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“Religious instruction counts first last and in-between” – a Deaf Anarchist

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 22 November 2013

  1. Leonard Motler, Deaf freethinker and anarchist (1888-1967)

Occasionally you come across someone who stands out from the crowd.  Leonard Augustine Motler was one of those people.  Born in Eccles in 1888, Motler was the son of Joseph & Bertha Motler, a pattern card maker and a tobacconist.*  At the age of five he lost his hearing in an accident (see comment below).  He was sent to the Roman Catholic St. John’s Institution for Deaf and Dumb at Boston Spa.  In 1911 he was still in Lancashire working as a printer, but he must have gravitated to London shortly after.

He was an important, if forgotten, figure in the early labour then anarchist movements of the early 20th century, and it is possible that introduced Sylvia Pankhurst to her partner Silvo Corio.

A review of John Quail’s The Slow Burning Fuse (1978), […] identifies the long-forgotten Leonard Motler (a deaf mute who had abandoned the pro-war socialist movement for anarchism in 1914) as being among the first to condemn the Bolshevik coup in Russia. In December 1917 Motler wrote in his self-published journal, Satire, that ‘The Russian Revolution is running ugly. These little things happen when the people permit new rulers to pose as their saviours, instead of saving themselves by running the country on their own’ (p.205). (Hodgson 2009, quoting work of Nicolas Walter, p.126)

Perhaps the type of education he got at Boston Spa gave him a good grounding in written English, but it seems that the  ‘Christian Doctrine’ that the school imposed on it pupils (for which see various school annual reports) must have caused him to ‘kick against the pricks’ (Acts 9:5-6).

The article below appeared in September 1920, though I am not sure where it was published.  In it Leonard Motler points out what will be obvious to anyone who studies the history of Deaf people over the 19th century, how education was promoted and controlled by the religious institutions.

There is perhaps hardly a school for the deaf in the British Isles not controlled to some extent by the clergy. The only Roman Catholic school of the kind in England is controlled by nuns of St. Vincent de Paul. Having been educated there myself, I can vouch for the fact that religious instruction counts first and last and in-between. The pupils rise before 7 a.m., when there is a mass said practically every day of the year, at which, of course, they all attend. The first thing in the morning lessons is inevitably catechism, and on Sundays this is made a special subject for the elder pupils.

Motler seems to be a fascinating character.  It is interesting to see that he ended up living in South Africain 1921, following his sister Bertha  (see article by Heath below), as the Rev. Fred Gilby (see earlier posts) went out there in the late 1920s on mission work.

The French speaker he mentions at the end of this article should be identifiable with a little work.

If anyone has more information about Motler, please do comment.  Perhaps there are people in South Africa who recall him?

Click onto the image for a readable size.

The Priest Ridden Deaf

Nick Heath, Motler, Leonard Augustine, 1888-1967

Hodgson, Keith, The Anarchist Past and Other Essays.  Anarchist Studies; London17.2 (2009): 125-126.

Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb (scrapbook one)

*See census returns from www.ancestry.co.uk 

6 Responses to ““Religious instruction counts first last and in-between” – a Deaf Anarchist”

  • 1
    Paul motler wrote on 16 May 2020:

    Leonard married my mother, Doreen Abrahams, in 1956 in Johannesburg and adopted me and my sister Lily, we were 7 and 5 respectfully at the time. My mother had been divorced when I was very young. He never spoke of his time in England so I grew up unaware of his contribution to the Communist party in England. I was aware and familiar with his Poetry.
    I knew he was a communist. I only found out about this part of his life when I googled him. He died when I was 18.
    Just to be accurate he told me he became deaf due to an accident while he was walking past a shop and the wooden boom that supported the canvas shade awning broke and hit him on the head. Up to that time he had normal hearing.
    He had a daughter from his first marriage, Josephine, who lived in South Africa.

  • 2
    H Dominic W Stiles wrote on 16 May 2020:

    Thanks for that information! Interesting that you say he was communist rather than anarchist.

  • 3
    Paul motler wrote on 18 May 2020:

    It’s very interesting that you should make that observation. I always believed that the one was inseparable from the other. However, I have recently looked at each definition and believe that Anarchy is an ideology, while Communism introduces the ” human ingredient ” into that ideology.
    I believe that my father embraced the ideology of communism and aligned himself with the struggle that would lead to its ultimate goal.In hindsight, I believe that the reality would have been a disappointment to him and that the volatile ” human ingredient ” introduced into the ” all people are equal ” ideology ended up showing that some ” are more equal than others “.
    I would really like to know why my father’s story interested you so much.
    Paul Motler.

  • 4
    Dominic wrote on 18 May 2020:

    Most of the organisations involved with providing Deaf education were deeply religious. Their generosity & charitableness certainly raised a lot of people out of misery by giving them an education & perhaps a trade. Missioners actively tried to match congregants with work. However, this was all about winning souls – giving Deaf people a voice was a means of giving them access to the bible & hence god. As one book is entitled, (I think) “How’re you going to get to heaven if you can’t talk to Jesus?”

  • 5
    Rowena wrote on 25 May 2020:

    Leonard married my great-grandmother’s sister, Winifred Norah Saill, in 1926 in Southwark, Surrey. Their daughter, Josephine Leonora, was born in 1927 in Croydon. They lived at in Streatham Park in 1929 and Willesden in 1934. I know they lived in South Africa some time before 1950 and returned there with Josephine and her husband Samuel Liebermann. Winifred died in 1953 in Johannesburg and – as Paul has stated – he married Doreen Emily Catherine a few years later.
    I’m hoping to find more information on his time in South Africa with my great-great-aunt.

  • 6
    H Dominic W Stiles wrote on 25 May 2020:

    Try a South African library, or see if you can find electronic newspapers for the region. Also try universities as there may be historians interested in that period who will have come across him. Good hunting!