In the archives of Wayne State University, Detroit, I have recently located the papers of John Armistead Collier (1874-1947), poet, anarchist and political activist. They were deposited there by his last wife, Phyllis Feningston (1896-1981), an American labour organizer and social worker. In 1912, long before his marriage to Phyllis, Armistead Collier was living in London, where he formed a ‘free union’ – an unlegalised marriage – with a French anarchist and suffragette, Françoise Lafitte. Their child, named François Lafitte (1913-2002) became a well-known British sociologist and professor and – ironically in view of a personal history unknown to him – chair of the British Family Planning Association. Armistead carefully preserved his letters to and from Françoise, along with an unpublished autobiography, and, late in her own life, Phyllis contacted François to tell him about his father. The papers she sent him are archived with his own in Birmingham University, where he worked until the 1980s. There are also some of Armistead’s papers in other American archives, although, as I am discovering, they are sometimes mis-catalogued as a result of his many pseudonyms. These include the papers of his friend Upton Sinclair and Sinclair’s wives Meta Fuller and Mary Craig Kimbrough, to whom Armistead was close.
Unused by researchers until now, the papers are a valuable resource for the recovery of the unacknowledged personal. We know quite a lot about the views of advanced couples concerning ‘free love’ and ‘free unions’, because they wrote about them extensively in the radical journals of the time, such as the The Freewoman. What is hardly ever available is reliable evidence of lived practice. This matters because those who advocated ‘free love’ and ‘free unions’ believed that their ideas could only be tested and developed through lived experience.
IMAGE CREDIT: JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE, MA COUSINE SIMONE, CHATEAU DE ROUZAT (1913).