James Allman: symbol of the fighting spirit of the Socialist League

A short account of the activity of James Allman in the Socialist League

“In spite of bigoted magistrates and brutal police.” James Allman in court, 1886.

James Allman was born in July 1864 in Shoreditch, London. He became a fiercely active member of the Socialist League, one of the many cockney workers who were the life and soul of the organisation in London. His older brother, John Joseph “Jack” Allman, also became an active member and speaker for the League and both appear to have been on the Anarchist wing of the League.

A member of the Mile End branch of the League, he refused to submit to authority and the power of the police. He first came to public attention when he was one of those arrested in Dod Street in Limehouse, on 20th September 1885, after the police viciously attacked an open-air meeting there with truncheons. E.P. Thompson fails to even mention his name in regards to this incident in his biography of William Morris. Those arrested were charged with obstructing the public thoroughfare and resisting the police. He was fined forty shillings along with Mowbray, Jack Williams and others, whilst Lewis Lyons received two month in prison on top of the fine. It is clear from the proceedings that the arresting officer and the magistrate were not only anti-socialist but expressed anti-Semitic sentiments towards Lyons. Fortunately the perjured “evidence” of the police did not hold up and Lyons’s conviction was quashed.In these proceedings Allman is described as a shopman living at 5 New North Road, Shoreditch.

Jim Allman was obviously a man of some learning and culture acquired, like so many other revolutionary autodidacts, by his own efforts. He was a persistent open -air speaker, holding meetings in Hackney, Bow, Marylebone, Victoria Park, outside the Salmon and Ball pub in Bethnal Green, and the Mile End Waste. He was also one of the League’s indoor lecturers and he listed his special topics in the Commonweal as being Production and Distribution, The Unemployed, and Methods of Extortion. Jack Allman came forward himself to take part in open-air speaking and they sometimes spoke at the same meetings. An indication of the extent of Jim Allman’s learning is revealed by the following from a report in Commonweal for July 1886: “comrade Graham addressed a large meeting on the Waste; at the end of his address, some opposition was offered by a well-known theological debater ; with Graham's consent, Davis answered his objections to the evident satisfaction of the audience ; comrade Allman also took part in the discussion, and did excellent work by his exposition of the causes and effects of the French Revolution.”

When the League set up a speaking pitch in Marylebone in summer 1886, the police began to harass the speakers. Commonweal (July 24th, 1886) reported: “On Saturday evening our meeting in the Harrow Road was opened by comrade Allman, who was followed by comrade Arnold. After the latter had spoken about twenty minutes the police arrived, and he was informed by the inspector that lie would be arrested unless he got down immediately. After consulting the members of the Branch, Arnold closed the meeting and got down”.

At a subsequent Saturday night meeting in late July the police again stepped up their harassment in Marylebone. Allman and another member of the League, Thomas E. Wardle, a cabinet maker, had their names taken. “On Sunday morning, in accordance with the resolution of the Branch, comrade Arnold addressed a meeting at the corner of Bell Street for about ten minutes, for the purpose of telling the people that the Branch would not hold meetings at that corner while Mainwaring's trial was pending, but would take up other places in the district. From there we went to the corner of Seymour Place, Marylebone Road, where comrade Allman addressed a very good meeting for nearly an hour. At length the police interfered, and two of them, after behaving in a very rough manner, took comrade Allman's name and address. But they were not satisfied with this, so they went to John Street police station and returned with Inspector Gillis and several other constables. They had determined on clearing the place, the inspector saying that he would arrest every one of the crowd if they did not go away at once ; but this only made matters worse, for the crowd resented the interference, and did not seem inclined to be pushed about by the police. ….In the afternoon a very large meeting in Hyde Park was addressed by comrades Mainwaring, Arnold, Donald, Banner, and Burcham. The audience was entirely in our favour, and strongly denounced the interference of the police with our meetings. The people in the district of Marylebone are sympathetic, and will stand by us in our struggle for free speech” (Commonweal, July 31, 1886).

Allman and Wardle duly appeared in court and were given fines of 2 shillings and six pence and two shillings expenses. The trial listed him as a trousers presser living at 113 Farringdon Road. These sentences initiated a campaign in the area with involvement from both the League and the SDF which ended with the police backing off, although Sam Mainwaring of the League and Williams of the SDF incurred large fines in the process. Thompson mentions the Marylebone campaign but again fails to mention Allman as one of the first two arrested.

The police seemed quite interested in pursuing Jim Allman as he was arrested for speaking on the corner of Audrey Street and Goldsmith’s Row in Hackney in February 1887.In court the magistrate, Hannay, showed the usual bigotry. “The police-constable said that he saw the prisoner standing on a form addressing a "mob o' pipple" of about 150 or 200. Mr. Hannay: "He wasn't preaching from the Gospel?” P. C.: " No, your washup, he was talking socialism." …Allman asked him whether he would swear that he was standing on a form or on a small four legged stool. Mr. Hannay: “It does not matter what you were standing on. Do you admit standing on a stool in the roadway? “Allman: “Yes." Hannay: “That’s sufficient; that was an obstruction." P. C. said he asked prisoner twice to get down and he refused to do so, saying that he intended to do his duty; he was then taken into custody. The road was twenty feet wide. Allman asked him if he saw any carts or passengers obstruct the way. P. C.: "There was no carts, but some passengers found it difficult to pass." Allman: “Are there any present?” P.C.: “None." Allman: “Why didn't you take some names? You failed to do your duty in not doing so." Mr. Hannay, interrupting Allman, who wanted to call witnesses: “There is a law which I can put into force to prevent you calling witnesses. I have the power to decide the case forthwith." …Mr. Hannay said he could not waste the time of the court, and was about to close the case, when Allman pleaded for permission to say a few words in defence. Mr. Hannay: "Oh, you can say what you like, so long as you don't waste the time of the court."
Allman pointed out the injustice of the police attacking only Socialists and no one else; and that it was only when a few working men bound themselves together to point out to their fellows how they were robbed that the ruling class put this old law into force. There were hundreds of meetings held every evening, not by Socialists, that really did cause obstruction, that were never interfered with, which showed the partiality of the police. Meetings were held three times a week by a ranter five yards from where he was arrested for speaking, but the police only looked on. Mr. Hannay, who had several times interrupted, said that he only had to deal with the case before him and not those of other persons who hold meetings…” (Commonweal Feb 26th, 1887) Hannay passed the maximum, a forty shillings fine or one month’s imprisonment. Allman had previously stated that he would and could not pay the fine and was sent to jail.

Morris wrote concerning the meeting of the League Council on February 23rd 1887:” At the Council we agreed not to pay Allman's fine, as he cried out loudly against it; and I believe meant it as he is a courageous little man; and is single and wretchedly poor: it was agreed that a committee should see to getting up a free speech demonstration in Hackney”.

Hackney Socialist League put on a free concert the Saturday evening after Allman’s release from prison. “Our room was quite filled by members of the League, the S.D.F., and other societies. Some capital songs were sung by members and friends, and Allman gave us his experience of prison-life, which was listened to with much interest. A collection was made for him, amounting to 9s. 3d.While thanking the friends for it, he refused to take it, and gave one half to the Commonweal Printing Fund and the other half to the Hackney Branch” (report in Commonweal).

On Sunday, 27th March 1887, the Hackney branch of the League put on a free speech demonstration at 3.30pm to celebrate Allman’s release, with a crowd of 400, attended by Morris. Morris, Scheu, Sparling, Barker, Lane, Mainwaring, Davis, and Allman addressed the meeting “to emphatically uphold the right of Free Speech on grounds belonging to the public; and a motion protesting against police interference and chicanery directed against Socialists, on the false pretence of obstructing the highways, was carried unanimously. The meeting throughout was enthusiastic and cheers of welcome were given our comrade Allman” (report in Commonweal).

He was elected to the Council of the League on May 29th, 1887. He played the part of Sergeant Sticktoit in the play written by William Morris for the League, The Tables Turned or, Nupkins Awakened- A Socialist Interlude. This was put on in the hall of the Socialist League on Saturday October 15th, 1887. It also featured other League anarchists, including Joe Lane, Tom Cantwell and John Turner. It had an audience of around 300. It was performed at least ten times more, and was seen by, among others, the poet W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.

The play was based on the arrests and harsh sentencing of Mowbray and Henderson at Norwich, the false charges of stealing against a young woman, Miss Cass, later exonerated, and the recent Allman case itself, as well as the brutal attack by police on a regular League pitch in Hyde Park in May of that year. Nupkins is a term Morris used for bigoted members of the judiciary. The main protagonist, John Freeman, may well be based on Allman himself. As Salmon says “Like Allman, Freeman refuses to be bullied by the judge and provides an ironic commentary on the proceedings”.

During autumn of that year, Allman, himself now unemployed, was involved in the agitation in Trafalgar Square where daily meetings of the unemployed now took place. As John Quail remarks: “In London, however, the authorities seemed determined to solve the 'problem' of the unemployed by force alone. In the earlier part of 1887 the S.D.F. had organized many parades by the unemployed - to Westminster Abbey during services among other places. While individual members of the League had participated in them the League as a whole rather saw them as intended to be advertisements for the S.D.F. There were sporadic outbreaks of looting - for example after a meeting in February on Clerkenwell Green. Due, apparently, to some internal difficulties in the S.D.F. that organization discontinued its parades sometime in the summer. As unemployment increased during the autumn mounting numbers of the unemployed began to meet daily in Trafalgar Square and between 400 and 600 homeless people were sleeping there at night”. Allman wrote an article for Commonweal of 26th November of that year, The Truth About The Unemployed, By One of Them. He talks about his own involvement in the unemployed struggle: “Returning from a meeting held early in October to protest against the murder of our Chicago comrades, four Socialists had occasion to pass through Trafalgar Square ; and one of them, moved to indignation by the presence of so much misery and so many squalid homeless wretched on “the finest site in Europe," (most likely the modest Allman himself N.H.) suggested that meetings should be at once started and conducted by those in our ranks who happened to be out of work. The suggestion was at once taken up, and the first meeting was held next morning, the speeches being delivered from one of the seats and beneath the shadow of a black banner upon which the words " We will have work or bread " were inscribed in large white letters. The result of this meeting was a series of daily assemblages ' in the same place to ventilate the same grievance. Day by day the Sansculotic workless multitude met, marched, and spoke, and daily their numbers increased and their cry became more clamorous. The press, which at first had ignored us, at length began to notice the meetings, but it noticed them only with sneers and sarcasm. We were styled loafers, vagabonds, and paid agitators by the foul-mouthed and abusive Thersites who dwells beside the filthy Fleet Ditch. The abuse of the press was seconded by the ruffianism of the police, who, acting under the instructions of that bloody-minded arch cut-throat Sir Charles Warren, whose only reply to the vehement demand of Sans- culotism for bread is that he instructs Patrollotism to apply the baton, frequently dispersed the demonstrations in a most savage and barbarous manner”.

Allman and four others were delegated by a mass meeting of the unemployed to attend before the Metropolitan Board of Works on 2nd November where Allman acted as spokesperson. They were told that 3,000 unemployed were already engaged in various works set up the Board and that nothing further could be done.

Allman and others were arrested on November 5th. The charge against him was that he used language calculated to lead to a breach of the peace and that in Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park and other places he unlawfully and riotously assembled with others. Eventually the charges were dropped, not long after the events of Bloody Sunday on 13th November. One further attempt to harass Allman came when a charge was brought against him that together with Henry Churchill, who were both working for the Society of Unemployed for 12 shillings a week that they tried to steal plate from the George Pub in Great Queen Street. This seems like a charge cooked up by the police with the pub landlord to nab unemployed agitators. The magistrate saw that there was no evidence whatsoever and threw out the charge, to his credit on January 6th 1888, although he questioned whether unemployed should be in a pub!

He does not appear in the pages of Commonweal from February 11th 1888 (where he is recorded as addressing a meeting at Tower Hill) onwards and there seems to be little trace of him for over a decade. In 1901 the American radical publisher Charles H. Kerr brought out the book God’s Children: An Allegory written by James Allman. It has Allman’s usual literary style, and makes reference to William Morris and the East End. It apparently had good and steady sales, so much so that a second edition appeared in 1906. One review noted: “Amongst the many books which seek to teach the truths of socialism by story or allegory, this work of Comrade James Allman must be conceded a prominent place. The writer has managed to combine sound economic reasoning with cleverly arranged fiction (From What To read On Socialism, CH Kerr.) The book attacked the hypocrisy of the clergy and the rich and gave a verbatim recounting of a typical soap box speech from a member of the League.

After that, nothing. We do know that his older brother Jack died in 1895 but Jim remains an obscure figure who deserves far more research.

A history of the Socialist League is crying out to be written (just as it does for the ILP, SDF, etc.). Thompson and Sheila Rowbotham have provided extensive biographies of Morris and Carpenter but there is little focus on the many working class people who made up the League. Is this perhaps due to an unconscious class bias where these historians identify with those from a similar background, to the detriment of the many devoted and not so visible working class Leaguers? That friend of anarchism, Paul Avrich, has provided a decent biography of Mowbray, whilst Nicolas Walter, an historian connected to the anarchist movement, has given us a good biography of Joe Lane. Too many of the League activists, the blood and sinews of the organisation, have lingered in an obscure twilight, not least Jim Allman. Let him speak for himself in this piece entitled Artist and Artisan. As A Workman Sees It in Commonweal of September 10th, 1987:

“To be a labourer, and to earn by dint of bodily or mental exertion that subsistence which predominating capitalism at present condemns the worker to receive, is considered by our snobbish plutocratic society of to-day to be something very contemptible and vulgar. But, on the other hand, the man who is an artist — that is to say, the man who obtains very often a very comfortable living by deft skill of hand and
grandeur of conception, is looked upon by the idlers of society as an extraordinary being, and received everywhere with adulation and respect. This opinion unfortunately is shared by many working men.

They look up to the artist with something more than the veneration which is due to them as individuals who certainly do a good deal towards making life more beautiful and happy. In short, while the artisan is despised as an unthinking drudge — as one of the common toiling millions — the artist is regarded as a darling of society and a great man.

Let us devote a short time in endeavouring to discover who is the most necessary, the most useful and essential to the well-being of society. We will assume to elucidate this point, a man placed upon an uninhabited island, totally devoid of both the necessaries and luxuries of life. Suppose such a man approached by a person who offers upon the one hand a number of priceless artistic treasures: statues by Canova, Michael Angelo; paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vandyck; or poems by Byron and Shelley, and on the other hand offers a loaf of bread, a homely garment, a spade, etc., some of the simple products of the toil of the ordinary artisan, and see which he will choose. A man so circumstanced would at once turn to the latter.

Why so? Because they are the primary necessities of existence, and without them he cannot live. It will at once be seen, therefore, that the artisan is of much more service to the community in which he dwells, inasmuch as he provides the necessities of life; whereas the artist is simply of secondary importance, he simply producing articles
of luxury.

Without labour men could not live. Without art life would be possible, although I confess that life without any of that pleasure and delight which is caused by artistic effort would be very unpleasant, and in fact almost unbearable. The artisan makes life possible; the artist makes it enjoyable. Hence I contend on these grounds that the artisan should be regarded with the same amount of honour as the artist; for while the artisan makes things, the artist beautifies them.

Both being equally useful to society both should be socially equal. Until this conclusion is arrived at, and as long as men will despise the labourer and the products of his labour, meanwhile worshipping the artist and art, the achievement of a state of social equality — that great object which all Socialists are endeavouring to obtain will remain unaccomplished.”

Nick Heath

The Commonweal 1885-1887
Salmon, Nicholas. Topical Realism in The Tables Turned:
Thompson, E.P. Thompson. Willliam Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary
Quail, J. The Slow Burning Fuse.

Nick Heath

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Jun 24 2013 16:49


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