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.
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.
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.