13 June 2012

Johanna Lahr (1867-1904)

Very few women members of the Socialist League have been identified, and these few are mostly middle-class. It has been exciting to learn from the researches of German labor historians Gerd Callesen and Heiner Becker of a Socialist League member who was the wife of a journeyman baker as well as fervid union organizer. Born Annie Klebow in Germany in 1867, she emigrated to England around 1885-87. There she married her common-law partner in 1895 and gave birth to sons in 1899 and 1903, dying in childbirth in 1904 at the age of 37.

Lahr was a member of the Bloomsbury branch of the League and active speaker between 1888 and 1890, when she would have been 21-22 years of age. Commonweal records that she delivered 13 speeches during March 1888 alone! During this period she corresponded with Friedrich Engels, asking for his advice in understanding Marx’s theories. She would probably have known Morris briefly before he left the Socialist League in 1889; like Morris she was an anti-parliamentarian, but most likely a member of the League’s anarchist wing.

There were about 2000 German bakers in England and Wales in the period 1880-1910, and they formed a familiar presence in London’s east end, as memorialized in Israel Zangwill’s account of east London Jewish life in Children of the Ghetto (1892) and in exhibits at the present-day London Jewish Museum. Lahr’s 1889 leaflet, “The Poorest of the Wage Slaves,” is a rare extant instance of a polemical essay by an impoverished working class woman of the period. It describes with indignation the conditions of labor experienced by those in her husband’s occupation, and urges all journeyman bakers to unionize in order to gain better conditions.

Because Lahr’s leaflet may be difficult to read, a few passages are excerpted here:

The journeymen bakers must admit that they are, in comparison with any other skilled workers, the poorest, the most sweated, wretched slaves; that their present condition is a most deplorable one, and a disgrace to civilisation. The extraordinary long hours, varying from 14 to 16 hours a day, for the first five days of the week, 22 hours on Saturday, and Sunday work as well, makes up an average of from 90 to 120 hours each week; and in most cases the poor wretches have to work in filthy, unhealthy bakehouses not fit for a dog, let alone a human being. These wage-slaves are injured in health, and are broken men before they enter into full manhood; their lives cut short, and an early grave their reward. Now, lads, the time has arrived when you should bind yourselves together under the Banner of Unity, and strike the blow. God knows, your demands are too moderate; but as the saying goes, with eating commences a craving for more. . . .

Men and women, you are the producers of all wealth; therefore courage, brothers and sisters! Come and join hands with your fellows, no matter what creed or nationality they belong to, and we will win the battle.

Have no trust in your Houses of Parliament. The sooner they are turned into a washhouses or bakehouses the better for the workers. I am with you heart and spirit, and will never tire of helping you to a brighter future, where freedom, love, and harmony shall reign; where the dawn of the morning shall be greeted with gladness, and work be only a pleasure; and where the burden of life and sorrow-stricken faces shall disappear like a snow-white mist in the morning. 
Henry Detloff, Printer. 18 Sun Street, Finsbury, London. E.C.

In November 1890 a widespread strike for bakers’ union rights was conducted in London, and Johanna Lahr’s flyer might well have been distributed during this strike. The bakers won the conflict, in part because of the support of London Trade Union Council and trade unionist leader John Burns, who addressed assemblies of the bakers. One can only regret that this firm-minded and courageous woman died at 37, perhaps a victim of the difficult conditions under which women gave birth.

We owe thanks to Gerd Callesen for sending us this information, and to Ms. Sheila Lahr for this image of her ancestor’s pamphlet. A longer article on Lahr will appear in the July 2012 Newsletter of the William Morris Society in the United States. Mr. Callesen is eager to learn more about Lahr, and may be reached at gerd.callesen@chello.at. 

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

Excellent post! It looks as though Ms Lahr and her fellow-bakers are active in the revolutionary struggles of 'News from Nowhere', since in chapter XVII the Committee of Public Safety "in the part of the town where they were strongest ... took possession of several bakers' shops and set men at work in them for the benefit of the people".