Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Auguste Coulon – Special Branch Anarchist!

by Christopher Draper

(Following on from Part 1 and Part 2, this is Part 3 of the 'Walsall Anarchists' story)

Employing agent provocateurs to infiltrate and disrupt the British anarchist movement is a long and dishonourable tradition pioneered since its inception in 1883 by the “Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPSB)”.  Despite the State’s grim determination to conceal its grubby little secrets anarchists always maintained that the “Walsall Bombers” were set up by MPSB agent Auguste Coulon.

“No voice speaks so loud as Dynamite, and we are glad to see it is getting into use all over the place…Good old Dynamite”!  (Auguste Coulon, 1891)

The Personal is Political
Auguste’s role in the “Walsall Bomb Plot” was outlined by Quail but little of Coulon’s life-story was uncovered. Convinced “the personal is political” and curious to understand how aspects of anarchist lives intertwine I researched AC’s biography. Regrettably, 127 years after the event the authorities continue to refuse my “Freedom of Information” requests and cynically shredded key documents (as I’ll report once my appeal process has been expended). Despite these difficulties I’ve identified Coulon’s origins, early politics, later decline and miserable demise.

Talented Linguist
Commonly described as a Frenchman and most recently by Butterworth as “half-French, half-Irish”, Coulon was actually born in Mouscron, Belgium in 1844 to Martial Coulon, a dyer. His elder brother, Pierre Joseph Ernest was skilled in the decoration and gilding of leatherwork whilst Auguste was an accomplished linguist. Studying in Florence, Paris and Berlin, August developed a love of European literature and acquired fluency in French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and English. Despite describing himself as “Professor of Modern Languages” there’s no evidence Auguste ever actually held a Professorial chair at any university. In reality, Coulon spent most of his time scratching a precarious living from lending his linguistic skills to anyone able to supply sponsorship. An early commission came from Hossfield’s publishing company who asked him to contribute a volume to their popular series, “Learning the German Language in the Easiest and Quickest Way.

Pioneering Irish Socialism
In 1883 Auguste was engaged on a short-term contract to teach at a Dublin girls’ school. He was probably already radical as back home in Belgium politics ran in the family. A relative edited Le Proletaire, which was suppressed by the authorities whilst his brother, Pierre Joseph Ernest, was sought by French police for “crimes prejudicial to the security of the State”. In December 1885, encouraged and supported by nine comrades, Auguste initiated organised Socialism in Ireland with a meeting of The Socialist League convened in Abbey Street. The group’s opposition to parliamentary politics was outlined by comrade Michael Gabriel, “What would be the use of sending labour candidates to Parliament? It would be no use whatever to send them to talk to capitalists and landlords whose interests were different from theirs. As working men they would never get anything by using a vote.”
Dublin SL planned to hold weekly public meetings at the Oddfellows Hall in Upper Abbey Street with the first on Thursday 7th January 1886, entitled, “The Problems of Socialism”. About 30 people turned up and newspapers reported, “In the subsequent discussion some speakers expressed the hope that Socialism would never take root in Ireland and denounced its resort to assassination, but one or two advocated the use of the dagger.” When word got out that such unorthodox opinions had been expressed the “Oddfellows” refused permission for any future use of their facilities.

Auguste to the Rescue
The next venue didn’t last long either and so at the beginning of February a rather cloak-and-dagger arrangement was adopted, “An advertisement appeared in yesterday’s paper which was to the effect that a Socialist meeting would be held (where, it was not mentioned). The advertisement then stated that that admission would be gained to the meeting by applying to the members (who the members were was not mentioned)…”
The report continued, “The meetings of this association had been held first in the Oddfellows Hall, Abbey Street and then over some public house but these resorts were “proclaimed” and thus the mysterious advertisement not announcing the place of rendezvous was inserted.”
Fortunately, Coulon accommodatingly offered the use of his own office space, and so, “These socialists met at the house 50 Dawson Street in a room on the second floor…” The lecturer, Robert Reubin Lipman, concluded his speech to the applause of the assembled audience, “…Let the capitalists and landlords, aided by the powder and steel of their armies, unite and deny them, the labourers, their rights as long as they could, but the time was coming when the labourers would also unite to rise and vindicate their rights and their property!”

Family Man
Coulon rented the Dawson Street premises to run a language school. Advertising himself as “Monsieur Auguste Coulon, European Polyglot Institute…French, German taught all over Ireland, correspondence: stamp for prospectus; Evening Classes for French, Italian, Spanish, German, 50 Dawson Street, Dublin”.
Auguste was assisted by his wife, Helena who hailed from Wurttemberg, Germany, where her father, George Ulmschneider, was Superintendent of the Mauser Armaments Factory. The pair had married in 1884 at St Anne’s Church, Dublin where comrade Lipman served as best man and witness. Although Dawson Street was Auguste’s professional address the family actually lived at 9 Leeson Street. A daughter, Helena jnr was born in 1885: a son, August the following year and on 28th July 1888 the Coulon’s had their third and final child, another daughter, named Zelie Juliette.

The Dublin branch endured rocky relations with the SL’s Central Council in London which wasn’t yet as distinctly anarchist as it later became. Matters came to a head in October 1886 when the branch backed Charles Reuss and rebuked the leadership for expelling him from the League for being a spy in the pay of German police. A settlement was eventually cobbled together but the branch disintegrated the following March when Reuss’s treachery was dramatically demonstrated.
Coulon’s activism continued undiminished, running an eclectic outfit called Dublin Socialist Club as well as attaching himself from time to time to whatever local group seemed most militant. In the same month that the SL branch collapsed Coulon hosted an, “International Celebration of the Commune of Paris at 50 Dawson Street, the following nationalities being represented: English, Welsh, Scotch, Irish, French, Danish, Russian and American…A most enjoyable evening was wound up by comrade Coulon singing the Marseillaise in French”. Life continued in similar vein until in May 1889 Coulon made an extended visit to Paris and the family departed for London.

Napoleon of Notting Hill
The Coulons settled at 41 Talbot Grove, Notting Hill where Auguste joined the North Kensington SL branch. No slouch, he was soon giving talks for his new comrades at the Clarendon Coffee Tavern where he was initially billed as, “Auguste Coulon (Paris)”. On 16th April 1890 his topic was, “The French Revolution” but as spring turned into summer, Coulon took his turn on the branch’s outdoor soapbox at Latimer Road and in June, at Kingston market. By then he’d realised that he could better advance his professional and political ambitions by moving into central London so the Coulon’s transferred to 37 London Street, Tottenham Court which was handily placed for the Autonomie Club in Windmill Street.

Convivial Company
Ingratiating himself with members of the Autonomie, Coulon falsely complained that he’d been expelled from Hammersmith Socialist Society for preaching anarchy. He’d certainly alienated west London comrades by his constant entreaties for violence and determined distribution of the terrorist manifesto, L’Indicateur Anarchiste, containing instructions on dynamite and bomb-making.
Auguste joined the activist North London branch of the SL that met every Wednesday evening at 8pm at the Autonomie Club. Within weeks the branch embarked on a propaganda visit to Yarmouth where Coulon concluded every speech with a burst on his accordion.
Throughout the late summer and autumn of 1890 Auguste was an incendiary presence on the Sunday soapbox at Hyde Park alongside libertarian luminaries Edith Lupton, Thomas Cantwell and Mrs Lahr. He was also in contact with his Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPSB) handler, Chief Inspector William Melville.

Sympathy for the Devil
On 18th July 1890 Coulon received his first official £2 payment from Special Branch but he may well have already been in the pay of other security services. Coulon’s prolonged 1889-90 trip to France looks suspicious. It’s clear that he didn’t really abandon his Dublin business merely to attend the 1889 Paris Exposition as his wife Helena claimed. In June 1889 he described himself to the Paris correspondent of the London Standard, as “the delegate who is to represent the Irish at the Socialist International Congress” but he appears self-appointed and certainly never returned to Dublin to report to his erstwhile Irish comrades. He intimated to Commonweal that he’d really gone to France to attend the Socialist Conference and then stayed on to report on French affairs (from 49 Rue de Billancourt). In typically grandiose fashion he’d had business cards printed describing himself as, “Correspondant du Commonweal de Londres”. In despatches Coulon derided French parliamentary politics, praised violence and advised English readers that, “The bourgeois shot 35,000 of our friends in the last commune. If so many are killed this time, they won’t be all on one side we can promise you.”
He claimed French parliamentarians were paid by the authorities to divert workers’ discontent into harmless channels, “It is a known fact, I say, that this party get secret money to play the game of the government.” Coulon’s linguistic expertise and extensive political contacts made him an attractive prospect for several nations’ security services and someone obviously met the considerable cost of his eight month sojourn in the French capital.

Enfant Terrible
MPSB files confirm that Coulon had come to the attention of the Irish Special Branch as early 1885 and it’s quite possible he operated as their agent years before his first formally recorded London payment. Perhaps he engineered disruption to nascent Irish socialism. Consider for a moment the difficulties the SL encountered securing a venue and the spying potential of Coulon’s provision of accommodation. Consider also the branch’s obdurate defence of the traitor Reuss despite HQ’s well-founded decision to expel him (trusting Reuss cost one anarchist his life). Coulon also wrote to SL HQ criticising and undermining branch organiser Michael Gabriel.
With two major International Socialist Conferences convened in Paris during Coulon’s 1889 stay the city was flooded with cops on the look out for collaborators. If Auguste wasn’t signed up there and then it was likely only because he was already “an old friend”. The anarchist historian Max Nettlau who met Coulon in Dublin in 1888 later described him as, “shady and shabby – most likely always a rascal”!

Coulon’s Cunning Plan
Individual MPSB officers accepted private commissions from overseas security agencies so uncovering conspiracies, either real and imagined, was a lucrative activity. Over the summer of 1890 Coulon plotted with his MPSB “handler” to entrap a group comprising both overseas and English anarchists. Auguste suggested to Louise Michel that she might kill two birds with one stone by starting an international anarchist school in London; providing an income for herself and an invaluable educational facility for comrades.
Michel was a trained teacher but her English was poor so she welcomed Auguste’s offer to act as both School Secretary and teach language lessons. Melville immediately rewarded him with a bonus payment and from December 1890 put Coulon on a weekly wage of £1 as Freedom announced, “It is proposed to start an international Socialist School in London, with Louise Michel for directress. The French Group in the Autonomie Club are taking the initiative in the affair…”

Wonderful Enterprise
The school was a prestigious project with a prospectus designed by Walter Crane. Kropotkin, Malatesta and William Morris all served on the steering committee and educational pioneer Margaret McMillan was amongst the teaching staff. In the New Year Commonweal confirmed that, “We have received a notice from Comrade Coulon that the International Socialist School…has opened at the Autonomie Club, 6 Windmill Street, Tottenham Court Road, and he makes an appeal to all Socialists in the neighbourhood to send their children.”
A few weeks later Commonweal revealed, “The Committee have now secured large and commodious premises in the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court Road. Funds however are urgently needed and subscriptions should be sent to A Coulon, Secretary…” The new premises were 19 Fitzroy Street and Auguste offered patrons, “A portrait group of teachers and scholars”. Margaret McMillan provides a colourful snapshot of one of Coulon’s lessons, “Louise had just finished teaching the piano and Coulon, her assistant was teaching French, (behind Coulon) stood the blackboard with its terrible pictures; the Chicago Anarchists hanging by the neck”!

Incendiary Anarchist
As School Secretary, Coulon had artfully placed himself at the hub of a network not only able to harvest contact details of exiled anarchists but as the advert makes clear, also enabled to “legitimately” photograph children, parents and staff. Throughout 1891 Coulon carried his fiery torch of anarchy far beyond the school walls, advising Fred Charles that robbery is the anarchist answer to poverty. Commonweal readers were directed to launch an immediate General Strike and visiting Norwich, Auguste insisted workers, “PAY NO RENT!” Coulon also started teaching chemistry lessons at the Berners Street Club dedicated to explosives and bomb-making and ever a friend in need, he asked his Walsall comrades to find employment for Victor Cails.

Springing the Trap
Coulon was overcome by his own importance and by October 1891 his school colleagues had grown to resent his high-handed behaviour and suspect his incendiary lessons and before the end of the year he was asked to leave. By then his Walsall bomb-making plot was well advanced but it was imperative it bore fruit before he was exposed. On December 5th he despatched Battolla to Walsall to speed things up but when Giovanni complained of the inadequacy of their crude efforts it was clear to Coulon that it was risky to await a satisfactory completion so in the New Year the trap was prematurely sprung. On 6th January 1892 Joe Deakin was lured down to London and arrested by waiting officers with the other “conspirators” picked up over succeeding days.

State Conspiracy
When the trial opened and Coulon didn’t appear his erstwhile comrades realised he’d set them up. Lying to Parliament, the Home Secretary insisted that the State never, ever employed agent provocateurs! When the defence solicitor questioned Inspector Melville, “witness declined to say whether he had paid a man named Coulon for information in this case. – The Judge ruled that in the interest of the public service he need not do so.”
Three years later a disgruntled secret policeman let the cat out of the bag and detailed to reporters the mechanism of State complicity, “All information that Coulon supplied was taken possession of by Mr Melville, who submitted it to Mr Anderson, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Anderson would direct what action was to be taken in the matter…In serious cases every iota of information has to be reported to the Assistant Commissioner….during the course of the formation of the plot we have been discussing the Assistant Commissioner was in possession of all its various phases. And he in his turn was responsible to one man only, the Home Secretary.”

Nice Little Earner
Two anarchist “conspirators” were found not guilty but the rest were given long jail sentences, one sent down for five years and the remaining three given ten-year sentences. Coulon got a £4 bonus from Melville for the arrests and a 250% weekly pay increase during the four month prosecution period.
Coulon attempted to shift blame for the betrayal onto other comrades. When he was called to account at the Autonomie Club on January 10th he insisted his money didn’t originate from Melville but, “like all anarchists I live by plunder!” It didn’t wash and he was expelled.
Meanwhile, Commonweal’s editor, David Nicoll, campaigned for the release of his imprisoned comrades and collected evidence of Coulon’s guilt. Just as Nicoll was about to publish the police swooped, smashed up Commonweal’s printing equipment and imprisoned him for a year and a half. Utterly shameless and adding insult to injury, Coulon went on the offensive and distributed a series of handbills denouncing Nicoll as a police agent!

“Innocent Victims”
The cover of David Nicoll’s twenty-page account of the conspiracy proclaims, “Innocent Men in Penal Servitude” but the Walsall Four were not innocent; they did conspire to make bombs. Neither were they prosecuted to the full extent of the law as the maximum sentence allowable was fourteen years. George Cores, at a subsequent Walsall protest meeting, publicly declared the men, “innocent victims of a plot deliberately got up that they might be entrapped”. They were not innocent but they were entrapped, this severely mitigated their culpability and should have greatly reduced their sentences. With cruel, unacknowledged irony, Mr Justice Hawkins recognised this in granting Deakin a reduced sentence on the explicit basis, “that he thought Deakin had been the dupe and the victim”. In truth, all four men were entrapped by Coulon and duped into manufacturing “bombs for Russia” yet the judge readily acceded to MPSB’s demands to suppress Auguste’s key role in the conspiracy.
Cails and Battolla had undoubtedly indulged in loose talk at the Autonomie which Coulon had creatively exploited to link them with Charles and Deakin who had the means to provide practical effect to bomb-making. Once the conspiracy was sufficiently advanced searches and arrests were made by police without warrants, scare stories of the imminent threat of anarchist outrages were “leaked” to the press, the prisoners were then denied visitors and writing materials, provided with minimal food and confined in substandard conditions.
Deakin was induced to confess to conspiracy by a clever combination of whisky, cigars, threats and straightforward lies. During the trial the cynically selected judge, “Hanging Hawkins” systematically turned a deaf ear to all mention of police transgressions. All manner of prejudicial material was introduced into Court to associate, in the jury’s minds, the accused with the wildest of terrorist declarations. The police were even permitted to present their own bombs to the jury as apparent proof of the anarchists’ intentions. Despite the absence of any actual explosives, the law, recently enacted to convict Fenians, meant the remotest association with explosives, such as the coil of miner’s fuse found at the Socialist Club had to be justified by the accused in order to prove innocence – an outrageous reversal of the established principle of presumed innocence. Legally the men were guilty but the whole process was biased; as convinced anarchists the Walsall Four could have expected nothing different.

Snivelling Coward
Coulon’s next enterprise was the revived publication in London in May 1893 of a fiery French language journal, L’ International, designed to attract militant subscribers whose names and contact addresses would be handed on to the authorities. Unfortunately one of his targets, the militant anarchist hairdresser Louis Matha, realised who was behind the venture and warned continental comrades through the pages of La Revolte. Once again Coulon attempted to bluff it out and challenged him to a duel but failed to turn up when Matha accepted. Meanwhile, Coulon’s war of attrition with David Nicoll (lately released from jail), continued, as Nicoll shrewdly observed of L’International, “Incendiary sheets of this kind represent not Anarchy but Scotland Yard.”

Good Year for the Grass
In 1894 Coulon sent out flyers soliciting subscribers to a relaunch of the International School which had recently closed. Renamed, Ecole Anarchiste Industrielle, pupils were offered free tuition and print-training which would enable the enterprise to undertake commercial work to finance the school. Simultaneously, Coulon issued handbills advertising an unconnected, “Institute of Teachers” providing correspondence courses in “English, Classics, Modern and Oriental Languages”. Addressed from his home at 85, Sistova Road, Balham Coulon claimed to be working in association with a couple of intriguing characters, Hugh H Johnson the Principal of Liverpool’s pioneering “Moslem Institute” and “Major Foster, Royal Artillery, Professor of Fortifications”. Neither venture got off the ground, so carry on spying!

Worth a Bonus!
The spring of 1894 brought Auguste another couple of bonus payments although it’s not clear what he did to deserve them. It’s said Coulon had a hand in the April 12 arrest of the fugitive Meunier and probably also the capture two days later of Polti and Farnara and he openly boasted of trailing Martial Bourdin before he blew himself up. Coulon also found time to fire off a letter informing the Italian authorities that two anarchists they sought, Malato and Malatesta could be found in the city of Massa Carrara.
Coulon told the Pall Mall Gazette, “The Anarchists feel the London police hold them in the hollow of their hands. Doubtless those that have their misgivings about being watched are correct in their apprehensions. There are few whose dossiers are not filed at Scotland Yard.” Auguste romanticised but probably didn’t exaggerate when, in February 1894 he informed the Morning Leader, “I am in the service of the International Secret Police, which is subsidised by the Russian, German and French governments”.
Amazingly, Coulon wasn’t yet entirely abandoned by comrades and in 1895 two anarchists on the run from continental police stayed with him for a while in Balham. Charles Lutz, a Swiss anarchist also known as “Latour” and the Italian “illegalist” Amilcar Pomati and remarkably, both emerged unscathed.

Spent Force
In 1897 Coulon was still on a £1 a week retainer from Melville, obliged to stoke dissent and supply occasional tit-bits so on July 10 he tried to wind up Max Nettlau who had temporarily fallen out with David Nicoll. “I knew that first week you were in Dublin that you belonged to the Austrian police…I never told anyone but the late William Morris…Now your “Dear” Nicoll is doing a good thing exposing you…” Nettlau was unruffled and nobody took any notice.
Coulon’s blood money only stopped when Melville retired from the MPSB at the end of 1903. By then Auguste had received over £800 plus expenses from MPSB and had long abandoned all pretence of employment as “Professor of Languages”. He was living at 97 Cathles Road, Streatham and touting for business as a self-employed “Painter & Decorator” but couldn’t even get that business off the ground and settled for putting up wallpaper for another tradesman.
Impoverished and long since deserted by his wife, who’d gone to live with their daughter Zelie and her husband in Halifax, in 1923 Auguste Coulon, aged 78, died in Wandsworth Workhouse of “Cardio Vascular Degeneration” and was buried in Wandsworth Cemetery.

      Christopher Draper (December 2017)

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