Thursday, February 8, 2018

The TORCH of Anarchy (1891-1896)

       By Christopher Draper

The TORCH was an incendiary nineteenth century anarchist monthly. It wasn’t Britain’s first anarchist journal, it wasn’t even well produced but it was unique. Started by children, throughout its five-year existence it remained effectively owned and published by a teenage girl who later turned to Fascism. The TORCH comprised articles by leading thinkers and activists, was distributed around the world and although acclaimed by cultural commentators is often overlooked by anarchists.

Quiet Beginnings
The journal’s unique origins lead some to dismiss it as a juvenile enterprise initiated by the privileged progeny of artistic liberals. The facts are accurate but the evaluation unwarranted for The TORCH channelled original ideas into a nascent native anarchist movement whilst serving as a haven, both practical and intellectual, for exiled revolutionaries.
Britain’s first anarchist newspaper, the English-language Freiheit, was issued as a defiant political response by seasoned revolutionaries to a savage act of State repression. The TORCH could hardly have emerged in more contrasting circumstances. Handwritten in the comfortable bourgeois domestic setting of the family library (illustrated below) by three adolescent offspring of artist Lucy Madox Brown and writer William Michael Rossetti (WMR 1829-1919), a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The TORCH began as more of a childish hobby than an incendiary anarchist campaign yet appearances can be deceptive.                         
Analysing the Origins
The Rossetti parents were iconoclasts in a cultural movement that inspired William Morris and Lucy’s father and next door neighbour, Ford Madox Brown, “welcomed the Russian revolutionaries of different shades of opinion” including Kropotkin and “encouraged their (the children’s) youthful socialistic and anarchistic leanings”. William Rossetti had been encouraged in his own youth by his grandfather, Gaetano Polidori (1764-1853), to print his own early writings on a press installed in the garden shed and as an adult edited the Pre-Raphaelite movement’s magazine, The GERM.
Lucy and William shared admirably advanced opinions on child rearing as he recorded in his “Reminiscences”, “She considered that on the whole it would be a pity to chill our youngsters in their generous enthusiasms…I was somewhat less inclined than she to allow the children to go to the end of their tether: still I entered into her general view…The parents, while it is their obvious duty to regulate the children should not, in my opinion wrest them aside, attempting to alter their identities; the attempt  will probably fail and we shall have meagre and stunted hybrid growths instead of natural and naturally developed growths”.
The children’s 1891 determined decision to jointly produce and distribute their own monthly newspaper was therefore encouraged by their parents although the title and contents, The TORCH - a Journal of International Socialism, proved quite a surprise.
William Rossetti was himself a friend of Kropotkin’s and it was his book, “An Appeal to the Young”, that inspired the adolescent Rossetti’s to produce their journal. When Kropotkin turned up at their 3, Edmund Terrace home one day in 1891 to visit their parents the young trio intercepted and requested that he endorse their publication and he duly obliged.

Olivia, born 30 September 1875, the eldest of the three, was prime mover in the project, Helen (depicted above, on the sofa), born 10 November 1879, was youngest whilst Gabriel Arthur (invariably called “Arthur”) was the middle-born, 28 February 1877. When the trio produced their first issue of The TORCH in June 1891, Olivia was 15, Arthur 14 and Helen just 11. Two years later Arthur confided to Max Nettlau that they’d only turned out three handwritten copies of the first edition with the cover depicting winged figures of “Liberty” adorned with the words, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. By employing a “hectograph” duplicating process they managed to extend the “run” but the handwritten appearance of the paper made it difficult to read, limited its appeal and prompted Stepniak (1852-1895) to describe it as a “children’s magazine”.

The trio never intended The TORCH to be a private pastime and maintained a monthly production schedule for a year until Alfred Belcher, the husband of their housekeeper, managed to obtain for them a printing press for a modest (undisclosed) price. A friend of Belcher’s secured a fount of type for nothing whilst, as they detailed in their first printed edition (July 1892, “vol.II no.VII”), a compositor, Mr John Thomas, “devoted his evenings to teaching us composing”. The trio explained, “This month’s Torch appeared in print for the first time which must be our excuse for its shortness and late appearance, for we have comp’d it ourselves and as we are but novices in the noble art of printing we are yet slow but with use we hope to improve”.
Installation of the press required a descent from the domestic library to the basement and the journal now bore the legend, “Printed and Published at the Torch Office by O, A, and H Rossetti”. Olivia, Arthur and Helen at last had a product worthy of their Sunday sales at Hyde Park where they advertised their wares with the energetic waving of red banners. As sales of the newly readable Torch increased they began to attract the attention of an ever widening circle of serious anarchists despite its limited print run (probably considerably below 1,000 per issue of which very few copies appear to have survived). Within two years of starting The TORCH  H B Samuels wrote to Nettlau admitting that the adolescent Rossetti’s were, “growing in influence and power among people we could not reach the in ordinary way” (24 April 1893).

Crisis and Recovery?
Heavily influenced by Kropotkin and fellow Russian exiles, Stepniak and Volkhonsky, as readership increased, The TORCH attracted new authors and new ideas. The involvement of French exiles prompted the promotion of “propaganda of the deed” which cooled Kropotkin’s initial enthusiasm but drew in others as The TORCH celebrated a bizarrely eclectic mix of anarchist ideas.
The summer of 1893 presented an opportunity for expansion with the imminent collapse of Commonweal until crisis struck the Rossetti household. Lucy, the children’s mother had long suffered ill health but suddenly doctors feared for the worst and ordered convalescence in a warmer climate and the parents deemed it advisable for both Olivia and Helen to accompany her to Lake Maggiore. The group departed for Italy in October leaving publication of The TORCH in abeyance and the issue of 15th July 1893 the last, until Lucy was fit enough to return to London.
Sadly Lucy never recovered and in March 1894 William and young Arthur hurried to San Remo to visit her in what appeared likely her final days. On 12 April Lucy passed away in the presence of William and the children. Following the funeral, as soon as Olivia, Helen and Arthur returned to London they lost no time restarting the paper which appeared 15 June 1894 denominated as, “New Series, Issue 1”.

New Site, New Politics?
After Lucy’s death William applied for and was granted immediate pensioned retirement and was in no mood to any longer allow his children to fill his basement with anarchists and other assorted reprobates. Olivia, Helen and Arthur were directed to light their Torch elsewhere and it’s extraordinary that under these circumstances they’d managed to get that June 1894 edition out so promptly. Described on the masthead as, “A Revolutionary Journal of Anarchist Communism”, that issue was, “Printed and Published by F. Macdonald, 1 Arlington Terrace, Arlington Road, Camden Town, NW”. Their saviour and new sponsor was Dr Thomas Fauset Macdonald (1862-1910) who’d previously backed Commonweal but he wasn’t yet in a position to provide The TORCH with a permanent home. From October to December 1894 the paper was nominally printed and published by Macdonald at, 43 Crawford Street, W. Despite these production problems the journal no longer depended on street sales but was by then also available through two fixed outlets, Lapie’s shop at 30 Goodge Street and William Reeves, 185 Fleet Street.
This new series of the paper still carried articles espousing Russian revolutionary causes and French “propaganda of the deed” but also exemplified the arrival of Antonio Agresti (1864-1926) and his Italian comrades who would come to profoundly influence both the paper and its adolescent progenitors. 
WMR approved of Agresti despite recording his own downbeat first impression, “a young man, dark short and slight with an unhealthy complexion and dressed in black like a poor clerk”. Born in Florence in 1864, after publishing “a seditious manifesto”, Antonio had been forced to flee to France where he was later arrested and jailed. Expelled to Brussels in early 1894 he’d moved to London where he lodged with Malatesta, who was already involved with The TORCH. Agresti signed the “News of the Month” in the first issue of the new series and a prominent advert advised comrades, “Anarchist Leaflets! To be had at 2s 6d a thousand. Apply to A. Agresti at 7 Frederick St, Portland Town, N.W.”. The editorial modestly announced, “We aim at a complete, radical, absolute overthrow of the Bourgeois system” but first came the practical search for permanent premises…


Permanent Premises
At the end of 1894 The TORCH found its final resting place in Somers Town, north London. The protracted search had eventually identified “127 Ossulston Street”. Harry Kelly described the premises as, “A small two-storey building situated in a back yard, in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of London…The building had two rooms, one upstairs for the composing room, and one downstairs, the press room”.
The Rossetti girls recorded their first visit to the new office and Nettlau’s introduction to the premises, We stopped in front of a little greengrocers’ shop in a side street”,…“The place I mean is behind here, the woman in the shop (Mrs Upchurch) lets it, we will go in and speak with her”. “She turned out to be as loquacious as she was bulky, a fair specimen of the good-natured Cockney gossip, evidently fond of the convivial glass, not over-choice in her language, the creature of her surroundings, which were not of the sweetest, but withal warm-hearted and sympathetic, with that inner hatred of the police common to all who belong to the coster class, and able to stand up for her rights, if necessary, both with her tongue and her fists. She showed us over a damp ill-lighted basement shop, in a corner of which was a ladder leading to a large, light shop, which seemed well suited to our purpose.”
The TORCH acquired all the old equipment previously owned by the Socialist League and Commonweal including a hand-press that had been employed by Johann Most to print Freiheit before it was passed on to Joseph Lane’s Revolutionary Committee for their leaflet propaganda. In December 1894 these presses were rapidly installed in the downstairs room at Ossulton Street and that month’s edition of the paper informed readers this would become The TORCH’s registered address from New Year.

The TORCH Club
Securing a permanent base and proper, if antiquated, printing presses enabled the paper to flourish as the office became a haven where exiled anarchists dropped in, made contacts and contributed the occasional article. WMR described it less positively, “a sort of club where the hangers on of the extreme Left idled away an immense amount of time whilst their infant host and hostesses were extremely active over their formes” concerning conditions back home. Throughout 1895 a regular monthly production schedule was maintained and pagination increased from a previous average of about a dozen pages up to sixteen and occasionally twenty pages and this pattern continued into 1896. From its launch to its eventual demise the paper’s price remained at one penny which incidentally exactly matched that adopted by Commonweal, The Anarchist, Freedom and Liberty.
Nettlau testified to the popularity of The TORCH in this period, claiming that it sold every issue produced and the print-run was usually between 1,500 and 3,000 although surviving copies show The TORCH was far and away the worst printed of any of the above titles. Whatever the print quality the contents, when readable, were never dull at a time when its contemporary Freedom was described by one comrade, “as a middle-class philosophical organ, not intelligible to the working classes, not up to date in late information and…less revolutionary than “Comic Cuts””

Incendiary Eclecticism
Whilst The TORCH carried stuff found elsewhere in contemporary anarchist journals five distinct elements ultimately characterise the paper;
  • Eclectic
  • Literary and Artistic
  • Praise for “Propaganda by the Deed”
  • Feminist
  • Revolutionary trade unionist
Although Freedom openly debated issues, especially “individualist” versus “”communist” versions of anarchy in its early years by the time of The TORCH it had settled into a tolerant but rather staid pattern which the brash newcomer implicitly challenged. The TORCH was always inconsistent, both from issue to issue and within each issue. Readers could never lazily imbibe a “Party Line” as an article commending peaceful cooperation might be followed by a call to bomb throwing and assassination.
The TORCH challenged readers to reflect and decide issues for themselves and whilst this intellectual eclecticism earned the admiration of literary critics it attracted the ire of political ideologues. The Rossetti’s roots in the literary and artistic world was evident with poetry a regular feature and publication of an original Pissaro print an outstanding example.
Where many English anarchists distanced themselves from “Propaganda by the Deed” enacted in mainland Europe The TORCH wasn’t afraid to offer praise. In March 1895 Fauset Macdonald described Ravachol, Pallas, Vaillant, Henry and Caserio as “priceless heroes “who met their deaths “at the heart of an effete society” and Gori, Alexander Cohen and Bevington all added their own paeans to dynamiters in various editions. BUT The TORCH also published damning indictments of anarchist terrorism from the pen of Thomas Hastie Bell and other pacifist comrades.
The two Rossetti girls ensured the paper challenged the patriarchy from the outset. The TORCH denounced police harassment of prostitutes and defended Minnie Wells and Amy Gregory, who’d been sentenced to death for infanticide, as innocent, impoverished women driven to desperation by an uncaring society. The paper campaigned for Edith Lanchester, a young woman confined to an asylum by her parents when she sought to live unmarried with a socialist. An article by F S Paul claimed, “Every woman has an inalienable right to do with her body whatever she likes; to give herself to whomsoever she likes.”
The TORCH took more account of trade union activity than other anarchist journals and Agresti, James Harragan and Malatesta were particularly concerned with “Strike Tactics”. In April 1895 Agresti ridiculed Northampton strikers parading through the streets in pathetic demonstrations designed to elicit public sympathy and suggested instead they occupy their factories and workshops and turn out stuff for themselves or for sale or they could sabotage the machinery to punish the bosses. Malatesta’s articles developed Syndicalist ideas of trade union activism and the revolutionary potential of the “General Strike”. These pioneering notions of revolutionary unionism were taken out onto the streets by soap-box propagandist Harragan who was as contemptuous as Agresti of the servile attitude of contemporary trade union leaders.

The End is Nigh
By the end of 1896 the Rossettis would be children no more for Helen would be 17, Arthur 19 and Olivia 21 and each for their own reasons was anxious to move on. Early in the year it was already apparent that Olivia and Agresti were more than merely comrades, that Helen’s health was suffering and Arthur was really more interested in engineering machines than society.
Officially The TORCH and its presses were owned by Olivia and whilst she didn’t need the money she was anxious if she departed to facilitate the continuance of the title. Fersenheim Paul offered her £20 and promised to keep the paper going but whilst she considered this option Max Nettlau who was on the lookout for a home for Freedom wrote matching Paul’s offer. She granted Paul first refusal but when he failed to find backers she gave Nettlau the go-ahead. Max’s comrade, and TORCH associate, Bernard Kampffmeyer supported his initiative by chipping in half the purchase money and jointly guaranteeing the rent.
From April 1895 Freedom was (unofficially) printed at Ossulston Street along with The TORCH on the same presses but the gradual withdrawal of Agresti and the Rossetti trio left a hole in the paper that proved hard to fill. Freedom thrived on the new arrangement but no sooner had compositor-editor, Tom Cantwell, got his foot in the door at Ossultson Street than he used it to bar the way to The TORCH group. Even the Rossetti’s weren’t any longer welcome and Pietro Gori and Edoardo Milano, two Italians temporarily lodged upstairs, were ejected by Cantwell at gunpoint. Two of the erstwhile TORCH group, Byrne and Paul managed to get a few issues of the paper printed elsewhere but in January 1897 their initiative ended and, after six years and almost sixty issues, The TORCH was finally extinguished.

Life After Death
The TORCH premises continued to be used to produce Freedom for the next thirty years until the building was demolished under “slum clearance”. The Rossetti children left London to go their separate ways. Olivia followed Antonio Agresti to Italy when he was granted amnesty in 1896. They married in Rome the following year.
In 1896 Helen was dispatched to Davos to convalesce but following a relapse her father accompanied her on a voyage to Australia. During the return sailing her ship was becalmed and menaced by fifty-two huge icebergs which, Helen calmly proceeded to sketch from a comfortable position on deck.
Arthur, unusually for a Rossetti, showed no real interest or aptitude for the arts and according to his father’s Reminiscences, “Studies of chemistry, algebra and other matters of science engaged his chief personal attention; for a spell of light reading he would take up the Differential Calculus. He wanted to be an electrical engineer and was put in that way of pursuing that vocation.” In 1896 he was obtained a student placement in the large engineering works of Jackson & Co., Salford where he became very friendly with the work’s manager, John Slater Lewis. In 1899 he was appointed manager of the “Lancashire Stoker Works” in Bolton which had just emerged from an embittered strike. In September 1901 Arthur married Dora Lewis, the daughter of his manager at Jacksons and more or less, lived happily ever after (d.24.9.1932), having no further involvement in politics and recording none of his experiences at The TORCH.

Helen’s Story
Unlike Arthur, neither of the Rossetti girls went quietly. Both maintained a public role and together they published a fictionalised account of their time at The TORCH. Helen remained closest to their father and most faithfully followed the family’s artistic inclinations, as an artist and author. In the autumn of 1903 whist living in the family’s Edmund Terrace house Helen met and fell madly in love with a young Italian journalist Gastone Angeli. On 1 December, accompanied by her approving father she sailed for Naples where, on the 10th she married Angeli before leaving with him three days later for Cairo where he held an appointment in the Italian Chamber of Commerce. Weakened in health by previous service in the Congo, Gastone died in Egypt on 18 July 1904 leaving Helen heavily pregnant. She then sailed for Rome to stay with Olivia who’d settled there with Agresti. Helen had her baby, Imogene Lucy Cristina Maria, in September and was visited in November by her father William and sister Mary (who’d been too young to have involved herself during The TORCH years).
Helen and Imogene returned to the old family home at Edmund Terrace. Helen maintained herself and her young daughter through a combination of authorship and office work until her father died in 1919 leaving her Shelley’s old sofa in his will (depicted above), he bequeathed a locket containing part of Shelley’s skull to Olivia!
Relieved of responsibility for both father and daughter Helen was appointed Secretary to Signor Attolico of the Italian Ministry of Commerce in both London and New York. She also set-about establishing herself as a full-time author, publishing books on Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and “The Pre-Raphaelite Twilight”. The Times marked her death on 11 September 1969 with an obituary describing both her early conversion to anarchism by Kropotkin and her initiative in jointly igniting The TORCH, as well sketching a brief account of her later literary career.

Olivia’s Life
Of the The TORCH trio there is no doubt that Olivia was the leading light. All three contributed whilst no-one accused Olivia of being bossy or dominating but she was the eldest and remained throughout her life the most overtly political. Although her husband, Antonio Agresti, had been a fiery revolutionary before and during The TORCH years when he returned to Italy with Olivia in 1897 he abandoned anarchism and embraced bourgeois journalism and literature. In 1914 he campaigned for Italy’s intervention in the First World War. After the conflict he collaborated on the conservative newspaper La Tribuna and supported Mussolini’s Fascists.
Olivia’s politics followed a similar trajectory although in 1903 she collaborated with Helen in writing a fictionalised account of their years producing The TORCH which portrayed prominent anarchists disguised only by the thinnest of veils. Jointly authored under the single nom de plume, Isobel Meredith, “A Girl Amongst the Anarchists” is a fascinating read giving insight into both the character of the Rossetti’s and the sociopathic tendencies of several anarchist “heroes”. “Isobel” used the opportunity to slight Cantwell (“Short”), describing him as, “a queer uncouth figure with his long tousled black hair and sallow, unhealthy face…his whole attitude was somewhat deprecatory and cringing”.
The air of disillusionment that suffuses the work disappoints hagiographers and so like The TORCH it’s been similarly undervalued by anarchists. Olivia was certainly no saint, through meeting David Lubin, Olivia became an advocate for world economic cooperation and a leading “League of Nations” interpreter. These influences propelled Olivia from class-struggle anarchism through Corporatism to Fascism. From 1921 to 1943 she edited the newsletter of the Associazione fra le Societa per Azioni, a group closely allied with the Fascists and in 1938 co-authored, “The Organisation of the Arts and Professions in the Fascist Guild State” with the Fascist journalist Mario Missiroli. When “Signora Olivia Agresti” died in Rome on 6 November 1960 her Times obituary recognised her early years of, “advanced socialism and anarchism…and friendship with Prince Krapotkin (sic)” but tactfully overlooked her support for Fascism.
The adult disillusionment of the adolescent revolutionaries encourages critics to view the trio as mere dilettantes whose anarchism ran into the sands of factory life, literature and fascism respectively but no libertarian initiative ever entirely fails. It’s surely better to light a candle than curse the darkness and in a most gloomy Victorian era of international repression Olivia, Helen and Arthur ignited The TORCH of Anarchy.

                                                                                     Christopher Draper (February 2018)

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