In 1969, a group called 'The Libertarian Circle' met at the club for about four years.
The brain-child of Paul Harris, it began as a broad based coalition composed of Anarchists, Labour Party Young Socialists, SPGB members, International Socialists, non-aligned individuals and, perhaps surprisingly, some young Liberals. With so many predictably diverse points of views, it would seem obvious that the group was doomed to fail eventually but, even though there was a great deal of heated exchanges, it was surprisingly successful.
Apart from Bill McKinney and Paul Harris who were in their mid-twenties, most of the people involved were under twenty years old, though most had already been involved in counter-culture politics for some time.
The group aimed to develop a radical presence in town and, amongst other things, instigated:
a campaign agaist the Biafra genocide, A Claimants Union (with SPGB), a successful free speech campaign, a work creating initiative (Workpiece), a debating chamber (Mouthpiece), a help bureau for young people (Concern), a shelter for young people (Nightpiece) and an alternative newspaper (Bolton Free Press).
Biafra Genocide Campaign
The first action of the group, which totally unified all its disparate members, was a campaign to raise awareness of the potential Biafra genocide going on in Nigeria in 1969. Click here for full details of the war.
There had been fighting in Biafra since 1967 when the Igbo people seceded from Nigeria and declared the establishment of the Republic of Biafra. However, on 30 June 1969, the Nigerian government banned all Red Cross aid to Biafra; two weeks later it allowed medical supplies through the front line, but restricted food supplies to the population. It was reported that 1,000 Biafran children were starving to death every day leading to claims that Nigeria was using genocide to obliterate the Igbo people and win the war.
At the same time, it became increasingly clear that the British government was supporting the Nigerian government including providing significant military assistance.
Members of the Libertarian Circle, along with others on the left, were appalled by what was happening, disgusted with the British governments role in it and, so, campaigned vigorously against the British involvement in the war.
We also collected money to help with the international civilian Biafran airlift which was providing food and medicine to the starving Biafran population.
The Nigerain/Biafran war came to an end in January 1970.
The Claimants Union 1969
The primary mover in this initiative was the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) supported by the rest of the Libertarian Circle.
Whilst the committee met in the club, the bi-weekly public sessions were held in the Spinners Hall.
The main purpose of the Union was to assist people claim the state benefits to which they entitled and to help them with appeals when
appropriate. The intention was that, once the group was up and running, the claimants would gain an understanding of the law, be able to pool their experiences and take over the running of it.
Unfortunately, though the sessions were always well attended and lots of good work was done, the objective of getting the claimants to run the group didn't materialise and after 18 months the Union closed.
Concern (1969 to 1974)
When Bill McKinney joined the Libertarian Circle he had already set up an embryonic help bureau for young people. Bill had acquired premises in Bridgeman Place from the town council, he named it 'Concern' and he quickly recruited volunteers to staff it, some from the Libertarian Circle. Though it has to be said that the majority of the group weren't interested in the project.
Nevertheless, it was the longest lived of all the projects and outlived the Circle itself.
Bill was a teacher at the Art College. In 1974, he decided to look for another job as he felt (correctly) that the days of the Art College were numbered and he left Bolton to take up a job in Sheffield.
Once he left, Concern lacked effective leadership and closed soon afterwards. .
Work Piece (1970)
This was mainly instigated by Bill McKinney and involved setting up a workplace in an empty church in the School Hill area. The idea was to get unemployed or retired people to give apprenticeships to young unemployed people.
It started well, with a number of apprentices and teachers taking up the places but when the promised further funding failed to materialise the project folded.
Mouth Piece (1970)
At more or less the same time as Work Piece, Bill acquired use of a space in St Paul's Church (corner of Spa Road and Moor Lane) which he suggested be used for debates that took place at 2pm on Saturday afternoons.
It was successful for a while as a left-wing political hot house of debate, but there was no moderation, so meetings eventually deteriorated into sectarian, shouting matches and came to an end after three months or so.
Night Piece (1969)
Allthough this night shelter for young people was instigated by the group it became, along with 'Concern', a largely Bill McKinney managed enterprise. Unfortunately it didn't last very long but it is unclear why it folded.
Free Speech Campaign (1971)
There was a traditional Speakers' Corner based on the corner of Moor Lane that often saw speakers of all sorts pontificating on subjects wide and diverse, very much on the lines of the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner in London though on a smaller scale.
In early 1971 it was arbitrarily closed down by the town's Council and the Libertarian Circle decided to mount a campaign to reinstate and relocate it to the newly created town hall square precinct, which had just become traffic free. The idea was to have it in the square to the left of the town hall as one looked at it.
The council duly rejected the request for a new Speakers’ Corner and so a campaign was organised.
At first there were demonstrations on a small scale, largely undertaken in the rain, which, surprisingly, got very good and positive press coverage but didn't change the view of the council.
In response the Circle decided to have a mass meeting in the embryonic, traffic-free Town Hall square and invited activists across the North West to join the campaign.
At the time of the meeting there were handily stacked paving stones (to be used to pave the square) close to the cenotaph which the speakers used as an impromptu stage.
Thousands of people filled the square, admittedly some of them shoppers, and the meeting began around 3pm. After 3.30pm the police began to arrive, at first one or two then several walked through the crowd and after 4pm advised the speakers on the 'stage' to stop the meeting.
The speakers refused to do so and around 5 people, including Paul Harris, Arshad Shah and Bill McKinney, were arrested for creating a breach of the peace and marched off to the Police station, which was then part of the civic centre, opposite Paderborn house.
A police inspector addressed the crowd and told them to disperse and leave. The inspector then left but a large crowd remained with no police presence at all.
A few minutes later Paul Blackburn, who had not been supposed to speak, addressed the crowd and encouraged them to follow him to congregate outside the police station to get those arrested released and over a thousand people did just that.
Once outside the station the crowd started chanting for those arrested to be freed. The police inspector appeared briefly at the front door of the police station but retreated smartly after glimpsing the size of the crowd and receiving a volley of abuse.
Less than half an hour later the police decided to release those arrested without charge and the crowd dispersed.
Within a month the council agreed to allow a "Speakers' Corner" and the Libertarian Circle members celebrated with a meeting on the square which passed without incident.
So a victory, but a bit of a hollow one as it seemed the enthusiasm for a Speakers' corner had passed and speakers didn't come to use it as they had in the past - though it is still there if anyone wants to avail themselves of it.
Bolton Free Press (1971 - 1974)
Right from the start of the Libertarian Circle there had been discussions about creating a local alternative newspaper for Bolton. It was of particular interest to Paul Harris and the whole idea seemed to become more of a possibility with the advent of such a paper in Rochdale, the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) which began in 1970 but became known nationally in 1971.
Late in 1971, Paul Harris, Paul Blackburn, John and Lesley Hayes, Nat Clare and others met at Dennis and Wendy Pye's house to look seriously into how such a paper could be put together and published.
Further meetings were held in the club and, as team got larger, at the Prince William ('Prince Bill' as it was then known to Boltonians) pub on Bradshawgate where the money to finance the paper was raised at one meeting attended by around 50 people.
It was agreed that there would be no editors as such, that weekly meetings would determine the content and layout and that generally, everyone could contribute ideas, articles, even determine editorial policy and finally, that anyone was welcome to help in distribution and Sales.
Such an approach might seem a recipe for chaos and it certainly did lead to disagreements, bitter arguments and even walkouts, but it did produce a number of editions of the paper. Even so, even the first edition had the unusual inclusion of two editorials, one by Neil Duffield and the other by Paul Blackburn.
The first edition was produced at the Prince Bill but after that the group moved to the Gypsy's Tent (corner of Spa Road and Marsden Road) where all subsequent issues were created.
However, as soon as the first issue was published in March 1972, the group faced a huge problem as the Bolton Evening News saw the BFP as a threat to its advertising revenue, particularly the 'free' Journal, and put pressure on newsagents across the town not to sell the paper.
The only newsagent to break the BEN embargo was one on Bradshawgate (close to the Alma Inn) who had a reputation for stocking underground publications.
The group then decided on a policy of distributing the paper themselves and a lot of effort was put into visiting pubs, clubs, cafes etc as well as selling on the street.
It survived a visit from the heavy mob from Ye Olde Man and Scythe who's 'pot man' was unhappy with an article in the paper that voted it the worst pub in Bolton - when the said mob turned up and realised how many people were involved, they had a drink and left without even saying anything.
It also survived a serious take over attempt by the International Marxist Group (IMG). Perhaps, this was an indication of the success of BFP.
The paper was successful over the first 18 months or so, selling thousands of copies and involving over a thousand people in the making and distribution processes.
However, as time went on, many of the core team began to move away from and/or become less involved in the paper.
The paper carried on for a further 18 months, largely under the inspired leadership of Chris Lee, though the enormous amount of voluntary effort involved in selling the paper was hard to sustain and was a key factor in its eventual closure.
Although over the years there have been several more attempts to create a counter cultural paper in the town, none was as successful as BFP.
End of the Libertarian Circle
The group came to an end in 1974, by which time many of the members had moved on. Paul Harris had returned to university to undertake a doctorate and Bill McKinney had move to a new job in Sheffield.
Sadly, Bill died in his early thirties, a few years later; Paul Harris emigrated to New Zealand after successfully completing his doctorate where he died in 2010 at the age of 65; and Henry Heap (who took the photographs shown on this page as well as the picture on the front page of the first edition of BFP) died in Bolton in 2003 at the age of 54.
Other members went to university or became involved in other projects & campaigns or agitprop theatre or became more involved/active in the labour movement.
The Circle had been the first involvement in left wing politics for many of its members and all of the people involved came out of the experience with a better understanding of the dynamics of how groups worked and how to organise events and projects.
Perhaps the critical lesson learned was the importance of planning and organising for the continuation of a project. So many of their projects began well but floundered later as the initial impetus was lost and there had been little thought put into how to turn them into long lasting ventures.
However, it is interesting to note, that a few of the people involved, as members of the circle, or of one of its projects, are still members of the club, or at least visit it on occasion, over half a century later and some are still active in the political and aocial life of Bolton.