"Had there been no Robert Blatchford, there would have been no Clarion. Had there been no Clarion, there would have been no Clarion Cycling Club," wrote Tom Groom in his 1944 Jubilee Souvenir. "The older hands", he continued, "who have been through the early struggles, must be permitted to give their thanks and their gratitude to those who first fired their enthusiasm in the cause of Socialism. And the man they will always best remember is Robert Blatchford ".
Blatchford, the son of travelling actors, started worked as a journalist on the Sunday Chronicle, in Manchester, in 1887. Under the pen name Nunquam he gained a large readership, writing passionately about the appalling living conditions endured by poor people in Manchester.
Joe Waddington, a reader of Nunquam's articles who was an unemployed joiner and a Socialist activist, suggested that he should go inside the houses and cellars to meet the people living in them.
"I set off alone", wrote Blatchford forty years later, "and went hopefully into a small court in a penurious district of Hulme." The memory of what he found there and in Ancoats remained vivid, painful and grim. He remembered that he paid for a doctor to visit a baby whose father was unemployed. It was too late; the child died soon after of bronchitis. Blatchford used his influence to find a job on the railway for another man; he would have to walk four miles and start work at 4am for a pittance.
Nunquam's bitter exposures of life in the slums grew ever more impassioned. But however popular it was with readers, the paper's owner and its editor were not pleased with this kind of journalism. Matters came to a head when Blatchford declared in print his allegiance to Socialism - "the only way to a better future". It seems that he was finally convinced after reading a pamphlet, What Is Socialism?, written by William Morris and HM Hyndman.
The inevitable row with Edward Hulton soon followed and Nunquam walked out after telling him, "You will not have Socialism in your paper - and I won't write anything else". He recalled many years later that in March 1891 he had a fat bank balance and a salary of £1,000 a year (perhaps the equivalent of about £40,000 in 1995) and by October he was out of work and heavily in debt.
Max Thompson, Edward Fay, William Palmer and another sympathiser, Robert Suthers, all resigned from the Chronicle with Robert Blatchford. They were joined by Robert's brother Montague who also gave up his job, and on the 12th December 1891 they 'went to sea in a sieve' by bringing out the first issue of a penny Socialist weekly, The Clarion (fondly referred to as the 'Perisher') from a tiny office in Corporation Street, Manchester. There were printing difficulties caused by cheap paper, and the publicity posters were washed away by heavy rain, but 40,000 copies were sold, largely on the strength of Nunquam's already-established popularity with working-class readers of the Sunday Chronicle.
In his first leading article Blatchford wrote:
"The Clarion is a paper meant by its owners and writers to tell the truth as they see it, frankly and without fear. The Clarion may not always be right, but it will always be sincere. Its staff do not claim to be witty or wise, but they do claim to be honest. They write not for factions; but for the people. They fight not for victory; but for the truth. They do not seek to dazzle, but to please; not to anger, but to convince. Wheresoever wrong exists they will try to expose it. Towards baseness, cowardice, selfseeking or roguery, no matter where or in what class it may appear, they will show no mercy.
The essence of this new journalism, for it is a new journalism, and a journalism created by the men now risking this venture, is variety. I would, therefore, beg our serious friends to remember that truth may lie under a smile as well as under a frown, and to our merry friends would say that a jest is none the less hilarious when it comes from the heart. The policy of The Clarion is a policy of humanity, a policy not of party, sect or creed; but of justice, reason and mercy."
It has been said that Blatchford's Socialism was based on ethics, not economics. His gift was to be able to write movingly about injustice and inequality and to present a Socialist argument clearly. His founder-colleagues ('The Board', as they became known) laid down no agreed policy or programme, so that the paper became an open forum for different Socialist groups and individuals.
After the editorial office moved to Fleet Street, London, in 1895, circulation grew steadily to reach over 80,000 by 1908. The Clarion sold well not only because it was written plainly and unpretentiously, but because it was entertaining, and professionally produced. Apart from political articles and editorials which aimed to "make Socialists", as Blatchford put it, by explaining the principles of Socialism "in the simplest and best language at our command", there was much which merely aimed to amuse. There were regular weekly features on music, theatre, books and sport (including cycling), plus a Children's Corner and a Woman's Letter.
Nunquam, The Bounder (Edward Fay), Dangle (AM Thompson), Mont Blong (Montague Blatchford), Whiffly Puncto (William Palmer) and the rest were not only admired but loved by readers. In tens of thousands of working-class homes the members of the Clarion Board were friends rather than just names. When, in the summer of 1894, a group of Birmingham readers heard rumours of financial difficulties they wrote in:
It's going down means personally an interest in life gone; socially a serious blow to our movement. Although none of the undersigned has ever met the Clarion staff personally our sense of comradeship towards you is as vivid as though we met each day ... The Clarion is too good to lose.
One advertisement for the paper declared: "There is nothing like it. There never was anything like it. There never will be anything like it." And the reason why this was no empty slogan is that The Clarion, unlike other Socialist papers, espoused a Socialism which was not in the least solemn, difficult, highbrow, dreary, theoretical or dogmatic, but rather a way of life to be enjoyed here and now, in which men and women, young and old, would live in fellowship with each other in their everyday work and leisure activities.
Resources about Robert Blatchford and The Clarion in the library collection
Robert Blatchford, My eighty years (1931) - Shelfmark: B26
A Neil Lyons, Robert Blatchford: the sketch of a personality - an estimate of some achievements (1910) - Shelfmark: B10
Laurence Thompson, Robert Blatchford - portrait of an Englishman (1951) - Shelfmark: B05
Robert Blatchford (1927) - Shelfmark: A63
Mike and Liz Sones (compilers), An introduction to Robert Blatchford and the Clarion newspaper (1986) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2