The reading room rebels

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The Independent Online
The Victorians would definitely not have approved. If they had passed legislation to stop foreign exiles agitating against the regimes in countries they had fled, European history would have been very different, and liberals would probably have had even less to do with it.

Victorian London was a safe haven for agitators of every hue. The most famous example is Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), a powerful influence on Italian unification. Regarded for some time as the most dangerous revolutionary in Europe, Mazzini arrived in London in 1837 and spent the most influential part of his career there. He lived in Chelsea, studied at the British Museum and wrote for British newspapers. He also kept in touch with agents in Italy.

Mazzini thought the British government might have been intercepting his letters and passing the information to the authorities in Naples. The matter was raised in Parliament, and the Government was forced to admit it was intercepting private correspondence.

He returned to Italy for the 1848 revolutions and was elected head of the short-lived Roman republic in 1849. He then returned to London, where he masterminded attempts to start revolutions abroad, including two attempts by Felice Orsini to raise revolts in Carrara in 1853-54 and an invasion of Calabria in 1857. He was back in London when the new united Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861.

In London, Mazzini met another famous revolutionary, Lajos Kossuth, who inspired and led Hungary's struggle for independence from Austria.

Despite his political legacy, Karl Marx, who also spent much of his productive time in London, was not regarded as a dangerous agitator in the same way. Marx settled in London after 1849, and spent his time studying at the British Museum.

Britain was also a refuge for Victor Hugo, who was not only a towering figure in French literature but also, in later life, a politician and political writer. After Napoleon III's coup d'etat in 1851, Victor Hugo fled, first to Brussels and then to Jersey. Expelled from Jersey in 1855, he moved to Guernsey. It was during this 20-year exile that he produced many of his most original writings.

Another famous revolutionary who lived in London at the turn of the century was Lenin, architect of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Lenin and his colleagues would hold meetings in the upstairs room of a pub not far from King's Cross, north London. On one occasion Scotland Yard's anti- terrorist branch of the day sent a plain-clothes police officer to listen in to what the dangerous Russian revolutionaries were saying . He persuaded the landlord to lift him in the food hoist so he could overhear what was being said. Unfortunately, he then discovered, it was all in Russian.