In February 1894, six young men met in Birmingham, at the Labour Church in Constitution Hill. Here they discussed how they might "combine the pleasures of cycling with the propaganda of Socialism". They formed the Socialists' Cycling Club, a name which at the second meeting was changed to the Clarion Cycling Club, after their favourite weekly paper. They also invited the Bounder (E.F. Ray) to be their president.
By the end of 1894 there were four other Clarion Cycling Clubs - in the Potteries, Liverpool, Bradford and Barnsley. By Easter 1895 when they held their first national meet, about 120 people came from all across the Midlands and North of England. The number of clubs was steadily growing.
Tom Groom, who called the original Birmingham meeting, speaking at the meet:
"We are not neglectful of our Socialism, the frequent contrasts a cyclist gets between the beauties of nature and the dirty squalor of towns make him more anxious than ever to abolish the present system. To get healthy exercise is not necessarily to be selfish. To attend to the social side of our work is not necessarily to neglect the more serious part. To spread good fellowship is the most important work of Clarion Cycling Clubs. Then, perhaps, the 'One Socialist Party' would be more possible and we should get less of those squabbles among Socialists which make me doubt whether they understand even the first part of their name."
The meet agreed to set up a national club whose object was to be "the association of various Clarion Cycling Clubs for the purpose of Socialist propaganda and for promoting inter-club runs between the clubs of different towns."
The number of clubs continued to rise, 30 by the end of 1895, 70 by early 1897. The meets grew, reaching a height of popularity and influence in Shrewsbury in the summer of 1914.
Without the Clarion Cycling Clubs the circulation and influence of the Clarion would not have reached the heights which they eventually achieved. It is said that in the twenty years before the First World War a Clarion cyclist, almost by definition, was someone riding a machine with saddlebag crammed or carrier piled high with copies of the paper, all of which would eventually be sold or given away.
"By the summer of 1894, the first season of its existence, the members of Birmingham Clarion CC were discussing ideas for spreading the Socialist message when they met at Rugeley with their comrades in the newly-formed Potteries Club. Tom Groom took up the suggestion made by Nunquam in the paper a few weeks earlier:
"How about a cycling corps of Clarion Scouts?" he wrote. "A pocketful of leaflets and an extra copy or two of the Clarion carefully left at the different stopping places may have good results."
It was the printing of a penny edition of Robert Blatchford`s pamphlet Merrie England in the autumn of 1894 which gave the growing number of Clarion Cycling Clubs and Scouting groups the greatest opportunity for propaganda work.
A series of letters addressed to an imaginary "John Smith of Oldham, a hard-headed workman, fond of fads" had first appeared in The Clarion in the spring of 1892. Early in the following year the letters were put together as a shilling paperback with the title Merrie England and it quickly sold 20,000 copies.
In August 1894 it was announced that 100,000 of a penny edition were to be printed at what was expected to be a small financial loss. "One gross (144) to any address in the United Kingdom for ten shillings, money with order", said the announcement. Orders came in for 200,000 even before the first printing, and over 700,000 were sold within a year. (Liverpool Scouts, for example, sold 5,000 copies at an international football match played in the city.) Eventually, two million copies were to be sold world-wide, including editions in Dutch, German, Swedish, Italian, Danish, Hebrew, Norwegian Spanish, and Welsh.
Resources about the Clarion Cycling Club in the library collection
National Clarion Cycling Club handbooks for 1929, 1931, 1934, 1938, 1941, 1945, 1958 and 2005 - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 1
Denis Pye, Fellowship is life: the story of the Clarion Cycling Club (2004) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 2
Tom Groom, National Clarion Cycling Club 1894-1944: the fifty year story of the club (1944) - Shelfmark: AG Clarion Box 1
Robert Blatchford, Merrie England (1894) - Shelfmark: A63