Saturday, March 10, 2018

THE BOMB SHOP (1907-1989): 66 Charing Cross Road

        by Christopher Draper

Forty years ago I discovered a tattered old copy of the “Book of Lords” by J Morrison Davidson. The book excoriated Britain’s aristocracy but even more arresting than the text was a page advert, inserted in lieu of a frontispiece, for “THE BOMB SHOP” run by a Mr Henderson. This set me wondering; who was Henderson, what did he sell in his “Bomb Shop” and how did his explosive enterprise end - with a bang or a whimper? Over the years I came across more references to this oddly named emporium and the mysterious Mr Henderson but discovered only incomplete explanations until curiosity drove me to look more deeply into this dusty corner of radical history.

Retailing Rebellion

It seems Mr Henderson sold books not bombs but not any old books, “They must be rebel. Rebel a thousand years ago, rebel yesterday, rebel since lunch: not yet rebel at all, but likely to be rebel next week: rebel in politics, rebel in sex, rebel in religion – anything anyhow or anywhere rebel, anything smelling or tasting of rebel”. Mr Henderson sponsored all sorts of radical causes by promoting, publishing and distributing incendiary literature. He supported the literary and artistic avant-garde, distributed tickets for socialist events, provided a “talking shop” for revolutionaries and even a safe-house for activists on the run. For decades Henderson’s “BOMB SHOP” encouraged rebellion whilst the notehead modestly claimed, “Booksellers to the People”.

The Shop

“Do you know The Bomb Shop?”, Hannen Swaffer inquired in the Daily Herald, “its name, painted on the front used to cause  trouble. Timorous women would hurry by, nervously fearful lest something would go off with a bang”. Reg Groves recalled, “In 1925, grimy and in working overalls, I walked into the shop for the first time…the only socialist bookshop in the West End. An open-style shop – unusual then – it had been designed and decorated in red and gold and emblazoned with the names of past rebels by socialist painter Walter Crane. Its defiant name and, red doors and window frames and display of socialist and anarchist publications incited upper-class louts and their toadies to heave an occasional brick through the full-length plate glass door.”

Swaffer noted the names of some of those “past rebels”: “Names painted on the bookshelves do honour to many fighters for human freedom – Jack Cade, John Ball, Watt Tyler, William Morris, Shelley and Tolstoy.”

Brother Henderson

Francis Riddell Henderson was a Scot, born 8 January 1860 in Leith, Edinburgh’s port. His father was a shipping clerk but Francis was more interested in literature. Initially engaged as a “Stationers Shopman”, Frank was employed by the extraordinary Newcastle builder turned publisher, Walter Scott. At Scott’s Frank discovered a world of radical ideas and émigré influence. Amongst the company’s published authors in this 1880’s period were Bernard Shaw, Ibsen and Stepniak, whilst Tolstoy’s works were churned out in “super-abundance”.

In 1884, at Morpeth, Frank married local girl Sarah Pybus (1863-1941) and the couple settled in Gateshead where their first child, Alice, was born in 1886. When Walter Scott Publishing, in 1887, asked Frank to represent the firm in London the family moved south, settling at Nunhead where two more children, James (1888-1950) and FR junior (1890-1979), were born.

By that stage Henderson had himself fully embraced Tolstoy’s anarcho-pacifist politics. Appointed manager of Scott’s London office he employed fellow enthusiast Charles William Daniel (1871-1955) who in 1900 founded the London Tolstoyan Society before in 1902 establishing his own libertarian publishing house. Meanwhile, in May 1894, Frank joined several other comrades in establishing their own Tolstoyan-influenced socialist-anarchist organisation in South London, “The Croydon Brotherhood Church”. The idea was to create a Tolstoyan Community rather than just a campaigning organisation and the group organised its own hostel, meeting rooms, shop and publishing after acquiring a former hotel at Dupas Hill (now “The Waddon Hotel”) which became “Brotherhood’s House”, effectively group HQ”.

In 1896 Frank and Sarah agreed to take over the management of “Brotherhood House”. Unfortunately Croydon’s increasingly urban character on the fringe of an ever expanding metropolis limited the group’s ability to realise an effective Tolstoyan community so they searched for land further from London. Over the following five years they’d seeded three Tolstoyan colonies in Essex – at Purleigh, Wickford (actually Downham) and Ashingdon and further afield, and most successfully of all, at “Whiteway” in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds.

Back to the Land?

Francis and his family opted for Wickford as it had convenient rail access to London. In July 1898 thirty-three like-minded pioneers gathered opposite Downham Hall, just south of the Parish Church, to view 29 acres of land and three existing cottages on offer for £700. “The land was visited in the afternoon and general satisfaction was expressed as to its suitability to the purposes of the group.” Henry Power, like Frank, a former member of the Croydon Brotherhood and founder member of the Wickford settlement explained that the colonists aimed, “to cultivate a more helpful and brotherly feeling towards each other…They feel it is useless waiting for the millennium…At least they hope it will be found practicable to show their children the possibilities of a more social, helpful and truthful life than most of us have had the opportunity of realising.”

Less communist than other Tolstoyan settlements, Wickford’s suitability for “colonists” intent on maintaining paid employment caused it to be sometimes derided as, “The Colony for City Men”. Frank remained a Tolstoyan at heart but unlike Sarah who described herself in census returns as a “small farmer”, he had ink in his blood and never abandoned publishing for a life on the land.

Peace and War

During his Croydon years Frank continued managing Walter Scott’s London operation alongside his work for the Brotherhood movement. In 1894 he combined both interests in publishing “From Bondage to Brotherhood” by John Coleman Kenworthy under a joint “Brotherhood Publishing Company – Walter Scott Company” Imprint but it wasn’t long before Tolstoyan publishing became a battlefield.

Trouble erupted in 1897 with the arrival of two Tolstoyan zealots from Russia, Aylmer Maude (1858 – 1938) a millionaire Director of the Anglo-Russian Carpet Company and Vladimir Chertkov (1854-1936), Tolstoy’s aristocratic confidante. Both came with a declared commitment to channel Tolstoy’s publishing royalties into financing the repatriation of the Doukabors, a pacifist Russian minority outlawed by the Czar for refusal to serve in the military. This resulted in five competing parties claiming rights to print Tolstoy’s works. Frank resigned from Scott’s when the Company declined to publish Tolstoy’s latest novel without an assurance of sole printing rights. Kenwood insisted that Tolstoy had granted him sole rights whilst Chertkov established his own dedicated and well-resourced “New Age” printing operation at Christchurch, Bournemouth. In 1899, Frank published cheap popular editions of Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” leaving Maude furiously threatening his erstwhile comrades with legal action. The ferocity of this wrangling drove Kenwood into a lunatic asylum and Frank into a court of law. Kenworthy never recovered but Henderson survived Maude’s suit and was awarded costs.

Publish and Be Damned

The year 1899 was a bit of a watershed for Frank. No longer formally tied to Scott’s or the Croydon Brotherhood he lived at Downham, Essex in loose community with Tostoyan-minded comrades and concentrated on establishing his own “Francis Riddell Henderson” independent publishing house at 26 Paternoster Square, London EC. He continued to write for and publish the movement’s journal, “The New Order” but now under his own FRH impress and an 1899 edition included his spirited defence of the “Whiteway Colony”.

Frank wasn’t a polemicist or street corner agitator but was an iconoclast, happy to go out on limb in support of anyone who had anything to say that challenged orthodox opinion. As he got older he widened out rather than abandoned his early Tolstoyan approach.

Apart from Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”, the first title Frank published under his own imprint was, “Sprays of Sweet Briar” a collection of country rambles described by Harry Lowerison a teacher sacked by Hackney School board for political activitism. Environmental awareness was key to Lowerison’s political and educational philosophy and the heart of the successful libertarian “Ruskin School” that he founded following his dismissal. Harry Lowerison was just the sort of rebel that Frank celebrated along with more established Tolstoyan’s like Ernest Crosby whose, “Plain Talk in Psalms and Parables” Henderson published in 1901.

Frank produced more than twenty titles in his first five years of independent publishing with John Morrison Davidson his most prolific author. Davidson’s “The Wisdom of Winstanley the Digger” (1904) received glowing press reviews. “This threepenny booklet is marvellously keen and logical in every one of its forty odd pages…What Winstanley’s writing remind us of is the fact – overlooked by all Cromwell’s biographers – that the English revolution did little or nothing to improve the economic condition of the people.” 

An Explosion of Anarchy

In the autumn of 1907 Frank strengthened his publishing enterprise with the opening of a central London retail outlet, “The BOMB SHOP” at 66 Charing Cross Road. The name was a deliberate provocation, an ironic title for a Tolstoyan but guaranteed to excite publicity.

Political factions such as the “Socialist League” had previously operated both their own shops and publishing facilities but Henderson’s utterly unsectarian approach was novel and elicited previously unheard voices. Rebels of every variety gathered at the Bomb Shop and controversy was Henderson’s bread and butter but this was no vanity project for Frank didn’t publish his own opinions but channelled his energy and enthusiasm into encouraging others.  

As soon as he opened the shop Frank cooperated with the radical journalist William Bellinger Northrop in publishing and distributing “The Deadly Parallel” a monthly magazine that kicks “Class War” into a cocked hat. Right from the first October 1907 edition it graphically exposed, ridiculed and reviled the vast gulf that lay (and still lies) between the living conditions of the rich and the poor. “The Unemployed East” were depicted on the cover’s left-hand column marching in rags along Embankment whilst on the right were shown, “The Unemployed West” promenading in their finery in Hyde Park. Readers learned, “A millionaire this year gave a dinner at a London Hotel. It was called the “Gondola Dinner”. There were just twenty-four guests at this feast. It cost £2,500. This was £104 3s 4d. per guest.”  

Shelter from a Storm

On 25 October 1912 Hugh Arthur Franklin (1889-1962) set fire to a railway carriage at Harrow in support of women’s suffrage. Whilst avoiding arrest, Henderson sheltered him for two months at the BOMB SHOP before in February 1913 Franklin was apprehended, imprisoned and force-fed 114 times. To avoid the embarrassment of imprisoning a corpse the authorities “temporarily” released him under the terms of their newly devised “Cat and Mouse Act” – the first person to be so released.

Victor’s Tale

Without the BOMB SHOP there’d have been no “Left-Book Club” for in 1914 its initiator, Victor Gollancz, was an unknown master at Repton School. His progressive approach was at odds with the disciplinarian headmaster Dr Fisher but the pair rubbed along together and Victor was even allowed to organise a school magazine for the boys. After Gollancz got Frank to publish his school mag and distribute it through the BOMB SHOP, Fisher was incensed and gave Victor his marching orders. Unemployed, Gollancz decided to start his own publishing enterprise and the rest is history.

Oh What a Lovely War

In 1915 Parliament objected to the BOMB SHOP, not because of its incendiary influence rather M.P.’s feared “Peace Propagandists” lodged at “66 Charing Cross Road”. The Attorney-General reassured everyone that, “the activities of the group of persons referred to are under consideration”. Invoking the “Defence of the Realm Act” the following year the authorities raided the BOMB SHOP and confiscated all remaining copies of “Two Plays” by disillusioned soldier turned playwright-pacifist Miles Malleson.

In the summer of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon’s war experiences caused him, like Malleson, to oppose further fighting. The authorities attempted to silence Sassoon by threatening to incarcerate him in a lunatic asylum but again, like Malleson he first contacted Frank and sent his infamous “Statement of Defianceto the BOMB SHOP and it was subsequently published in “The Times”.

Amongst the pacifist gems Henderson published during the war years was, “The Tyranny of the Super-State” by Edward G Smith. Commended at the time by “Freedom”, a century later it’s a useful reminder to deluded libertarian advocates of the European Union that, “The international super-state may seem an imposing specific to the automatic thinker: to the humanist it suggests intolerable tyranny”.
 Avant Garde

After the war the BOMB SHOP played a key role in stimulating a literary and artistic revival. According to Robert Ross, “many young poets felt that during the war established English literary journals had fallen too exclusively to the control of conservative editors”, on May Day 1919 the BOMB SHOP published an antidote. Coterie was a refreshingly original illustrated literary magazine that, “never baulked at presenting dissenting approaches and aesthetics”.  Aldous Huxley, T S Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Modigliani, Nina Hamnett and Walter Sickert were just a few amongst the many radicals featured in subsequent issues.

The same year the BOMB SHOP also published Osbert Sitwell’s demolition of Winston Churchill in three short illustrated satires, “The Winstonburg Line”. Parodying Churchill’s casual disregard for the deaths of others and his rampant enthusiasm for intervention against the Soviet revolution…

“As I said in a great speech
After the last great war,
I begin to fear
That the nation’s heroic mood
Is over.

Only three years ago
I was allowed to waste
A million lives in Gallipoli,
But now
They object
To my gambling
With a few thousand men
In Russia!

It does seem a shame.
I shall burn my Daily Herald.”

In 1919 the enterprising Mr Henderson also published the now much sought-after collection of six vorticist inspired lithographs of the “Russian Ballet” (above) by renegade artist David Bomberg (1890-1957), expelled from the Slade in 1913.

The View from Above

By the late 1920’s Henderson’s bookshop was such a familiar feature of Charing Cross Road that even reporters from “Society” magazines felt brave enough to drop in. In April 1927 it was the turn of Sketch feature writer Beverley Nichols to enter. “The Bomb Shop which is supposed to be a nest of anarchy though it strikes me as merely a clean amusing place kept by a highly intelligent man whose red tie makes a pleasant splash of colour against his grey beard”. Beverley was in search of light holiday reading for his forthcoming weekend in Le Touquet. “I bought in this shop some of the papers and magazines which aim at the total destruction, extermination and general blowing-up of anybody who has anything to spare…among it was a crimson song-book entitled Sixteen Songs for Sixpence and it was well worth the money for it convinced me that as long as the Labour Party sing such dreary nonsense there will be little danger of violent upheavals in this country.”

Less amusing than Beverley’s gentle ribbing were the antics of his “Hooray-Henry” associates who regular smashed “The BOMB SHOP”’s windows as a jolly “anti-red” jape.

Introducing the Krondstadt Killer

Some said Mr Henderson looked a lot like Lenin but ironically Reg Groves credits Frank with introducing him to Trotsky. Although Groves was already disillusioned with the Communist Party when he dropped into the BOMB SHOP “one bright cold Spring morning in 1931” Reg hadn’t yet discovered “that there were organised groups in Europe and America supporting the Left Opposition and Trotsky”. Once Frank put him in the picture he abandoned Stalin and embraced the man who massacred thousands of Kronstadt comrades for daring to demand free speech. Reg returned to Balham and led his erstwhile communist comrades out of the frying pan into another frying pan.

Lotta Continua

Francis Riddell Henderson died on 21 May 1931 at Redhill Hospital, Edgware leaving an estate valued at just £75. The Daily Herald declared, “Thousands of reformers of every kind will regret F R Henderson’s passing” and recalled, “F R Henderson knew advanced thinkers by the hundred and although stupid people looked rather shocked at the sign over the door, the bookseller was really the kindest of men. He was a friend, not only of the writers and the speakers but of hundreds of the rank-and-file who would call in and talk by the hour”. The family kept the business going for three years until going bust in 1934 when the BOMB SHOP was bought for £617 by wealthy Quaker communist Eva Collet Reckitt who described it as, “the haunt of advanced poets and elderly anarchists”. Nothing much changed and for Eva and manager Olive Parsons, “It was a very exciting time politically and we used to go on anti-fascist demonstrations. The shop was a debating forum and lots of people from the shop went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.”

Despite Communist control the shop never abandoned its iconoclasm and stocked the anarchists’ FREEDOM newspaper when anarchists refused to sell the DAILY WORKER at their Aldgate shop. It’s a tragic irony that after eighty-two rebellious years THE BOMB SHOP was destroyed by a bomb! At 3.30am on 6 July 1989 in an act of terror-protest against Salman Rushdie’s “”Satanic Verses” THE BOMB SHOP was gutted by home-made explosives and never reopened by Collets. Now it’s “Everwell Chinese Medical Centre” and the spirit of Francis Riddell Henderson cries out to London comrades to commemorate its radical history with the erection of a red plaque.

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