Monday, January 09, 2012

The Malatesta Club in Soho

1950s Soho clubs are one of the enduring obsessions of this site, but I didn't realise until recently that there was a specifically anarchist club there during that period - the Malatesta Club in Soho, named after the famous Italian revolutionary.

The club seems to have first opened on May Day 1954 and 'was run by the London Anarchist Group from 1954-8, seven nights a week. Habitues used to write songs and poetry and perform them at the club, which also had a resident jazz band' (Ian Walker, Anarchy in the UK, New Society, November 1979). Walker's article includes reminiscences of 'Justin', a veteran anarchist, who recalled  '"I used to make up songs - sort of sing and shout, to a drum. Couldn't play anything used to hammer away on the drum . . . it was really something, all run completely voluntarily". The anarchists' coffee house (it never had a licence) was called the Malatesta because he was the only anarchist writer the group could agree on. 'Some were Kropotkinists and some were Bakuninists, but we all agreed Malatesta was a good guy.'"

According to The University Libertarian (1955), 'Founded two years ago with much honest sweat, the Malatesta Club provides a meeting place and social centre' (University Libertarian 1955).

Among the founders was Philip Sansom (1916-1999), one of those put on trial in 1945 for their involvement in the anarchist paper War Commentary. and Donald Rouum, a prolific cartoonist for the journal Freedom for many years.

Philip Sansom in 1945

Donald Rouum in a 1952 portrait by Frank Lisle 
on display in Wakefield Art Gallery

Among those who went to the Malatesta Club at various times were the later socialist feminist writer Juliet Mitchell, author Colin McInnes; gay Labour MP and possible spy Tom Driberg  and libertarian architect and writer Colin Ward. The club was clearly a key portal into the anarchist movement for the curious and the committed. John Rety, who went on to edit Freedom in the 1960s, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who started out on the Soho literary scene publishing magazines such as Fortnightly  and the Intimate Review. His collaborator John Pilgrim went to the Malatesta Club to do a report for the Review and both he and Rety were drawn into the movement.

In his book The Consul (2002), the sometime English situationist Ralph Rumney mentions that  ‘in Soho, I found the Malatesta Club, the final redoubt of old English anarchists’, and the writer Michael Moorcock has said that ‘Listening to old guys at the Malatesta Club talking about the Spanish Civil War’ was one of the influences on his anarchism ('Mythmakers and Lawbreakers – anarchist writers on fiction', AK Press 2009). It is mentioned in passing in his London novel King of the City  where a character says  'my grandad used to complain that the anarchists (he never missed a meeting at the Malatesta Club, Red Lion Square ) had been sold out to the communists who had lost the Spanish Civil War'. Moorcock and Rumney also both hung out at the Gyre and Gimble coffee house, though not sure if they knew each other.

I'm still a little unclear about where the club was. In some references, it appears it may have started out in Holborn before moving to Soho (maybe that's why Moorcock mentions Red Lion Square). In 'Inventing ourselves: lesbian life stories' by Hall Carpenter Archives (1991), Sharley MacLean recalls her first lesbian sexual experience was with someone she 'met through the Malatesta Club which was an anarchist cafe, a dingy cellar in Charlotte Street'. But Colin Ward  recalls that it was in Percy Street, which runs off Charlotte Street, so maybe it was near the corner.

As an interesting aside, the Club may have had a role in UFO history. As reported in Fortean Times (January 2011): 'In Flying Saucerers (Alternative Albion, 2007, p74), David Clarke and Andy Roberts relay a quaint eyewitness account from historian Laurens Otter. In early 1954, a drunken taxi driver entered a meeting at the anarchist Malatesta Club in Soho, and asked for Sam Cash, a fellow cabbie. Learning that Cash was expected later, “…the tired and emotional taxi driver lay down across some chairs and promptly fell asleep.” At the end of the guest speaker’s talk, the chairman asked if there were any questions. Whereupon "the taxi driver suddenly woke, asking, ‘How do I make a mill­ion pounds?’. Robinson [the chairman] took the question in good humour and speculated the best way to make a fortune was to found a fake religion. A discussion about how best to do this ensued with Otter opining that a much better idea would be to get in on the flying saucer craze. Robinson concurred, suggesting that the two ideas could be combined for best effect. […] A few years later, Cash told Otter that the drunken taxi driver, whose name was George King, had taken his advice about melding religion with flying saucers, and it had worked. The rest, as they say, is history".

George King founded the Aetherius Society, claiming to have been contacted by the 'Space People' with the message 'Prepare Yourself! You are to become the Voice of Interplanetary Parliament'.

(well that's all I've been able to find out so far - would love to know more, including - what was the exact address? what kind of activities happened there? I've seen mention of chess, meetings and jazz- was there dancing? If you have any more information, or even personal recollections, please comment).


Anton said...

Hi man, hope you're well. Great blog! I've been a bit cheeky and put your brilliant series of the '81 riots in the library without your permission. I hope that was ok? If not, I can always remove it!!


Anonymous said...

Among other founders of the Club were Max Patrick and Frank Hirschfield ( Frank was a speaker in Hyde Park and a wrestler among other things) and Rita Milton, who also spoke for anarchism in Hyde Park. She died recently on 17th December 2011 and her obituary is in the latest issue of Freedom. Her obit by Donald rouum mentions that "it was there that she met Hew Warburg," which led on to her eventual and amicable break-up with her then current partner Ohilip Sansom. The old enamel coffee pot passed on via another anarchist Alan Albon to the Australian anarchist Ted Kavanagh ( who had run Wooden Shoe Bookshop in London and was then in Brighton). It was there I saw it regularly, being used by Ted to water his houseplants.
The Club was originally in Holborn, and then it moved to Percy Street, by Tottenham Court Road
Nick Heath

Nick Heath said...

Other founders of the Club were Max Patrick, Frank Hirshfield and Rita Milton. Both Frank and Rita spoke regularly for anarchism at Hyde Park. Rita who died recently on December 17th 2011 met her future partner, the Hew warburg at the club . There was a civilised and amicable split from her current partner Philip Sansom as a result. The Malatesta Club enamel coffee pot ended up being passed on by Alan Albon, another anarchist and Club member, to the Australian anarchist Ted Kavanagh, who had run the Wooden Shoe bookshop in London. I regularly saw it on visits to Ted's flat in Brighton, where he used it to water his house plants!
Nick Heath

Nick Heath said...

Re the enigma of the location of the Malatesta Club it was first located in Holborn and THEN moved to Percy Street
Nick Heath

History is Made at Night said...

Thanks Nick, I suspect the actual address will be in some old issue of Freedom somewhere, need to know so we can put a red and black plaque!

Nick Heath said...

The first Malatesta Club was at 155 High Holborn, moving to 32 Percy Street where it re-opened

prof alan truelove said...

I was a frequent visitor to Malatesta in Percy St, w. my friend Alf Stein (Toronto IT type, died recently) 1956-Apr 58 (when I left for Canada). Rita Milton came up and gave a talk at Cambridge (prob the 'Heretics' club) where she referred to the students as 'furtive fornicators'.
One regular was a crippled guy in a wheelchair; I gave a party at my Muswell Hill digs attended by somemof the regulars...

. said...

Thanks Nick and Alan, some interesting detail.

Imposs1904 said...

Sam Cash?

That'll be this Sam Cash. (Scroll down to the first pic in the piece.)

Anonymous said...

Rita Milton is on Wikipedia; Maybe there are some photos that could be posted....couldn't find the Obit in FREEDOM Feb 2012 archive, but found the 2 newspaper obits (Independent, etc). That is v sad about the end of her life. She made a big impression on Camb. undergraduates in 1956, needless to say.

Nick heath said...

A history of the Malatesta Club complete with photos will soon be appearing on

Nick Heath said...

My article on the Malatesta Club should be up on libcom tomorrow (6/01/14) with photos of the Club and its members

Unknown said...

I Googled my grandfather's name, Philip Sansom and came across this picture and blog. My grandmother and mother were both from England. My grandmother told me about a meeting she had with Philip in a park one night, handing off a newspaper (?) to her before he was arrested.
I will read this to her and see if she has any more input.

. said...

Hi Julie, there's an obituary for Philip Sansom here: