Bedford Park – the hotbed of radical free-thinkers

Image above: Bedford Park in Victorian times

Guest blog by Cahal Dallat

How strange, as Russian shells landed on Dnipro, Ukraine, this week, to think of Sergius Stepniak, born just west of that city, campaigning to overthrow the Russian tsars from a Queen-Anne-retro semi in Bedford Park’s Blandford Road 130 years ago.

Anarchists in Queen Anne Architecture

Image: Sergius Stepniak

By the time he settled in Chiswick, Stepniak’s anti-monarchism had led him to fight against the Ottoman empire in Bosnia, to join Malatesta’s small, failed uprising in Italy, and to assassinate the Tsar’s Moscow police-chief with a dagger.

Strange, when tree-lined Bedford Park with its winding avenues and Queen-Anne-period road names (Marlborough, Blenheim, Woodstock…) is the perfect, quiet realisation of traditional rural England.

Yet it was the desire to create a more connected way of life in a healthier and greener neighbourhood, that brought together in Bedford Park so many who wanted – in so many different ways – to create a better world, not just in a Utopian commuter suburb beside the new District Line railway, but around the globe.

And not simply by making Bedford Park an architectural/social model to be copied in housing projects elsewhere, but by finding fairer ways of living, politically and economically, by reckoning with class and colonialism, and by engaging with other cultures’ wisdom, teaching and spirituality – in ways we don’t normally associate with Victorian Britain’s imperialism.

Image above: Ukrainian landscape by Constance Markiewicz

Little Ukraine

Stepniak happened to live directly behind the Blenheim Road home of the young Irish poet W.B. Yeats, one of whose closest friends was Constance Gore-Booth from Sligo, socialist, Irish nationalist and first woman elected to Westminster. She married Kyiv-born playwright and painter Count Casimir Markiewicz (her Ukrainian countryside paintings are enjoying a sudden social-media vogue!)

Another Ukrainian influence in 1890s Bedford Park was Theosophist Helena Blavatsky. And Stepniak’s co-editor on his Free Russia newspaper (published in Shepherd’s Bush), was Cork-born Lily Boole whose father’s invention, Boolean algebra, made computers possible, and whose Polish-Lithuanian nobleman husband, Wilfrid Voynich, discovered the 15thcentury codex now known as the Voynich Manuscript.

As Lily Voynich, she wrote The Gadfly based on the adventures of Sidney Reilly, “Ace of Spies”, who was not Irish as the name suggests, but Ukrainian, born in Odessa. The thriller sold millions and became both an opera by Zhukov and a 1958 film with score by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Another regular at Bedford Park soirées was Mannheim-born Mathilde Blind whose translation of Ukrainian Marie Bashkirtseff’s Journal was the literary sensation of 1890 according to Yeats.

Images above: Constance Markiewicz; Lily Voynich; The Gadfly; Marie Bashkirtseff

Refuge and refugees

It wasn’t simply that Bedford Park was, culturally, “a little Ukraine”. Stepniak was in good progressive and internationalist company at William Morris’s Kelmscott House on Upper Mall too, where he would meet with local radicals and reformers, including George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant, both Irish, and Scottish socialists, RB Cunningham Grahame and Keir Hardie, as well as Eleanor Marx (Karl’s daughter) and Moscow-born anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin.

But then Chiswick – long before Bedford Park was built – had always attracted reformers and agitators. A retreat from the grimy Victorian city, of course, but just far enough from politics and intrigue, back then, for Jean Jacques Rousseau and Ugo Foscolo, both earlier political exiles from their own countries, to keep under the intelligence-services’ radar.

Hence GK Chesterton’s vision of Bedford Park, and Chiswick’s riverside pubs, as anarchist hotbeds in The Man Who Was Thursday. Rather like Quentin Tarantino’s Mr Orange, Mr Pink and Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs, GKC’s characters were named for days of the week but most proved, in Chesterton’s tale, to be double agents, police spies or provocateurs.

Image above: The Bedford Park Club; now the Buddhist Vihara

Progressive politics

Progressive thinking was in the rarefied Bedford Park air in which the poet WB Yeats grew up.

The world’s first garden suburb having been created for artists, writers and intellectuals, and based on a progressive approach to how a community should live together, it was the first speculative housing development to have included church, pub, stores, sports ground, art school, a weekly community newspaper and a social club in its plans.

And while the Bedford Park Club (the building that is now the London Buddhist Vihara) provided billiards, am-dram evenings, and grand balls, it also took seriously its role as a hub for contemporary thought, debating the day’s hot topics: female emancipation (the only club in London admitting men and women on an equal footing, it allowed both to smoke!); animal cruelty and vegetarianism; the land question; disestablishment; capital punishment; Empire; and home rule for India and Ireland.

One Club member, a Mr Mosenier, ‘a native of Calcutta’, spoke of the liberation, in India, of opening up factory jobs there to women. Virginia-born Moncure Daniel Conway moved here to Bedford Park after fighting to abolish slavery in America; and Jamaican-born Bedford Park resident Henry Fox Bourne was a prominent campaigner against the Belgian atrocities in the Congo first exposed by Irish humanitarian, Sir Roger Casement.

Image above: Sergius Stepniak; Sir Roger Casement; Mancherjee Bhownagree

Irish nationalism and anti-imperialism

Casement was a regular Bedford Park visitor, his sister Nina living a few doors along from Stepniak. He became involved with the Yeats’ sisters, Lily and Lolly, in founding Ireland’s version of William Morris’s Arts-&-Crafts movement and, as an honorary consul, reported on mistreatment of indigenous people in the Congo and Peru, though his later involvement in the struggle to end injustice in Ireland led to his being hanged after the Easter Rising.

But in 1890s Bedford Park, anti-imperialism, anti-tsarism and Irish nationalism were all up for discussion. Another frequent guest was John O’Leary, friend of WB Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats. Back after twenty years exile in Paris for his 1860s Fenian campaign, his revolutionary ideals didn’t trouble a Bedford Park community used to having Stepniak in their midst.

But Bedford Park wasn’t all anti-imperialist: York Powell commuted between Bedford Park and his Oxford professorship, finding his Bedford Park weekend talking companions more stimulating than fellow-Oxonian-academics: he was an expert on both ancient Scandinavian sagas and ‘modern’ French Symbolist poetry. And he was resoundingly pro-Empire.

And while Bedford Park’s well-meaning radicals were campaigning for better treatment of British subjects and demanding majority rule in countries with overwhelmingly indigenous majorities, there were actually three Asian MPs in Westminster back then, all in London seats, and all Parsis.

Of the three, Dadabhai Naoroji, Mancherjee Bhownagree and Shapurji Saklatvala, one was Liberal, one Conservative and one Communist. It was the Tory, Bhownagree, ironically, who lived in radical Bedford Park, opposing independence for his native country.

Images above: WB Yeats; Lily and Lolly Yeats – photograph Board of Trinity College, Dublin; George Bernard Shaw – photograph

Celtic Dawn

Yeats remembered his father saying – before they moved here – that there would be a wall around Jonathan Carr’s new village, that it would be a world apart. And GK Chesterton thought the suburb so fantastically unworldly that the world would somehow conquer it, but revised his opinion to suggest that Bedford Park had in fact conquered the world.

Certainly the Bohemian suburb’s ideals, feminist, egalitarian and communitarian, would become the template for the latter half of the twentieth century and it would be the 1980s before another Asian MP appeared in Westminster after these three turn-of-the-century Parsi politicians.

Seeing Bedford Park as a meeting-place for Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian artists and anarchists, as a colony for French and German painters such as the Pissarros and Manfred Trautschold, and as a cosmopolitan community of wide-ranging intellectual enquiry, exploration, debate and discovery, is, however, only half the story, when we consider where the suburb’s spiritual and political questing led.

George Bernard Shaw maintained that the Irish literary revival was born in Bedford Park. Yeats’s father’s Trinity College Dublin contemporaries, playwright John Todhunter and historian Goddard Henry Orpen (and his American novelist wife) lived nearby.

The Irish Literary Society was founded in 1891 at Yeats’s Blenheim Road home. And the world famous Abbey Theatre grew, in Yeats’s mind, from seeing pro-am productions at the Bedford Park Club and imagining an Irish National Theatre ‘for the people’, though the idea only became possible with finance from Annie Horniman (whom he met through actress and Bedford Park friend, Florence Farr) and with support from actors Frank and Willie Fay, and playwright Augusta Gregory (whose late husband had been governor of Sri Lanka).

An Irish arts-&-crafts renaissance developed alongside the literary and theatrical strands, out of the Yeats sisters’ experience with William and May Morris’s Kelmscott House craft industries, and with the encouragement of Roger Casement.

That cultural Celtic dawn would play its soft-diplomacy part in Ireland’s exit from Empire a couple of decades later while people like Constance Markiewicz, Maud Gonne (who first visited Yeats at Blenheim Road) and Roger Casement, all from Anglo-Irish families as were the Yeatses, all took a less diplomatic route.

Image above: Annie Besant, Anagarika Dharmapala (centre) and Henry Steel Olcott

The Journey to the East

The connection with Eastern religion and politics is more interesting still.

Bedford Park’s ‘alternative’ ethos was very much influenced by American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who were inspired by Buddhist teaching. Their writings had an impact on Walt Whitman, whose poetry not only featured in Breaking Bad but was the poetry to be seen reading in 1880s Bedford Park.

Whitman’s London translator was Michael Rossetti, his publisher was Yeats’s next-door neighbour, Elkin Matthews, and his London agent, Moncure Conway from Virginia, lived just across the road from the Bedford Park Club.

Conway himself had progressed from Methodist minister to Unitarian and later, freethinker, which led to his inviting Theosophist Henry Steel Olcott to lecture at the Club in 1889. The lecture was attended by a young WB Yeats who also met Olcott’s disciple, the Brahmin, Mohini Mohun Chatterjee, and his fellow Theosophist Helena Blavatsky. She had written of her travels in ‘Hindustan’ and, with Olcott, had visited Sri Lanka where they became the first westerners to convert to Buddhism.

A later Sri Lankan disciple, Anagarika Dharmapala, followed Olcott’s lead in spreading Buddhism in the west and founded the London Buddhist Vihara which, many years later, took over the Bedford Park Club premises in 1994, renaming it the Anagarika Dharmapala Building – without knowing that Olcott had lectured there 105 years earlier – a clear example of good karma at work in Bedford Park!

The obvious question is whether this 1890s interest in Eastern spirituality by Ukrainian Blavatsky, Olcott from New Jersey and Yeats from Dublin by way of Sligo and Bedford Park, was simply a ‘fad’ like the 1960s interest in Eastern religions and meditation, which many have since dismissed as superficial.

It certainly wasn’t a passing phase for Yeats. His exploration of Eastern spirituality was lifelong. He remained a subscriber to the magazine Eastern Buddhism all his life; his great, late poem Lapis Lazuli has Buddhist thought at its heart; and his poem for Mohini Chatterjee, remembering the Brahmin’s wise words to him as a young man, was written in his sixties.

Images above: Rabindranath Tagore; Sarojini Naidu; Gitanjali

Connections with Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu

More significantly Yeats got to know the young Sarojini Naidu, whom his painter father sketched in Bedford Park (the illustration became the frontispiece for her first published poetry collection) and who would become known as ‘the Yeats of India’.

Later Yeats would befriend Calcutta poet Rabindranath Tagore, staging his play The Post Office at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (the Yeats sisters published the play at their newly-founded Cuala Press). He also wrote the introduction for the first English publication of Tagore’s Gitanjali, as he also fostered – and introduced – younger Indian poets Govind K Chettur and Manmohan Ghose.

Yeats also wrote an introduction to Bhagwan Shri Hamsa’s spiritual autobiography, The Holy Mountain, and spent some of his latter years working with Shri Purohit Swami translating the Upanishads, the Sanskrit texts that are at the heart of Hindu philosophy.

Much of this happened while he was a senator in the new Ireland he’d helped create through his role in the cultural revival.

Image above: Annie Besant

As with Ireland, literature and political independence went hand in hand in the subcontinent. Poet Manmohan Ghose’s guru brother, Sri Aurobindo, was an Indian nationalist, Tagore wrote India’s and Bengal’s national anthem, inspired Sri Lanka’s, and renounced his knighthood after the Amritsar massacre. And Sarojini Naidu would become president of the Indian National Congress.

More surprisingly, socialist and feminist reformer Annie Besant, a regular Bedford Park and Kelmscott House speaker, was the first woman to become Congress president.

Another of Yeats’s circle, James Cousins, who acted alongside Maud Gonne at the Abbey Theatre, moved to India at Besant’s invitation, with his former-suffragette wife Margaret (who founded the All India Women’s Conference with Kamaladevi, who was married to Sarojini Naidu’s younger brother).

And Yeats’s Bedford Park friend, Florence Farr – whose sister had been at art college with John Butler Yeats, and who was George Bernard Shaw’s leading lady – after years of performing Yeats’s poetry to music, sold all her possessions and left London to teach in a girl’s school in Sri Lanka, dying there in 1917.

Image above: Bedford Park in Victorian times

A better, happier, fairer, safer and more equal place

So Bedford Park’s multicultural ethos wasn’t simply a case of absorbing from world culture, wasn’t merely a chance to indulge in Orientalist ‘cultural appropriation’, but showed a real openness to other ideas, mythical, spiritual and political.

In many cases it demonstrated a desire not simply to insist on democracy and better conditions throughout the Empire as it was then, but a willingness to go out and make the world – whether in Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, Italy, the Ottoman Empire or Ukraine – more like the world that Bedford Park itself had set out to be: a better, happier, fairer, safer and more equal place for everyone.

Among the many meanings of London sculptor Conrad Shawcross’s dazzling Enwrought Light to be unveiled with ceremony and celebrations on Tuesday 6 September on the green triangle outside St. Michael and All Angels Church, is the sense, not just of Yeats’s genius spiralling up from the “romantic excitement’ of Bedford Park, but of the spinning-out into the wider twentieth-century world, of the enlightened, communitarian, multicultural and spiritually-questing ethos of this unique London neighbourhood.’

Cahal Dallat is one of Ireland’s best known poets, a resident of Bedford Park and the organiser of the Yeats sculpture and programme of education about Yeats and his place in Bedford Park. You can read a review of Cahal’s book Beautiful Lofty Things here: Cahal Dallat, Beautiful Lofty Things and find out more about the Yeats sculpture being created for Bedford Park here: Yeats sculpture hits fundraising target

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See also: Bedford Park, the first Garden Suburb

See also: The London Buddhist Vihara, Chiswick 

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