Explosive Anarchism: Fitzroy Square (Fitzrovia)


With the passing of the Aliens Act of 1905, Britain was the first European state to establish a system of immigration control at the point of entry. It defined certain groups of migrants as ‘undesirable’. The Act was passed in response to anxieties about the impact of ‘aliens’, particularly Jews fleeing from persecution in Tsarist Russia, who were said to have introduced unprecedented levels of criminality.  Traditionally, crime had been associated with poverty among indigenous urban populations. By the 1890s, increasingly, criminal behaviour was seen as a result of liberal attitudes towards immigration. The cause of crime in Britain’s large cities was to be found in the racial character of foreign arrivals. In the public imagination a toxic mix was brewing of fear of terror, anxiety about anarchism, and antipathy towards foreigners. The rise of racism was imminent.

Militant anarchism caused panic. Newspaper headlines spread news of bombings and murders across Europe and in America (Chicago). Governments feared the spectre of an internationally coordinated anarchist revolution. International terrorism made an explosive appearance. The word terrorism was first used in English in 1795 in a specific sense of government intimidation during the Reign of Terror in Paris. With the 1798 Irish Rebellion the term acquired a broader interpretation, referring to the ‘systematic use of terror as a policy’. By the mid-nineteenth century, terrorism began to be associated with non-governmental groups. A few decades later it was generally understood as the use of indiscriminate violence in order to achieve a political or religious aim.


In the 1840s movements for democracy swept the Continent. Italy, France and Poland stood on the brink of revolution. Activists encouraged uprisings and failed. Many European revolutionaries ended up in exile in Britain. London became the home of other nation’s ‘terrorists’. One of the earliest groups to utilise urban guerrilla techniques was the Fenian Brotherhood, founded in 1858. Irish nationalists planted bombs on the inner circle tube line in 1883 and 1885, but it was the 1897 Aldersgate explosion that had fatal consequences – killing one and injuring sixty. Anarchist theorists had developed the concept of ‘propaganda of the deed’ (physical violence in order to inspire mass rebellion). Attacks by various anarchist groups led to a number of assassinations, including that of the Russian Tsar. During the nineteenth century, powerful and relatively stable explosives were developed. The use of dynamite became synonymous with terrorism and central to anarchist strategic thinking. In fact, the word ‘dynamitist’ preceded that of terrorist.


Fitzrovia, a district bounded by Oxford Street to the south, Great Portland Street to the west, Euston Road to the north, and Tottenham Court Road to the east, had been a centre of international radical politics for some time. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was published during his residence at no. 154 New Cavendish Street in reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The author lived at no. 18 Charlotte Street. The area was a hotspot of Chartist activities after the Reform Act of 1832. After the failed 1848 revolutions, waves of German and Russian revolutionaries settled there. Swiss and Italian immigrants added to its cultural mix. It was a choice destination for French political exiles. From France, there were two main waves of migration separated by a generation. The first were supporters of the Revolution of February 1848 when the Second Republic was founded by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. The second group of about 3,000 refugees arrived in the early 1870s after the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871. Many of these ‘compagnons’ remained in London until an amnesty in 1895 allowed some to return to France. 


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first political philosopher to call himself an anarchist. Although various thinkers have contributed to the formulation of the doctrine (including William Godwin), nineteenth century anarchism retained a strong Gallic flavour. Between 1880 and 1914 a considerable number of French-speaking anarchists lived in exile in London. These individuals had escaped intense post-Commune repression. Until the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain maintained a liberal approach to the containment of radicalism which, to a certain extent, allowed French residents in Fitzrovia to remain politically active. Charlotte Street and Goodge Street were the main axis of anarchism. Political refugee and author Charles Malato, a French anarchist of Neapolitan descent, described the area as a small anarchist republic. There were, however, plenty of worries amongst the local population about that ‘foreign lot’. 


Myths surrounding potential terrorist activities were reported endlessly by the popular press which led to poisonous public debates surrounding the asylum granted to international anarchists. Police spies, known as ‘Les Mouchards’, regularly patrolled the streets of the area. One of their prime suspects was the bookseller Armand Lapie at no. 30 Goodge Street. His shop was the main meeting point of French anarchists in the capital. In his book Van anarchist tot monarchist Alexander Cohen, the Dutch Francophile, has left a lively retrospective account of this shop where every early evening anarchists gathered to wait for the owner’s return from the depot with a load of French, Italian and Spanish newspapers. Gallic anarchists also brought their passion for eating and drinking with them. If London was a taste, it was not to the liking of French refugees.


Political exiles introduced gastronomic delight to Charlotte Street and to no. 67 in particular. There, in a three-story building, Victor Richard ran a grocer shop named ‘Bel Épicier’. He kept a shop in Paris when he was caught up in the events of the Commune. Although in his fifties, he fought bravely on the barricades, but in the brutal aftermath he was forced to flee. He settled in Charlotte Street. This colourful figure made a roaring success of his business, stocking Anjou wines, coffee, mustards, pâtes, and cornichon from his native Burgundy. His shop took on a central position among the community of refugees, many of whom were either destitute or in dire financial trouble. They knew that they could expect help in one way or another from the ‘generous Burgundian’. 

In political philosophy, anarchism advocates the idea of a stateless society. The state is harmful to the individual. Politicians are parasites. Education of the masses would cause government to wither away as a superfluous entity. Anarchism in practice, however, demands firm structures and a strict organisation. The London congregation of anarchists proved the value of tight networks and practical minds. This was exampled during the early 1890s by the international school for refugee children at no. 19 Fitzroy Square. The school was run by Louise Michel, the ‘grand dame’ of anarchy, who had fought on the barricades in defence of the Commune. This former Parisian teacher was exiled to London where she lived at no. 59 Charlotte Street. The guiding committee of the school included the exiled Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin, Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, and English socialist William Morris. Staff and members of the committee aimed at keeping children away from religiously oriented state schools. The ideal was to produce broad-minded and creative youngsters who respected the freedom of others. The curriculum consisted of French, German, and English, as well as music, drawing, sewing, and engraving. The school was closed down when the police raided the school in 1892 and found bombs in the basement. They had been planted there by Auguste Coulon, a school assistant who turned out to be a police spy. To the authorities, the end justified the means.


Notorious among local Continental immigrants was the figure of Tours-born Martial Bourdin. He had moved to London around 1887 to join his brother Henri who worked as a tailor in a workshop at no. 18 Great Titchfield Street. Martial attended meetings at the Autonomie Club in Windmill Street, the chief refuge of foreign anarchists arriving in London. For a time Bourdin was secretary of the French-speaking section of the club. Having spent time back in France and later in America, he returned to London where he resumed his lodgings at no. 30 Fitzroy Street in late 1893. In the afternoon of Thursday 15 February 1894 he entered Greenwich Park and walked towards the Royal Observatory with a parcel under his arm. The bomb exploded prematurely. He died at the nearby Royal Naval Hospital. Bourdin’s act caused panic. Home Secretary Herbert Asquith, fearing that the funeral at St Pancras cemetery might be turned into a demonstration, gave orders to prevent any procession from following the hearse. Speeches at the graveside were forbidden. Public opinion demanded an immediate change in immigration policy.

Modern interest in the fate of this French anarchist derives from Joseph Conrad’s remodelling of him as Stevie in The Secret Agent (1907). The novel sustained his dubious reputation as the man who tried to blow up the Observatory – which seemed an odd target even by terrorist’s standards. Conrad confirmed in fiction what many at the time had come to accept as a fact: a terrorist is a mentally unstable anarchist who carries a parcel wrapped in brown paper (i.e. a bomb) under his arm. 

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