For large numbers of Clarion readers, its apparently non-political features were the most important. All the various cultural, social and leisure activities promoted in its columns offered a complete way of life outside the toil and drabness of the world of work and crowded urban living.
Indeed, the Clarion movement in its first two decades can be seen as an attempt to pre-figure life under Socialism, as William Morris had seen it before his death in 1896. And the weekly paper, with its announcements and reports, was essential in enabling Clarion organisations to get started and maintain their existence in the localities.
In addition to cycling, which gained the biggest following, the main activities before the First World War were choral singing and rambling (the latter combined with nature-study). All the activities were, to a greater or lesser extent, connected with Socialist propaganda work. And they tended to overlap, so that cyclists, choirs and ramblers often met up at the same Saturday or Sunday afternoon venue.
By the middle of 1895 more than a dozen of these choirs had been formed, and Montague Blatchford had become leader of the Clarion Vocal Union (CVU) movement nationally. His stated object was "to encourage unaccompanied vocal music [performed] creditably and with understanding". By far the biggest local group was in his hometown, Halifax, where by 1895 there were 146 members plus an "elementary class" of 48, and an orchestra. The average weekly attendance for rehearsals was 120, and Mont Blong was teacher and conductor.
It was in South Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire that the CVUs, like the Cycling Clubs, took deepest root; and soon they were eager to arrange inter-club meets. Hardcastle Crags, a beauty spot near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, not far from the border with Lancashire, became a regular venue for CVU picnics and outdoor concerts.
At the first of these gatherings, on Saturday 1 June 1895, there were present about 100 Clarion members, with 150 relatives and friends. Many came on their bikes, proudly wearing the new silver badges pinned in their caps. The mixture, according to the report in the paper, was of "sandwiches, laughter, tea, tobacco and singing". There was also a thunderstorm, followed by a rain-soaked dash to the railway station where songs echoed round the platforms as they waited for their trains home.
Liverpool had a Socialist Brass Band which practised every Wednesday night in preparation for performances at indoor and outdoor public meetings. ("There's nothing like sweet music and singing to draw the people", a Clarion writer once commented). Glasgow and Bristol both had choirs by 1896, when national CVU membership reached 1,250. The second Hardcastle Crags Meet that year attracted more than 2,000 people to listen to massed choirs on the hillside, and speeches by Caroline Martyn and Keir Hardie.
CVU United Concert at the Free Trade Hall
In May 1899 the first CVU United Concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester took place, with 450 singers in fourteen choirs competing for the ivory and gold Challenge Baton which had been presented by the Clarion Board. This was to be an annual event for the next thirty years, bringing hundreds of Clarionettes to Manchester, cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
Songs were specially written (like the Song of the Clarion Scout) and poems were set to music to form an extensive Socialist repertoire. Young composers and musicians were drawn to the cause, like Gustav Holst, who was a regular cyclist and often rode with his trombone strung across his back. While studying at the Royal College of Music and living in a bed-sitter in Hammersmith, Holst became the first conductor of the Socialist Choir there. He wrote reports for The Clarion about the choir, one of whose members was his future wife Isobel. Holst's fellow student Rutland Boughton, set poems by William Morris to music, and they appeared in the Clarion Song Book published in 1906.
Other activities organised under the Clarion banner included dramatic societies, camera clubs, artistic and handicraft groups and clubs embracing several different sports.
The decline of the Clarion movement after 1914 may have been a result of the war and broad political changes, but Robert Blatchford's support for British militarism must also have played a large part. The cycling clubs grew in popularity and continued as a semi-political activity into the 1930s, and as mostly apolitical racing cycling clubs, are still around today. The Clarion Van continued touring until 1929. The Vocal Unions remained popular into the 1930s while the number of clubhouses fell steadily, though some are still in use today. The Clarion itself ceased publication finally in 1934.
The movement has never completely died: the Clarion House near Lancashire's Pendle HIll is still maintained by local labour movement activists, and is open on Sundays for walkers and cyclists; assorted left or community papers have been published including 'Clarion' in their name; more recently a new socialist choral movement has emerged, many groups named " ...Clarion Choir".
Most of the written material on this page is taken from 'Fellowship is life - the national Clarion Cycling Club 1895 - 1995' by Denis Pye. Copies can be obtained from David Bisset, 10, Vale Street, Bolton BL7 0EB. Price £7-50 + £2-50 p&p, cheques payable to 'National Clarion Cycling Club'.
Resources about the Clarion Vocal Union in the library collection
Robert Blatchford, The clarion ballads (1896) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2
Robert Blatchford, The dolly ballads (1950) - Shelfmark: J46
Georgia Pearce (ed.), The Clarion song book (ca. 1906) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2
National Clarion Vocal Union, Clarion Vocal Union: souvenir programme - fifteenth annual concert and contest (1914) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2
National Clarion Vocal Union, Programme of the Contest and Festival 1925 (1925) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2
National Clarion Vocal Union, Programme of the Contest and Festival 1927 (1927) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2
Roger Brown and Stan Iveson, Clarion House - a monument to a movement (1987) - Shelfmark: H14