Freedom Press is keeping radical literature alive in East London

Whitechapel’s Freedom Press is more than just a bookshop. It’s a space where both radical literature and activism are cultivated and shared

The bookshop's door is painted with red letters: 'I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck' - Emma Goldman Pic: Livia Giannotti

There are a few alleyways punctuating Whitechapel High Street. They are not dark and shady, or at least not any more. They are almost disturbingly inviting; in short, they are gentrified. All but one of them.

Angel Alley is lined with posters: “Freedom is non-negotiable,” “Direct Action,” “Fire to the prisons!” Nestled between the Whitechapel Gallery and a nail salon, there is Freedom Press – the UK’s oldest anarchist publishing house and bookshop. The first bit of the alley belongs to Tower Hamlets council, the second half, no one knows. At the end there is a door with a quote from the anarchist feminist Emma Goldman painted in red letters: “I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.”

“It’s a rare space,” says Jack Etches, the bookshop’s coordinator. Freedom Press has spent years fighting to preserve its space in the heart of East London as a “place of resistance” against gentrification, police injustices, inequalities, discrimination, property developers, and evictions, says Etches. And it’s filled with books.

Freedom Press publishing house was founded in 1886 by anarchist writers Charlotte Wilson and Peter Kropotkin. For anarchists it was a meeting place, which then became a hub for sharing and spreading radical ideas and literature when the first bookshop opened in 1940. Over the years it has faced firebomb attacks by fascist groups, police raids, organised property crimes and censorship — but it has always recovered. “We almost disappeared so many times, but now Freedom is regarded by many as the grand old dame of English anarchism,” says Etches.

The bookshop has moved locations across London many times, from Red Lion Passage to Fleet Street and finally to East End’s Whitechapel, a heartland of radical movements and literature. “It makes sense for us to be in the area of the Battle of Cable Street, of famous anarchist writers like Rudolf Rocker, the Battle of Stepney and the working class,” says Etches.

Freedom Press bookshop. Pic: Livia Giannotti

Their connections to the East End aren’t just historical, though; they are still very much alive. “There’s a social centre around the corner, the London Action Resource Centre, whom we work with; we also support local squats and activist groups, Tower Hamlets anti-immigration-raid groups and Tower Hamlets solidarity groups,” says Etches. They also have connections with local writers, such as the anarchist poet and novelist Tim Wells, who often comes by the shop for events or just for a chat. “We want to keep this local radical area going and interesting.”

And they do. Today, the Freedom Press bookshop is a major resource for radical writers and literature, and it is thriving. Etches says they “sell more books now than they have ever sold before.”

Etches knows why, because he has been part of the change. “Freedom Press has not always been the most welcoming of spaces,” he says. “Anarchist movements have a tendency to be insular and inward-looking.” But during the last ten years, Freedom Press has worked towards becoming a more “welcoming, open and outward-facing” space. Not only do they now organise events that are inclusive of everyone, not just the “stale, male and pale”, but they have also expanded their book collection to include radical literature of various genres including socialism, feminism and anti-fascism.

However, Etches believes that it’s not enough to just change the books. The bookshop’s local ties to the area are still too fragmented: “We don’t have such an organic connection with the huge local Bengali community”, which Etches says is a “huge failure” for Freedom Press. For him, that is “reflective of a wider issue” in radical movements, which don’t prioritise “acting in solidarity with people that are outside its usual constituents.”

Freedom Press’s local bond to East London is also put to the test by gentrification. Etches emphasises his disgust at the “glass monoliths encroaching the area” when describing the swallowing of Brick Lane by Shoreditch.

Last year, the Hilton hotel chain opened Freedom Café, an anarchist-themed cocktail bar around the corner from the bookshop. They were selling £14 cocktails named after Freedom Press books. People could sit in the fancy lounge and order a “Why Work?”, named after a collection of anti-capitalist essays published by Freedom Press, from a menu that replicated their weekly anarchist newspaper. 

“They never even talked to us, they just took stuff from our website and tried to rip us off,” says Etches. “They treated us a theme to impersonate being local, because they know Freedom Press is part of local history.

It’s crazy we are still here after all this time, and all that Freedom Press went through. Our legacy is to still exist. And to still exist in East London.”

You can find Freedom Press bookshop at 84b Whitechapel High St, E1 7QX, and browse their catalogue here

Follow our series, Reading Between the Lines, this week to read more about literature across our boroughs

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