When the late John Sullivan was developing the character of Wolfie Smith, leader of the Tooting Popular Front, for his TV comedy show, Citizen Smith in the 1970s, I wonder if he was aware of a local revolutionary whose cry would definitely have been Up the Workers and Freedom for Tooting. Step forward the extraordinary Francis Kitz, the Summerstown anarchist. The son of a prussian watchmaker called Johann Louis Kitz, he was born in College Terrace, Camden in 1849. He appears to have had to fend for himself at an early age and learned to live on his wits, working as an errand boy and porter. But he was quickly aware of the injustices and inequalities around him, ‘Brought up in the neighbourhood of the West End with the evidence of wealth and luxury confronting me – wealth unearned, comfort undeserved – and with my own undeserved hardships, I needed no lectures upon surplus value or dissertations upon economics to cause me to challenge the justice of a system which confers wealth upon the parasites of society and clouds the lives of thousands as it had already clouded mine with care and poverty’. Frank soon became politicised, attending meetings and demonstrations all over London and decorating the walls of his room with pictures of the French Revolution. As a young man he became apprenticed as a dyer, which was to be his trade for the rest of his life. But he refused to be tied to convention or the routine of the daily grind and chose instead to travel across the north of England getting work when he could, all the time observing the terrible conditions endured by the average working man. He lived with some German-speakers in Liverpool and became fluent in the language, he also appears to have visited New York. It seemed his horizons were as broad as his shoulders – his appearance described as ‘a fine burly figure, with a mass of light brown curly hair, blue eyes, a pleasant jolly smile always hovering around his countenance, the very antithesis of the person with a grievance and grudge against society’. He returned to London and started a family in 1872 with a woman called Mary Ann (Annie) Dick with whom he was to have ten children. They settled in Soho in 1874 and in the 1881 census were living at 16 Denmark Street. Kitz soon began mixing in radical circles, his avowed mission ‘to preach to the thieves, the prostitutes and the paupers. The first act of the Revolution should be to open the prison doors’. He developed strong ties with German exiles including Johann Most and came to prominence as a founder of the Socialist League in 1885. Around this time he came into contact with Charles Mowbray who was living in Bethnal Green, in an area of intense poverty called the Nichol. Kitz had a small printing press on which he produced pamphlets and leaflets for distribution to the masses. He had been under police surveillance and hoped the Nicol would provide sanctuary. It was at this time that Frank Kitz’ extraordinary talents as a street orator were put into practice, he and his accomplices put up bill posters by night and preached the gospel of socialism by day. He was very much in demand as a humorous and witty speaker whose charismatic presence and understanding of their condition could light up a crowd of slum-dwellers. Kitz and Mowbray agitated against sweated labour and called on the very poorest workers to organise themselves. They started a no-rent campaign and their Anti-Broker Brigade was an attempt to counter forced evictions. In February 1886, as unemployment surged in an economic downturn, an organised protest in London degenerated into a riot, windows of fancy shops and clubs in Pall Mall and Piccadilly were broken and carriages wrecked. There was much concern at this sight of the poor organising themselves, marching behind banners and questioning the fabric of society. At future demonstrations large bodies of police were prepared for trouble and at another huge protest which became known as Bloody Sunday on 13th November 1887, soldiers with bayonets charged a crowd on Whitehall and at least three people died of their injuries. This was followed by the Chicago Martyrs case when seven American anarchist agitators were executed. Not long after this, Charles Mowbray who had gone to Norwich to organise a labour rally was sent to prison for nine months for incitement. There was widespread use of agent provocateurs and such incidents as the Walsall infiltration spread mistrust and a climate of fear and suspicion. Anarchism had became a dirty word and Kitz needed to lie low. Around 1888 he had hooked up with William Morris and relocated to Summerstown. Nearby Merton was where Morris & Co’s fabrics, carpets, tapestries and leatherworks were produced at Merton Abbey. He worked here as a dyer and for a while edited ‘Commonweal’ the popular socialist newsletter. He was active in organising carmen, labourers and laundry women into a small Surrey Labourers Union. A hand-bill issued in October 1889 advertised its intentions ‘to obtain shorter hours and advance the wages of the working men of Surrey’. Morris wrote of him, ‘Like most of our East-enders he is certainly tinged with anarchism or perhaps one might say destructivism: but I like him very much: I called on the poor chap at the place where he lived, it fairly gave me the horrors to see how wretchedly off he was; so it isn’t much wonder that he takes the line he does’. When he got fed up of working with Morris, Kitz took to the street hawking second hand gloves in places like Leather Lane. A bit like Wolfie Smith in later years, his attempts to fire-up the workers fell largely on deaf years and he later famously remarked ‘It was said that that there was only one Socialist in London, and he, myself.’ In the 1891 census he was living at an address in Merton Road with eight of the children and by 1901 in Angel Court. This was behind the famous Angel public house very close to Tooting Broadway, roughly where Iceland now stands. He also lived for a while on Vant Road, a bit further down Mitcham Lane near St Nicholas’ Church. Annie was at 36 Hazelhurst Road having seemingly had enough of his antics. By 1911 she told the census she was a widow but Frank was in fact still around and living at Trollope Road in Battersea. In 1914 his son’s marriage certificate even pronounced him as deceased. In fact he lived on for another eleven years, passing away in Balham in 1923 from tuberculosis. I like the sound of Frank Kitz, he would undoubtedly have been very sceptical about the Summerstown182 laying down their lives in a struggle between two capitalist empires. But consider the plight of Caroline Danzanvilliers, bent double from a life of hard grind in the laundry, Elizabeth Brown the soldier’s wife from Foss Road, impoverished and imprisoned for child neglect, the Mace brothers, their bodies wasted by war, crushed into four tiny rooms on Thurso Street with eleven other people. Francis Kitz was on their side and prepared to stick his neck out and try to do something about it. I took the above photo of Vant Road, no sign of any Angels but a bird appears to be taking wing – undoubtedly symbolic of the free-spirited and elusive Mr Kitz.
Many thanks to the descendants of Francis Kitz who have shared their research of him. The family’s connection with 36 Hazelhurst Road lasted over three decades. One of his sons Christopher, and two grandchildren; Nellie Biggs and Douglas Kitts were killed there in the V2 attack in 1944. Some of the family started spelling the name ‘Kitts’ around the time of the First World War. They are very keen to find more information about Francis Kitz and ideally locate a photograph of him. He may possibly be in the above group, taken in 1905 at the first Annual Conference of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, but we can’t be sure. If anyone can help us locate one we would be very grateful. There is a lot of mention of Kitz online, but for a detailed account of his time in the Nicol read ‘The Blackest Streets’ by Sarah Wise.