Clarion History – 7: The Clarion and Labour Leader

6 August 2018

The foundation of the Clarion at the very end of 1891 coincided with – and indeed was part of – an upsurge in radicalism centred on working-class struggles – like the long-running strike at Manningham Mills in Bradford. By 1893, as we have seen it had led to the election in 1892 – for as it turned out only until 1895 – of Keir Hardie as an ‘Independent Labour’ MP and then of the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

At this time the only other explicitly socialist paper operating nationally was Justice – like the Clarion a weekly paper. Justice was edited by Harry Quelch, one of those remarkable late Victorian autodidacts who somehow overcame a more or less non-existent formal education to acquire all the skills   necessary to edit a very literate paper. It is said that he taught himself both French and German in order to be able to put the rest of the international socialist movement right at international conferences.   Justice was the paper of the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and had been hard at work spreading the word for the previous decade. Relations between Justice and the Clarion, and between the SDF’s leading figure Henry Hyndman and Blatchford, were pretty good.   You may recall from the second of these little pieces on Clarion history Blatchford saying that ‘I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman’   But the two papers were very different publications.

While Justice was very much the organ if the SDF and largely concerned with its campaigns and internal debates, the Clarion sought – and obtained – a much wider role as a socialist paper independent of any party. Yet in 1893 it had often seemed to speak for the new ILP. That was to change the following year, 1894, when Keir Hardie started his own paper – Labour Leader. Although the Leader was as much an independent paper speaking for Hardie as the Clarion was for Blatchford from the start it was seen as the official organ of the ILP. Such is the power of parliamentary politics in this country. It would eventually – in the early 20th century – be taken over by the ILP when the party bought it from Hardie.

There is little if any doubt that Blatchford and Co resented Hardie’s new paper whose very existence they tended to see as a criticism of the adequacy of the Clarion. That said, they didn’t think much of Hardie’s paper which they regarded as pretty boring and pedestrian. Whatever the rights and wrongs of all this the papers became rival mouthpieces for those involved in disputes within the ILP. As we shall see in later episodes time after time the Clarion would take up the cause of ‘dissident’ groupings in the ILP. If Hardie and Labour Leader were the ILP ‘establishment’, the Clarion was, among many other things, the bolt-hole of its rebels.

Partly this was a matter of the very different personalities of Blatchford and Hardie. To Blatchford and many around the Clarion, Hardie was too earnest and self-important. To those on Hardie’s side Blatchford was too frivolous and lacked the patience to pursue a sustained campaign. I think there was a large element of truth on both sides.

But there was also a philosophical or ideological difference. As his latter career would demonstrate – more than any other single individual he was responsible for the creation of the Labour Party – Hardie was firmly focussed on practical politics – especially winning or at least trying to win elections, Blatchford was not against this but it had a much lower priority in his scheme of things. For him the key task was ‘making socialists’ – something he was supremely good at as I showed in the last episode about Merrie England. For Blatchford the practicalities of the election of MPs and local councillors could be more or less left to happen spontaneously.   Spending too much time on such things was both diverting from the real task of converting public opinion and had the tendency to be mundanely boring .


Next Time – the very beginning of the Clarion Cycling Club





Clarion History – 6 Merrie England

25 July 2018

In 1893 Blatchford wrote a series of Clarion articles in the form of ‘Letters to John Smith of Oldham – A Practical Working Man’. These seemed to go down well with readers so the following year they were published in book form as Merrie England. Much later The Manchester Guardian  would say that for every British convert to socialism made by Das Kapital there were a hundred made by Merrie England. Blatchford was, according to Stanley Pierson in Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism, published in 1973, ‘by far the most effective recruiter for Socialism in England.’

I have a 1908 version of the book. Originally the book’s title page gave as the author ‘Robert Blatchford (Nunquam)’ and it was dedicated to ‘A. M Thompson (Dangle)’ By 1908 the nicknames had vanished, Blatchford was described as ‘Editor of the “Clarion”’ and the dedication was to ‘A M Thompson and the Fellowship’ meaning the Clarion Fellowship which united many parts of the Clarion movement including many members of the Cycling Club.

The book begins with a chapter on ‘The Problems of Life’ and ends 26 short chapters later with ‘Is It Nothing to You?’   On the way there are chapters on a range of concerns including ‘Can England Feed Herself?’ ‘Who Makes the Wealth and Who Gets It?’ and ‘The Rights of the Individual.’

The 1908 book is full of interesting adverts, apart from the actual meat of the book of course, some of which I may quote from in future episodes. But for the moment I will confine myself to just one. It is a general ad for the paper which will give an idea of just how important it was in the two decades prior to World War I. It tells us that ‘The CLARION has a circulation of over 80,000 and is the most popular and representative organ of Socialism in the Kingdom.’

The ‘Publishers’ Preface’ tells to story of Merrie England up to that time.

The success of “Merrie England” is a phenomenon which neither the author nor his publishers feel competent to explain.

Originally issue in 1894, the little book passed through many editions , at prices ranging from five shillings down to one penny, and the total sales in this country, in Europe and in the United States is said to have exceeded two million copies.

“Merrie England” was translated into Welsh, Dutch, German, Swedish, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Danish and Norwegian.

“Merrie England” has been out of print from some years, and is now reissued to meet the urgent demands of the public. That this is no mere form of speech is proved by the fact that more than 20,000 copies have been ordered before any public announcement of this edition has been made.


Next time The Clarion and Labour Leader

Clarion History – 5 The Clarion and the founding of the ILP

16 July 2018

The Clarion began publication in December 1891.  1892 was an important year in British politics in several ways.  The election in July brought the 82 year old Gladstone back to Downing Street for a final  time. [He lasted until 1894 when he was defeated – again – on Home Rule for Ireland  by the House of Lords] It also saw Dadabhai Naoroji the first British MP of Indian origin elected– as a Liberal for Finsbury Central.

Three ‘Labour’ candidates were also elected. Havelock Wilson, founder and president of the National Sailors’ and Fireman’s Union was elected against Liberal opposition as an ‘Independent Labour’ candidate. But he soon nevertheless aligned himself with the Liberals. John Burns, who had come to prominence in 1889 in the London Dock Strike, christened ‘the man with the red flag’ by the press, was elected as a Liberal. He was on the Radical wing of the Liberal Party, would oppose the ‘Boer War’ and resign as a minister when war broke out in 1914.

That left Keir Hardie as the most unequivocally ‘independent Labour’ success. He created a stir by refusing to dress up – complete with top hat – for the House of Commons and was supposed to have worn a ‘flat cap’ – actually a deerstalker hat. By this time, as I mentioned last time, a number of local parties like the Bradford Labour Union and the Manchester and Salford Independent Labout Party had come into existence.

There was a growing demand that they should link up and form an national organisation. There was support from the Clarion and from Joseph Burgess paper the Workman’s Times which collected over 3,000 signatures supporting this. The 1892 TUC had set up a committee which then called what turned out to be the founding conference of the Independent Labour Party – ILP from now on – in January 1893. The two-day conference took place, appropriately, in Bradford.

Hardie was elected as chair. Many people who took no further part in the ILP – e g George Bernhard Shaw and various other Fabians, and a few SDF branches took part in the conference.  The Clarion supported the proposal to call the new organisation  the Socialist Labour Party and especially to adopt the ‘Manchester Fourth Clause’  which I explained in the last edition.  Nevertheless the conference adopted as its object ‘to secure the collective and communal ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. For the moment the Clarion could act as the unofficial spokesperson of the new movement. But all this was to change the following year, 1894, when Hardie set up his new weekly the Labour Leader. This began a rivalry, both personal and political, which I will return to in later episodes. But next time something a bit different.


Next time Merrie England


Clarion History – 4 The Earliest Days of the Clarion

29 June 2018

I finished the last episode the with launch the Clarion in December 1891. The paper was to survive until the early 1930s and even then there was a TUC backed initiative – which sadly didn’t last very long – to pick up on the appeal of the original paper with the New Clarion. For a weekly paper of the political Left the Clarion had a decent circulation – never less than 30,000 and often twice or even three times that.

But in 1892 just after the paper was founded the question was whether it would survive till the end of the year. As a result of a critical article the Clarion was faced with a writ for libel from a railway company. Had Blatchford and Co been faced with significant damages that would almost certainly have been the end of the Clarion, but fortunately this didn’t happen and the crisis was weathered.

I mentioned last time that in the summer of 1891 Blatchford had been adopted as an ‘independent Labour’ parliamentary candidate for the newly-formed Bradford Labour Union. One result of the threat to the paper of the legal action was that he withdrew his candidature. He was never again to stand for any sort of public office, something whose possible significance I will return to in future episodes. [For more on this, if you have access to a library likely to have a copy, see the 1951 biography of Blatchford by Laurence Thompson – son of A.M Thompson who co-founded the paper – Portrait of an Englishman. The Life of Robert Blatchford – especially for the writ crisis pp 84-85.]

Bradford was not the only place where Lib-Labism had hit the buffers. The idea of independent (of the Liberals) Labour representation was spreading fast, particularly in the North. Throughout 1892 the Manchester-based Clarion played a significant role in the spread of local organisations campaigning on these lines. This is particularly true of the Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party.

A distinctive feature of this organisation was what became known as ‘the Manchester Fourth Clause.’ Supported by the Clarion this committed members to abstain from voting for any non-socialist candidate in all circumstance – including where there was no socialist one standing. This became a significant issue for the national Independent Labour Party, founded in Bradford in 1893 which will be the subject of the next episode.


Next time The Clarion and the founding of the ILP

Clarion History

14 June 2018

3.  The Clarion is launched

I finished the last episode with Blatchford in 1891about to leave Hulton’s Sunday Chronicle on which he had a well-paid job as a leader writier. By this time he was well established as a result of his Nunquam articles. The summer of 1891 had seen him adopted as an ‘independent Labour’ parliamentary candidate for the newly-formed Bradford Labour Union. To what extent this cost him his job on the Chronicle or at least contributed to his leaving the paper is still not clear.

But it may be useful here to sketch in something of the general background. Labour, along with Land and Capital was supposed to be one of the ‘factors of production’ – but one that unlike the others was at very least under-represented if not totally unrepresented in parliament. The idea of some kind of independent Labour representation had been around for decades – since Chartist times in the mid-century – but so far the attempts had been deflected into the Liberal Party. Since 1874 there had been a growing number of Liberal-Labour (or ‘Lib-Lab’) MPs who were usually prominent trade union leaders. Mining areas were particularly good as Lib-Lab constituencies since they were populated overwhelmingly by those who if not miners themselves were closely associated with mining and where the influence of the mining unions was strong.

As mentioned last time,organised socialism was represented by the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) since the 1880s but had been unable to make a breakthrough electorally in the House of Commons. The late 1880s had seen an upsurge in trade unionism especially among (supposedly) unskilled workers. The most famous strikes were the ‘Matchgirls’ strike at Bryant and Mays in 1888 and the great London Dock Strike of 1889 but there were also conflicts in the northern manufacturing areas. In Bradford it was the long-running strike at Manningham Mills that finally broke the back of local Lib-Labism. The Liberal Party seemed to be totally on the side of the employers. Hence the idea that what was now needed was definitely ‘independent’ (that’s to say independent of the Liberal Party) representation. Hence the Bradford Labour Union – which was quickly followed by other local bodies of a similar nature

It was in this context that Blatchford left the Chronicle worked for a couple of months on Joseph Burgess’s Workman’s Times for which he wrote a series of articles on socialism. One of these asked ‘How is practical socialism to be brought about? Partly by education , partly by Parliamentary action. We want real democracy in place of the sham Party-ridden democracy now existent.’

And so – with the emphasis firmly on ‘education’ – Blatchford, together with his fellow journalists A M Thompson (aka ‘Dangle’) Edward Fay (‘the Bounder’) and a few others launched the Clarion in December 1891

Next time The Earliest Days of the Clarion




Clarion History – 2 Robert Blatchford before the Clarion

30 May 2018

Robert Blatchford, 1851-1943, was, together with his brother Montagu who later became one of the Clarion team writing mainly about the theatre and music, was the child of ‘strolling players.’ He was born in Maidstone and raised by his mother, Georgina after his father died in 1853. It was a pretty hand-to-mouth childhood with frequent moves and little in the way of a formal education, though Blatchford managed to read Dickens, the Bible and other books which would have a clear influence on his later writing style.

By 1862 the Blatchfords were in Halifax and in 1864 Robert was apprenticed to a brushmaker. At the factory he met his future wife, Sarah who he would marry in 1880. For reasons that are still not totally clear he ran away, walked to Hull and eventually made his way to London and was next heard of as a promising recruit for the British army in which he was eventually promoted to sergeant. His time in the army was a formative experience. His first biographer A Neil Lyons would maintain in a Clarion article after the outbreak of war in 1914 that the army was in his case the equivalent of university. Certainly he was later fond of writing tales of army life based on his own experience such as Tommy Atkins of the Ramchunders published in 1895. And, as I mentioned last time, his army years provided the origin of the Clarion CC greeting ‘Boots!’ and ‘Spurs!’

After leaving the army Blatchford worked as a clerk for Weaver Navigation which connected the Manchester Ship Canal with the Trent and Mersey Canal via the famous Anderton Boat Lift. In his spare time he concentrated on improving his written English and teaching himself shorthand with a view to becoming a journalist. By this time he was a friend of Alexander Thompson whose background involved an even more peripatetic childhood than Blatchford’s.

Thompson – who became the Clarion‘s ‘Dangle’ and by 1914 the paper’s virtual editor – was 10 years younger than Blatchford. Born in Karlsruhe he always insisted that German was his first language and by the mid to late 1860s was living with his parents in Paris. At the age of 10 he witnessed the horrific suppression of the Paris Commune during the Semaine Sanglante (or ‘Bloody Week’) In the Edwardian years Thompson would enjoy a second career as a successful librettist of a number of musicals including at least one smash hit. But that’s running too far ahead of the story.

By the early 1880s Thompson was working on the Manchester-based Sporting Chronicle. Through his journalistic contacts he helped Blatchford get his first newspaper job with Bell’s Life in London.

This one one of the many publications of the rising press baron Edward Hulton who, after Blatchford had written some articles for it from 1885, took him on as a leader writer – a very well-paid job – for his new Manchester paper The Sunday Chronicle. It was at this stage that he acquired his long-term pen-name Nunquam (short for Nunquam dormio – I never sleep) which he used on a number of articles exposing the poverty and the often appalling living conditions of many in the Manchester area. These were published as The Nunquam Papers  in 1891. By the end of that year Blatchford left the Hulton empire to start the Clarion – I will give an account if this next time.

Meanwhile, it is enough to say that by that time Blatchford was committed to socialism. Later, in1907, he would give the following account to the Fortnightly Review.

I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; it is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any theory of “economic justice” but upon humanity and common sense.”

[Henry Hyndman was one of the main founders of the first socialist organisation in Britain in the early 1880s the – much misunderstood – Social-Democratic Federation.]


Clarion History

15 May 2018

Clarion History 

by Ian Bullock 

1. Me and the Clarion

Not long before I began my (part-time) research at Sussex University in 1975 I’d hardly heard of The Clarion– nor, although I’d been quite a keen (touring) cyclist since childhood – and CTC member since 1954 – had I heard of the Clarion Cycling Club. I was inspired, when I began my research, by Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921, published in 1969. By this time I knew Walter very well.   In particular I was profoundly struck by the following statement in the concluding chapter of the book where he summed up the character of the British Left – or at least part of it – before the advent of Communism.

The revolutionary movement, before the transformation took place had been ultra democratic, opposed to leadership on principle, opposed to the professionalization of the Labour movement almost as an article of faith.

So, I began to explore the relationship between socialism and democracy in the British context before the First World War. Was Walter’s characterisation correct? After much reading of the sources – especially of newspapers, including of course The Clarion, and a great number of pamphlets and other writings – I came to the conclusion that, broadly, he was. The scope of my exploration was wider. Walter’s ‘revolutionary movement’ was basically the SDF/BSP, the SLP and what he called the ‘Radical Upsurge’ before and during the war which was much influenced by syndicalism and associated ideas. I was just as interested in the ILP- only the attempt of its ‘Left Wing’ to get the party to affiliate to the Comintern figures in Walter’s book – the movement centred on The Clarion and the decidedly and self-consciously not ‘ultra-democratic’ members of the Fabian Society.

There is not that much – apart from one or two biographies of Blatchford, his autobiography, My Eighty Years and that of his friend and virtual editorial partner A M Thompson – Here I Lie. The Memorial of an Old Journalist – and of course the late Denis Pye’s little book on the first 100 years of the cycling club – Fellowship is Life – that one can read on the Clarion. As I started my research there were two academic theses that I needed to study on the Clarion movement. There was Judith Fincher’s 1971 Manchester University MA thesis, ‘The Clarion Movement. A Study of a Socialist Attempt to Implement the Co-operative Commonwealth in England, 1891-1914’ and – just in time as I began my own research – Logie (or L.B J. as it says on the cover) Barrow’s 1975 London University PhD thesis ‘The socialism of Robert Blatchford and the “Clarion” movement, 1889-1918.’

My own D Phil thesis was completed in 1981 and later formed much of the book I did with Logie, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880- 1914 (Macmillan, 1996)   Not the snappiest of titles, I admit – I have improved a bit since, I think, with Romancing the Revolution and Under Siege   not the mention the book I’m working on at the moment ‘The Drums of Armageddon’ of which a bit more in a moment or two. The Clarion and the Clarion movement feature a great deal in both my thesis and Democratic Ideas. ‘Drums’ – I pinched the title from Blatchford himself – looks at the reactions to the outbreak of the First World War in the three longest established Left-wing papers – one of them being The Clarion. I begin with the last month of peace – July 1914 – with the reactions to the Sarajevo assassination of 28th June and follow the diverging responses of the three papers until the end of the year.

By the time I’d finished being a part-time research student I knew a fair bit about the Clarion movement including something about the cycling club. But this aspect was not my main focus and I just assumed that like the paper itself – which closed in 1931 – the club had died sometime before World War II. The next bit I have told about before but not for a longish while so it will bear repeating. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s it was our practice to spend Easter with Sue’s parents in Nottingham. I would devise interesting – if usually very indirect such as up the centre of Wales or via Hadrian’s Wall – ways of spending a few days cycling to my parents-in-law staying in youth hostels on the way.

I can’t remember which year it was but it was the one where I cycled via East Anglia. I remember staying at the YHA at Martham on the Broads and then at Kings Lynn. The following day was the penultimate one of my trip and I stopped at the YH at Bourne, in Hereford the Wake territory in the Fens.

I was cooking something – well, probably just warming something up – in the Members’ Kitchen of the hostel. There were a couple of what seemed to me very ancient blokes there doing likewise. (They were probably about 20 years younger than I am now – but they seemed of a venerable age at the time) I noticed that one of them was wearing a large ’trumpet’ badge saying ‘Clarion.’ Now at this point I must explain that though the cycling activities associated with The Clarion had not been anywhere near the centre of my concern when reading – or at least skimming through – every edition of The Clarion up to 1914 I had become familiar with how the ‘Boots and Spurs’ business originated. I knew that it all came from one of Blatchford’s tales about his life in the army in the 1870s. He had told how in his barrack room it had become customary to take turns telling a story after ‘lights out’.   The problem was that people tended to go off to sleep before the tale was ended. So the practice grew of the storyteller, if he suspected that the rest of the room had dropped off, saying ‘Boots!’ Anyone still awake than had to respond ‘Spurs’ This was very well known to all readers of The Clarion, so at the first Easter Meet, when nobody knew what people from other areas looked like, it was used to identify cyclists coming into town for the Clarion meeting.   It subsequently became the standard greeting and response for everyone associated with the paper and its organisations.

Anyway, amazed at spotting the Clarion badge but somehow recalling the greeting which I then thought was a thing of the distant past I said ‘Boots!’   ‘Spurs!’ he replied in great surprise and asked me how I knew about all this. It turned out that he and his friend were on their way to the Easter Meet at Skegness – at least I think it was Skegness, certainly somewhere on the East Coast.   I was delighted to learn that far from disappearing the Clarion Cycling Club was still flourishing.   As soon as I got   back to Brighton I managed to find out how to join – a lot harder in those pre-internet days – and did so as a ‘private’ member. I’d no idea then that there had been a Brighton Clarion that seems to have fizzled out in the early 1950s. I renewed my membership every year for a while but then, preoccupied with other things – work, books – I let it lapse. But after I retired in September 2003 I made new enquires and discovered that you could start a new section with as few as 3 members. At the beginning of 2004 I recruited Joyce and the late Ted (or Ed as he later preferred) Fury which made up the necessary 3. Sheila Schaffer joined up almost immediately and took part – along with Joyce and me – in our first ride. It rained a lot – not an auspicious beginning – but, as they say, the rest is history.

Well, that’s (probably more than) enough about me. So …

Boots! Next time: The Clarion is born in 1891.