Northern Voices: Dialect Writing of Lancashire and Yorkshire

Lancashire and Yorkshire Dialect Literature

My PhD was on the ‘Lancashire Dialect Literature – 1746 – 1935’ (from the publication of Tim Bobbin’s ‘Tummus un Meary’ to the death of Allen Clarke). One of these days I’ll get round to publishing a full-length book on the subject, but including Yorkshire dialect literature as well. The two have lots of similarities, and a Lancastrian who lived in Yorkshire for 25 years is ideally suited to execute the task. A good project for 2019…..

My book ‘Lancashire’s Romantic Radical: the life and writings of Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton‘ has lots on Lancashire dialect literature generally. See my web page Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton for more on Clarke.

I give talks on Lancashire (and Yorkshire) dialect literature and I’m interested in how it could be relevant to life today. It’s nice to see young Asian kids in Bolton speaking ‘broad Lancashire’.

A Gradely Lot: Some Forgotten Lancashire Writers

This paper is loosely based on a talk given to The Edwin Waugh Society, Rochdale, on November 9th 2016.

Lancashire saw a remarkable growth in dialect writing during the 19th century, mostly by working class men – and some women. They built a huge popular market for their work, amongst both working class and middle class readers, reflecting and reinforcing the very strong sense of regional identity that emerged in Lancashire in the 19th century.

Whilst Waugh was by no means the first Lancashire writer to use dialect, he certainly popularised it and established a common orthography which most 19th and early 20th century Lancashire writers used.[1] How many Lancashire working class writers from Waugh’s time – and after – have been remembered? Alongside Waugh, the two other members of the ‘holy trinity’ of mid to late 19th century dialect writers were Samuel Laycock and Ben Brierley. Their ‘penny readings’ sold in their thousands, whilst the lavishly-produced hard-back editions were snapped up by the local middle class. The later generation was represented by Allen Clarke (1863-1935)[2] who achieved enormous popularity in the period before the First World War, and to an extent after. Yet there were many more, some of whom were exceptionally talented. John Trafford Clegg, of Rochdale, is still remembered in his home town by members of the Waugh Society and is commemorated on the Lancashire Dialect Writers’ Memorial in the town’s municipal park. William Billington, of Blackburn, is known to local history enthusiasts in his home town, but – like Trafford Clegg – hardly at all beyond. This short paper hopes to rescue some of the more interesting writers from oblivion. There are many more who deserve to be celebrated, and my apologies to any glaring omissions. However, the advantage of modern communications is that aggrieved readers can add their nominations in the ‘comments’ section of the online version! Please do[3].

The background

Edwin Waugh had his poem ‘Come Whoam To Thi Childer An’ Me’ published in 1853 and it was an immediate sensation, appealing to both middle and working class notions of ‘respectability’. It was far from being the first example of dialect writing; Tim Bobbin (John Collier) was a well-known figure in Lancashire literature, going back to the mid-18th century. Samuel Bamford, perhaps best known for his role of leader of the Middleton radicals at Peterloo (1819) had several poems published that were in dialect. The difference Waugh made was to popularise the form, lay down certain ground rules for how dialect should be written (the orthography) and to encourage other working class writers to ‘have a go’. Waugh was writing after the end of the Chartist movement when sections of the working class were embracing Liberalism. At the same time, middle-class people remained scared of a revival of working class radicalism and encouraging ‘homely’ literature was seen as being a good thing to do. Middle class patronage played a huge part in helping dialect writing to ‘take off’ in Lancashire in the 1850s and 1860s. The Lancashire Cotton Famine, between 1861 and 1864, led several working class men to write about the sufferings of their friends and neighbours. Samuel Laycock was certainly the most famous, who established his fame with poems like ‘Bonny Brid’ – a father’s lullaby to his new-born child, born in hard times – but other writers like Joseph Ramsbottom were certainly important. His collection Phases of Distress, published in 1864, contains some powerful and moving work and he deserves wider recognition. Like many of the writers I’ll look at, his writing has radical undertones which tended to be missed out in later collections of his work. So I’d like to start by looking at a few writers from the period 1860 to 1890 in a bit more detail. I should say that there’s quite a lot more on each of these in my PhD thesis (see above).

J.T. Staton (1817-1875)

Staton was born in Bolton but was orphaned at an early age and was educated at Chetham’s School in Manchester. He grew into a highly talented journalist, writing in both standard English and dialect. His magazine – The Bowtun Loominary, which later became The Lankishire Loominary, was almost entirely in dialect and was a mix of gossip, comment and tomfoolery. He had a highly developed sense of humour but that often went with a strong edge of radicalism, expressed in often biting satire. The Loominary, in its various forms, appeared between 1852 and 1864. During its final years it struggled to maintain its audience owing to the privations of the Cotton Famine. Its pages have a lot of comment on the American civil war and Staton championed the cause of the abolitionists. Like many other writers of the period, Staton published a number of sketches as ‘penny readings’ using a ‘typical’ Lancashire figure, ‘Bobby Shuttle’. However, his character is a dying breed – one of the few remaining handloom-weavers which once formed the bedrock of Lancashire working class radicalism and culture. However, he uses the character to look at contemporary issues through the eyes of an old man. In the 1870s, when he was working as a journalist on The Bolton Evening News and Farnworth Observer, he published several ‘readings’ including ‘Bobby Shuttle with’th’Demonstrationists’ (1874). This describes the huge demonstration in Manchester in support of striking agricultural workers.

Margaret Rebecca Lahee (1831 – 1895)

Margaret Lahee is one of the most interesting figures of 19th century Lancashire literature. She was born in Ireland  and is immortalised on the dialect writers’ memorial in Rochdale. Yet we know little about her. She had a middle class upbringing and was well educated. She seems to have arrived in Rochdale in her late teens and became a dressmaker. She never married and lived with her close companion, Susannah Wild, for the rest of her life. Rochdale had been a centre of political unrest in the 1840s and her sympathies were clearly with the radical democratic aims of the Chartist movement. Her biography of the local Chartist leader, Tom Livsey (published in 1866) is a remarkable piece of political writing which interweaves Livsey’s broad dialect into the story. In the book’s introduction she comments “it is generally understood matter that ladies know little of politics, and care less; but of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I have taken the liberty of claiming that exception” [4]One of her most well-known dialect sketches was Owd Neddy Fitton’s Visit to th’ Earl o’Derby, published in 1859. Interestingly, her early work was published with the author’s name ‘M.R.L.’ – a not uncommon device by women writers to help ensure their work was taken seriously. She had aspirations to become a serious writer and her novel Sybil West (1893) is a very fine piece of writing, set in a Lancashire cotton town and focusing on the lives of women mill workers. The themes of sexual harassment and inequality come across very strongly. It appears to be her only novel published in book form, quite close to her death two years later. It originally appeared in serial form in a local Rochdale paper in 1885/6 and she appears to have had other novels similarly published. Sybil West should be a strong candidate for a new edition.

Samuel Hill (1864-1910)

Sam Hill became known as ‘the bard of Stalybridge’ and was a popular local writer whose history of his home town – Bygone Stalybridge (1907) – is a fine example of local historical writing. He worked as a blacksmith and later as a carpenter. Foirewood – splinters an’ shavin’s fro’ a carpenter’s bench (1902) is one of his best-known works. He had a wider interest in dialect literature and his Old Lancashire Songs and Their Singers (1898) is an early attempt at chronicling the history of Lancashire dialect writing. Hill wrote a lot of popular, uncontroversial petry for which he is largely remembered, if at all. However, some of his later writing, published in Allen Clarke’s Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly (subsequently re-named Fellowship), has a radical edge. His poem ‘Owd Bob’ celebrates the radical Chartist tradition which, like nearby Rochdale, was very strong in Stalybridge:

He’ll tell abeawt th’Chartists, an’ says, if aw like,

Some day when aw co’, he’ll show me a pike

‘Ut wur made by a comrade an’ carried wi pride,

By a pair o’true honds that are neaw lain aside.

He loves for t’spin yarns, when ceawrd in his cot

O’Feargus O’Connor an Oastler, an th’lot –

An’ Stephens ‘ut fowt for t’factory folks good,

Whose wark an’ whose worth isn’t yet understood[5]

Hill represents an emerging theme in late 19th century dialect writing which is much more radical and often socialist in its content. Unlike earlier writers who were often dependent on middle class patronage to get published, the availability of independent working class publications such as Clarke’s and also The Cotton Factory Times, gave a platform to a wide range of aspiring worker-writers.

James Haslam (1862 – 1939?)

Haslam doesn’t appear in any of the standard collections of Lancashire dialect writers[6] but his work is of considerable interest. Like so many other  Lancashire working class writers, including his good friend Allen Clarke, his first experience of working life was as a little piecer in a Bolton spinning mill, at the age of 10. His father was a handloom weaver and that experience forms the basis of one of his novels, The Handloom Weaver’s Daughter, first published as The Mill On The Moor in Clarke’s Teddy Ashton’s Journal. He describes his family upbringing in a positive way:

“I was cradled in the dialect. My mother was a handloom weaver’s wife and to get on with bobbin making she sesd to tell me dialect stories til I went to sleep.” [7]His ‘break’ into paid writing was thanks to Clarke: Haslam appeared at Allen Clarke’s Bolton Trotter office one day, asking if he would take him on.  Clarke did – and Haslam became a well-respected professional journalist and rose to become President of the National Union of Journalists. His attitude towards dialect was ambivalent: clearly it was an important part of his family heritage but he came to regard it as an obstacle to working class advancement.

Robert Brodie (1850? – 1917)

Robert Henry Brodie, of Eagley (Bolton)  wrote mostly as ‘Bily Button’. He was described by Swann [8] as a “prolific writer of prose and verse, chiefly in the dialect”. Yet very little of his writing ahs survived. Most of his work was published in newspapers or in flimsy ‘recitation booklets’. He was a regular contributor to The Bolton Journal and later to the Liverpool Weekly Post, which was widely read across Lancashire in the early years of the 20th century. Part of his importance is an organisational one – he was first secretary/treasurer of the Lancashire Authors’ Association, from its inception in 1909 up to 1914. His ‘A Lay o’ Lancashire’ [9] is a fine piece of Lancashire nationalism, but doesn’t exhibit animosity towards anyone else:

When once yo’ get i’Lankyshire,

We mak’ yo’ feel awhum;

We’re rayther rough, but kind enuff,

No fuss an’ starch like some.

Some say we’re vulgar, an’ low-bred,

But they durn’t know us reet;

We’re gradely folk, an’ like to joke,

Wi’anyone we meet.

And much of Brodie’s writing, published as Random Rhymes (1906) is of similar ilk. Yet there was a very radical side to him. His prose sketch – ‘Th’Invasion Bogey’, published in Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly in 1906, doesn’t mince its words. Reacting to Lord Roberts’ proposal for re-armament to ‘defend our country’, one bar-room character- Tommy – responds:

“Eaur country?” said Tommy. “Why, heaw much on it belongs to thee, or me? He knows that if him an aw th’big men con nobbut get folk takkin interest ‘ national defence they’ll forget w abeaut th’land laws, th’unemployed, an’ aw the measures ‘reform.”

Elizabeth Eckersall (1860 –

Elizabeth Eckersall wrote most of her dialect as ‘Busy Bee’. She went to work half-time in a Bury mill at the age of 8 and went full—time four years later. In aher poem ‘A Bad Lot’, published in 1923, she reflects on a heard childhood:

Aw went to work when barely eight yers owd

Before aw’re twelve they put me on fulltime;

An’ mind we had to work till six at neet,

To stop at two o’Saturday were prime.” [10]

Her husband William was also a writer and the couple clearly encouraged each other. She went to night school in her teens and succeeded in getting work published in the local press., including The Bury Times and Heywood Advertiser. Much of her work published in the local press is innocuous, homely fare. Yet in ‘A Bad Lot’ another side to her comes across, of a working class woman who has had to struggle against the odds and fight back. The poem ends:

“Neaw workin’ folks are havin’ shorter heaurs,

Aw wonder heaw rich folks will make ends meet;

They’ll ha’ to emigrate or work theirsel’,

When that day comes, we’se aw be dooin reet.”

Hannah Mitchell (1871- 1946)

Hannah Mitchell isn’t a ‘forgotten’ figure by any means. Her autobiography The Hard Way Up (recently re-published) has become a standard text in women’s history. Yet what is forgotten is her immense talent as a creative writer, mostly working in dialect. She was born in North Derbyshire but in her teens left home and settled in Bolton, where she became part of both the socialist and suffragette movement.

She also developed a well-tuned ear for the local dialect. It seems to have been not until the early 1920s when she began writing in dialect, in the pages of the ILP Labour’s Northern Voice. However, her autobiography recalls that she joined the Lancashire Authors’ Association in 1918, adding: “I had always loved the Lancashire dialect since first hearing it from my good friend and hostess in Bolton…becoming more familiar with the Lancashire dialect I began to write sketches in it”. She wrote as ‘Daisy Nook’ – a reference to the fictional hamlet, located to the north of Manchester, immortalised by Ben Brierley in his Daisy Nook Sketches. By then Mitchell was living in north Manchester, at Newton Heath. She had built up a powerful reputation as a politician and was elected onto Manchester City Council to represent Newton Heath ward. Her literary writings express a strong common-sense socialist message, appealing in particular to working class women. Her sketch ‘Women’s Work’ [11] is a delightful satire about male attitudes towards women’s work. ‘Spring Cleaning’ is about men’s attitudes within the Labour movement towards women and political priorities. ‘Th’Left Wing’ is about the arrogance of young – and male – middle class socialists which goes into some depth on political theory and the meaning of socialism.

Who is missing?

There are so many writers I would write to include, but space and time prevents me. However, they will hopefully get their full recognition in next year’s publication – Lancashire’s Rebel Writers. I would have loved to say something about Maud Shutt and Mary Thomasson. There is much more to Sam Fitton than tradition suggests – a radical, bohemian figure whose Gradely Lancashire doesn’t really do him justice. Ammon Wrigley remains a well-known and much-loved figure but I can’t help feeling there is more to be said about him. If anyone reading this would like to nominate their favourite forgotten Lancashire writer/s – please let me know. It’s very good to see the work of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth being re-discovered and her work available once again.

Can we expect a new generation of writers and singers?

Lancashire dialect literature, for the last 50 years, has suffered – and still does – from being too obsessed with the past. Lancashire no longer has spinning mills nor weaving sheds. It still has its moors and rivers, the people are still here, many still experiencing hard times. It’s certainly a different, more diverse Lancashire and that’s where I wonder future writers may emerge from – in particular the Lancashire Asian community. It’s often in the back streets of Bolton and Oldham that you’ll hear ‘gradely Lancashire’ spoken, by young kids whose parents have come from Pakistan and India. The dialect writers of the 19th century were often migrants or sons and daughters of migrants: Margaret Lahee was from Carlow; Allen Clarke’s dad came from Mayo. We’ll see. I love the idea of Lancashire-Indian dialect fusion! And I think Allen Clarke would have done too.

November 21st 2016



[1] My PhD Thesis – Region, Class Culture – Lancashire Dialect Literature 1746 – 1935 outlines the growth of what became a distinct literary movement. University of Salford 1993 (available online)

[2] See my book Lancashire’s Romantic RadicalAllen Clarke/Teddy Ashton Little Northern Books 2009

[3] Go to www,

[4] Margaret Rebecca Lahee The Life of Alderman T Livsey Rochdale (Preface) 1866

[5] Published in Fellowship June 15th 1907

[6] i.e. May Yates A Lancashire Anthology (1923) John Randal Swann Lancashire Authors (1924) G.H. Whittaker A Lancashire Garland (1936)

[7] In The Record June 1936

[8] John Randal Swann Lancashire Authors (1924)

[9] Published in Swann (op.cit) p.

[10] Published in Allen Clarke’s Teddy Ashton’s Lancashire Annual for 1923

[11] The Hard Way Up was first published in 1968. ‘Women’s Work’ was published in Labour’s Northern Voice on May 3rd 1929. ‘Th’Left Wing’ appeared on January 22nd 1926.

Allen Clarke – a Forgotten Socialist Pioneer

“I daresay Teddy Ashton’s droll sketches have done more to help reforms than far more pretentious and direct articles. For ‘Teddy’ even in his comic (dialect) sketches, pokes sly fun and undermining sarcasm at the iniquities and social injustices of the day” (Allen Clarke), Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly, August 26th 1905)

Happy 150th Birthday!

Allen Clarke was born 0n February 27th 1863. Here is his message to the people of Blackpool, relayed via Paul Salveson to a meeting of his admirers on Wednesday:

A message to my Blackpool friends on my 150th birthday

Well thanks for turning out today to talk about me. First Bolton, now Blackpool. Very kind, I must say. It can be a bit dull, up here. Being dead I mean. I’m in good company and we have our own ‘Lancashire’ association where we get together now and again, talk about the old days and generally indulge ourselves in a bit of nostalgia. I’m sad not to be with you today but I hope this letter will tell you a bit about myself and what I think is important in my life. Take it or leave it’s far as I’m concerned, make’s no difference to me now does it?

I hadn’t expected to depart this life when I did, just before Christmas, 1935. I was fit and healthy and had just been out for a bike ride around Windmill Land. But we all have our time, and just a few months I summed up my 72 years in The Liverpool Weekly Post, saying that I’d done my best to cheer people up and make them life – as well as fight against injustice.

Yes, I was born 150 years ago today, in Bolton. My mum and dad were good parents. My dad did most o the thinkin’. He was a radical – a trade unionist but more than that. A socialist before the days there was such a thing. He, in his turn, absorbed some of the Fenian radicalism of his dad.

A lot of children in those days – 1860s – had a hard life. It wasn’t easy for me, but I was one of the lucky ones. I started work at an early age but I had good bosses. We moved to a place in Yorkshire called Mirfield and I started work in a mill, hauve-time, at the age of 11. I was bored and I missed home. One consolation was gazing out of the mill windows and watching the trains go past. How I envied the passengers and how I wished I was going with them! I’ve always liked trains. I used to love going on the ‘cheap trip’ to Blackpool and anyone who has read my books will know that those rides provided lots of my material!

I had some lucky breaks. We moved back to Bolton and I worked for my dad as a piecer in Cross’s mill. It was a good firm to work for and they encouraged me to read and educate myself. I went to work as a pupil teacher and lord, that was a revelation. I said I was one of the lucky ones. Some of those childer weren’t. The humane thing to do was let them sleep and that was what I did. I was always a restless chap and I got out of schooling as quick as I could. Started working for the Bolton Evening News, hoping it would lead to real journalism. No such luck. They wanted a skivvy to go round selling adverts. So I left the Evening News (and I’m glad it’s still going by the way – but they owe me a bit of money for some articles I wrote in the early 1930s).One thing though, travelling all over the district selling space for their Directory gave me my intimate acquaintance with the Bolton moorlands about which I wrote in ‘Moorlands and Memories’.

By the late 1880s I was a socialist. A radical socialist, not one of the milk and water kind you get these days, like Councillor Salveson MBE – products of a good Catholic education maybe. But I shouldn’t mock, my dad was RC too – as most Irish people were. I grew out of it. But I always kept a spiritual side – which you so-called modern day radicals haven’t. In my book ‘The Eternal Question’ (one of my best by the way) I talk about there being a ‘vitalising intelligence’ – or God, if you prefer that comfort blanket, as you’d say now. In several of my books, such as Windmill Land and Moorlands and Memories, I tried to bring in a spiritual element. It’s there, all about you, on the moors and out in the Fylde countryside. And it’s in the people. It still is, we haven’t changed all that much beneath it all. Back in 1927 I wrote a little book called ‘Where is Heaven?’ which caused a bit of a stir. Some people thought I was against the Bible and orthodox religion. I never really considered whether I was or wasn’t, I only sought truth. What my life on earth taught me was this. If your religion, whatever it be, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, satisfies your soul and makes you a good neighbor and citizen, stick to it, but be tolerant to those of other views. Whatever you do, don’t quarrel about the next world, you’ll get there soon enough. Busy yourself trying to make this world better for everybody. I have nothing against the Bible and other creeds. They fill their place and do their work.

I remained a socialist all my life and always stayed on the side of the working class, who have been swindled, robbed, oppressed, treated like dogs and deemed dirt. But my views changed. I stood for parliament in 1900, on a joint ILP/SDF platform. I got 901 votes, Ha! This was before women, and many working men, had the vote. I’d have got the women’s vote, I know. I cut quite a dash in those days and was never short of female admirers. And I supported women’s right to vote. Lots of my books and short stories had strong female characters, like Rose Hilton in ‘A Daughter of the Factory’. I enjoyed sex and tried to write about it in my novels, but Lancastrians were a prudish lot in those days so I had to tone a lot of it down.

I don’t think getting people elected onto the council or into parliament is enough, but perhaps it’s part of it. People need to organise themselves and create the world they want to see through their own effort. I wasn’t a very successful parliamentarian or councillor. I stood for Foxhall ward here in Blackpool but didn’t get in.

Let’s go back to my writing. When I was a young man I had a mission. I wanted to give the working class life – of Lancashire mainly because I know it well – faithful expression in the literature of England. My novels, like ‘The Knobstick’, ‘Slaves of Shuttle and Spindle’, ‘Lancashire Lasses and Lads’ and all the rest try to do just that, with varying degrees of success. I had a lot of different influences. As a young lad I read the classics, from my dad’s bookshelf. Later, I grew to love Thomas Hardy, Dickens and the poetry of Keats and Shelley. Above all, Walt Whitman and I’m very pleased to see that Bolton still cherishes his memory. He was the Bard of Democracy. He wanted men and women to build a new world, a world of comradeship. I occasionally bump into Wallace and Dr Johnston, the two most celebrated Bolton Whitmanites, and I occasionally have a celestial cycle ride with Fred Wild, who was a bit more down to earth and frivolous than his friend Wallace. The one thing Fred complains about up here is the lack of Magee’s ale. I have always loved cycling and still regard my bike as a sentient being, only a little lower than the angels (I hope they don’t mind me seeing that). My bike is a pulsing amplification of my own personality. In my later years I loved cycling around the lanes of my ‘Windmill Land’ and I’d be back there tomorrow if she’d let me.

Now, let’s put this issue to rest. Who was I? Most of my readers knew me as ‘Teddy Ashton’, not as Allen Clarke. I don’t have a problem with that. I daresay Teddy Ashton’s droll sketches have done more to help reforms than far more pretentious and direct articles from Allen Clarke. For ‘Teddy’ even in his comic dialect sketches, poked sly fun and undermining sarcasm at the iniquities and social injustices of the day.

I started my dialect stories as a way of making some of my magazines a bit more readable. The success of those stories astonished nobody more than myself. To tell you the truth I felt a bit disappointed that people should be so greedy for such frivolity and neglect the reading of my more instructive articles. Yes, it was a bit short-sighted of me and I grew to understand that laughter is one of the best and most helpful things in the world.

And I’ll tell you one thing for nowt. More people read my ‘Teddy Ashton’ sketches than any other dialect writer. I reckon I sold more than a million copies of my ‘Tum Fowt’ sketches. Not bad for a little piecer from Daubhill. If I’d have stuck to the ‘Teddy Ashton’ sketches I might have become a rich man, but that was never something I was bothered about. You can’t take it with you and there wasn’t much to take, about £500 I recall. ‘Teddy Ashton’ was but one side, and that perhaps only a small side, of the multiple personality of whom I was part.

There was no shortage of injustices to attack in my day. You’re better off now, though I would have hoped you’d be doing better than you are. At least you don’t have child labour. Women have got the vote but they’re still the bottom dog. Poverty is still with you, here in Bolton. I had high hopes of Clem Attlee in 1945 but Thatcher turned the clock back. This lot are no better. Maybe worse. But from where I am, it looks like a vastly changed world from my time. You’ll always get those old fogies who are always telling the younger generation that there were no times like their times. I will say challengingly that you have a better world, a cleaner world and a pleasanter world in almost every way than it was when I was a round. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep fighting for a better world. You’ve had rather a lot of wars since I left this place. I’ve always felt that humanity’s greatest cause is peace. Every one of us ought to do all we can, in every way, to prevent war. I wish humanity would sue its brains, not in devising ever more sophisticated ways to slaughter each other, but in developing society towards the ideal state that will ensure peace for all. We must live together and respect each other. In my time there was much hatred towards the Irish and I see today you still have attacks on Muslims, Jews, gay people who happen to be different, whether in their skins or their beliefs.

What about the North of England today? I always said the factory-based textile industry would wither and die and so it has. But what’s there in its place? I dreamed of what today you call ‘self-sustaining communities’ based on co-operation and mutual aid. Growing our own food, building our own communities. And it is happening to some extent, I’ll grant you. I would still like to see Lancashire as a cluster of small villages and towns, each with its own industrial base, doing its own spinning and weaving, with its theatre, gym, schools for all ages, libraries, baths and all things necessary for body and soul. But I’ll pass that particular baton on you, dear friends.

And, from where I am up here, it’s good to see local co-ops starting up, people organising in their own communities.  You might say that I was a bit of an anarchist, and there’s some truth in that. Tolstoy was, for me, the greatest person who ever lived. But he didn’t throw bombs and do stupid tricks like that. Change will come peacefully, or it will be the wrong sort of change.  Look what happened in Russia, where we had such great hopes. It’s got to be a gradual, bottom-up sort of thing. You don’t show much sign of learning that. But I still cherish the vision, and I still hold the faith, that in spite of everything against it, humanity is evolving towards the socialist commonwealth. I tried to achieve heaven on earth with the ‘Daisy Colony’ near Carleton, before the so-called ‘Great War’. You would call it today a sort of socialist commune. A shame it didn’t work out but it was worth having a go.

Back in the 1890s I was harping on about ‘the environment’, when there was no smoke control and places like Bolton and Huddersfield were polluted hells. It’s good that you are more aware of all these ‘green’ issues but do you really think that this nuclear malarkey, and fracking whatever that is, will solve your energy needs? Of course it won’t, any more than the car will solve your transport problems. I could see where things were going back in the 30s as the car started to become popular. What a mess you’ve made as a result of your fixation on this four-wheeled monster. Stick to walking, bike and use the bus and train for going further afield.

And good luck with your Hannah Mitchell Foundation. The North needs a voice and that’s what I tried to do with my ‘Northern Weekly’. I met Hannah a few times and she was a strong advocate of rights for women and children and could write a good dialect tale. A tough customer, but women had to be in those days. I think she’d be pleased to be associated with your campaign for a ‘Northern’ government. If I bump into her up here I’ll pass on your best wishes.

Well, you’ve heard enough from me. As far as I can see I lived to express myself, my thoughts, my fancies, my visions in words, songs, tale and talk; to entertain, cheer and uplift my fellow beings, to help and better the lot of the afflicted and unfortunate and to make the world better for all children. It’s good to have sampled this world, to have known and loved my fellow beings, to have fought against injustice and battled for righteousness.

One last word. I came to the startling conclusion, a few years before I left this place, that we came into this world not to toil but to play, mostly to play, and to see and enjoy the show. Where better to do that than here in Blackpool? Have a good discussion.




Allen Clarke was one of the most important figures in the growth of socialism in Lancashire. Like his more well-known contemporary Robert Blatchford, he was a great propagandist, but he used dialect as his chosen medium to put across a socialist message. He became the doyen of late nineteenth century Lancashire dialect writers but is virtually forgotten today. He was perhaps the most popular socialist dialect writer, but not the only one. Across the Pennines, Ben Turner wrote dialect poetry which supported the socialist cause. In the North East, miner Tommy Armstrong wrote songs and poetry in the dialect of the Durham Coalfield to support his fellow miners, be they strike ballads or laments about pit disasters. In Lancashire itself, Clarke nurtured an extensive network of radical working class dialect writers which included Fred Plant of Stockport, Arthur Laycock in Blackpool and Sarah Robinson in Padiham.

What they each had in common were deep roots in their respective communities and a desire to use their literary skills to promote the cause of socialism.  Writing in dialect sent a strong message that they were part of a very distinctive community based on shared values and experiences.

Allen Clarke was the son of cotton workers, born in Bolton in 1863. It was a highly political family. Both his father and grandfather were men of strong convictions, and supporters of the Fenian Movement in their home country. His father, a cotton spinner, was active in his trade union and was blacklisted.  Clarke was strongly influenced by the 1887 Bolton Engineers’ Strike, which formed the backdrop to his novel, ‘The Knobstick’. The strike, lasting six months, was over wage cuts and reductions in overtime, and brought thousands of Bolton’s most skilled workers out onto the streets. During the strike troops were drafted into the town and though the engineering employers claimed a victory, several ‘labour’ candidates were subsequently elected to Bolton Council.

Clarke’s early political writings, in papers such as his own Labour Light can hardly be said to be original. It was when he used the Lancashire vernacular to put over a socialist message that he really came to life as a greater writer, as we see in the novels, the early poetry and also many of the ‘Tum Fowt’ sketches. Clarke’s invention of ‘Teddy Ashton’ as the archetypal Lancastrian was following a well-established literary convention. His fellow Boltonian, J.T. Staton was one of several dialect writers in the 1860s and 1870s who created a standard character – in his case ‘Bobby Shuttle’ – who could be used as a commentator on issues of the day. The character was usually, superficially, slightly daft, but with plenty of common sense and homely wisdom. In later years George Formby became such a stage creation – the seemingly thick Lancashire lad who always managed to turn the tables on the ‘toffs’. Clarke created a character with whom his working class readership could identify with – Bill Spriggs, but also his wife Bet. His supporting characters, Joe Lung, Patsy Filligan, Ben Roke and other denizens of ‘The Dug an’ Kennel’ were used to poke fun at authority and affirm a  strong sense of pride in being part of the Lancashire working class. ‘Teddy Ashton’ featured as a character in some of the sketches, occasionally acting as secretary to ‘The Tum Fowt Debatin’ Menociation’

Clarke became a strong supporter of the ‘Labour Church’ movement which had a strong base in Bolton from the early 1890s. The movement was led by John Trevor who wanted to create a secular religion based around the Labour movement. It was founded at a meeting in Chorlton Town Hall on October 4th 1891. Bolton’s Labour Church was a congenial home to socialists and radical Liberals. It was led by James Sims – “a sturdy old veteran in the cause of labour” – who became a good friend of Clarke’s. Its breadth and non-sectarian character appealed strongly to Clarke, who hated the rivalries and jealousies of the left. Clarke was a regular attender at Labour Church meetings – he was advertised as speaking on ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ on Sunday April 19th 1903.

Clarke and Blatchford were good friends for many years, until Blatchford’s support for war and empire became too much for Clarke to stomach. They had a major falling-out over the Boer War which resurfaced in 1903 with an acrimonious exchange of letters. The friendship did not survive.

Clarke supported the broad socialist cause and in 1900 was selected as the joint ILP and SDF candidate to fight the Rochdale seat in the General Election. This was shortly after The Boer War, which Clarke, and most socialists, had strongly opposed. His election manifesto – ‘My Say to the People of Rochdale’ emphasises his moral beliefs and his understanding of working class life. He opposes colonialism, child labour and unemployment, with a wish to “make the world brighter for everybody.” His election manifesto was written in Lancashire dialect and appeared in Rochdale Labour News.

Clarke’s politics evolved in a quite radical direction after 1900, with a growing interest in Tolstoyan anarchism. Anarchism in Britain, and indeed most European countries, was as diverse as ‘socialism’, with violent and non-violent wings. Tolstoy was a leading proponent of non-violent anarchism, advocating rural communes to alleviate unemployment in the industrial cities, which would ultimately become the way of life for everyone. Clarke led the creation of a Tolstoyan community on the outskirts of Blackpool – ‘The Daisy Colony’. Like many such idealistic projects, it was short-lived. During 1905 and 1906 Clarke actively promoted ‘The Industrial Union of Direct Actioniists’ in his Northern Weekly, which came to resemble an anarchist journal. But Clarke’s real contribution to libertarian politics was his use of humour to undermine authority, in sketches like ‘Bill Spriggs as a Policeman’. During a major strike in a Bolton mill in 1906 he ran a series of sketches in dialect which supported the workers’ cause, under the pseudonym of ‘Billy Pickinpeg’.

Clarke’s politics were akin to the libertarian ‘larger socialism’ of Edward Carpenter, the fellow Whitmanite who shared many friends with Clarke, notably J W Wallace, John Johnston and Fred Wild, the main figures in the Bolton Whitman circle Clarke admired Carpenter’s writings and spoke glowingly of Love’s Coming of Age in a Northern Weekly editorial on January 20th 1906. The same edition carried a review of Ernest Crosby’s pamphlet Edward Carpenter: Poet and Prophet. Clarke also ran a major feature on Carpenter by Crosby in Northern Weekly of February 7th and 14th 1903 as well as an article by Carpenter himself on ‘The Unrest of Civilization’. Writing in Northern Weekly some time later, on January 20th 1906, Clarke wrote about “this wise and good man” and urged readers to get a copy of Tom Swan’s book Edward Carpenter – The Man and His Message’.

Clarke’s peak of popularity was between the years 1896 and 1908, when he was producing his weekly newspaper. Alongside The Clarion, Cotton Factory Times and Yorkshire Factory Times (all of which he wrote for) he was able to influence tens of thousands of Lancashire and Yorkshire readers. Perhaps not quite as influential as Blatchford, he nonetheless had a huge impact, converting people to socialism through laughter and love of the open air. Not a bad combination.

He moved to Blackpool in the early twentieth century and wrote perhaps his most popular book, Windmill Land, an exotic mix of local history and folk lore, cycle trips and rambling expeditions, and the occasional injection of radical politics. He remained true to his early beliefs, writing a series of autobiographical articles in The Liverpool Weekly Post in 1934 which celebrated great figures in the socialist movement, including James Connolly. He died in December 1935.

Lancashire’s Romantic Radical: The Life and Writings of Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton, by Paul Salveson, was published by Little Northern Books in 2009 and is available at the reduced price £10 (or £15 hardback).  For more details email:

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