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How a tiny Southgate Road chapel played a big role in Russia’s 1917 October Revolution

PUBLISHED: 13:50 20 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 October 2017

"Russian revolutionists meet secretly in a church hall," reports a national newspaper on May 16, 1907. The church hall in question is the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road, De Beauvoir. Picture: British Library

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To mark the centenary of the October Revolution, the Gazette looks back at a “way-out” church in De Beauvoir that hosted Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky for a crucial conference – and put the Bolsheviks on the road to power.

The Daily Mirror spots some of the revolutionaries as they enter the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road on May 15, 1907. Picture: British LibraryThe Daily Mirror spots some of the revolutionaries as they enter the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road on May 15, 1907. Picture: British Library

Wednesday will mark the centenary of the October 1917 revolution in Russia.

It saw the Bolsheviks seize power led by Lenin, with the imperial government having already been overthrown by communists in February. But few are aware of the part played by a tiny chapel De Beauvoir in that momentous cataclysm.

The Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the forerunner of the Communist Party, had been held there a decade earlier, setting the Bolsheviks on their road to power.

Former journalist Paul Bolding has delved into the history of the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road and shared the story in this month’s De Beauvoir Association newsletter.

Exiled leaders of the opposition to Tsarist rule had been meeting in European cities in the years leading to 1917 to develop policy and try to seek unity.

In 1907, having been banned from other countries, some 300 delegates trooped to the Brotherhood Church for 35 sessions between May 13 and June 1, to “thrash out their thinking” about the kind of Russia they wanted.

Among them were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg.

Headlines in the Daily Mirror at the time said: “Russian revolutionists meet secretly in a church hall”, detailing how they met “day after day” to plot against their government.

Paul Bolding explained to the Gazette it was “no surprise” Rev Bruce Wallace, a Christian Socialist who had taken over the near-derelict church in 1891, had let the revolutionaries use it.

"Next time you’re popping into Tesco’s, spare a thought for the hotbed of revolution that once stood near that spot."

Paul Bolding

“He had developed connections with various radical and socialist activities, and had already allowed the premises to be used for gatherings that included a vegetarian congress and pacifist meetings during World War One,” he said.

“Vegetarianism was an indication of the unusual causes that he was prepared to support.

“During one of the pacifist meetings, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a victim when the meeting was stormed by rioters. At the time lots of families had lost fathers and sons in the war and to know there were people holding an anti-war meeting annoyed a lot of people.

“They gathered outside and eventually broke into the church and broke up the meeting.”

Delegates at the 1907 Congress consisted of 105 Bolsheviks and 97 Mensheviks, representing 76,000 members. Gorky called it a “ridiculously shabby wooden church in the suburbs”, “much like the classroom of a poor school”.

While it wasn’t the last Congress before the Revolution, it was “one step on the road to the Bolsheviks becoming the leading faction and being triumphant in the revolution in 1917,” according to Paul.

“There was scope for it to have gone the other way, but clearly the decisions that were taken were very important – although a lot of it comes down to Lenin’s personality as the leader of the Bolsheviks,” he said.

One topic of debate was whether armed robberies were an acceptable way of securing funds for revolutionary activity. Despite the Mensheviks getting a resolution passed condemning it, just weeks later a bunch of Bolsheviks robbed a bank of the equivalent today of £2million in Georgia.

While Lenin, who had been in exile in London intermittently since 1902, lived in Bloomsbury and Pentonville while he was here, Stalin was staying at a cheap lodging for the homeless off Whitechapel Road. The Evening Standard noted drily that some communists were “more equal than others”.

A block of flats now stands where the Brotherhood Church once was. Picture: Emma BartholomewA block of flats now stands where the Brotherhood Church once was. Picture: Emma Bartholomew

The chapel was demolished in 1934, and a block of flats now stands in its place at the corner of Balmes Road, opposite Rosemary Gardens.

Paul said: “Next time you’re popping into Tesco’s, spare a thought for the hotbed of revolution that once stood near that spot.”

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