Working People’s History
Cycling to Socialism
The Clarion Cycling Club, founded in 1894, was one of the most successful socialist ‘leisure’ organisations. It converted thousands to socialism (I can remember my dad urging me to join when I was a kid in the early 60s, regret I never did!).
The history has been superbly told by the late Denis Pye in his book Fellowship is Life, some copies remain. The short outline below gives you the basics. Fortunately, the club has survived, with active groups all over the UK (I can recommend the Brighton Clarion for a good, inclusive and progressive section).
There’s quite a bit about the Clarion movement in my book Socialism with a Northern Accent (see posts). If you wnat to get a feel for it, visit the ILP Clarion House near Roughlee, Lancashire. It is open every Sunday and has a history stretching back to 1912.
Here are some Clarionettes today (think I could fit in with that lot, might even be younger than some of em)
The Clarion’s (1895) Anti-fascista ride took place in 2011: from Glasgow to London via Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Cardiff, and Bristol visiting International Brigade memorials on route and arriving in London in time for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on Sunday, 2nd October.
Clarion calls: Socialism arrives by bike
‘The Clarion’ was the most successful socialist leisure network Britain has seen. Its main strength was the cycling club but it included several other activities as well, including rambling, field studies, choral singing and drama groups. It originated in 1891 as a socialist newspaper edited by Robert Blatchford (see below). Unlike most other left-wing newspapers of its time, it was written in a popular and accessible style.
Out of The Clarion came a plethora of sporting and cultural groups – the cycling club was formed in 1894, at a time when cycles were becoming affordable to most working class people. The Clarion Cycling Club combined recreation – getting out of the industrial towns for a Sunday ride with your mates – with an evangelical attempt to spread the socialist gospel. One London-based journalist wrote:
“Many quiet nooks in the Midlands and North of England have been invaded during the last few days by a band of cycling socialists who call themselves ‘The Clarion Club’. They have been endeavouring, with scant measure of success, to propagate their views in the country districts and to advertise the socialist organ after which their club is named.” (quoted in Denis Pye ‘Fellowship is Life’)
The cycling club became immensely popular, with annual ‘meets’, often in Peak District towns like Ashbourne or Bakewell, attracting several hundred delegates. The Skipton ‘meet’ of 1899 attracted 400 attendees and the organizers ran out of beds. The emphasis was on having a good time, promoting fellowship – and spreading the socialist message. The Chester Meet of 1898 attracted the attention of the Cheshire Constabulary, concerned about possible threats to public safety. The report of one of the plain clothes officers sent to the observe the meeting included the observation that “if these chaps kill anybody, it will be from laughing”.
The cycling club and the associated sporting and cultural bodies spawned by The Clarion attracted women as well as men. Alice Foley, who went on to become secretary of the Bolton Weavers’ Association, mentions saving up to buy her first bike, despite being on ‘short time’ at the mill – and then learning ride it:
“..Stolid perseverance won in the end, I shortly joined the Clarion Cycling Club and a new era of fun and comradeship opened out. In merry company we slogged up hills and freewheeled joyously down them thrilling to the beauty and excitement of a countryside as yet unspoiled by the advent of motor transport”.
Robert Blatchford and ‘The Clarion’
Robert Blatchford did much more than anyone in the early socialist movement to win supporters. Through his newspaper The Clarion, established in Manchester in 1891, and his best-selling book ‘Merrie England’, addressed to ‘John Smith of Oldham’, he won tens of thousands of converts to the broad socialist cause. Blatchford’s politics were light years away from those of Hyndman’s, or for that matter Keir Hardie’s. He was un-dogmatic and very aware of the different political landscape between the North and the South.
As a child, he lived an itinerant life style; his father had died when he was just two years old and he, his elder brother and mother, an actress, spent nine years travelling before the family settled in Halifax. He spent six years in the army, which gave him his mixture of down-to-earth jocularity and concern for ‘the common man’, combined with a yen for militarism. He left the army in 1878 and started writing.
His break into professional journalism came through a meeting with A M Thompson, a journalist on The Sunday Chronicle based in Manchester. Blatchford had a knack for writing and his articles, signed ‘Nunquam Dormio’ (‘I never sleep’) quickly became popular. Blatchford’s ‘conversion’ to socialism came in the mid-1880s, largely through his direct experience of working class poverty in the Manchester slums. His socialist influences were diffuse. He certainly read A Summary of the Principles of Socialism, written by that unlikely combination, H.M. Hyndman and William Morris. He had also been influenced by that forgotten but extremely important work of its time, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. Blatchford’s socialism owed nothing to Marx, a bit to Morris and Hyndman, and much to his own direct experience and sense of ‘fairness’ and outrage at the conditions that many working class people had to endure. In August 1889 he began a series of articles which came to form the basis of Merrie England. They were written as a series of letters to a ‘typical’ working man – John Smith of Oldham. The Sunday Chronicle hovered between Liberalism and Socialism, though by 1891 Blatchford was ready for a new departure, with him in charge of a clearly socialist newspaper. It was to be The Clarion. The first issue appeared on December 12th 1891 and sold 40,000 copies; circulation settled down to a creditable 30,000 within the first few months. He took A M Thompson and Edward Fay with him and created a newspaper which was lively, popular and socialist. They managed to see of an attempted libel case brought by a railway company aggrieved at Blatchford’s exposure of their cheating employees out of overtime pay.
Blatchford joined the ILP on its formation but was never a ‘party’ animal. He had a difficult relationship with Keir Hardie, who had his own newspaper, The Labour Leader. Stodgy and worthy, it was the opposite of The Clarion in everything except its socialism. Circulation of The Clarion continued to grow. Blatchford’s biographer, Laurence Thompson, said that “those who read it, loved it, not as a weekly paper, but as a friend.”
Keir Hardie did not like it. In 1903 he wrote that “for a time in England, the fibre of the Socialist Movement was almost totally destroyed by a spirit of irresponsible levity…Socialism is a serious task, demanding serious work at the hands of its advocates, and anything which introduces levity or frivolity into the movement is hindering, not helping, its progress.” Fortunately, many people didn’t see it that way.
Young working class men and women devoured what had become known as ‘The Perisher’ and joined the growing number of cycling, walking and cultural groups being set up in The Clarion’s name. Whilst these groups owed complete loyalty to the paper and to Blatchford, it is important to stress that Blatchford did not ‘control’ them. The cycling club, formed in 1894, had an energetic executive led for many years by Tom Groom. News of their rides, ‘annual meets’ and other doings were extensively reported in the paper, but each group had its own organisation.
Blatchford’s letters to ‘John Smith of Oldham’ were published in book form as Merrie England, in 1892. Thompson estimates the total sales of the book approached two million and countless working class autobiographies tell of how the book ‘made them into socialists’. It put across a clear, simple message based on people’s own experience.
Blatchford worked closely with another ‘unconventional’ socialist, Victor Grayson, to argue for ‘socialist unity’. The ILP and the SDF had different policies in some areas, and perhaps most importantly a different ‘culture’. But at local level, especially in the North, the two worked very closely and often ran joint candidates. Blatchford and Grayson campaigned strongly for a united socialist party, though when the British Socialist Party was formed, in 1911, it was essentially the old SDF with the addition of a few ILP branches and members. Hardie, Glasier and the bulk of the ILP remained aloof.
There was another side to Blatchford’s populist socialism, which was to lose him many friends, including Allen Clarke, with whom he briefly shared a house in Blackpool. Blatchford never shook off his youthful militarism and ‘jingoism’. Whilst many socialists opposed Britain’s role in the Boer war, Blatchford supported it. In the early years of the twentieth century be became increasingly anti-German, and when war broke out in 1914 he was stridently pro-war. Socialists like Hardie opposed the war or in some cases gave it half-hearted support. Not so Blatchford, who used his paper to rally support for the war and against Germany. Blatchford, in an echo of some of the debates on the left today, berated those socialists who seemed to be ashamed of ‘their own country’ and argued for a ‘progressive patriotism’.
By 1924 Blatchford was supporting the Conservative Party, an increasingly isolated figure. Yet his failings should not blind us to his remarkable achievements – the man who did more than anyone to ‘make socialists’ and make socialism fun.
The Clarion inspired a huge network of cycling and rambling clubs, field naturalists, choirs and even orchestras. Most of these were based in the North of England and complemented the organised political groups, particularly the ILP but also the SDF at a local level.
Despite their mutual dislike, Blatchford and Hardie had much in common in their vision of socialism, though Blatchford’s politics certainly had a greater element of sheer fun and pleasure than the rather stern, puritanical socialism of the younger Hardie.
Some other snippets….
The picture below is of a group of women cleaners at Low Moor depot, Bradford, in 1916. They have been lavishing their attentions on lancashire and Yorkshire Railway ‘Highflyer’ – the pride of the shed and used for the London expresses via Penistone.
Here’s a nice shot of Bolton Loco’s Mutual Improvement Class on a coach trip in the 50s. Pictures like this are precious – if you have photos of workmates don’t throw them away, the National Railway Museum or your Local Studies Library will want them. (photo courtesy of Bert Welsby)
If you’re interested in railway social history, take a look at ‘Northern Rail Heritage’ published by Little Northern Books. A workmanlike introduction to the subject, you might say.
Railway Workers’ Culture: poetry, prose and art by Britain’s railway workers
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