The Origins of the Clarion by Ian Bullock (Brighton and Hove Clarion)
For an overall history of the Clarion Cycling Club everyone should read – mark, learn and inwardly digest – Denis Pye’s excellent little book Fellowship is Life. I can only add a bit of detail here and there.
In the book, Denis explains that it all began with a letter from Birmingham- based Tom Groom – aka “The O Groomie O” – giving an account of the tour he and six other regular readers of the Clarion made during the Easter weekend cycling from Wolverhampton to Evesham. He quotes a paragraph or so from Tom’s report. The idea caught on and a year later when the first Easter Meet took place at Ashbourne there were Clarion CCs all over the place and somewhere around 120 people attended the Meet. The cycling craze of the 1890s could be very liberating – especially for women – and both the paper and the Cycling Club were at the forefront of encouraging women to participate.
Like Topsy, it just grew and by the outbreak of World War I it had reached what I think we would now regard as massive proportions. For example In the issue of 3 July 1914 there were 95 reports from cycling clubs – as well as quite a few others from other sorts of Clarion activities. That’s worth repeating – ninety five – I counted them! And we can be sure that not every club managed to get a report in every week. And by that time as well as club reports the paper regularly featured Tom Groom’s “Clarion Cyclorama.” Tom Groom, is of course, still fondly remembered with the award of the Tom Groom Trophy every year at the Easter Meet.
One thing people tend to remember about the early Clarion cycling clubs is the propaganda activity of putting socialist stickers on cows and other convenient places. What is less appreciated, unless they read Denis (p 30) is that this was controversial, discouraged by the paper itself and seems to have been a very short-lived practice. Here’s Blatchford from his “Editorial Notes” 1 June 1895
I must say that I don’t like the idea and never did. If I saw any kind of labels – Socialist, religious or what not – stuck on the rocks on rocks and trees, I am sure I should not be pleased. And do you think much good can come of it? If a man sees these labels plastered over the woods and hills, is he not more likely to be angry at the defacement of Nature than be edified by the matter the labels bear?
Blatchford, the inspiration of the whole Clarion thing as well as the founder and editor of the paper, was a more complex character than is sometimes supposed. He is generally acknowledged as by far the most successful proponent of socialism – via, not only the Clarion, but his best-selling shilling pamphlet Merrie England,’ first published in 1893. Later the Manchester Guardian would sum up its influence; “For every convert made by Das Kapital, there were a hundred made by Merrie England.”
Although Blatchford and the Clarion played an important role in the birth of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) – also in 1893, it is tempting to say that they were not particularly interested in politics. But this would be an over-simplification. True Blatchford was not much bothered about elections. And he didn’t at all get on with Keir Hardie and much of the ILP leadership – which later became a major part of the Labour Party leadership.
Partly this was because for him it was all a matter of “making socialists” – winning people to the cause – hence the Clarion vans that made propaganda tours up and down the country. If enough socialists were “made,” he seemed to believe, politics would look after itself. The best summary of this approach I have come across comes not from Blatchford but from Tom Groom in a piece in the Clarion in October 1914. The objective of the movement was to create the desire
When that desire is great enough the professional politician will supply the goods, whether he calls himself Liberal, Tory or Labour Man. Our work is to create that desire,
And meanwhile, why wait for the arrival of Utopia? Why not start living the sort of egalitarian, democratic and sociable life you’d like to NOW! Hence not only the cycling clubs but also the vocal unions, choirs, camera clubs, rambling clubs, swimming clubs, dramatic societies and the always convivial Clarion Fellowship. Hence also the Cinderalla Clubs that organised enjoyable trips and parties for underprivileged children.
But the Clarion did stand for a new sort of politics – what we would now call a “bottom up” sort of politics. If you wanted to annoy Blatchford the surest way was to refer to him as a “leader.” He didn’t mind being thought a guide, philosopher and friend but he insisted he neither was nor wanted to be a leader. And in the 1890s – and beyond – he and the Clarion supported the idea of direct democracy via the referendum and initiative. They also supported what they thought might be a less bureaucratic and more democratic trade union movement to replace the TUC which also involved direct democracy. [Anyone interested to find out more should have a look at Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914 by me and Logie Barrow (CUP, 1996) especially chapters 2 and 4 and for an account– largely Logie’s – of the short-lived National and International Federation of Trade and Labour unions – chapter 6.] Blatchford and the Clarion supported Victor Grayson who had a surprise win as an independent socialist in 1907 in the Colne Valley by-election. And the Cycling Club played a part in 1911 in an unsuccessful attempt to unite the existing socialist organisations in what became the British Socialist Party (BSP).
The paper began to lose readers and influence on the Left when a few years before 1914 Blatchford started warning about the “German menace” and especially when, after agonising over it for a week, he and the paper came out in support of Britain’s participation in the First World War. In October that year he insisted that he was had not “changed my religion” but that having done all he could and recognising that “the future is for the young” he left the movement to them “with my blessing and best wishes.”
The Clarion never regained its political influence though it kept going till 1931 – and Blatchford himself until 1943. The Cycling Club went its own way. Interestingly, it was still quite “political” post World War II. Ken Wells, one of the members of the old Brighton section and a contributor to our Brighton and Hove Clarion history page wrote.
One other small nugget of news, when I joined the RAF for national service in 1951, one of the standard questions was “Are you a member of a political party or cycling club”. Clarion was regarded as a political party.
Inevitably, we have moved on in many ways since then. But I think it is still true that the principles of democracy, equality and the notion that “Fellowship Is Life” are still as much part of us as they ever were, Ian Bullock, February 2016