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.]