Our Many Head Offices
Our Party has had a number of Head Offices in the course of its career. Until recently most of them have been fair reflections of our slender funds.
Our first Head Office was little more than an address: The Communist Club, 107, Charlotte Street, W.1. Then in 1905 we rented a room for certain evenings at 1A, Caledonian Road, King’s Cross Road. Here the Executive Committee used to meet on alternate Saturdays and Thursdays. Then in 1906 we rented a room at 28, Cursitor Street, where, for the first time the Executive Committee met every Tuesday evening. After some trouble with the landlord we took a room at 22, Great James Street, just off Theobalds Road, in 1907.
In 1909 we began really to move upward. We got two rooms on the first floor of a house in 10, Sandland Street, Bedford Row (a little behind the north side of Holborn). This was the first Head Office visited by the present writer. When he went there as a youth he felt he had really reached the heart of deep red revolution. The ground floor was an old dilapidated junk shop. The side door led up two flights of dark rickety stairs to a couple of bare rooms. The floor was bare boards. One room contained an old desk for the use of the General Secretary and anyone else who had writing to do. Beside was piled the stock of unsold Standards. As time passed the pile grew far beyond the height of the desk until it was in danger of being knocked down by anyone passing. The other room contained a long table and some chairs. This room was used for economics classes on Thursday evenings and for folding Standards on Saturdays. On Tuesday evenings the table was moved into the secretarial room for the E.C. meetings. When the E.C. was sitting it was almost impossible to get anyone else into the room, in spite of the fact that we advertised and boasted that our E.C. meetings were open to the public—so they were, if you could get in!
While we were at Sandland Street the General Secretary, Sammy Quelch, had a coffee shop nearby, and he had a habit of pinning a note on the door asking any members who called to go round to the coffee shop. Robert Blatchford had a humorous dig at the Party in his paper The Clarion (the most popular Labour paper of its day) at the time. He said he “called at the Headquarters of the Socialist Party of Great Britain but found that the Party had gone to get a cup of coffee.” Later this was changed to “The Secretary, the Treasurer, and the member had gone to get a cup of coffee.”
The old junk shop was bombed during the last war and it and the adjoining houses completely obliterated. But the fire, passion and enthusiasm of the members that gathered in those two bleak rooms above the shop still lingers in the memory. There was a tough old member without arms (he had lost them in an accident in Africa) who used to sell boot laces and matches and would come in breathless and dripping with rain to tell of a meeting that was being held so that members could hurry there with the literature to sell. He was one of the best literature sellers the Party had and was active for many years. later on he surmounted his difficulties sufficiently to earn a comfortable living. His name was Germain.
Head Office was moved from Sandland Street to 193, Grays Inn Road in 1912. There we had two ground floor rooms and a basement in which, for the first time, the literature was put into proper order. One of the members, T. W. Lobb, made curved seats that ran around the walls of the front room. This room was large enough for the E.C. to sit round the table on chairs whilst visitors could sit along the walls.
Next door was a rather poor coffee shop but the owner had a sympathy for us and helped us in many ways, particularly during the first Great War. Every Saturday he would come in with cloths and a pail of water and clean the windows. When the police were waiting to raid us he gave the secretary word of the two men he saw watching our place and enabled her to direct E.C. members into his shop to decide what to do about holding their meetings.
The first war broke out whilst we were at Grays Inn Road, and it was there that the War Manifesto was prepared and members met to decide upon the course of action to meet the various difficulties arising out of that calamitous event. The times were certainly stirring as the pages of the Socialist Standard during those devastating years will reveal.
During the six years we were at Grays Inn Road a great deal of work was done. Before the war preparations were completed for putting a paid Organising Secretary into the field; economics and other classes and discussions were held regularly; members would meet to decide about making visits to outlying places to hold impromptu meetings; and a host of other plans were made and accomplished. Someone managed to buy an old printing machine on which leaflets, E.C. reports and treasurer’s reports were printed. Comrade Alley, who recently passed away, used to set them up in type and leave a note for members to run them off—very laboriously by swinging a long arm across.
In 1918 we were forced to leave Grays Inn Road and we took two rooms on the first floor of a house at 28, Union Street, W.1, just behind Oxford Street. There again the people in the shop below were sympathetic. It was a sweet shop and if any dubious caller made an appearance or there was any urgent message one of the price-cards in the window would be turned upside-down. The General Secretary at that time occupied the floor above Head Office.
These rooms were only a temporary refuge. The next year, 1919, we got premises at 17, Mount Pleasant, opposite the G.P.O. Sorting Office. we had two floors and a fair-sized basement. It was the most “respectable” Head Office we had had up to that time, and we remained there eight years. It was to this office that many wandering members returned after the war. One night, soon after we had taken up occupation, a powerful voice outside roared a greeting to a member and then Moses Baritz walked in. He was back after being released from prison in America where he had been interned for his anti-war activities. When he went out to America during the war his hair was coal black; when he returned it was snow-white. prison had been torment to a man of his nervous energy.
Several Australian seamen visited us at this office in the Twenties. Some of them later took part in forming our companion party in Australia. We also had visitors from America who helped to form our companion party in the United States.
in 1927 Fitzgerald, with the aid of map and compass, succeeded in proving to a majority of the E.C. members that the Elephant and Castle was really in the centre of London/ Anyhow we moved over near there to 42, Great Dover Street. We took an old house with three floors and a basement. One of the members made fittings for keeping the S.S. and literature in proper order in one basement room. The other basement room ( a very small one) had tables and chairs, and a stove on which a woman member cooked for those who wanted a meal. The smoke and heat in the little place was stifling, and getting out when one had finished was a problem.
The ground floor front room was used for selling literature and packing. There was a small shop front in which literature was displayed. The first floor consisted of one good sized room in which meetings were held as well as an occasional social—when the place shook as if it was about to collapse. E.C. meetings were also held in this room. Here we had some interesting discussions on the Spanish Revolt and at the beginning of the last war. In the room above lectures were given on many subjects during the winter months.
In April 1941 a bomb fell on this house destroying most of our stuff and we had to get temporary premises at 33, Gloucester Place, which consisted of two ground floor rooms. In April, 1943, we took over Rugby Chambers, Rugby Street, just off Theobalds Road. These premises had been occupied by the Electrical Trades Union. It was from here that we ran our first Parliamentary candidate in 1945. It was also while we were here that the Party membership began to expand and the funds to reach reasonable proportions. With greater activity, the need for more space and increasing rent the members looked round for more suitable premises. A fund was started and sufficient money donated by members and friends to enable us to buy our present premises at 52, Clapham High Street, which we took over in March, 1951. Here at last we have a place of our own, with a small hall for meetings, and suitable accommodation for the secretary, committee, a library, a canteen, and a room in which members can meet and discuss.
After many ups and downs it looks as if we have reached a settled place at last.