrested.  Charged with, “Feloniously endeavouring by publication of a certain article…to seduce persons serving in His Majesty’s land forces from their duty and allegiance to His said Majesty and to incite them to commit divers mutinous acts and traitorous practices”, Bowman was sentenced to serve 9 months in prison with hard labour.

Tom Mann was subsequently prosecuted for reading out the DON’T SHOOT appeal at a demonstration.  Two printers of The Syndicalist were also prosecuted although Bowman received the severest sentence.  Fortunately public protests forced the authorities to relent and Bowman was out after two months.  Curiously Guy was back in court within weeks and fined £1 for two counts of travelling in a first class train carriage with a third class ticket.

Organiser or Disorganiser?
With 41 million strike days in 1912 industrial militancy eclipsed parliamentary politics as syndicalists prepared to organise internationally. Several continental groups offered to host an international conference but Bowman insisted it was held in England.  The FIRST INTERNATIONAL SYNDICALIST CONGRESS was duly held in London, in September 1913 but Bowman’s unreliable behaviour cast doubt on his integrity.  He was accused of dragging his feet in arranging the event and questions were raised about his inability to account for monies he’d been entrusted with. Regarded as divisive by both local and international comrades Bowman subsequently failed to furnish the Bureau set-up by the Congress with promised minutes, delegate addresses and other essential documents.

The International Bureau was left with little alternative but to appeal over Bowman’s head direct to English comrades , “to assist us to remind Guy Bowman of his duty of conforming to the decision of the Congress. By his conduct he renders the functioning of the Bureau particularly difficult.”

Class War or World War?
Meanwhile continental comrades confidently pronounced that if national governments declared war then organised workers would simply down tools and refuse to take up arms against fellow workers, regardless of nationality.  Throughout 1914 Bowman continued to tour Britain promoting syndicalism. In January he brought the gospel to the Pioneers Hall, Rochdale and over following weeks he spoke in Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and London.  On Sunday 8th February Guy publicly advised, “SABOTAGE” at the Co-operative Hall, Charing Cross whilst on Friday 13th March he informed an audience at Sheffield’s Temperance Hall that his advice wasn’t really DON’T SHOOT but DO SHOOT!  “When they (soldiers) were asked to shoot the working class they would turn and shoot those who gave the order...”

Bowman’s Misdirected Arrow
As World War approached, rifts developed between Bowman and Mann.  Both agreed organising industrially was the way to go but Mann was less willing to completely abandon parliamentary politicking.  Bowman was sympathetic to the idea of “dual unionism”, creating parallel anarchist style unions alongside existing organisations whereas Mann insisted on revolutionising established unions from within.  Just as ISEL began losing influence in March 1914 Bowman sued the National Labour Press over its publication of, “From Single Tax to Syndicalism” (Tom Mann wrote the text and Bowman supplied the introduction).  As publisher of the book, Bowman had the previous year contracted with the printers to produce 2,000 copies but then failed to pay the bill so to recoup their costs the printers published the book themselves and kept the proceeds.  Whilst accepting that the printers had technically violated Bowman’s copyright the court offered him no recompense and Guy was left having to pay his own costs and with his reputation in tatters.

Puff of Smoke
Once war was declared in August 1914, socialists everywhere abandoned their promises and rallied round their respective national flags whilst Guy Bowman was nowhere to be seen. In his introduction to a reprint collection of Syndicalist newspapers, Geoff Brown observed, “The last references I have found to him (GB) in the labour movement press are in the Labour Leader in January and March 1915…”   But that wasn’t quite Bowman’s last acknowledged outing.  Guy still occasionally visited Kropotkin who was by then similarly isolated from former comrades (because of his un-anarchist support for the war).  I’ve discovered that Bowman also spoke at Hounslow Adult School, Whitton Road on Wednesday 12th April 1916 on, “The Fraud Called Democracy”, under the auspices of the “Syndicalist Education League (SEL)”.

Partners in Crime?
So what did Bowman do next?  If he’d simply opted to dodge the draft that doesn’t explain why he never reappears in records after the war (or why he wasn’t recorded before his 1911 census declaration).  None of Bowman’s erstwhile associates seem any the wiser and there are further mysterious circumstances.  Bowman’s self-completed 1911 census return recorded that he was then living with two French nationals, “39-year-old Jeanne Bonnard and 10-year-old” Jack Bonnard. “Jeanne” was a “Widow” and Jacques presumably her son.  Like Guy, neither of this pair appear in subsequent records except on 17th April 1912 Jeanne, the widow, had another child, Guy L Bowman. So who was this equally mysterious partner of Guy senior?  My theory is that she was none other than the abandoned common law wife of the deceased Francisco Ferrer.  If I am correct her real name was not Jeanne but Leopoldine Bonnard who partnered Ferrer in Paris from 1898 until 1905 when they split acrimoniously.  I think the boy “Jack” was really Regio Bonnard, the son of Leopoldine and Ferrer, born in Paris in 1900.

Unlike his parents, Guy L Bowman does feature in subsequent official records and his middle name appears to substantiate my theory of his parentage for on 13th September 1949 the UK Air Ministry announced that, “The KING has granted unrestricted permission for the wearing of the undermentioned decorations conferred upon personnel indicated in recognition of valuable services rendered in connection with the war – Bronze Star Medal - Sergeant 1376906 Guy Leopold BOWMAN, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve”

So it seems the son of the man sent to jail for publishing “DON’T SHOOT” in WWI was decorated for his contribution to WWII! It is also recorded that in the years 1938-9 Guy Leopold Bowman served at a trio of London’s top hotels (Dorchester, Ritz, Langham respectively) as a “reception clerk”.

Syndicalist or Sinner?
Bowman’s disappearance from the political spotlight is not unusual, many labour activists retire into obscurity but few cover their tracks so effectively.  Research almost always uncovers backgrounds and life stories but I’m not the first to remark on Bowman’s elusive biography.  I might, though be first to suggest that Bowman’s “invisibility” appears artful.   I’m inclined to believe he concealed his curriculum vitae for good reason.  His unexplained high level education suggests his origins and possibly allegiance were not working class.  It is quite possible “Guy Bowman” was in fact raised abroad by a military family bearing an entirely different name and committed to an imperial mission anathema to socialism.  I can’t prove Guy and his family concealed the truth for cynical reasons but it would make sense of otherwise inexplicable evidence.  It is curious that after Bowman’s family disappeared during WWI the sole member to resurface was decorated by the RAF having previously served in the run up to war in a role notoriously employed by secret services to keep tabs on visiting foreign “diplomats”.

Tom Mann, like many fellow labour leaders, published a memoir so why not Guy Bowman?  His widely published expulsion from Spain and high profile imprisonment would surely have guaranteed good sales and his extensive knowledge of labour activism would have ensured historical value yet he kept it all to himself, an odd response for a professional journalist.

The Secret State
Recent events uncovered extensive State infiltration of every level of radical organisation (even NV is currently subject to legal threats from a secret policeman involved in blacklisting) so it’s time to re-examine the credentials of past “activists”.  Guy Bowman’s integrity is questionable.  Kropotkin’s confidante Varlaam Tcherkesov was certainly dubious; “Bowman, half-English, half-French, quite an esprit boulevardier, a despotic man, wanted the entire movement for himself and kept it in his hands. He quarrelled with young syndicalists, scorned them, and stood alone”.

In contrast to the subject of my next article in this series there’s no smoking gun. Bowman might yet be innocent but I submit he has a prima facie case to answer.  Perhaps modern day advocates might care to submit snippets of new evidence in Bowman’s defence.  Meanwhile, I invite readers to adjudicate for themselves.

Christopher Draper (May 2017)


Anonymous said...

So on the basis of absolutely no evidence you accuse Bowman of being a nark. Look other syndicalists suddenly disappeared from the scene like EJB Allen ( he emigrated to Australia) . This also explains the disappearance of the anarchist Johann Sebastian Trunk who emigrated to New zealand. Quite possible that Bowman did the same, a better guess than randomly accusing him of being a spycop. But then the paranoiacs of NV have got form on that already, haven't they?
Nick Heath

Christopher Draper said...

Sadly Mr Heath's comment reveals more of his personality and prejudices than those of Guy Bowman. Nick appears ignorant of the concept of circumstantial evidence and is thus hoist by his own petard. I invite interested readers to insert the names of Allen, Trunk and Bowman into an "ANCESTRY" search and compare the results, Bowman's invisibility is striking.
Unlike Mr Heath, who leads a minor political party, my search is for historical truth whilst Nick prefers hagiography.
Peace & Love

bammy said...

Nick Heath writes:
'Quite possible that Bowman did the same [emigrated], a better guess than randomly accusing him of being a spycop. But then the paranoiacs of NV have got form on that already, haven't they?'
Are we 'parnoiacs' because we are involved with the Blacklist Support Group, which exposed the involvement of the police in blacklisting trade unionists, enviromental groups and in other left organisations? I know that Mr Heath's organisation 'AF' did not paticipate in our trade union struggle against the blacklisters. But what he says here just shows his underlying jealousy against genuine activists. I don't mind these people pretending to be class struggle anarchists, but I'm afraid that I've always regarded them as frauds.

Naturalist said...

Allen went not to Australia but to New Zealand where for a while he edited the 'Maori Worker'. He was on the 'political wing' of the Syndicalist movement and supported Victor Grayson's electoral campaign in 1910. Grayson also later emigrated to NZ. Both of them became pro-war.

bammy said...

Sorry about our delay in posting this last comment. The delay was owing to the editor being in hospital.