Lockdown Diary 18: The Levenshulme Landgrabbers of 1906

The Levenshulme landgrabbers at work on the cabbage field – the houses in the background are probably on Manor Road (Illustrated London News, July 28th, 1906)

For a few weeks in the hot summer of 1906 Levenshulme caught the attention of the national and even the international press.  On the afternoon of Friday 6th July 1906 a dozen men walked onto 6 acres of unfenced church land near Matthews Lane and began growing cabbages.  It was an act described by one paper as “the historic Levenshulme land grab” and lasted for 6 weeks, inspiring similar land occupations in other parts of the country. 

I’d like to thank Jez Hall for setting me on the trail of the landgrabbers and to Toni Hunter for her tireless search for information!   The extracts are from a mix of local, national and international newspapers – articles on the landgrab appeared in the San Francisco Call (August 13th 1906) and the Zeehan and Dundas Herald in Tasmania (August 16th 1906).

What happened in the landgrab?

On a hot summer’s afternoon in July 1906 a dozen men, led by Arthur Smith, Captain Jack Williams and Alexander Stewart Gray, crossed Matthews Lane and pitched a tent on 6 acres of unfenced glebe land belonging to the Holy Trinity Church in Hulme.  According to The Manchester Guardian (Monday July 9th) Smith announced that they would “till it and hold it against all comers”, adding that “if the unemployed were removed from this spot they would flee to another.” 

OS map from 1904/5 – the squatted land was on the unoccupied area of land enclosed by Lonsdale Road, Manor Road, Matthews Lane and Brook Avenue, top left of the map (copyright HMSO)
The Levenshulme landgrabbers with families and visitors (Illustrated London News)

The landgrabbers soon began removing turf, preparing the land for thousands of cabbage plants “for the benefit of the unemployed” (The Manchester Guardian).  On the Friday and Saturday nights some of the men slept in the tent.    Jack Williams, one of their leaders, sent a telegram to the Liberal cabinet minister and former trade unionist, John Burns, with this stirring message –  “Comrade John Burns, M. P.—Manchester’s unemployed have taken your advice of twenty years ago and gone back to the land for food, for wives and bairns. Congratulate us. Jack Williams, Outlaw”.  (San Francisco Call)  

As the protest progressed the “outlaws” built “a stone fireplace and built a grass-sod hut after the fashion of Ireland”, perhaps reflecting the level Irish immigration to the city.(San Francisco Call)  Flags were placed to mark the boundaries of the cultivated land and a red flag was placed at the centre, demonstrating the landgrabbers’ socialist principles.

Irish style turf hut under construction with young helpers on the right – the flags in the foreground mark out the cabbage field (Illustrated London News)
A turf sod hut, County Mayo, Ireland – c.1905
The original landgrabbers with the three leaders of the occupation. Note the tent in the background with a red or blue ensign flag. Posing with their spades, with Captain Jack Williams at the centre, they give the impression of a well organised and disciplined group of men.

How much support did the landgrabbers get?

 The leaders of the protest claimed the support of the Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Social Democrats, and the Independent Labour Party (San Francisco Call).    We don’t know if Burns replied to Williams’ telegram, but Keir Hardie and other leaders of the newly formed Labour Party, set up in February, apparently distanced themselves from the landgrab –perhaps reluctant to be associated with this type of direct action.

Despite the lack of mainstream political backing, the landgrabbers rapidly gained a lot of local attention and support.   The Manchester Guardian reported that on the first Sunday of the occupation “there were thousands of visitors to the camp… The place was like a fairground. The occupiers held three meetings and made collections [of money and food or seeds]”.    The same picture is repeated in the San Francisco Call – “Crowds of curious Manchester people daily visit the camp and the collections to date have been pretty good. The men are orderly and strict discipline is maintained.”   Police were present “merely to regulate the crowds”.  The paper notes wryly that “they have only made one mistake, and that was to boil and eat a sackful of prime potatoes sent for them as seed by a sympathizer”.

Young Landgrabbers

The landgrab soon inspired the interest of local children.    The Teesdale Mercury of July 25th 1906 reported that, following “the example of the Levenshulme squatters… A party of youngsters annexed a piece of land near the Levenshulme Free Library”.  Borrowing tools from the main camp, “the juvenile land grabbers set to work to cut the turf, which was stacked to form a hut.   A pole was obtained and fixed, and an oil-cloth covering added.   The children then set to work to make a little garden, and fetched Mr Smith to admire their work.  Only parental pressure prevented the more daring of them from staying there during the night.”  The Illustrated London News added that “finally their mothers took the little rebels home”. The photo below shows the children at work on their turf shelter.  It is interesting how well dressed the children are, in their caps, Eton collars, frocks and hats, perhaps in their Sunday best for the photographer.

The young landgrabbers in their Sunday best – note the borrowed tools and the toy wheelbarrow (Illustrated London News)

Who were their leaders?

The three main organisers were Arthur Smith, Captain Jack Williams and Alexander Steward Gray.  Arthur Smith, described by the San Francisco Call as the protest’s “commander in chief”, was one of the leading campaigners against unemployment in Manchester at the time.  Press reports indicate that he was the most directly involved of the three leaders, and he is referred to most frequently in the papers both during landgrab and after the occupation finished.    In one of his speeches, Smith pointed out that the land occupied in Levenshulme had been “given to the Church for the benefit of the poor” as justification for the landgrab.

Jack Williams was the London born leader of the Socialist Labour Party, and a well known political activist at the time.  The picture below shows him in court in the 1880s.  He was also a powerful political speaker, the San Francisco Call noting that “Williams is allowed to give full swing to his oratory, write telegrams and proclamations, and is therefore happy”.  This flamboyance is further suggested by the photo of the “unemployed” land camp at Levenshulme, showing Williams sitting at the centre of the group of squatters.

Jack Williams in court, 1886

The third organiser, Alexander Stewart Gray, an Edinburgh trained lawyer, was the main intellectual force behind the protest.  Gray was partly inspired by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, utopian activists during the English Civil War who occupied and cultivated land in common before they were suppressed by the more conservative Cromwell – the San Francisco Call notes that “the leaders boast of having gone back to the days of Cromwell” following the idea of “Back to the Land”.  Gray had been arguing for some time for land reform and believed that it was a solution to the problem of unemployment.  He had proposed that each city should allocate £50,000 to fund the project – approximately £6 million in current value.  This idea was taken up by leading philanthropists of the day, including the American soap millionaire, Joseph Fels, who backed Gray’s proposals and had some influence on Lloyd George’s ground breaking land tax in the 1909 budget.  After the failure of unemployed marches of 1905, Gray and his associates planned land occupations, all of them on Church or glebe land.   Gray was also knowledgeable on agricultural theory, and was named as the landgrabbers’ “Minister of Agriculture” by the San Francisco Call.

Alexander Stewart Gray

How did the landgrab end?

There is some debate about the attitude of the Holy Trinity’s rector, Rev Hudson, towards the Levenshulme squatters.  In a letter to the press after their eviction, Arthur Smith stated that Hudson “definitely agreed to lend us your land for the purpose of helping the unemployed”.   But The Manchester Guardian reported that Hudson “smiled when he heard what had been done, but said that he did not intend to let the unemployed… make use of the land without payment”. 

What is not in dispute is how the landgrabbers were evicted.  Shortly before noon on August 14th or 15th, while the squatters were cooking their lunch, they were visited by solicitors, police and “a score of burly workmen, armed with picks and shovels”.  Mr Orford, the Rev Hudson’s solicitor, asked “are you men going to leave the ground quietly?”, and after a short discussion amongst themselves they decided to leave the land, taking their “cooking utensils and their scant furniture that had served them” during the occupation.  The workmen proceeded to dismantle the turf hut and burned the land grabbers’ straw bedding.   This was not what Smith had in mind when he said they would “hold the land against all comers”, threatening the police or army with “trouble like that which British soldiers had with De Wet [Afrikaans general during the recent Boer War]”.  (The Manchester Guardian)

In his letter to the press, Arthur Smith robustly criticised what he saw as the betrayal of the squatters “by a man who preaches the Word of God” and the destruction 2,500 “good strong plants ruthlessly torn up”.  Smith also contrasted the treatment of the squatters (“those who have proved their desire to work”) with the burly workmen who were “regaled with gallons of beer” for their destruction of the camp.

Mr Smith “ejected by the heels” (Illustrated London News). The eviction did not take place for another three weeks, so this must be a photo of an earlier failed eviction.

What was the landgrab’s legacy?

The landgrabbers were not so easily deterred.  Soon afterwards Smith returned to the site, carrying a large cabbage, and announced to a sizeable crowd that “he took possession of the land for the unemployed and the people of Levenshulme”, symbolically reclaiming the land by planting the cabbage.  But it seems that little came of this second occupation.

It would be easy to write off the Levenshulme landgrab as being of little importance.  The press at the time tended to ridicule any direct action of this sort, probably to undermine threats posed to the government, local authorities and landowners.  This was, after all, a time of great unrest in Britain and Europe, and the previous year the Tsar of Russia had almost been overthrown in a year of revolution.  One paper described the landgrab as having become “a public nuisance”, while the children’s camp had “naturally aroused a good deal of amusement in the locality”.  The Illustrated London News showed a photograph a wilted crop of cabbages, in clear contrast to Smith’s claims about strong plants.  The San Francisco Call went further, reporting that the “the ‘outlaws’ are merely looked upon as buffoons and their doings as fairly amusing comedy” and “that the movement belongs to the great ‘scrap pile’ of visionary impossibilities”.

Illustrated London News

But many of the press reports show that there was a lot of support for the protestors from people in Levenshulme and the wider area.  People were donating money and food to the squatters and The Manchester Guardian’s reference to “thousands of visitors” suggests that they had captured the public’s imagination.  The fact that they trying to grow food for the wider community and were addressing the very real problem of unemployment must have helped their appeal.  The Levenshulme “outlaws” also inspired other land occupations, in particular in Bradford and Plaistow (East London) where the occupiers were “following the example of the Manchester ‘colonists’”.

Support for the landgrab also attracted the attention of those looking for solutions to the social and economic problems of the time.  Even the generally critical San Francisco Call commented that “it is realized that their intentions are good, that many thinking men of [the] moment are with them”. The year after the landgrab Parliament passed the Small Holdings and Allotments Act, making all parish, urban district and borough councils responsible for providing allotments and in 1908 a further act streamlined the previous legislation.  Earlier acts of 1845 and 1887 had unsuccessfully attempted to get local authorities to provide “field gardens” or allotments, and had met with considerable resistance from councillors.  It is very likely that the acts of the Levenshulme “outlaws” and other landgrabbers had some impact on the politicians in London and helped pave the way for the allotment movement. 

Manchester allotments

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