Cyclists in Harrogate in 1900 – note copies of the Clarion on display! (Observer 20.1.13)
The Clarion newspaper was the most influential Socialist newspaper ever published in Britain, creating thousands of Socialists and inspiring a whole social movement. The movement was divided by the First World War and never recovered.
The first issue of The Clarion was published on 12 December 1891. The offices were in City Buildings, Corporation Street, Manchester, although the paper moved to Fleet Street in 1895. (The building still stands unoccupied and derelict opposite the Co-operative Bank). The Clarion was founded by Robert Blatchford.
Blatchford was born in Maidstone in 1851. He came from a theatrical family, his father John being a comedian and his mother Georgina an actress. He had little schooling and was largely self-educated, spending his time reading during regular bouts of childhood illness. The family eventually settled in Halifax where Robert was apprenticed as a brushmaker. He did not go into the trade, leaving the town in 1871 and joining the army where he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major.
After leaving the army he got a job as a storeman with the Weaver Navigation Company in Northwich and began writing short stories in his spare time. This led to him writing a column for a newspaper in Leeds and then into full-time journalism, first in London and then in Manchester where he worked for Edward Hulton, writing for the Sunday Chronicle under the pen-name Nunquam (Nunquam Dormio – I do not sleep.) His salary was now an astonishing £1,000 a year.
Increasingly he wrote about slum conditions in Manchester and was taken around some of the worst cellars in Hulme and Ancoats by a local Socialist, Joe Waddington. Blatchford finally became a Socialist after reading What is Socialism, written by Henry Hyndman and William Morris. Blatchford was not a theoretician but came to Socialism because he saw it as a practical solution to the poverty and misery he had personally witnessed. He later wrote:
“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.”
Hulton would not let him write about Socialism in the Morning Chronicle so Blatchford walked out of his job and set up The Clarion, along with his brother Montague, Alex Thompson, Edward Fay and Robert Suthers. It was a huge gamble but fortunately for them many of Blatchford’s readers followed him to the new venture and The Clarion soon became a welcome weekly visitor to thousands of households and attracted a fierce loyalty from its readers. The Clarion was never a dry-as-dust theoretical journal, but a jovial mix of news, comment, short stories, songs and poetry.
Blatchford and The Clarion made Socialists. As George R Taylor put it in his book Leaders Of Socialism, Past and Present, published in 1910,
“…..Robert Blatchford…..can manufacture Socialist more quickly then anyone else. Tipton Limited sells more tea than any other firm, Lever sells more soap; one factory makes more boots; another most chairs. Mr Blatchford and The Clarion make more Socialists than any rival establishment.”
Blatchford’s pamphlet Merrie England: a Series of Letters on the Labour Problem, based on articles originally published in The Clarion, appeared in 1893, priced at a shilling. The first run of 25,000 sold out and it was then reprinted, the price lowered at penny and sold by the hundreds of thousands. It was addressed to “John Smith of Oldham, a hard-headed workman fond of facts” and set out practical reasons why Socialism was necessary, ending by presenting readers with a stark choice:
“This question of Socialism is the most important and imperative question of the age. It will divide, is now dividing, society into two camps. In which camp will you elect to stand? On the one side there are individualism and competition –leading to a “great trade” and great miseries. On the other side is justice, without which can come no good, from which can come no evil. On the one hand are ranged all the sages, all the saints, all the martyrs, all the noble manhood and pure womanhood of the world; on the other hand are the tyrant, the robber, the manslayer, the libertine, the usurer, the slave-driver, the drunkard, and the sweater. Choose your party, then, my friend, and let us get to the fighting.”
The Clarion supported the three year strike in the slate mines at Bethesda in Wales by raising money for the strikers. Its readers now set up a social network of societies, including the Clarion Cycling Club (which is still going), Vocal Unions, Clarion Fellowship, Clarion Handicraft Clubs, Clarion Scouts, Rambling Clubs and Cinderella Clubs (which arranged events for children). In 1908 the Clarion Café was opened at 50a Market Street; this lasted until the 1930s.
The Clarion Cycling Club began one evening in February 1894 when Tom Groom and five others men held a meeting in the Labour Church in Birmingham and decided to set up a Socialist Cycling Club. Their first tour was at the Easter weekend and was later written up for The Clarion, in which Tom Groom described how they left Wolverhampton on a damp morning and cycled around Worcestershire, enjoying the pleasure of the countryside – and its pubs!
“Suddenly the first man rang his bell, and discounted, the others following suit. The first man spake not, but pointed with trembling delight to where they sold the Clarion…..We all marched in, in order, purchased our Clarions and then, as solemnly walked out, mounted our machines, and then proceeded on our way as men who had had glimpses of higher things.”
Tom concluded his report, “We had spent as grand a holiday as possible. Ah-h! It was glorious! Say no man lives until he has been on tour with the Clarion CC. Till then he but exists.”
His report inspired others to set up their own Clarion Cycling Clubs and in 1895 over one hundred cyclists met up at Easter in Ashbourne for the first annual meet, a tradition that still continues. There were rides out, songs and drinking in the George & Dragon. As the cycling clubs grew Clarion clubhouses were set up to allow the cyclists to get away for a cheap weekend in the country. The first was a caravan set up over the summer of 1895 at Tabley Brook, near Knutsford, by two Manchester CCC members Charlie Reekie and J S Sutcliffe. A permanent Clubhouse in an old house was opened in June 1897 at Bucklow Hill, leased from a farmer for 5 years. This was followed an old farmhouse in Handforth which ran from 1903 to 1936. Collin Coates later wrote:
“To be able to wheel out on a Saturday or Sunday after the week’s toil and moil in the dingy office, the stuffy warehouse, the reeking slum, the enervating mill, workshop or mine – to one’s own house…..which was the rendezvous of kindred soul bubbling over with the spirit of the newly–found fellowship, was indeed taste of the joys to be had in the ‘days-a-coming’.”
Other Clubhouses were set up in Wharfedale, Halewood, the Ribble Valley, the Midlands and Essex. One Clarion House survives near Nelson-on-Colne, opened in 1912 by Nelson ILP. It welcomes visitors, walkers and cyclists still.
The Clarion had a women’s column almost from the start, written firstly by Eleanor Keeling and then from October 1895 by Julia Dawson. In February 1896 Julia told her readers that she wanted to organise a Clarion Van tour over the summer. A horse-drawn van had already been offered and would be sent out on the road with two or three women on board, stopping in towns and villages to hold meetings and distribute Socialist literature. She appealed for women to come forward as speakers and for donations to fund the venture. These appeals were successful and in June the Van set off from Liverpool. The speakers on the first tour included Caroline Martyn, Ada Nield and Sarah Reddish. The Van toured Cheshire and Staffordshire and then went north, finishing up on Tyneside after fifteen weeks’ hard campaigning. On the way the women had addressed thousands of people. It was judged a great success and repeated in following years. By 1907 the number of Vans had risen to six.
The Clarion movement was fractured in 1914 when Robert Blatchford supported the war. He had already incensed many of readers in 1899 when he supported the Boer war. He had also supported calls for a stronger navy and army and had written articles in the Daily Mail about the “German Menace.” Now with war a reality he turned on his former comrades, some of whom were imprisoned for their conscientious objection to the slaughter.
Collin Coates later reflected that:
“We could not equate Socialism, as we had understood it, with the organised killing of others of our own class. This attitude aroused Blatchford to a pitch of patriotic fervour which caused him to abuse and vilify such of us as had failed to drop our Socialism for a narrow nationalism.”
The paper struggled on after the war but it was never the same. The Labour Party was now a growing force electorally, prepared to enter government on a pragmatic basis, whilst on its left the newly formed Communist party was attracting young idealists. The paper became monthly in 1927 and finally disappeared in 1934, its heyday long past. Blatchford himself died in 1943 and now slept.
Article by Michael Herbert and reproduced with the author’s permission.
There is more Clarion history under the “Clarion History” tab.