The History of the Clarion Cycling Movement

The Clarion cycling movement has its roots in 1891 with the creation of The Clarion newspaper, a weekly socialist publication with a Britain-focused rather than internationalist perspective on political affairs.

 

‘It was not in the least the preconceived idea of socialist journal. It was not solemn; it was not highbrow … It was full of stories, jokes and verses – sometimes pretty bad verses and pretty bad jokes – as well as articles’. Dame Margaret Isabel Cole, DBE (née Postgate), 1893 –1980

 

Robert Blatchford

The Clarion was the brain child of Robert Blatchford (pen name ‘Nunquam’) 1851-1943, a former soldier turned journalist whose concerns for social welfare and the obvious imbalances in society inspired his self-taught ‘humanitarian, common sense, socialist principles’. Having established his literary career at the Sunday Chronicle in which he regularly wrote about the appalling conditions endured in the slums of Manchester, Blatchford’s final conversion to socialism came after he read a pamphlet ‘What is Socialism?’ by William Morris and H. M. Hyndman.

 

In 1891 and having had a disagreement with its editor over his socialist intentions, Blatchford left the Sunday Chronicle and together with Alexander Mattock Thompson (pen name ’Dangle’), Edward Francis Fay (pen name ‘The Bounder’), William Palmer (pen name ‘Whiffly Puncto’) as well as ‘Nunquam’s’ brother Montague Blatchford (pen name ‘Mont Blong’), produced The Clarion from a small office in Manchester. 40,000 copies of the original edition were sold and the popularity of the paper saw its move to London’s Fleet Street in 1895. Circulation reached a peak of 80,000 in 1908 and the paper continued until 1934.  All who wrote for The Clarion newspaper under their various pseudonyms were loved by the readers and became household names. Soon added to these was Tom Groom, 1871 – 1945, (pen name ‘The O’Groomio’) who is the second most important name in the history of the Clarion cycling movement.

 

The Dejected Perishers

In February 1894, a small unorganised band of cycling friends who called themselves the ‘Dejected Perishers’, from the fact of their all being married, met in a Labour Church in Birmingham. Having all turned socialist and still desiring to continue to cycle, they conceived the idea of forming a Socialist Cycling Club. In March 1894 they met again and further decided that they were to be:

 

“a social club, with much need of good-fellowship” calling themselves “after that paper which we all loved, and which has done more to spread the spirit of comradeship and broadness of sympathies in our movement than any other influence I know of.” Tom Groom

 

The idea of ‘fellowship’ had been derived from ‘A Dream of John Bull’, a novel published in 1888 by the prominent socialist activist William Morris. In it the rebel priest who led the Peasants Revolt in 1381 and who is cited by many as the first English Socialist, dreams that:

 

“Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them, and the life that is in it, that shall live on and on forever.”

 

As a result of the March meeting, the Birmingham Clarion Cycle Club came in to being and it was not long before The Clarion newspaper was calling for the establishment of other sections around Britain.

 

The First Clarion Cycling Clubs

The Birmingham Clarion Cycle Club’s first social was to Bromsgrove on April 7th 1894.

 

“These socials are arranged for the first Saturday in each month. A spot is selected to which non-cyclists can get. The cyclists arrange the teas, walks and other diversions and a very enjoyable day is spent. Their popularity among the non-cyclists is shown by the fact that at the first one fourteen of them came, whilst in May we had thirty, June forty; in July when we co-operated with the Labour Church in its annual excursion, we had seventy.” Tom Groom

 

The first mention in print of the existence of the Clarion Cycle Club came on April 28th 1894 when a report appeared in The Clarion about the Birmingham Clarion Cycle Club’s Easter Tour. Further reports sporadically followed but on 14th July 1894 The Clarion set up a permanent section entitled ‘Cycling Notes’ in which Clarion Cycle Club content would appear forthwith.

 

Throughout 1894 a steady number of new Clarion Cycle Clubs quickly sprang up, mostly in the Midlands and North West. Many of the earliest Clarion Cycle Clubs were created by groups of workers banding together with the most rudimentary organising. They were derived through conversations with other cycling Clarionettes who they met on the roads or what little they could glean from their reading of The Clarion newspaper. As a result, there was little conformity and many Clarion Cycle Clubs created a Club badge using a traditional form of “shield and bar across it”. These were quite hard to discern on the road and, given that one of the aims of Clarion cycling was fellowship, they were considered less than ideal. The Birmingham Clarion Cycle Club, being based as it was in the heart of Britain’s jewelry making industry, had developed their own “artistic little affair” which was easily recognizable. They hoped all Clubs could be persuaded to adopt it. Whenever a fellow Clarionette was sited wearing a Clarion badge, “Clarion ahoy!” was to be the cry.

 

Within a few months of the Birmingham Clarion Cycle Club being established, the idea of a National Clarion Cycling Club ‘with uniform rules, badge and name’ was being mooted:

 

“Rules should be as few as possible and I should not like to see… one… to the effect that none but Socialists… be admitted as members… Let us admit any who cares to join, reserving, as we have done, the management of the Club to those connected with some distinctly Socialist body. By giving the non-socialists, who may join us, ‘Clarion’ reasoning and ‘Clarion’ comradeship, we may soon turn him in to a bona-fide Socialist.” Tom Groom

 

The Clarion Scouts

In April 1895, the Clarion announced the imminent publication of a new “journal for socialist workers” called The Scout. In the first edition, published on 30th March 1895, Robert Blatchford explained that it:

 

“Arose from the fact that so many young men wrote… asking to be told what active work they might undertake for the cause of socialism.” Robert Blatchford

 

Blatchford cautioned that:

 

The work would only suit “men of zeal and perseverance… For it is work that lies in silent doing, without applause or recompense of any kind; and it is work that must be done individually by every scout.” 

 

​“In each town, and in each district of a large town, let scouting parties be formed. These scouts are to be provided with tracts and leaflets, which they are to leave at the houses of the workers. Let one street be taken at one time, a tract being left for a week, to be called for the week after and left in the next street. The Pennie edition of ‘Merrie England’ is specifically designed for this purpose.” 

 

Scouts were further directed by Blatchford to attend meetings and paste stickers:

 

​“The ‘sticker,’ judiciously used, is one of the most effective means of attracting attention… The sentences should the short, the matter straight to the point. There is not much room for argument. A striking question or assertion will attract attention where a longer statement will pass unnoticed. The word SOCIALISM should occupy a prominent position.” 

 

The Scout went on to say:

 

“A certain amount of discretion must be used in posting the ‘stickers.’

 

They should not be posted on railway carriage windows, for instance as they will be torn down by the carriage cleaners at once. Telegraph posts, field gates, blank walls suggest themselves as likely places…

 

”“Is there any reason why stencil plates should not be used to decorate the pavements in our towns? Given a fine dry night, a pot of black or white paint will bring our message home to thousands of pedestrians. Paint, if allowed to dry, will wear a long time.”

“Objections may be raised, on aesthetic grounds, to our methods of propaganda, but while our brothers and sisters are starving or slowly dragging out an existence of brutalising toil, we cannot afford to be too nice in the methods by which we hope to effect their salvation. When we have compelled people to face the horrors of our present system, aroused their better feelings and enlisted their sympathies, we can then consider the question of taste.”  

 

However, in a later edition, Blatchford wrote:

 

“I have received many and serious complaints about the labels. One Scout has been threatened with prosecution. In fact, so serious is the matter, that I would ask scouts not to use any more. They have been stuck on doors of public buildings, private houses, trees, market crosses, farmyard pumps, ferry boats, omnibuses, &c., &c. A feeling decidedly antagonistic to Socialism is engendered in the minds of those whose private property is thus invaded, and I’m afraid the labels are doing more harm than good… I think money would be more profitably spent on leaflets.”  

 

According to The Scout, the organisation that would principally assist the work of the Clarion Scouts would be the Clarion Cycle Clubs. However, it would also include the Clarion Glee Clubs (later the Clarion Vocal Unions and today called the Clarion Choirs), the Clarion Field Clubs (a socialist nature club), the Clarion Cinderella Clubs (who organised day trips to take poor children from inner city areas in to the countryside) and the Clarion Handicraft Guilds.

 

Before Easter 1895

In time, there would also be the Clarion Ramblers, the Clarion Camera Clubs, the Clarion Drawing Clubs, the Clarion Swimming Clubs, the Clarion Dramatic Societies and the Clarion Fellowship (a sort of social club). By the 1930s there was even a Clarion Motor Club. Finally, there were also the Clarion Houses to which Clarionettes of various Clarion organisations would retire at the weekend to live out a sort of socialist utopian existence. Today those who talk of ‘the Clarion’ do so in ignorance of the myriad of Clarion organisations that have existed or continue to exist! This point is further highlighted by another report in the Scout:

Stockport Scouts suggest that they have a badge similar in style to the cyclists with the word “Scout” instead of “Clarion”. What do other corps think about it? In the Field Club report, Lowerison advocates the “Clarion” badge. I see no reasons why every Scout should not wear the same badge as the cyclists, and I know many are doing so already.”

Explaining the role of the Birmingham Clarion Cycle Club in 1895, Tom Groom wrote:

“We did not start the season with any elaborate programme of work; nothing, in fact, beyond that of enjoying ourselves. But a Socialist is a Socialist whether awheel or afoot, and we soon took to discussing the best way of pushing Socialism as well as the jigger. An extra copy of ‘Clarion’ apiece left at the various “contraptions” at which we called, was our first idea, and no doubt, have had good effect. Later, with the arrival of the Scouting orders and the Scouting leaflets, this feature grew considerably.”

“Contraptions” meant public houses; indeed there was always a tradition of socialising and drinking in the Clarion and the London Clarion continues that today.

 

The formation of a National Clarion Cycling Club

The first edition of the Scout as well as corresponding editions of The Clarion contained much talk of a meeting of all cycling Clarionettes at Ashbourne over the Easter weekend.

“Good Friday came and the hundred or so who were riding to the Meet set out: half-a-dozen from Yorkshire, about fifty from Birmingham, Nottingham and the Potteries, ten from Liverpool and over forty from the Manchester area. Some cyclists came from places with no Clarion CC yet, like Sheffield and Halifax… True to their promise, members of The Clarion paper’s staff arrived – including Nunquam (the ‘Chief’) with the Bounder and Dangle. Mont Blong and Whiffly Puncto too the train to Derby, then cycled to Ashbourne, calling at two pubs on the way. Whiffly came off on a hill and tore his ‘six-and-sixpenny knickerbocker trousers!’ Eventually they were welcomed into Asbourne by a group of young men standing on the bridge who shouted, ‘Boots’; to which they gave The Clarion reply ‘spurs’ (By this date all Clarion readers were familiar with Blatchford’s ‘soldiers stories’ in which men spinning yarns in the barrack-room after lights-out tested the attentiveness of their audience by interjecting the word ‘Boots!’ at intervals, expecting a chorus of ‘Spurs’ in reply.)
Friday night’s ‘smoker’ or concert, in the George and Dragon, the Meet Headquarters, was an impromptu entertainment of songs and recitatations – ‘a right merry evening of good fellowship’. A Liverpool comrade sang the ‘Red Flag’. ‘Daisy Bell’ (about the couple on a ‘bicycle made for two’) was sung in chorus, with a zither accompaniment; and the ‘Lone Scout’ (Bob Manson, a well-known Liverpool activist) presented the Bounder with a trophy – the top from a street-lamp!” Fellowship is Life  - The Story of the National Clarion Cycling Club – Denis Pye 1995.
 
At Ashbourne it was decided that (i) a National Clarion Cycling Club be formed (ii) That a Sub-Committee be formed to draw up the Rules (iii) That the National Clarion Cycling Clubs adopt the Birmingham Badge as the national badge (iv) that the Birmingham Badge should be one third bigger than its current size (v) that the Scout be the recognised centre of the Clarion Cycling Clubs (vi) that an annual meeting of the clubs be held.

The Sub-Committee met at Birmingham on 24th April and, in accordance with the resolution passed at Conference, drew up the following rules:

  1. That the Association be called the National Clarion Cycling Union

  2. Object – An Association of the various Clarion Cycling Clubs for the purpose of Socialist propaganda, and for promoting inter-club runs between the Club in different towns.

  3. That the recognized communication between the Union and other Clubs be the Scout.

  4. That the badge shown here, and accepted by the Ashbourne Conference, to be used by all affiliated Clubs.

 
Local Clubs can wear any other badge in addition if they choose to do so.

It is pertinent to note that although a National Clarion Cycling Union had been formed there was no requirement of sections to affiliate but also no charge for doing so. The purpose of the National Clarion was simply to standardise propaganda work and foster fellowship; it was never intended to rule over individual sections! 

“Now… that Clarion Cycling Clubs are becoming national, the work that may be done by them is of much greater importance, and by discussing the various propositions which may be brought forward to-day, we may learn from each other the best methods of helping on Socialism.” Tom Groom

It was soon after the Ashbourne Meet, on 25th May 1895, that The Clarion announced the formation of the first two London Clarion Cycle Clubs. More followed in the ensuing months.

 

Socialism

As today, there was much opposition to the Socialism which was espoused by the Clarion Cycle Clubs. Robert Blatchford cautioned that:

“In all cases of personal discussion Scouts should be careful to be calm and polite. Good-humoured argument is the best weapon. It is unwise to be over-eager. Give the seed time to grow… Scouts should invariably be careful not only to act in the friendliest manner… All Scouts should thoroughly prepare themselves to answer the common objections to Socialism. Most of these objections are answered in ‘Merrie England’. Scouts on duty would do well to carry a copy of “Merrie England” with them.

Edward Fay conveyed the resistance to the Socialism espoused at the Asbourne Meet:

"The meeting in Ashbourne Market Place was not only profoundly interesting, but to every lover of Humanity it was deeply instructive. It gave us all a taste of the opposing forces-of the rancorous malice which ever accompanies besotted ignorance. There was the single-speech little man whose head was on a level with Citizen’s foot, who kept up a running fire of ‘You’re a liar, you’re a liar!’ all through the latter’s speech and who, when offered an opportunity of reply safeguarded from interruption, had no other words handy. The pompous farm bailiff who declared that ‘We don’t want that sort of talk here,’ but who also declined to take the rostrum, and who, when asked a few questions, had no reply but crept shamefacedly away… Then we had the cattlemonger, who was very angry with us, for that he ‘could get up to-morrow morning and earn twice as much many as any of we-‘ But when asked by a Scout for a definition of earning, and also as to how the making of his money affected other people, his was the old cry, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ annotated with up-to-date blasphemy. Then there was the lady… who had been to church four times that day, and told her husband, much to the gentleman’s dismay, that she’d heard more common sense and good Christian sentiment talked in that Market Place, by the Socialists, than in the whole of her previous existence.”

“The following appears in the ‘Ashbourne News’… ‘I have just finished reading a Socialist brochure called ‘Merrie England’; we people in the country do not often come across this class of literature, and I confess I can neither make head nor tail of it…”

“As others see us ‘The London Evening News’ of April 16 says ‘Many quiet nooks in the Midlands and North of England have been invaded during the last few days by a band of cycling Socilists, who describe themselves at 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’ ‘With scant measure of success. We smile!”

Fay concluded:

“The Clarion Scouts will have very varied experiences. They will in the course of their peregrinations amongst these dark stagnant places sample ‘humours’ more side-splitting than any penned language. They will also be subjected to the dull sneer of self-loved ignorance, and the bitter malice4 of educated selfishness. But these two classes are-thank Heaven-not large. The great bulk of the English people have sound hearts, but they are very obstinate and want shifting. And a great number are sound at heart, but timid. The work is difficult work, and requires the greatest tact and forbearance…”

The Clarion Scouts were also tasked to assist the Red Vans or Clarion Propaganda vans (horse drawn caravans/later motor vans), covered in socialist slogans from whose platforms speakers would espouse socialist virtues. It was in this guise that Clarion Cyclists get mentioned in Robert Tressel’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropist; singing the traditional Hymn of the National Clarion Cycling Clubs ‘England Arise’ by Edward Carpenter which was sung at every National Clarion Cycling Club Easter Meet until 2006:

“One Sunday morning towards the end of July, a band of about twenty-five men and women on bicycles invaded the town… As they rode along they gave leaflets to the people in the streets, and whenever they came to a place where there were many people they dismounted and walked about, giving their leaflets to whoever would accept them… The strangers distributed leaflets to all those who would take them, and they went through a lot of the side streets, putting leaflets under the doors and in the letter-boxes. When they had exhausted their stock they remounted and rode back the way they came.
The leaflet which had given rise to all this fury read as follows:

WHAT IS SOCIALISM?

At present the workers, with hand and brain produce continually food, clothing and all useful and beautiful things in great abundance.
BUT THEY LABOUR IN VAIN--for they are mostly poor and often in want.  They find it a hard struggle to live.  Their women and children suffer, and their old age is branded with pauperism.
 
Socialism is a plan by which poverty will be abolished, and everyone enabled to live in plenty and comfort, with leisure and opportunity for ampler life.
 
If you wish to hear more of this plan, come to the field at the Cross Roads on the hill at Windley, on Tuesday evening next at 8 P.M. and
 
LOOK OUT FOR THE SOCIALIST VAN

The cyclists rode away amid showers of stones without sustaining much damage..
On the following Tuesday evening… the Socialist van, escorted by five or six men on bicycles, appeared round the corner at the bottom of the hill.

… The van was drawn by two horses; there was a door and a small platform at the back and over this was a sign with white letters on a red ground: 'Socialism, the only hope of the Workers.'

The driver pulled up, and another man on the platform at the rear attempted to address the crowd, but his voice was inaudible in the din of howls, catcalls, hooting and obscene curses. After about an hour of this, as the crowd began pushing against the van and trying to overturn it, the terrified horses commenced to get restive and uncontrollable… 

…Then the chairman announced that they were coming there again next Sunday at the same time, when a comrade would speak on 'Unemployment and Poverty, the Cause and the Remedy', and then the strangers sang a song called 'England Arise', the first verse being:

England Arise, the long, long night is over,
Faint in the east, behold the Dawn appear
Out of your evil dream of toil and sorrow
Arise, O England! for the day is here!

During the progress of the meeting several of the strangers had been going out amongst the crowd giving away leaflets, which many of the people gloomily refused to accept, and selling penny pamphlets, of which they managed to dispose of about three dozen.” The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (Lawrence & Wishart 1955) - Robert Tressell, 1870-1911,

 

Walter Crane and William Morris

In 1912, the renowned socialist illustrator, Walter Crane and friend of William Morris, gifted the National Clarion Cycling Clubs a new logo which espoused ‘Fellowship is Life’, ‘Lack of Fellowship is Death’ and ‘Socialism the Hope of the World’.

1912 was the same year that The Clarion established that Colonial Clarion Cycle Clubs had also been created by British emigrants in Australia as well as New Zealand. In fact it was a former London Clarion member who first confirmed this rumour:

“Harry M. Allbon, formerly the secretary of the Croydon Clarion C.C., write from Sydney, N.S.W, to explain why it is that the Colonial Clarion C.C. is not flourishing out there. “The Colonials enjoy outdoor life more than the people do at home. For one thing, we can rely on the weather. But cycling is not much good out here. The roads are so rough and dusty. And we have such a range of beauty spots, handy top get at, and travelling by tram, train or ferry is so cheap that it is not worth while getting a cycle. The scenery is more rugged than at home, but we miss the English scenery. The South of England, Wales, Ah! With best withses to the Fellowship at home from the Sydney Clarion Fellowship.”

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the National Clarion Cycling Clubs continued with their touring and socialist endeavours. In 1921, Tom Groom published Cyclorama in which he narrated some of his own experiences as a Clarion cyclist.

In The Severn Valley, he recalls an uncomfortable trip with a ‘methodical man’:

“The elaborately prepared plan of our tour, with the mileage for each day carefully worked out; every stopping place arranged for; the hours of, and the time allowed for, each meal set down, dragged down my saddened soul to boredom.”

“I had eaten without appetite, because the arranged feeding time had come. I was dragged from paddling in cool streams, because we had 20 miles to do before reaching the destined stopping place. I have been roused from my bed when I wanted to lie and consider the problems of life, because an hour extra in bed would have disturbed the beauty of our plans.
And then I struck. ‘Sir!’ said I, ‘I left home to escape the bulls of Brum, with their monotonous regularity of calling in and sending forth; to forget the necessity of eating at stated intervals; of winding my watch; of shaving, or of washing more than twice a day. This plan we have come upon is a rotten plan. Leave me, I pray you, to go my own ungoverned ways, for I travel but to forget the tyranny of days!’.
After that he let me travel my own gait, and the misery was transferred to his shoulders, for he was a precise man, and loved method and order, even in his pleasures. Whereas, I had learned cycling in a Clarion cycling club.”
 
In Two Interviews, Groom recalls a chance meeting with a socialist on another tour:

“He was seated on the brick wall enclosing the small garden in front of the house, his feet dangling, and in his hand a useful looking pot. He recognised my Club badge as I dismounted and, leaning towards me, he offered the pot and shouted: ‘Clarion, ahoy! Drink! The first Clarionette I’ve seen for months, and ‘m getting blue mouldy for the sight of a Socialist."

 

The Workers Olympiad and the Spanish Civil War

In the early 1930s Clarion Cycle Club members attended the Workers Olympiads and even brought back a cup which the National Clarion Cycling Club retain today. In the late 1930s a number of Clarion Cyclists went to Spain to volunteer for the International Brigades, including our very own London Clarion Cycle Club member Tom Groom from Battersea Clarion Cycle Club.

However, after the Second World War, and with the onset of the Cold War from the 1950s, open support for socialism waned as did Clarion Cycle Club memberships. The Clarion Cycle Clubs generally remained socialist but most of the political work dried up.

In the 1980s The National Clarion Cycling Club altered Walter Crane’s letterhead, replacing the words ‘Socialism the Hope of the World’ with ‘The Club for Wise Cyclists’, ‘Fellowship is Life’ and later still to the crass ‘On bike social networking.’ In time, a new leadership swept away the remaining vestiges of socialist aspirations and instead pursued racing and enlarging its membership.

​However, there were many in the Clarion Cycle Clubs who opposed such changes. Jim Straker of Leeds, Secretary of the Yorkshire Union and National Committee Member from the 1950s to the 1970s... held with Tom Groom that Socialism was the life-blood of the National Clarion... that "numbers were not all".
 
He went on:
 
"I joined the Clarion, purely because of the principles on which it was founded." In those days, "all accepted the belief that colour, creed, race and religion, or money, were incidentals; and all realised that life meant more than just riding a bike." Where sections were only cycling clubs, there was, he suggested "a decline in the desire to meet up with and mix with other Sections."
 
Jim had fears about the Clarion's future:
 
"The very idea," he declared, "that at some future Meet a Quintin Hogg [a leading Tory politician of the day] or like person, might be invited to present the Tom Groom, British Workers' Sports Association and Czechoslovakia trophies would make me physically sick."
 
Despite attempts to halt the Clarion’s decline and restore its socialist aspirations, the National Clarion split in 2006.

Today, there is the National Clarion Cycling Club 1895 and the National Clarion Cycling Club. 

​National Clarion Cycling Club 1895 remains committed to the objectives of the founders of the Clarion Cycling movement, namely 'to combine the pleasures of cycling with the propaganda of Socialism'. Membership is automatically given to individuals of all Clubs (such as London Clarion) that affiliate to it.

National Clarion Cycling Club is now primarily concerned with organising racing events and offers a paid membership to individuals either as members of Clarion Cycle Clubs (sections, as it calls them) or as Private Members.

​Both organisations lay claim to the same legacy, though only the National Clarion 1895 stays true to the objectives of the Clarion Cycling Club's founders.

Alex Southern - March 2019

 
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