John announced his intention of forming the group by speaking out and leafleting in Oldham’s Market Square on Sunday 14th June, 1885. The following evening, Oldman, supported by comrade Bourne of Cheetham, founded Oldham’s 'Socialist League (SL)' group, although John didn’t need much encouragement as his activism stretched back a long way.
Born in Norfolk in 1842, following in his father’s footsteps he worked on the land and was employed for a while on the Earl of Leicester’s Holkham Hall Estate. Incensed by the injustice and inequality of rural life he later claimed to have, 'been an anarchist from boyhood and rejoiced to think that all his life he had been a notorious poacher'. In 1870, Oldman upset the vicar and squirearchy when he publicly campaigned for Tittleshall Parish Reading Rooms to provide more than its narrow range of Tory newspapers. He was rewarded with notice to quit from his landlord, the Earl of Leicester.
When Joseph Arch, in 1872, started the 'National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU)' Oldman rushed to assist and was immediately engaged as a union organiser although the press preferred to describe him as a 'a professional agitator', no doubt realising this was no 'old-school', time-serving compromiser. The Ipswich Journal, spotted the revolutionary implications:
'If Mr John Oldman of Norwich tramps the county with his peculiar logic and teaches the labourers that the classes above them are their natural enemies, we must expect a strange and unpleasant change.'
Following a NALU recruitment meeting at Hollesley in August 1872, a report in the Journal showed Oldman’s politics went far beyond adding a few pence to labourers’ wages. He insisted, 'it was the struggle of labour with capital…the labourers had been stuffed too much with Christian tracts…the law was not equal…the Earl of Leicester put on his wagons The Right Honourable The Earl of Leicester but it should be DISHONOURABLE for he had in one part of the county enclosed a piece of common land.'
On a more personal note, 'Mr Oldman related an anecdote of his father, 72 years of age being refused relief by the Board of the Guardians of the Poor.' John’s impoverished father died the following year.
The Ipswich Journal described John as, 'an active-looking man, 30 years of age, about middle height and of spare wiry build, he looks as if tramping the country would be of little or no trouble to him. He was respectably dressed in a long summer overcoat of dark material with light summer billy-cock hat…Mr Oldman has a great command of language and a stentorian voice.'
Oldman went down well with the labourers but upset the landholders and a few days after the Hollesley meeting a letter was published in the Journal from a George Ling urging his fellow farmers to organise themselves, 'for the purpose of stamping out the Union Epidemic as they would the Cattle Plague and treat all Unionists as infected persons.' Subsequent public meetings turned nasty. Despite Oldman’s appeals for calm the police were called to restore order at Braintree Corn Exchange in October 1872. In November, a speaker was set upon and attacked at a meeting in Coggeshall but labourers continued to join the union which claimed 70,000 members within the year.
In May 1873, despite rumours that farmers had recruited London thugs to rough-up the crowd and the Volunteers had been instructed to ride them down, Peterloo-style, a meeting of over 2,000 agricultural labourers on Market Hill, Sudbury passed without serious incident. Addressed by NLA President Joseph Arch and John Oldman, there was a minor sensation when a union representative revealed injuries he’d received the previous day after falling
mid-speech from a cart from which farmers had maliciously removed the linch-pin from a wheel.
Tramping the country as a labour organiser and journalist John Oldman sometimes described himself as a 'commercial traveller'. In truth he combined any activity he could to finance his political mission, at one stage pawning his watch to raise a pound to keep body and soul together. Fortunately his partner, Rebecca Culling/ Oldman was a widow with money and employment of her own so the pair could afford to raise a family. Whilst John continued agitating around the country his family moved north, first to Cheshire, in 1874, before settling in Chadderton, near Oldham, a couple of years later.
After John started the Oldham Socialist League, besides indoor meetings at Mrs Wrigley’s the group also organised outdoor events at the Curzon Ground and in July 1885 at the Old Market Place where William Morris was the advertised speaker. After the police repeatedly cleared waiting crowds from the advertised venue, Oldman led Morris to Tommy Fields (the later market place) where a most successful meeting was held. As the SL newspaper Commonweal reported:
'Oldman wound up proposing a resolution condemning the authorities for their interference with the right of public meeting.'
But, just as his rural masters had earlier responded to Oldman’s activism with eviction, now the urban authorities prosecuted him for having the impudence to organise public meetings and imposed fines and costs of £1 16s 9d.
An article in the local paper in September 1885 shows he wasn’t intimidated, 'The Oldham Watch Committee having prohibited public meetings on the old Market Place, various sections of the community are resenting the decision. John Oldman, who, being a Socialist, declines to use the word Sir, Mr or Esquire, has informed the mayor that he will invite the public to meet in thousands and he asked that the police be kept away'!
Besides local activism over the next few years Oldman also contributed articles to Henry Seymour’s 'ANARCHIST' journal which in 1887 observed:
'Our brave and indefatigable comrade Oldman of Oldham is spreading the light of liberty in the north. He has recently engaged in several debates upon anarchism with large and intellectual audiences in Manchester and contributes weekly to the Oldham Chronicle in exposition of anarchist philosophy.'
In 1890 John and his partner Rebecca combined a nostalgic family visit to their old Norfolk stamping ground with an extended propaganda tour. In December Yarmouth SL recorded:
'Comrade John Oldman and his wife have been with us for several weeks doing splendid propaganda for the advancement of Revolutionary Socialism and our local comrades have been considerably enlightened in revolutionary ideas.'
Commonweal detailed their activities, including:
'October 24th comrade John Oldman, Apostle of Anarchy, from Manchester, delivered a stirring address in the morning on Priory plain on The Voting Swindle…in the afternoon on the Fish Wharf comrade Oldman lectured on The Wage Swindle …on November 2nd on Hall Quay comrade Oldman lectured on The Morality of Force.” On Saturday 8th November both Oldmans addressed several Norwich meetings commemorating the judicial murder of five Chicago anarchists. The following day they repeated this in Great Yarmouth, where on 23rd November “a discussion on Anarchy was opened by John Oldman who gave a good explanation.'
Despite the gradual disintegration of the SL, the Oldmans kept the faith. On May Day 1892 John Oldman spoke alongside a host of eminent comrades to a crowd of over a thousand assembled around the Reformer’s Tree in London’s Hyde Park. As The Times reported, 'Behind the speakers were two large banners, one containing the words, "Anarchist Communism and Revolution and Anarchy", and the other, "If the people when oppressed are silent such is stupidity, the forerunner of the downfall of public liberty". Immediately following Louise Michel’s proclamation, 'Vive la Comune', John Oldman (inaccurately reported as “Oldham”) said 'what was wanted was revolution pure and simple (Cheers). The eight hour demonstration that day was simply boy’s play and babyism. They should strike at the root of that pernicious system of capitalism (Hear, hear).'
After that the trail goes cold. Rebecca Oldman passed away in Oldham in 1904, John followed five years later and memory of their lives almost died with them. Can you help? Northern Voices is keen to discover more about Oldham’s first anarchists and the lives of similarly inspiring political pioneers. We’re currently researching the lives of scores more neglected Northern anarchists and we’d love to hear from anyone who shares our enthusiasm.
For Peace, Love and Anarchism