For most family historians, finding a connection between the lives of one’s ancestors and the wider currents of history is a rare but thrilling experience. And if you have an interest in the political movements of the period you’re researching, discovering that a member of your family was involved in those movements can be particularly exciting.
To date, I’ve found out that my 3 x great uncle wrote a long poem about the dangers of Jacobinism (OK, so he was on the ‘wrong’ side of history, but you can’t have everything); that his brother, my 3 x great grandfather, lived in the house in Charing Cross previously occupied by radical tailor Francis Place; and that one of my great grandfathers was named after 18th century radical clergyman and scientist Joseph Priestley.
Now it turns out that the anarchist-communist writer and activist Guy Aldred (1886 – 1963) was my fourth cousin twice removed. It’s not a very close connection, admittedly, but it’s a link, all the same, to a 19th century political and religious milieu that fascinates me. I’ll try to summarise my link to Aldred as simply as possible. My 3 x great grandmother on my mother’s side was Eliza Holdsworth. Eliza was the daughter of Whitechapel shoemaker William Holdsworth, and it’s from William’s younger brother Godfrey that Guy Aldred was descended: Godfrey was his great great grandfather. To put it another way: Guy Aldred’s 3 x great uncle was my 3 x great grandfather.
Guy Alfred Aldred was born on 5th November 1886 (hence his appropriately incendiary first name) in Clerkenwell, London, the result of a brief liaison between Ada Caroline Holdsworth and Alfred Arthur Aldred. Ada, born in 1866, was the second of the five daughters of bookbinder Charles William Holdsworth and his wife Emily (see my last post). At the time of her involvement with Alfred Aldred, Ada was 19 years old and described in the records as a parasol maker, though at the time of the 1881 census, when she was 15, she was working as a widow’s cap maker. Alfred, 22, is described by most online sources as a 22 year old Naval lieutenant, though in later records his occupation is given variously as ‘dramatist’ and ‘traveller’. So far I’ve been unable to find out anything more about Alfred’s background or family.
The same sources claim that Ada was ‘socially unacceptable’ to Alfred and his family, but that he did the respectable thing and married her on 13th September 1886 at St. Philip’s church, Clerkenwell. At the time Alfred was living at 47 Amwell Street, while Ada still lived with her parents at 24 Corporation Buildings. The witnesses were Ada’s sister Beatrice, and a William Smith. Apparently Alfred left Ada at the church after the wedding to return to his mother.
Guy was born two months later, but he wasn’t christened until 11th July 1890 (at St. James’ church, Clerkenwell), when he was three years old. Brought up in the home of his grandparents Charles and Emily Holdsworth, Guy attended the Iron Infants’ School in Farringdon Road, later moving to the Hugh Middleton Grade School. Online sources describe Charles Holdsworth as an Anglican who encouraged his grandson to attend the church of St. Anne and St. Agnes in Aldersgate, where he received communion in 1894, and also as a radical (though, as mentioned in the last post, I’ve yet to find any independent evidence of this claim). Although he soon developed a critical attitude to the church, Guy was said to be close to his cousin, a curate at Holloway (I’m still trying to find out who this was).
Apparently Guy’s career as a campaigner began when he was quite young, his first ‘adventures in propaganda’ being with the Anti-Nicotine League, the Band of Hope, and the total abstinence movement. At the age of 15 he began to acquire a reputation as a ‘boy preacher’, printing and handing out his own leaflets. On leaving school, he found work as an office boy with the National Press Agency in Whitefriars, later being promoted to sub-editor. At the same time, he co-founded the ‘Christian Social Mission’ with a fellow evangelist named McMasters.
His friend, John Taylor Caldwell described Aldred as he was at this time:
He was pale complexioned, one-eighth Jewish, large-eyed, generous-lipped, holding in leash a merry smile, like that of his grandfather incarnate. He wore a Norfolk jacket, pleated and high-lapelled. He had a starched Eton collar and a starched shirt front. The ends of his black bow tie were tucked under his wide collar. He wore knickerbockers, thick grey stockings and heavy, highly polished black boots.
(This is a tantalising description, partly for its hint at the appearance of Guy’s grandfather Charles Holdsworth, and partly for its suggestion of Jewish ancestry. I think the latter must derive from the Aldreds, as I’ve yet to find any connection in the Holdsworth line of the family.)
At the time of the 1901 census Guy was living with his mother Ada and her second husband, umbrella warehouseman George Stray, together with various other members of the Stray and Holdsworth families in Goswell Road, Clerkenwell.
Around this time Guy began to write to the Reverend Charles Voysey, a controversial priest who later founded the Theist Church, and he was eventually granted an audience in December 1902. According to one source, the 74 year old, well-to-do Voysey ‘was taken aback when confronted with a coarsely dressed 16 year old working class boy, as his letters had indicated otherwise.’ However, the two launched into a discussion that lasted three hours and their friendship was to continue until the old man’s death in 1912.
In January 1903 another Anglican clergyman, Reverend George Martin, arrived at the Holdsworth home holding one of Guy’s leaflets from six months earlier and asking to meet the ‘Holloway Boy Preacher’. As one source states:
Martin was a gentle, compassionate and learned man who lived and worked in London’s worst slums. Guy joined him in his work with London’s poorest. Many nights were spent in long discussions in Martin’s damp attic, the friendship lasted six years and had an immense impact on young Guy. At the end of January 1903 the ‘Holloway boy preacher’ gave his last sermon from the pulpit and left the ‘Christian Social Mission’.
During 1903-1904, Guy was speaking at the ‘Institute on Theism’ but soon felt the need to set up his own organisation. The ‘Theistic Mission’, met every Sunday and drew a substantial though not always friendly crowd. As well as becoming known as a powerful young orator, Guy was also moving towards atheism. By August 1904 the organisation’s name had changed to ‘The Clerkenwell Freethought Mission’ and its banner declared: ‘For the promotion of Religious, Scientific and Secular Truth, and the advocacy of the right and duty of every man to think for himself in all matters relating to his own welfare and his duty to his Brother Men.’
From then on, meetings became more combative: on one occasion the crowd charged the platform, knocked Guy to the ground and started to beat him; he was only saved when the police intervened to put an end to the meeting. Around this time Guy was reading ‘The Agnostic Journal’ and became friendly with its editor ‘Saladin’, William Stewart Ross, a Scotsman. It was at the Journal’s office that he met another Scotsman John Morrison Davidson. These two men introduced Guy to Scottish politics: he would spend much of his later life in Glasgow.
The next stages in Guy’s political development – specifically his embrace of socialism and his later progress towards anarchism – are summarised by Wikipedia:
In 1904 Guy heard Daniel De Leon speak on Clerkenwell Green, this led him to the ‘Socialist Labour Party’. These meetings confirmed his belief in socialism, in 1905 he joined the ‘Social Democratic Federation’. Though only nineteen Guy was an accomplished orator and a tremendous gain to the Socialist platform. 1906 he was appointed Parliamentary Correspondent for ‘Justice’, the organ of the SDF. Guy, an anti-parliamentarian, approached the job with a hint of cynicism. Also in 1906 he relinquished the job. Shortly after this in June of the same year he broke with the SDF. The split was in part due to airing his atheist views from the platform when the federation did not want religion, anti or otherwise, to muddy the socialist message.
He was now a confirmed anti-parliamentarian and socialist. In October 1906 the ‘Islington Gazette’ published his ‘Revolutionary Manifesto’ in which he proposed to stand at the next election but refuse to take the Oath. Guy Aldred was by now a well known speaker at Hyde Park. An eloquent speaker with extremist views his platform always drew large crowds. He was also contributing to several socialist papers and contributed to all thirty issues of ‘The Voice of Labour’ an anarchist paper, this led him to the anarchist club in Jubilee Street.
While visiting the ‘Jubilee Street Club’ during 1906 Guy became more acquainted with Anarchist ideas and with many Anarchists of note from that period. He wrote two articles for ‘Freedom’, the Anarchist paper. The Anarchist Rudolf Rocker referred to Guy as one of the promising young men of our time. It was at the ‘Jubilee Club’ that Rocker asked Guy to stand in for Kropotkin who was to speak but could not attend. Guy’s leanings were towards Proudhon and critical of Kropotkin. By now Guy was speaking every night at different places in London and three times on a Sunday in Hyde Park. The Sunday meetings were under the banner of the ‘National Secular Society’. January 1907, approaching the age of 21, saw Guy leave the ‘National Press Agency’ for the ‘Daily Chronicle’, six months later he left the paper and journalism intent on being a full-time propagandist, relying on collections and donations for his living, printing and any other expenses.
It was at the Jubilee Club in 1907 that Guy was introduced to Rose Witkop, younger sister of Milly Witkop, partner of Rudolf Rocker. She was born Rachel Vitkopski in Kiev, Ukraine to Jewish parents – Simon and Freda (Grill) – who brought her to London when she was five years old.
A friendship developed, but it appears that Guy’s mother Ada did not approve, reportedly referring to Rose as ‘that bloody Jewess’. As a result, Guy moved out of the family home in 1908. According to Strugglepedia:
The two of them entered a period of extreme poverty with all its entailing problems. Rose Witcop was taken from the midst of the May Day parade of the 2nd of May 1909 to Queen Charlotte’s Hospital where she gave birth to a boy. Due to the fact that she gave her name as Miss Witcop and did not wear a ring her treatment was cold and what the staff deemed fitting a fallen woman. Guy was not allowed to see her or receive any information about her until her discharge. The baby was called ‘Annesley’, as a mark of respect to their friend the Reverend Voysey.
The 1911 census finds Guy and Rose living at 17 Richmond Gardens, Shepherd’s Bush, where Guy’s occupation is decribed as lecturer and journalist. They underwent a legal marriage ceremony in 1926, when it looked as though Rose might be deported for her family planning activities, even though they had drifted apart by this time. Rose Witkop Aldred died in 1932 from gangrenous appendicitis.
Guy’s later political career can be followed at these sites. In brief, he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War; campaigned for birth control with Rose; moved away from state socialism and embraced anarchism, becoming a leading spokesman for ‘anti-parliamentary communism’; moved to Glasgow and became prominent in local radical groups; supported the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War; and lived precariously on the income from his writing.
Guy Alfred continued writing and campaigning into old age, one of his last acts being to stand in the 1962 general election for the constituency of Glasgow Woodside. He died on 17th October 1963 at the age of 76.
I have to admit that Aldred’s life and writings were completely unknown to me until last week. However, the more I read about his tireless work for progressive causes, and his dogged insistence that socialism and liberty must go hand in hand, the prouder I am to have him as a relative, albeit a distant one.