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''Almost the only free city in the world': mapping out the French anarchist presence in London, late 1870s-1914'

Bantman, C (2013) ''Almost the only free city in the world': mapping out the French anarchist presence in London, late 1870s-1914' In: A History of the French in London. Liberty, equality, opportunity. Institute of Historical Research, University of London, London, pp. 193-215. ISBN 978-1-905165-86-5

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Abstract

This chapter charts four decades of anarchist presence in London through the prisms of space and perception. Through its rich history of exile, London had by the end of the nineteenth century become a connotated space, a palimpsest. The most literate and educated anarchist exiles were certainly conscious of walking in the footsteps of illustrious refugees, as evidenced by regular references to the generations of revolutionaries who had preceded them in London. These nodded primarily to the post-1848 waves, as journalists noted for instance that the anarchists congregated in one of the rooms of St Martin’s Hall, where the International Working Men’s Association had been set up in 1864, or inscribed themselves in the Communards’ lineage: ‘One street in the French quarter has conquered fame: it is Charlotte Street and, on this road, one house deserves the honours of history: it is that of Victor Richard, the faithful friend of Vallès and Séverine’. This historical perspective also informed the eyes of beholders, although they were more likely to stress the different character of the anarchists, and especially the discontinuity with the previous, morally noble generations of exiles and the peak of French presence in London: How many French [in London]? A lot less than one may think. One should not assume that the streets of Soho and Fitzroy have regained since the recent explosions the very special character which they had after the Commune. A few rare French shop-fronts among the shop-fronts, a few vaguely familiar figures in Charlott-Street [sic] and in Wind-mill-Street [sic] and that’s it. The importance of this historical lineage means that the London years of the French anarchists can be read both in continuity and in contrast with the preceding waves of revolutionary exile, including from the point of view of outside observers who constantly compared the anarchists with their illustrious predecessors. Their growing hostility and the polemics provoked by the anarchists’ presence – suspected as well as seen – turned London into a contested space. The novelty which this presence represented must also be stressed, in order to convey the sense of puzzlement expressed by contemporaries – and by the exiles themselves – upon seeing or even just imagining these hundreds of individuals recreating an anarchist ‘Petite France’ in the streets of Soho and Fitzrovia. Their dismay stemmed from the fear of anarchist terrorism, because of the well-established reputation of the French as dynamitards or bombistes, but also from a culture shock, as these comrades were often described as quintessentially French artisans, settling down in London in the heyday of the Victorian Age; the written testimonies left by the French in London as well as by the British observers of these groups testify to the same impression of strangeness and otherness, often conveyed by a close attention to details revealing cultural differences and idiosyncrasies. This chapter emphasises the physicality of this anarchist presence by examining different scales in turn, from the international level – why, of all places, did the anarchists settle in Britain? – to the very local, investigating anarchist public and private spaces.

Item Type: Book Section
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > School of English and Languages > Languages and Translation
Authors :
AuthorsEmailORCID
Bantman, CUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIED
Date : 1 July 2013
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Additional Information : This is an electronic version of a book chapter published as: Bantman C (2013). ''Almost the only free city in the world': mapping out the French anarchist presence in London, late 1870s-1914'. In A History of the French in London. Liberty, equality, opportunity.. Editors: Kelly D, Cornick M. 193-215. Institute of Historical Research, University of London, London 01 Jul 2013 Available at: http://www.history.ac.uk/publications/french-in-london
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 04 Nov 2013 14:13
Last Modified : 09 Jun 2014 13:42
URI: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/id/eprint/792197

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