A socialist by the River Thames

ISLEWORTH IN WEST London was until this month, March 2021, a place where I had never before set foot. A road direction sign with the words “Historic Isleworth Waterfront” tempted us to investigate the place and we found it to be a delightful location despite it being under a flight path for aeroplanes coming into land at nearby Heathrow Airport. After enjoying the view across the River Thames from Old Isleworth, my eye alighted on a house with a circular memorial plaque placed to remember someone significant of whom I had never heard.

Arthur Joseph Penty (1875-1937) lived at 59 Church Street in Isleworth between 1926 and his death. The commemorative plaque bears the words:

“Architect and pioneer of Guild Socialism”

Penty was born in York, eldest of the two sons of the architect Walter Green Penty (1852-1902) of York. Arthur first worked in his father’s architectural practice before moving to London in 1902, where he increased his involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Shortly before his move, he met Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). He was an influential British socialist and a Theosophist. He edited a journal called “The New Age”, which was inspired by Fabian Socialism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Age).

Old Isleworth

In London, Penty collaborated with the architect Raymond Unwin, who was responsible for much of the planning and design of Hampstead Garden Suburb, whose construction began in about 1904. Penty, working in Unwin’s office, is believed to have designed some of the details of two large buildings, Temple Fortune House and Arcade House, in Temple Fortune, as well as aspects of the so-called ‘Great Wall’ that separates part of the Suburb from the northern edge of Hampstead Heath Extension (www.hgs.org.uk/tour/tour00045000.html).

Apart from architecture, Penty was an important exponent of Guild Socialism. Many of his thoughts on the subject were published in Orage’s “The New Age”. I had never heard of Guild Socialism before seeing Penty’s house in Isleworth. Let me see if I can make any sense of this now long-outdated form of socialism, whose ideas were influenced by the great designer William Morris (1834-1896) and his associates. Guild Socialism opposed capitalism. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (www.britannica.com/event/Guild-Socialism), Guild Socialism is:

“…a movement that called for workers’ control of industry through a system of national guilds operating in an implied contractual relationship with the public.”

It began in 1906 with the publication of “The Restoration of the Gild System”, written by Penty. The Guild Socialists believed that industry should be owned by the state but controlled by workers through national guilds organised by their members democratically. The system proposed was a kind of nostalgic revival of the mediaeval guild system. During WW1, Guild Socialism was enhanced by the actions of left-wing shop stewards demanding ‘workers’ control’ of the war industries. The movement declined with the onset of the economic slump of 1921 and the subsequent policies of both the Labour and Socialist Parties in Great Britain.  

As Penty neared the end of his life, he became attracted to the ideas of Fascism that were prevalent in the Europe of the 1930s. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-53509?rskey=IABIgM&result=1) reveals that by the early 1930s, Penty:

“… was attracted to the anti-modernism of the far right. He admired the corporatist* economic organization of Mussolini’s Italy, supported the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and interested himself in the ideas of Oswald Mosley. At the same time he denounced Italian imperialism in Abyssinia and rejected Nazism for its racial doctrines and its statism.”

Penty, who dedicated his life to the revival of mediaeval craftsmanship and guilds, died at 59 Church Street in Old Isleworth on the 19th of January 1937. This late 18th century building bears the name “Manor House”. According to one source (http://edithsstreets.blogspot.com/2016/10/riverside-north-of-river-and-west-of_12.html), this is neither the manor house nor is it on the site of the real manor house. It was bought by Michael Penty, who also bought the manor of Isleworth. Michael’s father was Arthur Penty (http://www.panoramaofthethames.com/pott/isleworth-2006/59-church-street-isleworth). His name is on the front door, along with a brass plate bearing the words:

“MICHAEL PENTY Solicitor & Commissioner for Oaths

LORD OF THE MANOR OF ISLEWORTH RECTORY”

Had it been open, we would have enjoyed a drink at the riverside pub, “The London Apprentice”, which is a few steps away from the house where Arthur Penty once lived, but it was closed. However, a short walk away across the Duke of Northumberland’s River, we found a small café called South Street that served beverages and locally made ice-cream to take away.

*Note:

“Corporatism is a political ideology which advocates the organization of society by corporate groups, such as agricultural, labour, military, scientific, or guild associations, on the basis of their common interests.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporatism).

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