E. Belfort Bax

Harry Quelch


The following biography of Harry Quelch (1858-1913) is by Ernest Belfort Bax and is the introduction to a series of Quelch’s essays that were republished as his memorial in 1914 under the title Harry Quelch: Literary Remains, edited and with a biographical introduction [11 pp.] by E.B. Bax (London), 256 pp.


The present volume consists of a selection of the writings of the late Henry Quelch. Quelch’s work consisted mainly in journalism and platform speaking. As such it lacked a concretely durable character. His influence on the Socialist movement in Great Britain tended, as in all such cases, to be an indirect one merely, acting through the stimulus he effected in the men of his time. But though, on the whole, this must remain the case, it was the wish of many of his friends and admirers that some of his otherwise fugitive writings should be preserved in a more permanent form. The present volume has been undertaken with a view to give, in some sort, at least, expression to that wish.

The selection offered in the present work falls into two divisions, short stories and articles. The short stories practically speak for themselves. They are graphic sketches given in a few bold strokes of modern working-class life in London. In their way, I venture to assert, they are unique. No living author has succeeded as Quelch has done in displaying the bare reality of the life of the masses in the British Metropolis under present-day conditions.

The second section of the volume is made up of articles published at different times in Justice, the Social Democrat, and the British Socialist. They have been selected with a view of giving specimens of Quelch’s incisive argumentative style, his clear statement of principle, and able marshalling of facts.

The article on The Essential Difference between Anarchism and Social Democracy is a specially able statement of some of the salient points distinguishing the two doctrines. That on Social Democracy, Nationalism, and Imperialism is also typical of Quelch’s incisive style of stating a position, though some of us may think his qualified defence of Nationalism is liable to give rise to some possible misunderstanding. Above all, the retention of the word “patriotism,” so hopelessly abused as it has been, will seem to many Socialists of very questionable desirability. But these, and one or two other minor points, of which some of us might take exception to the phrasing (for in most cases it means little more than the phrasing), that occur occasionally in some of the articles, do not affect the main issue. Always when taken broadly, and more often than not even down to the minutest detail, there are few so good and no better statements existing of the Socialist position in its application to current events and living questions than are to be found in the articles of Henry Quelch during the long years that he edited the weekly journal and the little monthly review which will always remain associated with his name.

In conclusion, I may say that the articles, in the it main, appear as they were written, though here and there passages having a purely temporary interest have been omitted. I should also state that I have to thank my friend Mr. H.W. Lee for valuable assistance in the selection of the pieces here published.

Henry Quelch

The most eminent among the working-class protagonists of Socialism in Great Britain, Henry, or as he was usually termed by his friends and the public alike, Harry, Quelch was born on January 30th, 1858, at the little old-fashioned town of Hungerford in Berkshire. Hungerford is little more than a large straggling village, in its general character, with rurality everywhere within and around it. Quelch’s father followed the trade of a village blacksmith, as his grandfather had done. He was, however, an invalid for over twenty years before his death. Quelch’s mother was the daughter of an agricultural labourer from Newbury in the same county. Upon her devolved, while the children were young, the whole onus of maintaining the family. Harry, who was the eldest child, had to go out to earn his living, at ten years of age, at a time when he was showing the greatest aptitude for learning at the school to which he was sent. He first of all found employment in an upholsterer’s shop, where his hours were from early morning often till late at night, while his wages were of the scantiest. In order to better himself in both respects the accepted the offer of employment by a local dairyman and cattle dealer. This meant, as it turned out, but little improvement as regards hours of labour, for what with early morning milking and late at night driving of cattle hone from market or front distant pastures — involving oftentimes tramps of from twenty to thirty miles a day — the opportunity for that self-education which our hero so longed to engage in seemed as far off as ever. Talking of this period of his life, Harry Quelch often described to me the terrible ordeal this driving of cattle commonly meant; how, when half-way towards his destination he would have sometimes to go as far again out of his way, or even to return wellnigh to his starting-point in pursuit of some recalcitrant and straying swine or ox, the result being at the end of the day a weariness beyond all conception. Even when he had to drive his beasts one way only he had to do the return journey on foot all the same, railway or other conveyance facilities being out of the question even had they existed, which as a rule they did not in that part of the country at the time of which we speak.

At the age of fourteen he left his Berkshire home and went to tempt fate in London.

Here he succeeded in getting work at Peek, Frean and Co.’s biscuit factory. He did not stay there very long, however, accepting a place in a tanyard, whence he afterwards changed for work in an iron foundry. The last place as unskilled labourer he occupied, and the one which satisfied him most and where he remained the longest, was as working porter or packer in a large wholesale paper warehouse in Cannon Street. He was here in the early days of the Social Democratic Federation, and he was engaged here when the present writer first became acquainted with him.

It was while working in Cannon Street that he for the first time obtained sufficient leisure to devote himself to private reading and study in real earnest. He taught himself French, and made a thorough study of the French translation (there being at that time no English translation) of Karl Marx’s Kapital. He did a great deal of other serious reading at this time, among other historical studies, carefully working his way through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Quelch, it should be said, had married at the age of one-and-twenty, and by the time we are speaking of, the early ’eighties, was already the father of a young family, and hence the question of livelihood was becoming an important one for him. Notwithstanding this, where other men would have been concerned, above all things, to get on in the world, with Harry Quelch this last was a purely secondary consideration. It was the call of the movement and of his new social ideal which became more and more the influences absorbing Quelch’s life.

By this it must not, be understood that he in any way neglected his duties to his family. He worked hard at his avocation in Cannon Street, though every scrap of his leisure time was now devoted directly or indirectly to work for the Socialist movement. In fact, considering the amount of leisure at his command, what he accomplished at this time in the way of agitation and self-education was simply amazing. In spite of occasional fits of depression he, to use a common phrase, “kept his end up” wonderfully in the face of all difficulties.

In the spring of 1881 H.M. Hyndman and one or two others founded the Democratic Federation. The idea was to unite the Radical clubs of London in a bond of fellowship with definite aims and definite tactics. The Democratic Federation was not at first an avowedly Socialist body. It was not long, however, before it was brought into the paths of Socialism by its founder. Two years later, in 1883, the implicit Socialism of the new organization was emphasized in the series of conferences held in the spring of that year at the Westminster Palace Hotel, at which Hyndman took the chair. It was owing to these meetings that Quelch joined the Democratic Federation. He was, from the first, an active member and soon went on to the executive. Rather less than a year later the first number of Justice was published on January 19th, 1884. The event was a great joy to Quelch. At a meeting held a few days before at Anderton’s Hotel the Democratic Federation became definitely Socialist in its aims and Justice was recognized as its organ, though the name was not changed to that of Social Democratic Federation until the Annual General Meeting held the following August. From January, 1884, onwards Quelch’s activity on behalf of the movement was redoubled.

In April of that year Quelch, together with the present writer, was deputed to attend the Congress of the French Parti Ouvrier at Roubaix. We were accompanied by our comrade and friend the late James Leigh Joynes, who undertook to report the proceedings for Justice. [1]

I well remember the occasion, the large hall at Roubaix at which Congress was opened on Sunday evening, the wet night, and the street in which the hall was situated filled with uniforms and bayonets, for the French Government of the day had seen fit to make the Congress the occasion of an aggressive military demonstration.

In the hall, too, where I was vice-chairman at the meeting, there were some “incidents,” occasioned, for the most part, by local disputes, but which caused the Prefect with his tri-coloured sash to rise in his place in a menacing manner more than once. Every time the door opened leading to the street, the glitter of the bayonets just outside was very noticeable. Our speeches, however, were, as might be expected, well received. The following day we left for Paris, where we also spoke at a meeting. What, with speaking and writing for Justice the summer of 1884 was a busy one for Quelch, as for the other members of a small group of active workers for the new movement. At the end of 1884 occurred the unfortunate split which led to the secession from the SDF of some of its most active members. The immediate result was the foundation, by William Morris and others, of the Socialist League. It is unnecessary in this place to go in detail into the causes which led to this. It is sufficient to say that the quarrel was largely based on personal differences and misunderstandings and a divergence as to tactics, and had little to do with questions of principle. Amongst those who left the original organization with William Morris and helped to found the Socialist League was the present writer. As a consequence I saw less of Quelch during the next four or five years.

Up to this time Quelch cannot be described exactly as a success as a speaker. His manner and utterance were heavy and gloomy. It has been well said by one who was closely connected with Quelch throughout his political career, that “to those who knew our comrade later as one of our best speakers and keenest debaters, it will no doubt be a surprise to be told that in the early ‘eighties his manner on the platform was not at all convincing, and his somewhat pessimistic style, not at first enlivened by the wonderful humour which developed later, sometimes repelled rather than attracted.” The change spoken of was indeed remarkable and is a good illustration of the success due to patient practice and dogged determination, always presupposing that there is something present in the man for the patience and determination to work upon.

However regrettable the split in the movement at the end of 1884 was from most points of view, there can be no doubt that it brought Quelch’s latent qualities into play. The active and leading members of the SDF were now reduced in number and the organization itself in means. Hence it was necessary for those that, remained to put forward all the energy of which they were capable. And as a matter of fact it was so. No time and no trouble was spared by these few men to keep the organization and Justice above water. The following account by a co-worker with Quelch at this time will give some idea of how things were, and of the part that Quelch played in them. Referring to the latter, Mr. Thomas Smallwood writes:–

“We soon became the closest of friends and I lived in the same house with him for more than two years. I used to meet, him when the left Cannon Street, where he worked for 24s. week, and we would proceed two or three nights weekly to the cellars in Sandland Street, where Justice was set up those days. Quelch would be writing articles and correcting proofs while I set up the placards and pulled proofs. I was not a comp, but I seldom got more than two or three letters upside down or misplaced when I brought my proof for him to correct. On the night of going to press it would sometimes be 2 o’clock in the morning before he left the office. This unpaid work our comrade did for several years, and assuredly no one was more entitled to the job when a paid editor was appointed. As we walked home together we would pick out likely spots for flyposting the bundle of Justice posters I carried under my arm. The next night we would sally forth with paste-pot and brush to let the people of South London know that Justice could be had for the first time in history at the price of one penny.”

Needless to say during this time Quelch took an active part in every agitation started by the SDF, but as most of his work on this side is fairly well known, it is unnecessary to particularize. I may mention, however, that on the notorious “bloody Sunday” he was one of the foremost in the fray at Trafalgar Square. The flag of his branch he had the satisfaction of saving from the attack of the guardians of order, although it was the first to be unfurled at the plinth of the Nelson column. The movement was so cleverly executed that a hurried meeting was held before the police could rally in sufficient, numbers to disperse the crowd, and thus Sir Charles Warren’s prohibition was effectively set at defiance. But it was not only on the political side of things that Quelch made himself active during the later ’eighties. He worked equally hard on the industrial side of the working-class movement. Soon after the great dock strike of 1889 he founded the South-Side Labour Protection League. Having been the chief agent in the formation of the League, Quelch became its secretary. This was the first paid post he occupied in connection with his public work, but the secretaryship was anything but a sinecure. Besides representing the League at all the Trade Union Congresses of the early ’nineties, as also before the Royal Labour Commission, he carried through to a successful issue several strikes on the south side of the Thames.

In consequence of a speech made during one of these he was prosecuted on a charge of inciting strikers to assault blacklegs. He stood his trial, but the case ended in the jury disagreeing. Quelch was bound over to appear at a new trial, but after the charge had been hanging over him for some months he at last surrendered at the Middlesex Sessions, demanding either the new trial or else release from the embargo over-hanging him. The result was the return of a formal verdict of “Not guilty,” which ended the matter.

Quelch’s work on the South-Side Labour League was not without its difficulties and frictions. For example, his active propaganda for Socialism was taken exception to by some of the very labourers who ought most to have appreciated his efforts in this direction. When taken to task on this head at a meeting of the League, Quelch’s reply was characteristic of him: “If you men, whose servant I am, think I am going to suppress the Red Flag for your £2 a week you are sadly mistaken. I shall speak under it as often as I get a chance. If I did sell the Red Flag, how do you men know that I would not sell you to your employers for an extra £2 a week?”

Quelch’s international work for the movement is worthy of particular notice. There was no International Socialist Congress at which Quelch was not one of the leading spirits of the English delegation. In Paris in 1889, Brussels in 1891, Zurich in 1893, London in 1896, Paris in 1900, Amsterdam in 1904, Stuttgart in 1907, and finally at Copenhagen in 1910, the figure of Quelch was foremost among those representing British Socialism. But it was not at International Congresses alone that Quelch was to be found. We have already seen him at Roubaix in 1881, at a French National Congress. This was only the first of many such congresses that he attended as the representative of the SDF in the capacity of invited delegate. Up to the year before his death he was present in this way at every congress of the German party, by all the leading members of which he was well known and highly esteemed.

At the last German Congress he attended, that at Chemnitz, 1912, August Bebel, who himself died only a few weeks before Quelch, was shocked at the latter’s appearance and strongly urged him to the course he subsequently adopted, namely, to go to Nauheim.

As we have said, Quelch, with little assistance from friends, taught himself French and German, as well as the rudiments of Latin. French he could read with ease, as well as speak with tolerable fluency. German he could also read, but not so well as French. He could also speak it, though with difficulty; but, on the other hand, he could write with fair correctness an ordinary letter or post card in German. He more than once delivered in German his address of congratulation from the English Socialists before the German National Congress.

In 1907, at the International Congress at Stuttgart, occurred the incident of Quelch’s expulsion from Württemberg, which created some little noise at the time. The occasion of this was a speech in the Congress on the question of Peace and International Arbitration, in which, referring to the inter-governmental Conference then sitting at The Hague, the speaker characterized the conclave of diplomatic representatives there assembled as a “thieves’ supper.” He meant by this well-known expression, of course, that they were not seriously concerned to abolish war and to establish arbitration in its place, but that all those present well understood that the discussions were purely academic and never really intended to result in anything practical. The expression “thieves’ supper,” familiar in English as meaning a futile demonstration of discussion or criticism between those who understand each other very well, when translated into cold German looked much nastier than was intended, seeming as it did to imply a reflection on the personal honesty, in the ordinary meum and tuum sense, of the diplomats themselves. I was present on the occasion and can recall the enthusiastic demonstration accorded to Quelch in the garden of the Hotel Royal at Stuttgart, where the British delegation was met together in a friendly gathering, on the arrival of the police order of expulsion. Quelch left next morning by an early train, but it should be said that notwithstanding the order he again entered Württemberg a year or two later for a few days on a private visit to friends, staying at Wildbad, though he did not pass through Stuttgart.

Of my personal relations with Quelch there is little of interest to relate in a short memoir like the present. I can only say that during the long time I have known him we never had a serious difference. For many years past we were accustomed to lunch together once a week, when we would talk over the affairs of the movement, the conduct of Justice, and the public events of the day. For many years before his death Quelch had suffered from a chronic bronchial catarrh which, although not in itself a dangerous malady, gave him a good deal of trouble and annoyance, especially in the winter. But at all times, whether feeling well or ill, Quelch was not merely at his post in London, but doing arduous week-end lecturing and organizational work in the province.

From the year 1892 to the end of 1908 he not merely edited Justice, writing a good deal of the paper himself, but also managed the business side of the Twentieth Century Press. The double work during the week, however, often coupled, as already said, with propaganda work in the provinces on Sundays, proved too much for him, and from the beginning of 1909 onward he gave up the managing of the printing office and confined himself to the editing of the paper.

It would seem, however, that his previous toil and responsibility had already undermined his constitution. His health gradually began to decline. But it was not before the winter of 1911-12 that serious signs of a breakdown showed themselves. From the beginning of 1912 till his death on September 17th, 1913, he may be said to have been slowly sinking. Nevertheless for a year and a quarter after the first signs of his illness, he continued to occupy the editorial chair of Justice, being hardly absent from his work for a day. Not only so, but as late as the autumn of 1912 he actually had the energy, ill as he was, to undertake a course of lectures at Ruskin College, Oxford, on the History of Socialism, involving a considerable amount of study and preparation.

At the beginning of April, 1913, he had to give up all his office work, though he continued till within a short time of his death to write for the paper. Later in the month, he went to Nauheim to undergo the treatment there for the heart and liver trouble which had now assumed alarming intensity. Although he seemed to benefit slightly at the time it soon became evident that it was too late for any permanent good to be effected, any exertion, physical or mental, now becoming insupportable to this once so busy and energetic man.

Quelch returned from Nauheim showing little signs of betterment, and went to stop at his birthplace, Hungerford, for a few weeks, but was advised to leave there and try Margate for the sea air and as being more bracing. At Margate he remained for three or four weeks, but the change for the worse during this time was so marked that the doctor counselled his immediate return home. He arrived at his home at Nunhead in an almost dying state. Life flickered on, however, for a little more than a fortnight longer, until on September 17th, 1913, this faithful, honest, and fearless son of the people passed away at the comparatively early age of fifty-five years. He was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery on Saturday, September 20th. Of the funeral more need scarcely be said than that it was the largest attended and most impressive ceremony of the kind that the Socialist Party had ever seen in this country. Representatives of every section of Socialist thought and action were present, and many spoke at the graveside, the proceedings altogether lasting a full hour.

It is difficult to estimate the loss sustained by the British Socialist movement in the death of Harry Quelch. To him the oft-quoted Pauline phrase may well be applied, “he fought a good fight, he finished his course, he kept the Faith.”

Harry Quelch was more than a mere personality, he was the living personification of an idea — the idea of the emancipation and rebirth of the working class through the transformation of Civilization into Socialism. This is the leitmotiv of all his writings. In this respect when I recall Quelch I always think of Meyerbeer’s figure of Marcel in The Huguenots. Whenever he appears on the stage Marcel is invested with the aura, so to say, of the Huguenot faith as symbolized in the hymn Ein’ feste Burg. Similarly with Quelch. Wherever Quelch was there was the Socialist idea. Socialism was in very deed a religion for which no sacrifice was too great. For Quelch Socialism did not mean sentimental sympathy with the poor, still less mere charity; it did not mean tinkering legislative measures for raising the condition of the mass of the people, although he did not condemn these in so far as they were really effective even if only in a limited way; again, it did not mean as with many who call themselves Socialists nowadays, bureaucratic statification (of this latter, indeed, he had a special horror, as in his opinion leading not to Socialism but to “the Servile State”). No! Quelch’s Socialism meant a complete revolution in the conditions of human life, a reconstruction in which class society should disappear and a true humanity emerge from its ruins. That this could only be accomplished through the great economic change — the possession and control of all the means and instruments of social production, distribution and exchange, by the whole community in its own interests, rather than, as now, by individuals and classes in their separate interests — was the deepest of all convictions for Quelch, and the attainment of this end was for him the only serious object worth living for in the present day by the sincere lover of Humanity.


1. Joynes, who had been formerly a master at Eton, had found his position there practically untenable, owing to the publication of a little book in which he had vigorously championed the rights of the Irish peasant. He was now, therefore, free to devote himself unreservedly to the Socialist cause.

Other biographies of Harry Quelch can be found in The Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals Volume 3: 1870-1914, L-Z, pp.672-675, edited by Joseph O. Baylen & Norbert J. Gossman, by Bernard Crick, and a much fuller one by Graham Johnson (pp.198-204) Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume VIII, edited by Bellamy and Saville, containing an informative short history of The Twentieth Century Press (pp.204-208). There are also tributes in the British Socialist, Vol.II No.10, October 15, 1913 by A.S. Headingley (pp.433-36), a poem by Eliana Turynam, p.437, and a piece by Ben Tillett, (438-440).


Last updated on 28.5.2007