Tunbridge Wells Branch – founded in the mid 1880s
Not quite the first socialist organisation in Kent – Smithian or Ricardian socialists linked to the Society for the Promotion of Cooperative Knowledge founded a branch in the town in 1829 and at Maidstone in 1830
The Social Democratic Federation were the first significant political organisation in Britain to claim Marx as their influence. With the Socialist League, a splinter group from it, they pioneered the revival of socialist politics in the 1880s.
The SDF started as a grouping of London radical clubs, known as the Democratic Federation, in 1882. It is clear that they wished to turn a London-based organisation into a national one. In 1884 they published a weekly newspaper, Justice, which struggled to find agents in the provinces. However, newsagents in Tonbridge and in Tunbridge Wells stocked it. Establishing their first provincial branches – of which Tunbridge Wells was one, together with a few other places such as Edinburgh, Bristol, Bolton and Salford, enabled the party to claim that it was now part of a national movement...
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...The SDF has often fallen victim to two schools of thought within the history of the socialist movement. The first is the mainstream Labour Party approach, which argues that anything other than a party formed by the trade unions would essentially be a dead end. The second is the Leninist attitude which sees the SDF as solely interesting as a forerunner of the Communist Party. I question how useful these are. In the case of Tunbridge Wells this may have been exacerbated due to its role in challenging Ramsay MacDonald’s control over ILP branches in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and South London in the middle of the 1900s, together with the branch not fitting into the Communist Party division of having either sold out its internationalist values during WWI or joining the CP on its formation. The branch was resolutely internationalist, distributing anti-recruitment leaflets in the last months of 1914, yet refused to join the CP on its formation. The last-remaining Hyndmanites would also have remembered that in 1909 the branch moved a resolution condemning the leadership for anti-German and pro-militarism sentiment, which led to his resignation, and again in 1916 their conference delegate accused Hyndman and his colleagues of working with Special Branch to undermine those who opposed the war, which immediately led to the party fragmenting in two. Another thematic approach has been to look at the women in the branch – here Tunbridge Wells has been studied in greater depth and there are some very interesting insights. Completely against what might be expected, there are examples of women running the economics class and men the socialist Sunday school, and the town’s women’s circle was more interested in socialist theory than making items for the bazaar. Rose Jarvis, one member from 1886 onwards, became one of the Federation’s better known speakers, and was the only woman in the history of the party to be elected to the Executive Committee by the provincial membership.
Chronology – the first years of revolutionary agitation
The first people to embrace socialism in the town came from the branch of the National Secular Society. Why did these young men and women reject organised Christianity so forcefully?
The overwhelming institutional power of right-wing clerics such as Canon Hoare, who managed to control much of the social life of the town through his roles formal and informal. Those who dared cross him often found themselves ruined. Edward Cherill Edwards, a confectioner of Camden Road, decided to open his shop on a Sunday and openly declared that he was a secularist. As a result he was singled out for persecution from 1884 onwards, prosecuted 23 times for working on a Sunday and eventually bankrupted in 1898. Even by the time this was remarkable, and the radical Reynolds News picked up on it several times.
Constance Howell’s view that Christianity was the thing that conditioned both all working class people and all women to second class status.
Leading branch members including William Willis-Harris were enthusiastic about advances in geology and evolution and intellectually Christianity lost appeal.
However, the growing depression of the 1880s led many of these activists to look towards economic theories to explain what was happening. There were a couple of significant industrial disputes in the town in 1885. In February 1886 the branch of the NSS studied Karl Marx’s pamphlet ‘Wage Labour and Capital” at a meeting in the Clarence Hotel, Church Road.
The branch formed in the Summer of 1886, and initially held two meetings on a Sunday every fortnight or so on the Common.
The first Socialist lecture delivered in Tunbridge Wells was given on Sunday morning by Thomas Mann, who lectured on ‘social democracy’ on the Common to above 350 very attentive listeners. In the afternoon he had an audience of from 1,200 to 1,500 and was well received, his subject being an ‘eight-hour day’. During the day we sold all the literature we had, i.e. 81 Justices, 25 Christian Socialists and 234 one-penny pamphlets. All the Justices went in the morning and there was a great demand for more, the literature being literally scrambled for. The series of lectures which will be delivered at Tunbridge Wells promises to be very successful and there is every possibility that a strong branch will be formed.
Within a few weeks, enough people had enrolled in the branch for it to rent a hall, which was just off Quarry Road, and claimed to have a couple of hundred members (party membership figures were never greatly reliable).
'The hall was a wooden building over a stable, and when the local Salvation Army occupied it, it had been little better than a shed; but the Socialists had hired it for a year; and they had mended and painted and whitewashed, had made a temporary ceiling, and had furnished the room with forms and a platform and table, entirely by voluntary labour. Across the rafters were stretched red cloth, on which were painted, in black and white letters, the mottoes “Work for All and Overwork for None”, “Educate, Organise, Agitate”, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Vive la Revolution Sociale”.
The opening night was quite a gala night. As [they] ascended the rather damaged steps, a red light was burned, the piano inside struck up the Marseilles, and he entered a pretty-looking hall hung with colourful lanterns, ornamented with portraits of Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle and of those speakers of the Social Democratic Federation who had suffered for the cause, and densely filled with an enthusiastic audience who cheered him lustily’
The meetings on the Common were enormous by modern standards – often several thousand. However, the SDF quickly made enemies. Most damaging were a couple of spates of arson attacks which were blamed on their members – on one occasion a bottle of accelerant was found on a doorstep with the words ‘socialism’, ‘treason’ and ‘death’ pasted to it. Maybe a set up?
The unemployed became the focus of the branch’s work, as with other places. There were dozens of marches by hundreds of people who were out of work, which often walked through the expensive areas such as Broadwater Down so as to register their presence before returning down Camden Road. This work would not, of course, lead to electoral success, as property qualifications were still in place and anyone receiving poor relief was barred from voting for several years. Thus when one candidate, Tom Jarvis, got 71 votes against his opponent’s 923 in 1888, Justice could say that it was a great success as over 70 people had consciously voted for revolutionary socialism.
It is clear that after about 1890 blacklists were in operation and only a handful of members remained in the town. The economy was recovering and it was no longer so easy to see the socialist revolution as being inevitable – Hyndman, the party leader, had claimed that it would happen in 1889! There was also a great deal of tension about what the members actually meant by socialism, something that affected the Socialist League and, from 1893, the Independent Labour Party. William Willis-Harris explained the dilemma best
“However important eight hour bills, free education, improved dwellings and free meals in schools are, they are NOT socialism. Stepping-stones they are to Social-Democracy, and it is owing to the continual pushing of them, both on the platform and in the press by the Socialists, that they are now within the sphere of practical politics… No Socialist should vote for any man who does not recognise the Class War and who will not pledge himself in favour of the Nationalisation of the Land and the Instruments of Production”.
Therefore, the question was whether too much time was spent chasing palliatives which might, as another early SDF member noted, merely lead to the ‘production of more efficient wage slaves’ rather than overthrowing capitalism entirely. This of course led to questions about the role of the trade unions – many Tunbridge Wells SDF activists, David Geer of the Carpenters and Joiners Union in particular, were leading trade unionists but still feared that the unions were linked to the Liberal Party and at best could only push for reforms to capitalism.
Part 2 – revolutionaries or reformists?
Geer and a few others were able to gain a platform through using the Trades Council, the Cooperative Society and strike meetings to continue to call for socialism. He was also adept at pushing other platforms, such as ending outsourcing for council contracts and ensuring that all municipal work was done at the recognised trade union rate. He even called for a pay rise for the police on the basis it was the only way they could be kept honest. In 1895 and 1896 he came within about 70 votes of winning and in 1897 actually topped the poll in the East Ward. A member of the Fabian Society, H C Lander, also won and a panicked Borough Council decided that they would buy some land to build a new housing estate to try to stem this red tide. Two other SDF councillors, William Bournes and James Milstead, also leading trade unionists, were also elected, and there was a recognised socialist and labour group of seven or eight.
Unfortunately the Boer War put an end to this success and only William Bournes (North Ward) was re-elected subsequently. Geer, Bournes and Milstead were keen to use phrases such as ‘our friends the Boers’ whereas their opponents posted men dressed in Union Jack tabards bearing legends such as ‘vote for true Englishmen’ at local elections. The opposition was strongly coordinated though shadowy national organisations committed to free enterprise. Ironically the municipalisation of services such as telephones and electricity was not the work of the socialists but of the Liberal Party councillors, though these were also derided being ‘under the control of a socialist committee’! Eventually the municipal housing land was re-sold and the town only started to address the issue after WWI.
The regional phase
Tunbridge Wells had sent activists from the start to try and put the socialist case to people in Tonbridge, Rotherfield, Hastings and villages near Maidstone. A new organisation, the Independent Labour Party, was set up in 1893. This built branches in a number of the bigger Kent towns, such as Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Maidstone, by the end of the century. After 1906 the country appeared to move leftwards, a number of MPs were elected (not in our area) for Labour and the unions became more militant. More people were becoming interested in socialist ideas. Tunbridge Wells was probably still the strongest branch of any of the socialist organisations in the south-east counties and its activists were seen as experienced speakers. There were affiliated groups, such as a Socialist Women’s Circle, a Socialist Sunday School and the Socialist Scouts, who were a cycling group. Activists such as E J Pay and Maud Ward also gained national publicity, Pay as a speaker and union organiser, Ward for her work in the Adult Suffrage Society. Therefore the branch was asked to assist with building new branches and assisting with others that were struggling.
Strangely the SDF’s branches in Kent and Sussex were often on the borders of the counties or on the coast, at Erith, Sittingbourne and Sheerness, Hastings, Brighton etc. The closest relationship was probably with Hastings SDF, to which they sent speakers every fortnight or so. There is of course one very important legacy – Robert Tressell, who joined the Hastings Branch on its foundation. George Meek at Eastbourne also worked closely with Tunbridge Wells and praised many of the leading activists in his autobiography. The ILP branches in Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and Maidstone also worked very closely with Tunbridge Wells. One comic aside was provided by the ILP leader Ramsay MacDonald, who essentially tried to prevent branches from working with the SDF, only to be ignored and roundly criticised.
The question over whether capitalism should be reformed or overthrown became even more heated in this period. Some trade unionists drifted towards syndicalism. Many in the mainstream Labour Party feared (correctly) that there was a pact with the Liberals. In 1912 the SDF dissolved and became the British Socialist Party. Branches of the ILP at Brighton, Maidstone and Ashford jumped ship to the new organisation. Unfortunately the BSP did not prosper nationally, but it remains one of the great ‘what ifs’ of UK politics.
WW1 – politics as usual were largely suspended as a result of it. The branch had earlier been critical of Hyndman’s lapses into anti-German sentiment and his support for a big navy. The BSP held a mass rally against the war on Tunbridge Wells Common 2 days before the UK entered it. The entire socialist and labour movement of every European country was split by it, mostly going along with it. Tunbridge Wells BSP were however against this trend, distributing leaflets in the autumn of 1914 to try and dissuade people from enlisting. This resulted in Sam Noble, East Ward candidate, failing to win a seat in December 1914 after the Liberal and Tory candidates had united against him due to the branch’s position. However, winning 399 votes against the Liberal’s 580 and Tory’s 572 actually showed quite strong support for the anti-war cause. There was certainly enough concern that anti-war sentiment was strong in the town that Labour MPs Will Crooks and J Hodge were brought down to address pro-recruitment meetings, one held at the Opera House. In 1918 it was reported that socialist leaflets against the war were being found in the Dudley Institute and removed regularly.
Unsurprisingly, once conscription was put in place in 1916, many members refused to do this. Ironically David Geer had been appointed as a labour representative on the town’s tribunal, but it appears that he was kept off it by the other members of it. Some member, such as William O’Sullivan, served in the forces, others gained exemption from combat duty. Three were absolutists. There was an interesting report in one socialist newspaper.
‘Comrade W G Veals of Tunbridge Wells BSP, recently released from Wormwood Scrubs, has been sentenced again to two years’ hard labour for refusing to obey orders. The news of the Russian Revolution, received whilst in prison, gave him fresh inspiration and he wrote to us in a very cheery and hopeful strain before going back to prison’.
Two other members of the Tunbridge Wells branch are also standing as absolutists. Comrade G Dutch was sentenced at his fourth court-marshal to three years’ penal servitude. Comrade F Collinson is serving his sentence of two years in Maidstone Gaol’ [The Call July 26th 1917].
These members were only released in 1919, long after the war had ended, and were banned from voting for a further five years after release.
The branch’s separate identity faded out around this time. In 1916 the BSP was finally affiliated to the Labour Party. The branch would have had the option of joining the Communist Party but chose against this. It appears that the Socialist Club on the corner of Western Road and Avon Street may have survived a little longer.
Question for today
Is the SDF approach of ‘making socialists’ one which has any relevance in the twenty-first century?
Also of interest from the site of the West Kent Radical History society:
The Social Democratic Federation /Social Democratic Party, Tunbridge Wells Branch (1886-1911)
The Tunbridge Wells Branch of the Social Democratic Federation was formally established in the summer of 1886. Many of its earliest members had previously been active in the town’s Tunbridge Wells Secular Society secularist and radical groupings, including David Geer and Tom Jarvis , while William Willis-Harris had been previously associated with secularists in London. The SDF in Tunbridge Wells continued the secularist agitation of the town’s branch of the National Secular Society into the Twentieth Century. During the spring, summer and autumn it held many of its meetings outdoors at the Tunbridge Wells Common, Lime Hill Road and Wood Street (off Camden Road ).
The branch grew to be one of the Federation’s strongest. Unsurprisingly it attracted opposition from both Tory and Liberal politicians, and was blamed for a series of arson attacks in 1886 and 1887 , as well as several instances of public disorder, especially in organising marches of unemployed workers. Its members, many of whom were active trade unionists, suffered from blacklisting in retaliation.
In the early 1890s the branch’s level of activity fell away as a result of some leading members being forced to leave town. Revival happened in the latter part of the decade. In 1897 David Geer was elected as councillor for the East Ward, one of two socialist councillors (the other being H C Lander of the Fabian Society) elected that year. Two further SDF councillors, William Bournes and James Milstead, were also elected in the next two years, together with other Labour and Fabian councillors. These councillors were strong supporters of municipally owned utilities, including electricity and telephones, and unsuccessfully campaigned for the construction of municipal housing. Trade unionists in the branch took leading roles in the town’s trades’ council and allied Labour Representation Committee and some supported the women’s suffragist movement.
The branch’s opposition to the Boer War allowed Conservative opinion to portray the SDF and other local socialists as unpatriotic, and this was largely responsible for Geer and Milstead not being re-elected. However, the branch flourished in the first decade of the Twentieth Century and played a leading role in building the socialist movement throughout Kent and Sussex under the auspices of the South Eastern Counties Federation of Socialist Societies, working closely with branches of the Independent Labour Party. In 1909 the Social Democratic Federation was renamed the Social Democratic Party though this did not affect the organisation.
In 1911 the Social Democratic Party joined with dissident branches of the Independent Labour Party and a number of independent socialist societies to form the British Socialist Party and the Tunbridge Wells Branch therefore became a branch of the new organisation.
The Social Democratic Federation had a meeting hall capable of holding 200 people from 1886 until 1888 in the area between Quarry Road and the old Central Goods Station and the Social Democratic Party leased rooms in Upper Grosvenor Road from September 1909 until 1911.