Foundation Footnote: John De Morgan

John De MorganJohn De Morgan


UPDATE: Since originally posting this six years ago, I have continued to discover much more about De Morgan, most notably through the continuing digitization of sources, particularly newspapers; the discovery in California of an extensive collection of letters written to him (now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford); a collection of political cartoons in Leeds Public Library; and further genealogical data. The most difficult part of De Morgan’s life to reclaim has been the first 20 years about which almost nothing was known. We have now discovered that this ‘Irish agitator’ was actually born in Lincolnshire in England and he moved around England throughout his childhood with his father – a railway works inspector – from one building project to another. He always claimed to have been a ‘boy orator’ and we have found him lecturing on Temperance at the age of 11. So there is enough now to consider a book based on his life, provisionally entitled ‘Agitation and Indignation: The radical life of Citizen John De Morgan in London and New York in the later 19th century’. I’m particularly grateful to Ian Bromfield, Dick Mather and AnthonyRamm for their investigative skills. The biographical sketch I promised in the original post was published in Historical Research in November 2013

Over twenty years ago, living in South East London, I was asked by some colleagues who were studying recent race riots to check whether there was any history of riots in that area. I went down to the local history museum and found an old fading photograph.

The Plumstead Common Riots 1876

Dated 1876, it shows some artfully posed rioters digging up fences used to enclose Plumstead Common, then a developing town on the edge of London. I was told that the riot’s leader was John De Morgan. Over the last twenty years I have been tracking down the life of De Morgan, of whom it was said by a local journalist that he ‘passed meteor like through our atmosphere but he was undoubtedly a remarkable man’. Historians have variously described him as a ‘swashbuckling demagogue’; a ‘democrat-messiah’; an adventurer’; even as a Victorian ‘eco-warrior’.

It was possible to find out something about him in the 1870s, mostly in brief paragraphs and short footnotes, but his personal history was difficult to unravel, particularly after he went to the US in 1880. Fascination, stubbornness and the internet mean that I have been able to bring him out of the footnotes, at least for his adult life, and I am now working on an extended biographical sketch.

Born in 1848 in Ireland (as John Francis Morgan) he claimed to have been involved in radical activities from the age of 10, and to have studied at Cambridge. Returning to Ireland as John De Morgan, he became an elocution teacher and lecturer but in 1872, as Citizen De Morgan, he established the Cork branch of Marx’s International Working Men’s Association. However, after a full-scale riot at a meeting, he was sacked from his job. He fled to England to take up the life of a professional agitator, helping to establish the short-lived National Republican Brotherhood.

In 1875 he entered the two radical movements that were to make his national reputation as an agitator. One was the cause of the Tichborne Claimant, but he first came to fame when he led major demonstrations against the selling of urban common lands to building speculators. He established the Commons Protection League and was involved with over a dozen campaigns around England two of which – Plumstead and Selston Commons – lead to him being jailed. He also established the Tichborne Propaganda Release Union and organized a notorious but unsuccessful march on the House of Commons on behalf of the Claimant.

During this period he attended hundreds of meetings, often before very large crowds, and gained a reputation as a powerful orator if a somewhat shady character. He tried to support himself by journalism – for example as editor of the splendidly titled People’s Advocate and National Vindicator of Right vs Wrong – but had to resort to teaching and selling, at one stage even becoming the agent for Rippingille’s Patent Liquid Fuel.

Eventually, he moved away from London, being elected to the Leeds School Board in 1879. An inveterate establisher of political organizations, he attempted to set up a national ‘people’s party’ under the banner of the People’s Political Union. Always interested in the possibility of standing for Parliament, he attempted unsuccessfully to become a candidate alongside Gladstone in Leeds. However, he appears to have been overwhelmed by the difficulties of the professional agitator’s life and suddenly – tired, broke, and despondent – he emigrated to the United States in 1880. He left behind his wife and children; the Mrs De Morgan he travelled with (actually Mary Schofield) was to live with him for the rest of his life.

In New York he resumed his life as a radical. He was appointed as Editor of House and Home, a weekly radical journal. He was part of the emerging populist movement, and was involved in an early, anti-monopolist People’s Party. The paper and the party folded in 1884 and, for a while, De Morgan disappeared from the public eye. In 1887, however, he relaunched himself as a writer of dime novels, originally producing Rider Haggard parodies. He became a hugely prolific writer in such popular series as Golden Hours, Brave and Bold, and Boys of Liberty. The stories were mostly for the adolescent market, varying from pseudo science fiction, to colonial and American revolutionary war stories, through to straight adventure tales. It has been claimed that he was an influence on the development by Edgar Rice Burroughs of the character of Tarzan.

Brave & Bold Weekly

He retained some political interests, generally on the fringes of the Democratic party. He twice stood unsuccessfully for political office under the ticket of the land tax reformer, Henry George. He lived all his US life on Staten Island where he fought for a free ferry, a World Fair, and the independence of the island from New York. Always suspicious of mainstream political parties, he retained some independence and was much attracted to the fusion politics of the late 1890s. In pursuit of this he campaigned for the New York Citizen’s Union. In 1901 he was appointed as a Deputy Tax Receiver, a reward for his political service.

De Morgan now moved away from his dime novel career, though his stories continued to be published for many years, and have recently been revived. He undertook occasional writing and journalism, but seems to have moved out of politics. He died on May 1st 1926, leaving one daughter by his US relationship.

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13 Responses to Foundation Footnote: John De Morgan

  1. Pingback: A party of women, armed with saws and hatchets | eshootershill

  2. Katy Andrews says:

    Less well known is that de Morgan’s outfit were very important in the great Lammas Day riot of 1892 on Leyton Marshes, which led to the formation of the Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee and which the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee (based at the Hornbeam Environmental Centre in Leyton Green, E17) will be commemorating with an annual walk (sadly no community picnic this year) tomorrow, Sunday 31st July.
    If anyone would like to join us, we are meeting by the massive plane tree outside the ‘Antelope’ PH on Church Lane, Leyton E10 (opposite Marsh Lane) at 2.15 tomorrow afternoon for a 2.30 KO. The pub does the best Guinness in Leyton (don’t tell the ‘Bootlaces’!) but doesn’t serve Sunday lunches, so please make arrangements to eat and bring something to drink as the weather forecast is for hot, dry, sunny weather (Old Irish proverb: “So long as Lammas Day be kept, there shall be corn and milk in every house and fine weather for the feast!).
    I am very keen to get in touch with the owner of this blog and also anyone else researching or with information about John de Morgan and find out what gen they have on him and in particular the Commons Defence League. Is there an archive anywhere (Marx library at Clerkenwell?)?
    I live in Walthamstow, birthplace of William Morris, and it may be noteworthy that the William Morris Museum (at Water House, Lloyd Park, Forest Road E17) houses a bequest of artworks by a ceramicist friend of Morris’s also called de Morgan – any relation?
    It is probably noteworthy that William Morris was very active in the setting up of SPAB (“anti-scrape,” which still exists) and also the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society, based in Henley on Thames), whilst John de Morgan was a fine rabble-rousing orator.
    He often spoke in public at Clerkenwell Green and was the instigator (in nearby Hackney, from which about 2,000 of the estimated 3,000 rioters on Lammas Day 1892 came) of the Commons Defence League, which took a much more robust view of public response to enclosures of common land and lands with commonable rights (such as Lammas half-year grazing) whether exercised or not. The CPS was appealed to later with no response apparently, which suggests to me some rivalry. (I have photocopies of the LLLDC’s Minutes from 1892 to 1926.)
    As a former history student at the University of Ulster, I would also be interested in furtehr information on de Morgan’s influences – if any – from the various Land Leagues and Whiteboy movements of contemporary and slightly earlier pre-famine Ireland.
    Sorry this has been rather a long comment, but I hope it may elicit a response, and particularly some personal contact with the author of the excellent footnote that I googled at the suggestion of a friend from the Revolutionary History magazine’s editorial board.
    Katy Andrews (Co-Chair, New Lammas Lands Defence Committee –

  3. I was doing some research at the new Kent County archive in Maidstone today and came across a placard advertising the demonstration on Plumstead common. Have you come across a copy of the placard?

    I will take a picture and can email it to you


  4. M.K. Yost says:

    Interesting to know. This is probably the most extensive record of De Morgan I’ve been able to find. He’s part of my research on hollow earth literature (for writing ‘Under the World’) and it’s funny than he knew Henry George, because someone else, S. Byron Welcome, was also an associate of George’s and also wrote a hollow earth novel. Something about Henry George must have brought out hollow earth fantasies in his associates. Thanks for the information!

    • Rob Allen says:


      Thanks for the comment. I’m always interested to hear about De Morgan’s non-political life as a dime novel writer. If you haven’t seen it, I have published an extended biographical sketch of De Morgan in Historical Research last year. See:

      I would be interested to hear more about your research as it moves along. I am working on a book based around De Morgan’s life entitled: Agitation and Indignation – Radical Life in London and New York in the late 19th century, so am always interested to hear more about his life..

      Henry George was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1880s and his belief that the most important political issue was the ownership of land drew in support from across the political and class spectrum.

      I have been collecting a huge amount of data on De Morgan over the last decade (including his life as a writer and journalist), so if you have any inquiries, don’t hesitate to ask.

      Good luck with your thesis.


      • Richard Mather says:

        My family has had in our possession what appear to be a collection of letters to and from John De Morgan with dates between 1870 and 1920 roughly. The letters have been in my possession for over 60 years (I am nearing 70) and before that, my mother and then previous to that, my grandparents. I do not know exactly how we came in possession of these letters but I vaguely remember my mom saying that he was a friend or friend of a friend of the family. The letters were kept in a book binder titled “Newspaper Cuttings”. Unfortunately, the binding has long ago deteriorated and the pages are mostly loose. Some of the letters were pasted to blank pages but most are loose in the binder. My guess is that there are upwards of 100 to 200 items here but won’t know until I get deeper into the project. Most of the letters are from notables of the time (William F. Cody , G. Garibaldi, Grover Cleveland, Samuel Gompers, etc.) and I am in the process of scanning the letters to allow some experts to view the electronic files and determine their historical value. One of the notices he kept is a summons for Mr. De Morgan and John Storksof (penmanship difficult to read) dated May 26, 1877 for damages (10 shillings) they are alleged to have caused at Plumstead Parish.

        I scanned three items and took pictures of the binding and pictures of some of the letters (intended as a teaser) but I am not seeing a place to attach files in this blog. For years I have intended to scan the documents but haven’t previously taken the time. Now in retirement, I seem to have less and less time but will make the effort if this is appeals to you. Please reply if you have any interest in the preliminary scans or let me know someone else that might be interested in reviewing some of this collection.

  5. I quite like looking through a post that can make people think.
    Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!

  6. Reblogged this on Jean Reinhardt and commented:
    For all you science fiction lovers, have a look at one man who wrote some pseudo sci-fi in the Victorian age.

  7. I came across De Morgan when doing some research on the Stockton riots of 1872. He stood in for a speaker who didn’t show up. I love discovering characters like him, who had an innate desire to change society for the better. It would be so good to time travel and listen to one of his speeches, or better still, to transport him to our time and listen to his impressions of our era.

  8. Pingback: Thank Plumstead | Deserter

  9. Pingback: 19th-Century Political Cartoons: Explorations in the Collection of the Leeds Library Service | The Secret Library

  10. Pingback: Peterloo and After: 19th-century Radicalism in Leeds – The Secret Library | Leeds Libraries Heritage Blog

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