Mahon was a socialist who visited Aberdeen in autumn 1887 and started a series of open air meetings. He was arrested the following day for daring to speak on a Sunday. He was acquitted and the resulting publicity helped in the setting up of the Aberdeen Socialist Society, a branch of the Scottish Land and Labour League. This had been founded by the Austrian socialist Andreas Scheu with Mahon in 1884. At first it was affiliated to Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation but, under the influence of Scheu, sided with the Socialist League when it broke away as a result of the autocratic behaviour of Hyndman.
James Leatham (1865-1945), a local compositor, had invited Mahon to Aberdeen. He himself had been introduced to socialism by Alexander Webster, a Unitarian Minister in Aberdeen. Leatham was responsible for setting up the first openly socialist newspaper, the short-lived Workers’ Herald in December 1891. Leatham was very much on the social democratic wing of the movement, but there were others who joined the Society who took a more radical and anti-parliamentarian line. One of those who took this road and who joined the Socialist Society around this time was Henry Hill Duncan, the son of the Radical shoemaker Alexander ‘Sandy’ Duncan, and a shoemaker himself. Sandy Duncan had acquired some local fame for his systematic heckling of political and municipal meetings. Henry was born around 1862 and is referred to in accounts of the period as either H.H., Henry or Harry Duncan. Like Leatham, Duncan was first introduced to the socialist movement by Webster, having for a while been a leading member of the Unitarian congregation. Duncan served as delegate of the Boot and Shoemakers’ Union on the Trades Council.
1888: William Morris visited Aberdeen in 1888, speaking to an audience of around 200 in the small hall of St. Katherine’s and presided over by Webster. Morris described his audience as “lukewarm” and felt that the development of socialism in Aberdeen was “held down by local Radicalism”.
August 1889 : Aberdeen Trades Council was the first such body to declare for a legislative eight hour day in August 1889
May 17th 1890: the following year spoke on the eight hour day at the biggest such rally in the UK outside of London on May 17th, with 10,000 attending. The debate about how to win the eight hours continued with Duncan arguing his corner against W. Cooper who supported legislative action at an indoor meeting in November 1890.
The Socialist Society carried out intense agitation in Aberdeen through weekly open air meetings at Castle and many indoor meetings. Duncan often spoke at these events.
Duncan and others in the Society were musical enthusiasts and a choir was organised that sang at both outdoor and indoor meetings (this was common throughout the Socialist League and other bodies at the time, e.g. the example of Yarmouth). The branch produced a booklet entitled Socialist Songs in 1889.
Anarchist ideas began to spread rapidly in the Aberdeen Socialist Society. For example “at our meeting on Sunday July 6th, 1890 a comrade who is a declared anarchist, lectured on “anarchy” to a large audience. There was a brisk discussion, opinion being about equally divided between anarchy and state socialism; comrade Aitken declared that no hard-and-fast line could be drawn between anarchy and the socialism of the League”.
Oct 5th 1890: there was an evening discussion on Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s Scientific Basis of Anarchism.
early 1891: The anti-parliamentarians finally broke from Leatham and co. in early 1891 to form the Aberdeen Revolutionary Socialist Federation. As one of its members, Eglan Shepherd, an anarchist baker, wrote in Commonweal for June 20th of that year:
A split in the ranks of the Aberdeen Socialist Society a few months ago, gave birth to a Revolutionary Socialist and Anarchist organisation called the Aberdeen Revolutionary Socialist Federation. The Federation has had a fair amount of success, large crowds assembling in Castle Street on Sunday evening to hear Comrades Addie and Duncan, to whom they give an attentive hearing. At the start of the Federation Duncan was the only outdoor speaker, but Addie has dared and done great things - his manipulation of figures being a source of great information to his listeners.
Further hostility arose over a demonstration organised around the land question by the Socialist Society. The Revolutionary Socialist Federation was invited to attend. They agreed to do so provided that they were allowed to express their own views on the subject. As described in Commonweal by Duncan (Sept 17th, 1891) “…we had a beautiful banner bearing the inscriptions "Revolutionary Socialism "on one side and "No Master" on the other.” There was also a fish cart done up as a gibbet with a dummy wearing a top hat with a monocle in one eye, symbolising capitalism. The cart was festooned with placards saying "Dynamite the social sore", "Speed the Revolution", "Vive la Commune", "Damn the British Constitution", "All wealth to labour doth belong", "We'll turn things upside down", etc. Leatham turned up and said that Hyndman would not speak if these slogans continued to be displayed. On refusal Leatham set off to fetch two policemen. Eventually it was agreed to take the placards down and the demonstration set off. Duncan went on to say that: “This will serve as a specimen of the doings of the Social Democrats in Aberdeen, it shows how men will betray the cause because of the hope of getting into Town Councils etc., and certainly shows that Social Democracy means " the Coming Slavery ", we will therefore continue to show that it is far from being "The only thing that will do"."
A glimpse into the life of the group can be seen from a report of the annual social meeting on a Saturday evening in the Aberdeen Evening Express for November 14th, 1892. There were songs from A. Fraser, A. Smith, H.Duncan, G. Fraser and G. Horne, followed by readings by James Taylor and James McFarlane. A. Smith accompanied on the cello and the proceedings began and ended with a communal singing of William Morris’s song ‘No Master’, followed by a dance.
1893: the group changed its name to the Aberdeen Anarchist Communist Group. Duncan wrote a pamphlet A Plea for Anarchist Communism published under the Group’s name, and consisting of 15 pages in that year. It was described as “the thoughts of a working man on the all-important subject of the poverty and degradation endured by the working class, and the remedy for that poverty and degradation, which his comrades have thought advisable to publish and circulate among their fellow wage-slaves.”
27th February 1893:
Agnes Henry spoke to the Group to a large crowd and “a number of Socialist Songs” were sung. This was followed on March 19th by a meeting on Should Working Men support the ILP? With Duncan and James Horne speaking against, to a “very large crowd”.
The group continued their rounds of meetings throughout 1894 with a demonstration on Sunday 6th May in Castle Street. George Fraser was the first speaker, followed by Duncan who advocated the general strike and solidarity. He was followed by Burgoyne down from Inverness who gave a long speech deploring the fact that British workers had no distinct historical past and that it only required workers to recognise their wrongs to do away with them. He was followed by Henry from Edinburgh who attacked the Independent Labour Party and State Socialism.
January 1st 1895 : The Aberdeen Anarchist Communist Group hosted the third conference of Scottish anarchists on January 1st 1895. It was held at the Group Club in Seamount Place. Duncan welcomed the delegates from Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hamilton and Motherwell. Shepherd gave an account of the movement in Aberdeen, which had a membership of 100, with sympathisers “not less than one thousand” and asserted that the anarchists were the greatest socialist force in the city.
That year was also marked by an intensive amnesty campaign in favour of the framed Walsall anarchists. The anarchists buried their differences with the SDF enough to hold a joint demonstration around this in Aberdeen.
Libertarian socialist group Solidarity's Aberdeen local group from the 1960s and 70s.