Leedz Anarkyst – Greevz Fysher (1845-1931)
Greevz was one of England’s most original yet least known pioneering anarchists. From the economy to the alphabet, if there was a conventional system, Greevz had an alternative!
A Marriage Made in Heaven – and Leeds
Born John Greeves Fisher in Youghal, Ireland on 9 September 1845, Greevz preferred the phonetic form of his name in line with his scheme for spelling reform. Initially employed as an ironmongers assistant in Dublin, in 1877 Greevz moved to Wetherby, Yorkshire to partner his cousin in his Leeds “Kingfisher” engineering business. After his first wife died, in 1879, Greevz lived with her widowed sister, Charlotte Rowntree. Although both shared a Quaker upbringing Greevz had since progressed through scepticism to full-blown atheism and Charlotte wasn’t amused. In 1884 Daniel Pickard told the Leeds Quaker congregation that, “We much regret to have to inform the Monthly Meeting that John G Fisher has been for some time past an acknowledged disbeliever on the fundamental truths of the Christian religion”. Charlotte moved to America and in September 1887 at Leeds Register Office, Greevz married the love of his life, Marie Clapham.
Klever and Kreativ
Marie shared and encouraged Greevz’ iconoclasm and the joyful inventiveness that had already borne fruit. In 1884 Greevz had marketed, “Fisher’s Nonpareil Perpetual Kalendar” and the following year published, “Spelling Reform in Three Stages”. He then developed an improved device for producing reading material for the blind. Marketed as the “Kingfisher Braille Printer” and adopted by Liverpool blind school it was only a modest success.
By then his cousin had left the engineering business, making Greevz sole proprietor. Greevz re-focussed the business onto developing lubricants for industry. In 1883 he came up with “ACME” a unique, soap-based grease that proved invaluable.
In 1886 Greevz first mounted the pulpit to rail against religion and April found him at Sheffield’s “Hall of Science” delivering a couple of characteristic sermons. In the afternoon he spoke on, “Spiritualism a Delusion” and in the evening, rhetorically reassured listeners, “Has a Dying Atheist Anything to Fear?”
Marie Fisher was a secularist freethinker in her own right and according to her son, ”as a young country girl she used to tramp the 12 miles to attend the meetings of Charles Bradlaugh”. Greevz and Marie first met at one of these secularist meetings and the couple’s selection of names for their 5 children signals their influences and advertises their radicalism;
- Auberon Herbert (1888-1932) – named after the individualist anarchist
- Wordsworth Donisthorpe (1889-1950) – another English anarchist
- Constance Naden (1891-1984) – female poet and philosopher
- Spencer Darwin (1893-1968) – libertarian philosopher and discoverer of evolution
- Hypatia Ingersoll (1899-1977) – philosopher martyred by Church & an American libertarian
Marie didn’t confine her interests to the home and every Wednesday attended educational classes at Leeds’ Mechanics’ Institute. When local magistrates refused to accept affirmation as an alternative to “swearing on the bible”, she doggedly pursued the issue through the press. In 1904 she travelled to the Rome International Freethought Congress as a delegate of the British Secular League and relished the perceived insult to Catholicism in the pages of “The Truthseeker”, “The Pope thinks that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church but he sees rationalism forcibly pronouncing itself within earshot of the Vatican. He admits he is grieved; possibly he trembles.”
Marie was an active member of the local Astronomical, Philosophical, Geological and Yorkshire Naturalists’ Societies and, in 1923 was elected as the first female president of the Leeds Philatelic Society. She was a militant feminist and active suffragette and in 1920 Marie wrote to the press encouraging Leeds ladies to light up in cinemas after seeing notices permitting men to smoke but prohibiting women.
Freethought to FREEDOM
Encouraged by Marie’s own iconoclasm it wasn’t long before Greevz’ Freethought widened out into political activism. In 1888 he supported the local strike of Jewish tailors and at the Clarendon Buildings denounced, “Starvation in the Midst of Plenty”. He also began a six year campaign for election onto local School Boards. Greevz opposed the growing State control of education and was determined to derail the process in Leeds but was never elected.
Even within anarchism, Greevz adopted an advanced position on children. In an article entitled, “Children as Chattels”, he argued against Benjamin Tucker, in Tucker’s journal, “Liberty”, that parents don’t own their children. They certainly owe them a duty of care but children own themselves and should be respected as individuals from the start. Greevz had real insight into libertarian learning and as well as generally campaigning against state control of schools he also specifically opposed the abstract curriculum that came with it. In 1889 he argued in, “The Revolutionary Review”, “Keeping children from manipulating tangible objects and forcing them to occupy themselves almost wholly with symbols is a total reversal of the natural order of intellectual growth.”
Anarchism or Communism
Greevz remained forever sceptical of the millenarial promises of Communists. Although he subscribed to the Anarchist-Communist journal “Freedom” he objected to Kropotkin’s assurances that history was inevitably moving in the direction of communism. History shows Greevz was right to be sceptical. Whilst Kropotkin’s observations on mutual aid were a useful corrective to the excesses of social Darwinism, “Freedom” continued to over-egg the pudding and exaggerate revolutionary prospects. Greevz was one of a small group of English anarchists who fought against State control and argued for voluntary cooperation yet refused to accept that “Anarchist-Communism” could square the circle. He was presciently aware of the group-think dangers inherent in all forms of Communism.
From its 1898 inception, Greevz subscribed to the Egoist journal The EAGLE and the SERPENT (E&S) from and enthusiastically responded to its editor’s appeal for supporters to form affinity groups – “Egoist Coteries”, “Nietzsche Clubs”, “Myself Societies” – by proposing himself as Leeds coordinator of an “Egoist Lending Library”. Once established, E&S advertised this network as “Egoist Universities”, which grew to include Scottish anarchist William Duff as its Glasgow representative. Unfortunately the scheme never operated effectively and after publishing nineteen iconoclastic editions the journal finally ceased publication in 1903.
After anarchism and family-life, Greevz loved cycling. He’d started in Ireland on a boneshaker with wooden wheels and iron tyres but had still managed journeys of over 100 miles. In later life he rode a variety of fairly modern machines and into his eighties he rode almost every day. Greevz’ cycling exploits featured regularly in “The Leeds Mercury” where he revealed his recipe for a long and active life, “I consume a fair amount of home-made lemonade” and “I make my own porridge”.
Greevz was also keen on natural history, a respected member of several local societies, in 1930 he was elected President of the Yorkshire Naturalist’s Union. His non-political lecture repertoire included;
- “Some Curious Habits of the Indian Wasps”
- “The Sinistral Form of Limnaea Peregra”
- “The Structure and Habits of the Crayfish”
In later years Greevz combined an interest in wildlife with a passion for cycling and indulging his eccentricity he was regularly spotted cycling around Leeds with a pet jackdaw perched on his shoulder!
Greevz was a much loved local character but was also a serious, inventive owner of a small, successful business employing around 30 people. As a Proudhonian advocate of small scale enterprise he never contemplated converting “Kingfisher” into a workers’ co-op but according to a former employee writing in the “Yorkshire Post”, “We all had a real affection for him”.
Greevz followed up the great success of his, “Kingfisher Acme Lubricant” with the invention and production of an original,”Screw Plunger Automatic Lubricator” which continues, in modified form, in production today. Interestingly, for many years Greevz employed Leonard Hall, a pioneering Manchester socialist as Kingfisher’s sales agent. Greevz’ monetary theories were then critically examined in one of Hall’s political tracts, “Which Way? Root Remedies & Free Socialism Versus Collectivist Quackery and Glorified Pauperism”.
Whatever folks thought of his politics the business thrived and continues today, still under family ownership. Greevz updated, patent grease fittings, have over the years been installed in vehicles ranging from Volvo cars through the European Airbus to NASA’s space shuttle transporter.
Catalogue of Surgical Specialities
Greevz was a keen analyst of the role money and markets play in capitalist society but in contrast to the Anarchist-Communists he wasn’t satisfied that problems of distribution and exchange would evaporate if capitalism were destroyed. The debates appear abstract and protracted but the problem is real enough.
Greevz and Marie also enthusiastically attacked traditional constraints on sexual relations and reproduction. They didn’t merely campaign for women’s right to limit family size but bravely also advertised and supplied contraceptives in an age that was outraged. In the 1890’s they freely supplied interested parties with their, “Malthusian Catalogue of Domestic & Surgical Specialities”. Greeves also campaigned against the labelling of children as “Bastards” and organised for the repeal of oppressive legislation as President of the “Legitimation League”.
Unlike Kropotkin, Greevz didn’t promise heaven on earth. Although he disagreed with Benjamin Tucker on some of the finer points they shared the same basic practical anarchist approach; “There are some troubles from which mankind can never escape…They (the anarchists) have never claimed that liberty will bring perfection; they simply say that its results are vastly preferable to those that follow from authority…As a choice of blessings, liberty is the greater; as a choice of evils, liberty is the smaller. Then liberty always says the Anarchist. No use of force except against the invader…”
In the 1880’s Greevz campaigned against granting the Post Office a monopoly over telegram delivery. In the 1890’s he argued against doctors claiming immunity from public scrutiny as he rejected all forms of professional cartel, “Classes based upon special privileges are a danger to the public liberty”.
Throughout his long life Greevz continued to resist authority and speak up for the dispossessed. Through the pages of “Liberty” he continued to argue for the liberation of Ireland but unlike the Fenians he didn’t want an Independent Irish State, he proposed “No Government for Ireland!” Aged 83, he wrote to the “Yorkshire Post” criticising the local authority who’d demolished the homes of the Beeston Community of Tolstoyan anarchists because they refused to fully comply with the Council’s petty demands.
Ashes to Ashes
Celebrating Greevz long involvement in civic life, in September 1925 the “Yorkshire Post” observed, “Mr Greevz Fisher, head of the firm of Kingfisher (Ltd) lubricators and oil merchants, Sackville Street, Leeds, yesterday attained his 80th birthday and in celebration of this and his 50 years in business in the city his employees presented him with a barometer and case. Only last year Mr Fisher rode a push bike from Liverpool to Leeds.”
When Greevz died in May 1931 his cremation ceremony was marked by the “Yorkshire Post”, which also detailed the numerous organisations that attended. Marie took over the business which on her death in 1950 was in turn run by her surviving children.
Greevz left a published legacy of over a hundred pamphlets, articles and letters that remain uncollected and, nowadays, largely unread. Whilst no single piece may be revelatory, taken together his life and work evidences and illustrates a vital thread of practical, home grown English anarchism that can still amuse and inspire.
Christopher Draper – April 2021