Hornsey Political Activist takes on the Establishment

William Foster Watson (see Hornsey Journal 14 March 1919 and 24 March 1919) used the stage of the Royal Albert Hall and the dock of Bow Street Police Court as platforms from which to proclaim his radical political beliefs. Today most of us know little or nothing about the events and organisations mentioned. What was the British Socialist Party? What was ‘Hands Off Russia’ about? Why were there strikes during and after the war? Who was George Lansbury?

The British Socialist Party (BSP)

A wide spectrum of socialist doctrines were developing in late Victorian Britain exploring ways to change the existing social and political order. The BSP emerged from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), founded by Henry Mayers Hyndman in 1881, who recruited such well-known names as Eleanor Marx and William Morris to his socialist cause. Hyndman encouraged the use of violence on demonstrations causing many followers to seek other paths to establishing a new social order. In 1911 he established the British Socialist Party which was riven with conflicting ideas.

From 1914 Hyndman supported the war against Germany and her allies. Other leaders of the BSP emerged who opposed the war as imperialist and reactionary and strongly objected to the Allies intervention in the Bolshevik struggle in Russia during and after the war. Between 1916 and 1920 the BSP published a weekly newspaper, The Call, which was consistently anti-war and ardently supported the Bolshevik cause and the 1917 October Revolution. In April 1920 the BSP played an important role in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

‘Hands Off Russia’

By the time the peace treaty was signed at Versailles in June 1919, the Russian, German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had fallen, and the political map of Europe had changed radically. A first revolution in Russia in February 1917 had led to the overthrow of the Tsar and withdrawal from the Great War. In October of that year the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, overthrew Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government, claiming ‘All Power to the Soviets’. Civil war broke out in 1918 between Bolshevik (Red) Government and the anti-Bolsheviks (White) led by four men, Yudenich, Kolchak, Deniken and Wrangel, who were all in competition with each other to rule Russia.

Allies such as France, USA and Japan wanted to destroy the Reds before they could make further headway and sent expeditions to various parts of Russia. Grappling with the need to defeat Germany, and political unrest at home, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was reluctant to involve Britain but the Conservatives, strong in the wartime Coalition Government, supported action against the Bolsheviks. Winston Churchill, Secretary for War, was their most forceful spokesman.

So over £100 million worth of arms were supplied to the White leaders, particularly to Deniken and Kolchak. British expeditions were sent to Archangel, Murmansk and Baku. Things did not go well. The White leaders were disunited, poorly organised and were overwhelmed by the single-minded Reds who were determined to create and maintain a Communist state. By the spring of 1920 all British troops had been withdrawn. Many millions of pounds had been wasted at a time when Britain was struggling to recover from the effects of the war.

Workers’ strikes in post-war Britain

The urgent need for munitions and war supplies, plus the shortage of male workers resulting from the unprecedented call-up of men for the armed services during the war, had given the trade unions much greater bargaining power (membership was 4 million in 1914 and just over 8 million in 1920). They were able to maintain a high level of wages for skilled and unskilled workers and the war caused a swing to the left in politics.

This was exacerbated by a rising tide of working class expectations and the belief that this had been ‘a war to end all wars’. Four+ years of intensive government intervention, which had achieved a military victory, was now expected to achieve a new society.

Once the danger from war was over, the unions used their new strength in aggressive strike action to maintain high wage levels. The earliest post-war strikes occurred in January and February 1919 on the Clyde and in Belfast shipyards where workers struck for a shorter working week. Other strikes followed such as the July police strike and the miners’ demand for a six hour day, 30% increase in their wages and nationalisation of the mines. There was a national railway strike in September 1919.

George Lansbury (1859-1940)

He was a respected Christian socialist who, throughout his public life, strove to apply his faith by supporting peace, women’s rights, local democracy and improved social and employment conditions. Lansbury rose to prominence in local government in East London. In 1912 he founded the Daily Herald; he personally edited it until 1922 when it became the official Labour Party newspaper.

At the time he spoke in Bow Street Police Court on behalf of William Foster Watson he had just failed to be elected an MP because of his strongly pacifist beliefs and his support for the Bolshevik government in Russia. He would go to prison himself, briefly, in 1921, along with 30 other Poplar councillors, for his part in refusing to raise the local rates which he knew householders couldn’t afford to pay.

In 1922, for the second time he became an MP for Bow and Bromley. Between 1929 and 1931 he was Minister for Works in Ramsey Macdonald’s second Labour government. He became leader of the Labour Party in 1932 after Macdonald had split it by forming a National government. Lansbury resigned as leader in 1935 when the Labour Party voted in favour of sanctions and possible intervention in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). He was succeeded by Clement Attlee.

For television ‘who done it’ addicts – Lansbury’s granddaughter is actress Angela Lansbury of Murder She Wrote fame.

He needs to be the subject of much further research. Current investigation into his life reveals that he was born c.1882. He married Emily Dell in St. George the Martyr Church, Southwark, in August 1903. The marriage certificate records that both were 21 years old at the time and living at 61 Darwin Street. William was already an engineer. His father was a printer. Emily’s father was a brush maker.

In the 1911 Census Return, William and Emily occupied four rooms at 26 Priory Road, Acton Green, Chiswick. They had three children, two daughters aged six and 6 months and a son of three. William lists himself as an ‘Engineers Fitter & Turner Motor Car Repair Worker’. He was born in St George’s in the East Parish. Interestingly, Emily Watson signed the return.

Court appearance

Watson’s appearance at Bow Street Court in December 1916 was widely reported in newspapers as was his appearance in the same dock in May 1917 as a result of his action as an Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) shop steward. Over 200,000 engineering workers in 48 towns and cities went on strike for four days that month. This was sparked by a threat to end the scheme exempting skilled munitions workers from military service. The government responded with arrests of the strike leaders who then buckled, as did the ASE leadership. This happened just as new areas joined the strike and resulted in the defeat which Watson refers to in the dock, quoted in the Hornsey Journal article of 14 March 1919, when Watson describes ASE leaders as ‘jelly fish’.

Hornsey Local Directories indicate that Watson and his family had recently come to 37 Inderwick Road, Hornsey, when he made his 1919 appearances at Bow Street Court. He was still at this address in the early 1920s. A late 1920s electoral roll for NW Camberwell lists William and Emily living at 10 Crofton Road.

Note the bland heading to the two Hornsey Journal articles – ‘A Hornsey Engineer’s Speech’. No mention of a revolutionary in their midst should disturb the sensibilities of the good Hornsey folk as they read their newspaper whilst consuming their bacon and eggs on a Thursday morning.

If you have any information about William Foster Watson or any other member of the British Socialist Party who lived in Hornsey in 1919, we’d love to hear from you.

Janet Owen

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