Louise Michel (1830-1905)

By Sharon O’Connor

‘London! I love London, where my exiled friends have always been welcomed, London, where old England, standing in the shadow of the gallows, is still more liberal than the French bourgeois republicans’

Known as ‘the French grande dame of anarchy’, the ‘red virgin’ and ‘the good woman’, Louise Michel was a Paris Communard, a lifelong revolutionary socialist, a teacher and a voluntary exile from France to East Dulwich, where she entertained anarchists and journalists from around the world, always with her many pets in attendance. She spoke of East Dulwich as ‘the place I loved most in England’.

Louise Michel was born in May 1830 at the Château de Vroncourt in Northeast France, the illegitimate daughter of a serving-maid, Marianne Michel, and the son of the house, Laurent Demahis. She was brought up by her paternal grandparents who gave her a good education but she was always treated as a slightly detached member of the family. She trained as a primary school teacher but could not teach as she would not pledge allegiance to Napoleon III; instead she opened her own school. She had an affinity with revolution from a young age, saying, ‘The task of teachers, those obscure soldiers of civilization, is to give to the people the intellectual means to revolt’.

She moved to Paris, began publishing poetry and started a correspondence with Victor Hugo. Her revolutionary activities increased and in 1871 she played a key role in the Paris Commune, fighting on the barricades, driving an ambulance and participating in armed violence. Michel said, ‘I descended the Butte, my rifle under my coat, shouting Treason!’. Charged with attempting to overthrow the government, at her trial she dared the judges to execute her, saying ‘Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance and l shall avenge my brothers. If you are not cowards, kill me!’. The authorities declined and while some 20,000 Communards were executed, Michel was among the 10,000 who were deported, in her case to New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean. She served seven years and 7,000 Parisians turned out to welcome her home. 

In 1890 she was arrested again and after an attempt to commit her to a mental asylum she moved to London with her friend Charlotte Vauvelle, and there she pretty much remained until an ill-fated trip to Algiers just before her death in 1905. She continued to give speeches and conduct revolutionary activity in London, France and across Europe, attending anarchist meetings, leading demonstrations and speaking to huge crowds. She was friends with the Pankhurst family and made a particular impression on a young Sylvia Pankhurst. 

At first Michel lived in ‘Petite France’, just north of Soho and the traditional quarter of French political refugees but in 1893 she moved to 15 Ardsley Terrace, Placquett Rd, now Copleston Road East Dulwich. Her house was at the Grove Vale end, though it no longer exists. The houses cost £50 pa to rent, contained six rooms, a washhouse, and gardens front and back. The residents at the time were ‘comfortably off with good average earnings’ and were mostly clerks. Michel was said to be on the brink of poverty most of the time but while about half the houses in the road were in multiple occupation, she was able to rent the whole house. Placquett Road was probably fairly cheap at the time because it backed on to Camberwell council’s depot; the depot particularly impacted nos 11 and 13 - the Council bought both houses themselves. A journalist describes visiting her ‘small house near the station’ where the parlour had a piano, a few chairs, some photographs and a table on which stood several volumes by ‘prominent Anarchists’.

Michel quickly became a central figure in London’s international anarchist circles. Her time was spent in writing and protest and her speeches and articles were reprinted across the world. She also wrote her memoirs and a history of the Paris Commune while she lived here. She started the International Anarchist School in Fitzroy Square employing both exiled anarchists and pioneering educationalists as teachers, but the school closed when explosives were found in the basement. There is no evidence they were placed there by Michel and they may have been planted by an employee, Auguste Coulon, who was suspected of being a police spy. Louise was upset and felt herself surrounded by enemies: ‘I went back to East Dulwich in a most troubled frame of mind’.

She joined the Peckham International Anarchist Group, marched in the London May Day parades, spoke at revolutionary meetings and may have spoken at the Peckham and Dulwich Radical Club on Rye Lane. She often contrasted Britain’s liberal atmosphere with France’s repressive stance saying, ‘in England the destitute can assemble and say openly what they think; or at least they can tell one another about their miseries unreservedly’. She also remarked that ‘the working classes find in England, under a monarchist regime, far more freedom than in Republican France’. Her contemporary, Annie Besant, who lived in Colby Road, moved in the same circles and spoke at many of the same meetings. 

Edith Thomas, Michel’s biographer, mentions that Michel was visited in East Dulwich by journalists who found Michel, now in her sixties, surrounded by cats, dogs and a parrot called Coco that used to cry ‘Vive l’anarchie!'. In December 1893 a New York Times journalist interviewed 'the notorious woman Anarchist, who occupies a little house at East Dulwich, a suburb of London'. In 1895 the papers reported that she was hard at work on a novel in her ‘quiet house in Dulwich’ and also preparing a lecture tour of America. 

Michel lived at Placquett Road until she moved to 25 Chesterfield Grove in 1899 where her neighbours were typically grocers, bakers, tobacconists and drapers, though unlike Placquett Rd the houses were mostly in single family occupation. By 1900 she was boarding at 8 Albion Villas Road in Sydenham and appears in the 1901 Census there as an ‘authoress’. She was living there with her long-time friend and nurse Charlotte Vauvelle, Charlotte’s father, Auguste, and Charlotte’s brother, Achille, a lithographic printer. Again, their neighbours were typically shopkeepers and clerks. By 1903 she was living in Dahomey St (now Rd) in Streatham. 

In 1904 Michel visited Algeria to advocate for an uprising against the French government. While there she became ill, returned to France and died in Marseilles the following year. Her funeral in Paris was attended by more than 100,000 people and memorial services were held all over France and in London. She is commemorated in the names of French streets, schools and parks and in the Louise Michel Sports Club in London, a radical sports club for people involved in the workers’ movement. The London-based Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir sing ‘Danse de Bombe’, which Michel composed at the time of the Paris Commune. 

We are grateful to Helen Hughes who heard the song and brought Michel to our attention, and to Duncan Bowie for sharing the chapter on Michel from his new book ‘Two Hundred Years of Dulwich Radicalism’.