For Sheila Rowbotham history is both personal and political. In her latest book, Rebel Crossings, she links the lives of the six main characters – and their quest for a better world – with her own history of political activism across five decades. In the introduction Sheila explains that for her, as a socialist feminist historian, “a continuing preoccupation has been how to comprehend the elusive interaction of inner feelings and the external expression of resistance.” Unlike many historians who live in an academic world, speak only to other academics and spend their time promoting each other’s books, Sheila produces books that are relevant to the lives we are leading in 2016, and are written in an engaging and accessible way.
Sheila is like the Miss Marple of the history world: I love her comment, “Being a nosy person, committed to digging about in bits of the past buried in layers of obscurity, on I went.” And the story of how she went about her research for Rebel Crossings is as fascinating as the history she has uncovered.
Rebel Crossings started for Sheila way back in the 1970s when she came across a book in the British Library “Whitman’s Ideal Democracy and other writings by Helena Born with a biography by The Editor, Helen Tufts”. But it was only in 2008 that Sheila began following the trail of not just Helena and Helen but four other characters in this story of people trying not only to change society, but themselves as well.
Like Sheila I am fascinated as to how and why individuals become political activists, and this is a thread running through the book. Helena Born, who is one of the gang of six moved to Bristol in 1876 with her family, which was a catalyst for change in her life. Lucky for Sheila, Helena kept a scrapbook in which she charted how she went from being a devout young woman to a supporter of radical local and international campaigns through organisations such as the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association. It was through the BWLA that Helena met her lifetime friend Miriam Daniell, a friendship that catapulted her physically and emotionally into a new way of living – and a journey across the world.
Miriam’s story then leads us to the next protagonist, Robert Allan Nicol, a Scottish man, who was living in a country which was alive with rebellious movements from nationalism to campaigns around birth control. He followed Miriam to Bristol and became secretary of the militant Gas Workers and General Labourers Union.
Unlike Helena, Miriam and Robert, William Bailie came from a Belfast working class background who pursued his dreams of revolution onto the streets of Manchester whilst linking up with anarchists and secularists. An early marriage at 18 meant that he had a wife and children to support whilst trying to educate himself. But it was when he exchanged Manchester for Boston in the USA that William managed to break free from the basket trade and went to work for a radical newspaper, meeting people who would open up his life to new and fulfilling relationships.
Boston in the late 1890s becomes the axis for William, Helena and Helen Tufts to meet up and cement life long relationships. Helen Tufts was the only American amongst the rebels, and the only one that came from a revolutionary background. She started writing a journal when she was twelve, which Sheila was able to access, commenting that; “the journal chronicles her metamorphosis from a Massachusetts Unitarian girlhood into a Boston new woman.”
Gertrude Dix came from Bristol and a conservative High Anglican family, but she moved to London and became part of its literary scene which was more broadminded in those days including socialists in groups as such as the Independent Labour Party through to anarchists. Her dreams of a freer life led her in 1902 to abandon this bohemian lifestyle and join Robert in an old mining town in California.
All of the six were living at a momentous time with not just a progressive political culture but one that included cultural icons as diverse as socialist and free thinker Edward Carpenter, American poet Walt Whitman, William Blake’s poetry and the progressive plays of Ibsen. They lived in a time of great inequality and injustice but this led to the birth and growth of ideologies such as anarchism and socialism, vibrant political movements that challenged the staus quo.
Weaving through the book is not just the politics of the six but their drive for personal self fulfilment. Today it is hard to imagine how constricting life was for women, even ones with education and self-confidence, in this period. But as we get to know Helena, Helen, Miriam and Gertrude we see and feel their pain, joy, anger and disappointment in striving for a sense of self, as well as a better society to live in.
Sheila first discovered the six rebels when she was involved in radical politics believing, as you do, that society was going to be turned upside down. And for her, like many activists, our dreams have not been realised: she comments; “Like many in my generation, I accept this reality rationally, but emotionally find it ineffably baffling.” In 2016 we need stories of hope and Rebel Crossings for me is inspiring and prescient. Can these stories get beyond the usual exclusive academic world? Will both new and experienced activists get to meet the six rebels and so be inspired to start and keep fighting inequality and injustice? The book costs £25 so maybe you can borrow it from the local library or if you can afford it (maybe together with some mates) buy it from