1879: Levelling the Land

Let’s start with a couple of links to who the Levellers used to be, a band named after the movement that incorporated some of the movement’s philosophy in their work, and a song about them – first the older version, from about the 17th century, although a more upbeat version than you might have heard then, with The World Turned Upside Down tacked on to the end, and then of course Chumbawumba’s cover of the song. It seems appropriate to be putting out a writeup on a trade union about now, it being the first of October as I write this. These folks are in the forthcoming 1879 Players Companion, and normally I’d give you a preview and make you wait for the rest of the piece, but in the spirit of the subject matter, here’s the whole thing free for the taking.

The Levellers

The Levellers are a working-class movement that pushes for social restructuring along vaguely Marxist lines, labour law reform, an end to corruption in government and business, and the equality of all humanity. Being union organizers and socialists in an early industrial and class-based society led by a monarchy is dangerous. Look at what happened to the first group to bear the name “Levellers” – dispersed and their leaders hung, for the crime of asking for justice.


Over the course of the 19th century, the situation of the working poor whipsaws between advance and repression. The government repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, ending tariffs against imported grain in the hope of making bread affordable and alleviating the ongoing famine (not restricted to Ireland, but felt most strongly there). This knocked the bottom out of the British domestic grain market. Thousands of tenant farmers were sent off their rented farmland and into the cities when the price of wheat fell but rents charged by aristocratic landowners did not. The Swing Riots rose up in Sussex, starving farmhands fighting back against the mechanization they saw as driving them into the streets to starve. Troops were called in, a highly-biased court was held, and many of the Swing rioters were executed or transported, leaving the cause of the riots unaddressed. The Chartists, who started out as a non-violent petitioning organization, gave the working poor a new voice, motivating them to work though the established system. Chartist assemblies in the streets frightened the upper classes, so recently terrified by the Swing mobs. When violent activists began to gain control of the Chartist movement, repressive laws were passed against public assembly and against speaking out over social injustice. If you lock down a boiler and leave the fire stoked, pressure builds.

Revisions to the Poor Laws forced more and more people into a workhouse system the entire nation had seen exposed as abusive and corrupt in the recent scandals of Andover and Huddersfield. The determination to halt all charitable work outside workhouses pushed far too many people past the point of desperation. Parliament’s revisions of the Factory Laws, which raised the minimum age for child labour and set restricted hours for labour for men, women, and children, had more loopholes than moth-eaten lace, and were honoured more in the breach. The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act of 1875 legalized union activity, but only to a carefully delimited extent. These measures were simply insufficient, the equivalent of blowing the train’s whistle when what was really needed was to release the safety-valve. An explosion was becoming inevitable.

The first Levellers, back in the 17th century, failed to achieve their goals, although their writings had considerable influence on later movements, including the American Revolution. The socialist-democratic movements of the early 1800s sought a variety of ways to correct the evils they saw as persisting in the world. Josef Stiglitz, a Jewish scholar from Prague whose family had settled in London’s East End, wrote a comparison between An Agreement of the People of the 17th century Levellers and The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. Stiglitz called for levelling the political and social playing fields, eliminating corruption and privilege in business and government, and ending both great wealth and poverty so that all men could live equally well. The publication of Stiglitz’ paper caused considerable unrest and led to a violent confrontation between poor labourers and the authorities, later to be known as the Fieldgate Street Riot. Stiglitz, who had gone to Fieldgate Street to convince the labourers that violence would not achieve their goals, was among the thirty-seven dead. In the aftermath, a few of the survivors gathered in a pub and decided direct confrontation wasn’t going to work, but neither was trying to talk to an upper class that clearly wasn’t listening. They needed to take their struggle underground. They took the name of the Levellers, and made two decisions that would shape the future of the movement. To maintain secrecy, they would avoid obvious signs of membership, such as the green ribbons worn by the first Levellers. To prevent the police from halting the movement with a single raid, they broke up the organization into cells.

  1. Goals and Methods

Between the First and Second Civil War, the original Levellers sought equal treatment of all persons by the law, as opposed to the preferential treatment enjoyed by the nobility, as well as extending the right to vote to all men, not just landowners, and tolerance for all religions. The current Levellers seek to bring the benefits of labour to the people doing the labour, and end the feudal remnants of highly class based culture. While still pressing for social and political reform, their views are substantially more Marxist than the previous Levellers, who founded their ideas of nascent democracy on English common law and the Christian idea of natural rights.

While the Levellers are supporters of the idea of religious freedom and will not stand for intolerance within their own ranks, it’s not one of their primary goals. As such, while their nominal by-laws specify religious tolerance as a requirement of members, no direct actions are being taken toward creating such an environment in society at large. The Levellers are determinedly secular in their efforts.

Despite their reverence for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the organization has a hard rule against contacting either man in person. Even though they live in London and are readily accessible, the Levellers expect they are being watched by the authorities. Contact with Marx or Engels could lead to betrayal of the movement.

Henry George’s new book, Progress and Poverty, has caused some dissension among the Levellers. While the book makes a good argument for its principle, most Levellers disagree with it on the basis that it supports the continuation of capitalism, an exploitive system by its very nature. The more well-read Levellers argue George’s solution is far too simplistic, and fails to address underlying corruption of the culture. They see Georgism as the equivalent of putting a new coat of paint on a house with a rotten foundation. A few, however, have taken up the Georgist argument, and point out that holding all land in common is a Socialist idea. Even in a Socialist society, one must still have a way of accounting for value, and for encouraging and rewarding effort, and money works pretty well for that. They see George’s idea as a happy medium between the oppressive capitalism of current day England, and the paradise of communism Marx preaches that they believe is unobtainable due to basic flaws in human nature.

The Levellers directly oppose military drafts, press gangs, and similar uses of force of law or person to compel military service. Some of their cells have attacked press gangs and dumped them in the harbour (usually still alive, but sailors are notoriously superstitious about refusing to learn to swim). Others have set fire to draft offices.

The Levellers believe no person is exempt from the law. In a sensational incident just a few months ago, a minor noble was released from potential charges after his carriage ran over and killed a lower-class child. Both the judge and the nobleman came to a bad end a few days later, their coaches set upon by masked mobs, and their bodies left hanging from nearby gas-lamps.

Taxes, especially customs, duties, and fees upon labour, food, and sales, are held to be a burden deliberately placed upon the poor, and those stalwart enough to strike out on their own in business without obtaining a government monopoly. Exactly how to deal with this has yet to be decided, but it’s already agreed the small grocer shall not be harassed for collecting the tax upon food-stuffs, as he is held to the action by threat of force against his person and the loss of his business and livelihood. Theft of tax monies collected against the will of the people or to the detriment of the independent business-man is discouraged. It’s all well and good to exalt the memory of Robin Hood, but in reality that sort of behaviour results in more police on the streets and a harder time being had by all. However, some cells have found themselves with greater funds for supporting their members through times of labour strikes and other hardships immediately following a mysterious loss of coin by the Customs and Excise Authority.

During the Swing Riots, farmers in Sussex received notes signed by Captain Swing threatening them with being burned alive in their farmhouses if they didn’t destroy their threshing machines. The authorities spent a lot of time, effort, and coin trying to track down Captain Swing, determined to capture the leader of the rioters, to no avail. What they didn’t know was Captain Swing was a pseudonym, used by whoever was writing the note. Chasing a non-existent leader kept the authorities busy. The rioters frightened their targets more effectively by presenting them with a named enemy who couldn’t be captured, instead of a diffuse movement or an actual person who could be brought up on charges. The Levellers have a few pseudonyms they use for similar purposes, including Bob Lewis, a legendary organizer who’s always said to be on his way or to have just left.

The Levellers see the Rabbit Hole as a natural resource being exploited by capitalists, likely to cause massive destruction. Direct actions against companies supplying Fort Alice and other New World colonization efforts have included sabotaging factory equipment to halt or delay production, tainting black powder in a Boxer-Henry cartridge works, and slipping mice into bags of grain destined for Fort Alice. Some Levellers believe if enough of their membership could pass through to the New World, they could split off from the military-controlled expeditions and found a workers’ paradise in the wilderness. These cells are trying to get some of their people into Fort Alice with forged papers, so they can then smuggle Leveller propaganda for distribution in the New World and start accumulating tools and materiel toward a Leveller colonization effort.


Leveller organization is cellular, with one person from each cell knowing one person from another cell. Maximum cell size is eight. In theory, no one person should know the number of cells in place in a business, factory, or other organization, but in operation this tends to be honoured more in the breach, as planning for and coordinating actions reveals the number of cells to the planner. After a large operation cell members are encouraged to move on, find new jobs, preferably at previously unorganized factories, or otherwise make themselves scarce. The organization has by-laws but these were written by the founding cells and have since propagated and mutated considerably. No cell has authority over any other cell and so the by-laws are nominal at best, themselves sometimes honoured more in the breach. With no central control, Leveller cells have been known to embark on violent direct actions, bringing the authorities down upon cells whose only direct action had been to organize non-violent labour strikes.


The Levellers have out of necessity become masters of operating with no budget at all. They rely on working-class traditions of making do or doing without and on socialist ideals of sharing whatever there is with whoever needs it. This has allowed the Levellers to succeed in some cases where a more well funded group might have failed by encouraging their ability to improvise and to use what’s ready to hand, but at other times has kept them from being effective. On a few rare and notable occasions, wealthier members of the society have made large donations to the cause, but this money quickly vanishes, partly out of fear of such a large sum attracting attention, partly out of the constant needs of the Levellers and their members’ families which can consume any amount of cash before it’s even counted.


Most Levellers are workers in the factories of London, Manchester, and similar industrial cities. Levellers say “never trust a man with clean hands”, referring to the ingrained grime and callouses that mark a factory labourer. Family members are generally kept in the dark, told only what is necessary, in order to keep the society and its work secret. Intellectuals and members of upper social classes are admitted to the Levellers, but only with the unanimous vote of the admitting cell. Even then, the prospective member must usually prove their commitment to the cause, sometimes through published statements of their ideology but more often through supplying the cell with information, tools, or resources, or taking part in a direct action.

James D’Ampton: The descendant of minor nobility whose family fell into genteel poverty after an unknown creature ravaged much of their livestock, James studied under the legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Sadly, James didn’t have quite the flair for engineering as his famous mentor, and is currently employed as a metallurgist, stress-testing parts for the Rabbit Hole rail system. Cleverly, the Levellers recruited him into the organization based on their social platform, appealing to the legacy of honour and duty that comes with the D’Ampton family name. James is debating how to implement his cell’s requests. He cannot justify working beneath his own standards, nor sabotaging his employer’s products and thus putting lives at risk, but he does have an opportunity to help with the smuggling effort and the work of establishing a Leveller presence at Fort Alice and points beyond.

Liam O’Rourke: A descendant of Irish mine workers, Liam was brought up in the labour movement. His family came to London thirty years ago, leaving the coal fields and their grinding poverty for the factories and slums of the city (not much of a step up if you ask them). At the age of twelve, Liam went to work in the textile mills, losing two fingers off his left hand in a Jacquard loom before he grew too old and large for the job. Since then, he’s moved on to heavier labour in the same industry, rising to foreman in a mill in Spitalfields. Liam has put his spare time to good use, reading everything he can lay hands on, and sharpening his wits and debating skills in the pubs and meeting halls. Now in his early forties, with the strain of years of hard factory labour wearing him down physically, Liam has put his mind to work organizing for the Levellers. His fiery temper held savagely in check and used as fuel for his determination, Liam never gives up, and has argued a large number of his fellow workers round to the Leveller way of thinking. Frustration at the slowness of progress, though, is wearing on him, and if the Levellers don’t achieve a major victory soon, he may be found at the forefront of a wrecking crew some dark night, achieving by physical force what his beliefs and words have not accomplished.

Maria Von Bretten: The naïve, overly earnest daughter of Freiherr Karl Franz von Bretten, of the Grand Duchy of Baden, a Prussian industrialist, Maria came into contact with the Levellers through a school for the children of factory labourers she founded and taught in from 1874 through 1878. She began slipping the children whatever coin she could come by, along with food, clothing, and other necessities of life, becoming somewhat adept at juggling her personal finances to hide her charity from her father. Grateful parents developed a relationship with Maria and eventually came to trust her enough to begin sounding her out as a possible ally for the workers’ cause. As Maria debated whether to involve herself in labour politics, industrialists pushed local officials into closing a flood-wall along the Shadwell Basin, diverting springtime floodwaters away from the factories. The school building was inundated, drowning most of the students. Maria suffered a nervous breakdown after being pulled from the wreckage. Her father sent her back to Prussia to recuperate. Shortly after her return home, she slipped away from her caretakers and made her way back to England with a sizeable amount of coin, most derived from selling small family heirlooms she took with her on her departure. In the guise of Maria Harbou, she has opened an orphanage in Wapping. She spends her evenings in Leveller meeting halls and gathering places, preaching a semi-coherent doctrine of reconciliation that mashes together Leveller philosophy, Christian mysticism, and the fevered imaginings of her own mind, still overburdened by grief. Maria believes a great prophet will come who will present the arguments of the workers in such a clear way, and with the obvious approval of Heaven, that the industrialists will have to accede to the workers’ demands. She’s beginning to develop something of a following.

Enemies / Allies

The Levellers generally hold themselves apart from other labour and political movements in an effort to keep themselves hidden. They’ve allied with labour unions in solidarity during strikes and supported social reform at the street level, but these are marriages of convenience, quickly dissolved when the effort is completed. As previously stated, they avoid contact with well-known political figures for fear of police observation. Their enemies are many and powerful, and include the police, Parliament, and every wealthy industrialist in England.


Blackleg: A worker who crosses a picket line or breaks a strike to perform labour.

Bob Lewis: A legendary organizer and leader of the movement who’s always said to either be on his way or to have just left. In reality, Lewis is a way of distracting authorities into hunting a non-existent man. The wild goose chase keeps the government from having enough men to track down the real organizers.

Direct Action: Any potentially confrontational activity of a cell or multiple cells. Distributing literature to factory workers is not a direct action. Rallying those same workers to strike against their employer is a direct action. Cells normally require direct actions to be approved by consensus or unanimous vote.

Salt: To “salt into” a factory or firm is to take a job there with the express purpose of organizing the workers.

Scurf: an exploitive (beyond the normal) employer