THE LIFE, TRIAL, AND DEATH OF FRANCISCO FERRER I GUARDIA by William Archer. Edited and Introduced by Dave Poole. eBook eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

The Life, Trial and Death of Francisco Ferrer GuardiaWilliam Archer (Edited and Introduced by Dave Poole) (ISBN 978-1-873976-02-9), First published in 1977 by Cienfuegos Press, Over the Water, Sanday, Orkney, 

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Francisco Ferrer y Guardia (1859 –1909), anarchist, internationally renowned educationalist and founder of the rationalist ‘Modern School’ (La Escuela Moderna), was arrested in September 1909 in the wake of the popular and violent protests in Catalonia against Spain’s highly unpopular war against Moroccan tribesmen. The events of that week in July 1909 came to be known as the ‘Tragic Week’ (La Semana Tragica) for which the Spanish government and Catholic Church selected their most hated enemy, Francisco Ferrer, as the scapegoat — ‘the author in chief of the popular rebellion”. Within a month he had faced a mock military trial – a drumhead court martial – and on October 13 he was escorted to the ‘ditch of many sighs’ in Montjuich Castle and executed by a firing squad.

FerrerCover2This account of the life and death of Francisco Ferrer Guardia was written by William Archer for the October and November issues of McClure’s Magazine for 1910. Archer, a freelance journalist, had been commissioned by the magazine editor to go to Spain to find new material on the Ferrer case, as public interest in the affair had been revived. During his stay in Spain, Archer was able to interview Ferrer’s family and friends, as well as his opponents. He was also able to consult the many new books on the Tragic Week that had, at the time, just been published, and the official trial report, Juicio Ordinario Seguido … contra Francisco Ferrer Guardia. It is therefore to Archer’s credit, that on his return from Spain, he was able to write a very fine and well-documented article.

Yet while describing the events and trial that lead up to the murder of Ferrer by the vindictive Spanish Catholic state Archer has ignored the true personality of Ferrer, both as an anarchist and an educationalist. Archer was not an anarchist and had little sympathy for Ferrer on that score. Yet Ferrer’s anarchism is never mentioned in any great detail, or his connection with the anarchist movement in Spain. Ferrer the educator is dismissed as being crude “Ferrer was not a great educator” Archer writes “he was not a great man; his thoughts were crude, his methods were crude.” This in fact is far from the truth. In this short introduction we will examine both these aspects of Ferrer’s life. This will show a Ferrer very far removed from the man portrayed by Archer.

Madrid, 1906: Ferrer on his way to be court martialled (Consejo de Guerra) for his alleged role in the attempted assassination of Alfonso XIII.

Firstly, Ferrer the anarchist: Ferrer’s anarchism has never been examined to any great length, no doubt because his writings on anarchism are few. Nevertheless though, he was a militant despite Woodcock’s misleading assertion in Anarchism, that Ferrer was “adopted” by the anarchists only after his death.

Most probably Ferrer became an anarchist while in France after his break with Ruiz Zorilla. On his return to Spain in 1901 he founded, with Ignacio Clavin, the newspaper La Huelga General, the first issue of which appeared in Barcelona of the 15th November. The paper was to last until 1903 and its collaborators included Anselmo Lorenzo, M. Castellote and Ricardo Mella. In La Huelga General Ferrer was able to express fully his anarchism and in the first issue, under the pseudonym of Cero he wrote:

“… It is a well-known fact that peoples’ knowledge about the condition of their lives is limited to what the master class wants them to know. Very few are those who think about what they read, and fewer still those who had an opportunity to study the anarchist ideal.

Madrid, 1906: Ferrer’s Court Martial

People are still inclined to think that should the day come when the Anarchists shall “rule” nobody would be ‘safe in his person and nobody could feel sure in the possession of the smallest thing, since they aim at the “destruction” of property.

Yet it must be remembered — and we ought to repeat this as often as we can – that in a well organised society, viz — an Anarchist society, everyone will have his own house, his furniture, his clothes, his works of art, his tools, everything in fact that will help to make his life comfortable and happy.

Escuela ModernaWe shall not pass from the absurd and foolish system of today, founded on authority and property, to one of solidarity and the fraternity as rapidly as things are done on the stage, by a quick change of scenery: on the contrary it will require all the propaganda all the teaching, and, above everything, all the example that we can afford to give in order to make an impression upon the mentality of the irrational unreflective beings who today form the great majority of the population.

We Anarchists desire to destroy property as it exists today because it is the result of the exploitation of man by man, of privilege assisted by the state and of the unjust right of the stronger.

We Anarchists think it is not just that there should be slde by side owners of vast estates and people who have not a piece of land on which to stretch themselves: persons on whom all riches of the world descend by right of birth, and persons to whom all the sorrow and misery of the world are the only heritage.

We Anarchists do not think that a title deed or a will is sufficient justification for a person to spend his life without working without contributing to the common welfare.

In the Anarchist society the education and the instruction of children shall be such as to point out to them the duty and necessity of work, and that from this duty only those shall be exempt who are physically incapable.

Since in the anarchistic society there will not be any longer the bad example and the perverting influence of the sight of people slaving away all the day long side by side with others whose whole occupation is the change of amusements: since there will no longer be the disturbing moral influence that comes from daily seeing and taking for granted that there should be side by side hungry people and people over-fed, everybody will – as a matter of course — contribute to the production of the common social wealth, in proportion to his abilities and power, and food will be assured to all.

It will then be quite easy to the teachers and educators of the day to impress upon the young mind the duty, the pleasure and the necessity of work.

Mankind having attained to a certain degree of reasonableness it will also be comparatively easy to find out a working arrangement by which everyone could retain possession of the things he likes and cherishes, even without harm resulting to anybody from this right to a form of personal property, or that it should create a supremacy of a class of men over another.

In a few words: many today oppose Anarchism for no other reason than they are unable to conceive a rational and well-organised society. …” 1

Ferrer with his partner Soledad Villafranca

In 1907 Ferrer, in collaboration with Anselmo Lorenzo, José Prats and Enrique Puget founded Solidaridad Obrera, Ferrer lending a large sum of money for the renting of an editorial office. In the 1930s Solidaridad Obrera was to become, as the organ of the C.N.T, the best-known Spanish anarchist newspaper.

Secondly, Ferrer the educationalist: Ferrer began to formulate his educationalist ideas in parallel with the development of his anarchism. While a teacher of Spanish in France he began to see, by close observation, that the injustice and exploitation in society was not only the result of authoritarian educational methods, but also more importantly the result of what was taught by these authoritarian methods. Ferrer soon understood that as long as the education of children, the adults of tomorrow, was left in the hands of both the church and the ruling classes there would be no hope of attaining the libertarian society that he, as an anarchist, longed for. Reform of the existing school system, he thought, was futile. Explaining the working of this system in his little book La Escuela Moderna (to be published soon by ChristieBooks), published after his death, he wrote:

Anselmo Lorenzo and Francisco Ferrer i Guardia

“Education” means in practice domination or domestication. I do not imagine that these systems have not been put together with the deliberate aim of securing the desired results. That would be the work of a genius. But things have happened just as if the actual scheme of education corresponded ‘ to some vast and deliberate conception; it could not have been done better. To attain it teachers have inspired themselves solely with the principles of discipline and authority, which always appeal to social organisers; such men have only one clear idea and one will – the children must learn to obey, to believe, and to think according to the prevailing social dogmas. If this were the aim, education could not be other than we find it today. There is no question of promoting the spontaneous development of the child’s faculties, – or encouraging it to seek freely the satisfaction of the physical, intellectual and moral needs. There is question only of imposing ready-made ideas on it, of preventing it from ever thinking otherwise than is required for the maintenance of existing social institutions – of it, in a word, an individual‘ rigorously adapted to the social mechanism.” 2

And describing the teachers he wrote:

“…The teachers are merely conscious or unconscious organs of their (the ruling classes) will, and have been trained on their principles. From their tenderest years, and more drastically than anybody, they have endured the discipline of authority. Very few have escaped this despotic domination; they are generally powerless against ii, because they are oppressed by the scholastic organisation to such an extent that they have nothing to do but obey …”3

He was, therefore, convinced that the only way to regenerate society was through a new system of education. An education Ferrer preferred to call rationalist, which we would call libertarian, free from all dogmas and systems whether they be religious, political, nationalistic, republican or what you will. To this end, on being left a substantial sum of money, Ferrer returned to Spain where, after much preparation, his school, La Escuela Moderna, was opened in Barcelona in September 1901.

Classroom of The Modern School

The Escuela Moderna was by no means the first example of libertarian education. It was preceded in France by Paul Robin‘s experimental school at Cempuis which ran from 1880 to 1894 (Robin’s example was to influence Ferrer) and later Sebastian Fame‘: La Ruche (1906-1916). 4 But it was La Escuela Moderna that was to become the most well-known, no doubt because of the stand it made against the church in Spain and the savagery of Ferrer’s murder. It must be remembered also that the French examples were working when a system of secular state education had already been introduced in France.

From the outset Ferrer was determined that the children in La Escuela Moderna would have an education that would prepare them fully for their adult life, a life, he hoped, that would be free of ignorance and prejudice.

“…Neither dogmas nor systems, moulds that confine vitality to the narrow exigencies of a transitory form of society, will be taught. Only solutions approved by the facts, theories accepted by reason, and truths confirmed by evidence, shall be included in our lessons, so that each mind shall be trained to control a will, and truths shall irradiate the intelligence, and, when applied in practice, will benefit the whole of humanity without any unworthy and disgraceful exclusiveness…”5

Beginning, in the first year, with 30 children, the numbers increased to 266 by the third year, boy and girl being both taken in complete equality, as were children of the working -and middle classes. Ferrer saw the very great importance of co-education:

“…In my own mind, co-education was of vital importance. It was not merely an indispensable condition of realising what I regard as the ideal result of rational education; it was the ideal itself, its life in the Modern School, developing progressively without any form of exclusion, inspiring a confidence of attaining our end. Natural science, philosophy, and history unite in teaching, in face of all prejudice to the contrary, that man and woman are two complementary aspects of human nature, and the failure to recognise this essential and important truth has had the most disastrous consequences . . . Woman must not be restricted to the home. The sphere of her activity must go out far beyond her home; it must extend to the very confines of society. But in order to ensure a helpful result from her activity we must not restrict the amount of knowledge we communicate to her; she must learn, both in regard to quality and quantity, the same things as man. When science enters the mind of a woman it will direct her rich vein of emotion, the characteristic element of her nature,‘ the glad harbinger of peace and happiness among men …”6

This on its own was a radical change from a vast number of school systems in operation at the time, but by far the most important innovation introduced into the Escuela Moderna was made by Ferrer in his position to punishment and scholastic examination:

Some of Ferrer’s Modern School pupils

“… Having admitted and practised the co-education of boys and girls, of rich and poor — having, that is to say, started from the principle of solidarity and equality — we are not prepared to create a new inequality. Hence, in the Modern School there will be no rewards and no punishments; there will be no examinations to puff up some children with the flattering title of “excellent” to give others the vulgar title of “good”, and to make others unhappy with a consciousness of incapacity and failure … Since we are not educating for a specific purpose, we cannot determine the capacity or incapacity of the child. When we teach a science, or art, or trade, or some subject requiring special conditions, an examination may be useful, and there may be reason to give a diploma or refuse one; I neither affirm nor deny this. But there is no such specialism in the Modern School. The characteristic note of the school, distinguishing it even from some which pass as progressive models, is that in it the faculties of the children shall develop freely, without subjection to any dogmatic patron, not even to what it may consider the body of convictions of the founder and teachers; every pupil shall go forth from it into social life with the ability to be his own master and guide his own life in all things.

Hence, if we were rationally prevented from giving prizes, we could not impose penalties, and no one would have dreamed of doing so in our school if the idea had not been suggested from without. Sometimes parents came to me’ with the rank proverb, “Letters go in with blood,” on their lips, and begged me to punish their children. Others who were charmed with the precocious talent of their children wanted to see them shine in examinations and exhibit medals. We refuse to admit either prizes or punishments, and sent the parents away. If any child were conspicuous for merit, application, laziness, or bad conduct, we pointed out to it the need of accord, or the unhappiness of lack of accord, with its own welfare and that of others, and the teacher might give a lecture on the subject. Nothing more was done, and the parents were gradually reconciled to this system, though they often had to be corrected in their errors and prejudices by their own children …

… The teachers who offer their services to the Modern School, or ask our recommendation to teach in similar schools, must refrain from any moral or material punishment, under the penalty of being disqualified permanently. Scolding, impatience, and anger ought to disappear with the ancient title of “master”. In free schools all should be peace, gladness and fraternity. We trust that this will suffice to put an end to these practices, which are most improper in people whose sole ideal is the training of a generation fitted to establish a really fraternal, harmonious, and just state of society …” 7

This is what set the Escuela Moderna apart from most schools past and present.

The Escuela Moderna though was not without teething problems. Firstly over teachers, and secondly over textbooks. The problem with teachers at the beginning was perplexing. Ferrer saw the drawback of employing professional teachers because of their traditional attitude towards the child-teacher relationship, and even more of employing volunteers who understood the importance of the school but had had no teaching experience. Ferrer, therefore, founded a Rationalist Normal School for the training of teachers, both men and women. This was to be closed down at the same time as the Escuela Moderna.

Textbooks also presented a problem. The books available for Spanish schools at the time were of no use whatsoever. Take, for example, geography. Ferrer wrote to Elisée Reclus asking him to recommend a textbook for the teaching of that subject. Reclus replied that he did not know of one book that was not tainted with religious or patriotic poison, or, what is worse, administrative routine. He therefore recommended that the teachers should use no textbooks at all.8 This was only one subject out of many. Ferrer therefore sought the help and collaboration of the most progressive educators and scientists of the time, and had their works translated into Spanish, and where necessary, he requested that they write new works specifically for the school. In this way the collaborators and supporters of the Escuela Moderna included Odon de Buen, Letoumeau, Jean Grave, Elisée Reclus, Charles Albert, Charles Malato, Clemence Jacquinet, Martinez Vargas, Anselmo Lorenzo, Tarrida del Marmol and C.A. Laisant (the grandfather of the present publication director of Le Monde Libertaire). It is of interest to note that one of the most popular books in the school was The Adventures of Nono by Jean Grave.

This then, in brief, was the work and ideas of Ferrer. The Escuela Moderna, he wrote just after its foundation, would not be the perfect type of the future school of a rational state of society, but a precursor of it. In spite of this modest statement the example of Francisco Ferrer and his Escuela Moderna shines out today in a world where children are still educated with the same ignorance and prejudice that he tried, once and for all, to eradicate.

Ferrer‘s influence began before his death. Through him many Modern Schools were founded in Spain based on his Escuela Moderna. In Lausanne an anarchist teacher, Jean Wintsch, founded a Ferrer school 9 which lasted from 1910 to 1919. But the anarchists put his ideas into practice on the largest scale during the Spanish Civil War.

Dave Poole, Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, No. 3 (1977)


I. This article was first translated and published in The Anarchist December 27th 1912, Vol.1 No. 31. ‘

2. Francisco Ferrer, The Origin and Ideas of the Modern School, pp. 49-50.

3. Ibid p. 49

4. For an excellent study of these two great examples of libertarian education see Paul Robin et l’education integrale in “Le Monde Libertaire” nos. 124, I25 and 127 (August, September, October and December 1966) and Sebastian Faure et la Ruche, “Le ‘Monde Libertaire” nos. 136 and 137 (November and December 1967) both by Rene Bianca.

5. Ferrer, op. cit p. 80.

6. Ibid p. 25 and 30.

7. Ibid pp.’55-56 and 59.

8. Ibid p. 68.

9. See Le Dr. Wintsch et L’École Ferrer de Lausanne, “Le Monde Libertaire” no. 130 (March 1967) by Rene Bianca.


Archer, William. The Life, Trial and Death of Ferrer, Chapman and Hall, London 1911, p 332.

Day, Hem: Francisco Ferrer. Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre, ed. Pensée et Action, Bruxelles, 1947 p 27.

Ferrer, Francisco: The Origins and Ideals of the Modern School, translated by Joswph McCabe, Watts & Co., London 1913, p 110.

Ferrer, Sol: La Vie et L’oeuvre de Francisco Ferrer, Librairie Fischbacher, Paris 1962 p 239.

McCabe, Joseph: The Martyrdom of Ferrer, Watts & Co., London, 1909, p 94.