Louise Michel tours the Lambeth workhouse
The anarchist heroine of the Paris Commune visited London several times — and later lived there to escape persecution by the French government
Louise Michel is tangential to the action that takes place in Paris in my forthcoming book Marguerite. There are archive sources that suggest that during the final bloody week of the Commune Marguerite fought alongside Michel on the barricades at Clignancourt but they are, in my view, unreliable. Still, brave, kind and tough, Michel fascinated me and when I found that she had visited my neck of the woods in London I was fully hooked
A version of this article appears in my book Out of the Shadows: Essays on 18th and 19th Century Women (Caret Press, 2022).
Louise Michel, whose lectures in this country are at present attracting some attention, has paid a visit to Lambeth Workhouse, with the view of inspecting the provision made for the comfort of the aged and unfortunate poor.
South London Press, 13 January 1883 MISS FRANCES LORD, a newly-elected member of the Lambeth Board of Poor Law Guardians, along with ‘several [unnamed] ladies’, on Thursday 11 January 1883, escorted a tall, thin middle-aged Frenchwoman dressed entirely in black around the workhouse in Renfrew Road, Kennington in south London. Lord’s softly spoken and polite guest asked many questions and made a few remarks on the provision for the poor in England compared to France, and afterwards returned to her friends in Fitzrovia. She was the famous socialist and anarchist Louise Michel. Twelve years earlier, in March 1871, Michel had taken part in the insurrection that led to the establishment of the Paris Commune, ten weeks of socialist government established in defiance of the right-wing republic. After its terrible and bloody fall during which, she later admitted, she had set fire to buildings, Michel was sentenced to hard labour in a penal colony. So, why did Frances Lord invite an insurrectionist, convict and avowed atheist to tour the workhouse?
LOUISE MICHEL WAS born out of wedlock in 1830 in Vroncourt-la- Côte, a tiny hamlet in the Haute Marne, about a hundred and seventy-five miles southwest of Paris. Her mother was a chambermaid for a well-off local family and her father most likely the son of the house. He had little to do with her but his parents contributed to her upbringing and paid for her education. As a young woman, she worked as a schoolteacher, first locally, and later in Paris, and from an early age she was attracted to radical ideas about society, women’s rights and the education of children. By 1860 Michel had moved to Montmartre, a largely working-class district in the north of Paris, where she opened a school which she ran on her own principles, by which children learned through play and discovery, and without the influence of the Catholic Church. During the 1870 Siege of Paris, when the city was cut off from the outside world by thirty thousand Prussian troops camped outside its walls, she ran the vigilance committee for Montmartre, her responsibilities including the provision of first aid to the National Guard defending Paris and requisitioning and redistributing food to those in need — Paris by then had begun to starve. She joined the National Guard herself and wore its uniform, a highly unusual move for a woman, and she was active in political clubs, where radical ideas were discussed. Michel participated in the famous stand-off on 18 March 1871 between the army and the people of Montmartre. Government troops had attempted surreptitiously to remove two hundred cannon stored on the hill and Michel was among those who had rushed to the hill to confront them. The events of that day led directly to the establishment of the Commune and the subsequent (second) siege of Paris. During the downfall of the Commune at the end of May, often called the Bloody Week (La Semaine Sanglante), Michel was on active duty with the National Guard and led the defence of the barricade at Clignancourt and fought in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Afterwards, at a court martial, she was charged with trying to overthrow the government, encouraging citizens to arm themselves, using weapons and wearing a military uniform. She remained utterly unrepentant, admitted all the charges and requested the death penalty. Instead she was given a sentence of hard labour for life in the French penal colony in New Caledonia in Polynesia.
When the French government granted a general amnesty to Communards in 1880 Michel was released and made her way back to France, stopping off in London. It was the start of a growing affection for the city. Although Britain was a monarchy and had an empire, forms of administration she detested, she was impressed by its strong tradition of political asylum — there were no immigration restrictions and refugees could not be extradited for political crimes. As she wrote in her memoirs:
London! I love London, where my exiled friends have always been welcomed, London, where old England, standing in the shadow of the gallows, is still more liberal than the French bourgeois republicans are.
In July 1881 Michel was back in London to attend the Anarchist Congress. The British press was deeply hostile. ‘Her countenance is full of hate and discontent,’ reported The Dublin Evening Telegraph whose ‘Lady Correspondent’ had been sent to a public meeting at Cleveland Hall to observe her: ‘Her fingers work in a nervous, agitated manner, and her whole frame is evidently under the influence of internal excitement. She was attired in black, with a cutthroat-looking bow of scarlet ribbon beneath her chin.’ The Graphic reported that ‘Mdlle. Louise Michel announced a second Golden Age, and counselled her hearers “not to spare their blood in bringing it about”’ but dismissed the ideas under discussion as unlikely to gain a foothold in Britain. In late 1882 The World labelled her ‘slightly mad about the revolution’ and described her rooms in the Boulevard Ornano in Paris as full of ‘gloom and discomfort’, littered with books, showing ‘the scholar’s carelessness doubled with the unthrift of poverty’; her clothes were shabby and she was ‘dreadfully unkempt’.
MICHEL RETURNED TO London on Sunday 7 January 1883, for a week-long series of twelve lectures at Steinway Hall in Lower Seymour Street. This time, she was promoting specific causes: education, women’s rights and social justice.
What prompted Miss Lord to invite Michel to see Lambeth Workhouse? Perhaps she had become aware that Michel would be taking women’s education rather than the violent overthrow of governments as her theme, and that she would also be raising money to fund a shelter for Communards in London who had fallen on hard times. We can speculate that for her part Michel accepted the invitation because she wanted to see how a workhouse with a particular reputation for humanity operated.
Lambeth Workhouse had not always had a good name. In January 1866 journalist James Greenwood of The Pall Mall Gazette went undercover in the old Lambeth workhouse in Princes Road. His report, ‘A Night in a Workhouse’, exposed appalling conditions. He described inhumane overcrowding (thirty men in a room under ten metres square), bloodstained beds and ‘mutton broth’ baths. It is likely that if Michel had visited some years earlier her reaction would have been closer to that of Jules Vallès, a French journalist and left-wing political activist who escaped the bloodshed at the end of the Commune by fleeing to London. Vallès hated living in London and was highly critical of the political structures that maintained what he saw as a corrupt and rotten system. In his opinion, the workhouse was purgatory on earth, worse than Dante’s Inferno. He spoke from experience, having been an inmate at one of the poorhouses in central London (he does not specify which) and described a heartless regime designed to keep people just alive but not much more, in which inmates were forced to do pointless labour and families were separated. In return for a place to sleep and a hunk of bread everyone had to do hard labour, ‘les forts et ... les faibles’ [the strong or the weak].
Lambeth’s new workhouse complex in Renfrew Road, finished in 1875 at a cost of £42,000, was designed to hold eight hundred and twenty inmates, and included dining halls, workshops, a bakehouse, as well as a corn-mill, laundry and engine room. The buildings were heated by open fires and were well ventilated.
The British press was noticeably warmer towards Michel during her 1883 visit than previously. The conservative publication The St James’s Gazette, expecting a rough political firebrand, reported instead that she was a ‘quiet, unpretentious, and well-mannered’ woman who advocated, quite reasonably in their opinion, for women’s education to be put on an equal footing as men’s so that they could earn money and keep themselves.
On the day of the visit, Thursday 11 January 1883, Louise Michel left Fitzrovia and headed to Waterloo to be met by Miss Lord and her colleagues. They stopped first at the Old Vic in Waterloo, whose fortunes had recently been revived by social entrepreneur Emma Cons, who used it to provide education and cheap performances to working people. Michel and Lord afterwards walked on to Surrey Lodge in Kennington Road, which Cons had helped establish four years earlier as a new way to offer social housing, to meet Cons herself and take a look around.
Frances Lord wrote about the visit to Surrey Lodge for the Westminster Gazette:
She [Miss Cons] told us of their history, their balance-sheet, and their success. Fire-proof walls, coal-box, side-board; as to sports, balconies for play; public wash-house, roofs for drying ground, public meeting room, and, above all, the great central garden for children to romp about in, all told Mdlle. Michel that whoever had thought about all this must be somebody who had worked among the poor for years, and resolved that sooner or later they should have this good thing, at rent within their means, if intelligence and love could give it them.
The women walked on to Lambeth Workhouse in Renfrew Road. Here they stood in the Relief Hall while the ‘poor people’ filed in for a free meal. Michel inspected the Relieving Officer’s book and Lord told her about his duties, which included visiting every new case of destitution to explain that no money would be paid out until the children went to school, and that the Board would cover the school fees. They chatted as they toured the corridors. ‘Then no man or woman need starve in England,’ remarked Michel.
‘Nobody is to starve,’ replied Miss Lord. ‘But sometimes the poor people do not know where to apply, and in some parishes the food is bad, the relieving officers are careless and so on.’
‘Yes, of course there will be mistakes, but still there is a meal here for all and a shelter for old age,’ said Michel. ‘Your government is very intelligent to let you all take your part in the work of public institutions, I do not wonder you all love your monarchy and do not wish to change it.’
‘I think we are always changing it a very little, but we never knock things down violently, we try to prepare for change. This is the way we women have gradually come to take our modest share in public duty. First we got ready and then we began, it’s no use to start till you’re ready, is it?’
Michel admired some funeral wreaths laid out on a table and Lord told her that the daughter of a former Guardian who was ‘always so fond of the poor people in the workhouse and came to see them often’ had sent them in.
‘Was it not good of her to think of them in all her trouble?’ said Michel, adding, ‘I understand England.’
That afternoon, Frances Lord accompanied Louise Michel to her next lecture at Steinway Hall. ‘She said… that those wreaths and the public garden for the children’s play in Surrey Lodge had thrown more light than anything she had ever seen before on the good forces that are always at work in our free country,’ said Lord. That evening, she and Michel dined with the Reverend John Llewlyn Davies, a theologian and Anglican priest active in Christian socialist groups. Reporting on the visit two days later, the South London Press crowed that ‘Her visit to Lambeth seems to have inspired her with the idea that in Poor-law matters, they do not “do these things better in France.”’
On Monday 15 January Michel was back in Paris and continuing her life as a political activist and writer. Two days later, in London, at a scheduled meeting of the Lambeth Board of Guardians, members expressed surprise that Miss Lord had been happy to associate with ‘a woman of extreme views’. ‘No doubt she [Michel] had uttered many foolish things,’ said Miss Lord in defence of her decision. ‘But still, like others, the reports of her were exaggerated.’ Despite the personal criticism, Frances Lord had ensured that the work of the Lambeth Guardians had gained useful publicity. It had been framed as humanitarian and respectful by one of the most severe social commentators of the day.
In France, Michel continued to be harassed by the government and followed by police spies. Two months after her visit to London, in March 1883, she led a demonstration in Paris of unemployed workers during which she encouraged them to loot bakeries, for which she was sentenced to six years in solitary confinement. She served only three and used the time to write her memoirs. They contain reminiscences of the day she spent with Frances Lord in Lambeth.
She wrote she had been misunderstood on the subject of workhouses. Her hosts had thought she was enthusiastic about them, but that was not the case. ‘I only stated the pleasure I felt over England’s considering it a duty to be concerned about people who have neither food nor shelter. The thing that struck me — and I immediately said so — was the care with which in some workhouses, Lambeth for example, they soften the refuge where old Albion piles its poverty.’ The Lambeth Board of Guardians were certainly on the right track in terms of kindness and humanity, but for Michel, ‘the green branches on the old tree cannot rejuvenate the rotten trunk’. She thought a social revolution would certainly take place in Britain, but because there was the outward appearance of care for the poor, it would take longer than elsewhere in Europe.
AFTER YEARS OF persecution by the French authorities, during which she was imprisoned and forcibly committed to a mental hospital, in 1890 Louise Michel returned to London, where for the final fifteen years of her life she lived semi-permanently. Soon after she arrived, Michel and other exiles established a school in Windmill Street for the children of anarchists. This last phase of her life was highly productive. She frequently appeared at radical and socialist rallies and poured out articles, memoirs and poetry. Initially she lived in Fitzrovia, where French exiles tended to cluster, moving to south London in about 1894, living first in East Dulwich and later in Sydenham and Streatham. She was a popular speaker on both sides of the channel and her name continued to have major pulling power at radical and socialist meetings. She regularly returned to France to give speaking tours and it was on one of these that she fell ill, dying in Marseilles of pneumonia at the age of seventy-five. She was buried in the Levallois-Perret cemetery in Paris. Her funeral was attended by one hundred thousand people.
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