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Pedalling in Ever-decreasing Circles

Cycling is popular again but what happened to the old Clarion Cycling Club?

The metamorphosis of the precarious Ordinary – “Penny Farthing” – into its essentially present-day “Safety” format in the 1880s and a steady reduction in manufacturing costs, saw the bicycle by the following decade fast-becoming the main means of personal working class transport. Villagers and townies, hitherto isolated, could now venture healthily afield, widening geographical and social horizons, seeking erudition and enlightenment, diversifying and enriching the gene pool.

Devastating as it undoubtedly was for “High Wheeling” aristocrats and toffs to find their pastime suddenly infested with hoi polloi, salvation, at least for the seriously affluent, was nigh: the internal combustion engine was already spluttering into life.

The latter decades of the century had seen also a renewed interest in the radical ideas that had faded somewhat in the wake of the Chartist Movement of the 1850s. In particular, Hyndman’s Democratic Federation, established in 1881, swiftly proclaimed its socialist tendency, renaming itself Social Democratic Federation by 1883. Ever an uneasy coalition, it suffered breakaway the following year when a revolutionary group that included Eleanor Marx, Belford Bax and William Morris left a fundamentally reformist organisation to found the Socialist League.

Around this same time, Sunday Chronicle journalist, Robert Blatchford – “Nunquam” – was winning acclaim with an impassioned weekly exposé of conditions in the slums of Manchester. Openly declaring for socialism however, proved just too much for a nervous proprietor and following an enforced resignation in 1891, he set up his own penny weekly, The Clarion. On relocating south to Fleet Street some four years later, circulation rose steadily eventually, by 1908, doubling to 80,000.

The Clarion’s ideals were indeed lofty: to “make socialists” by writing fearlessly and honestly about injustice and inequality, to do so unpretentiously and humorously avoiding dogma and theory and to provide a forum for divergent viewpoints. This was its mission statement and – as time would ultimately prove – its suicide note.

Perhaps inevitably, cycling men and women, enthused by these ideas, would see the obvious advantages of the bicycle in spreading the message and at an 1894 meeting convened by young Brummie Tom Groom, a “socialist Cycling Club” was created; its name promptly amended to “Clarion” in honour of the journal. Reports of the club’s early activities – joyful, propagandising excursions requiring “boozometers rather than speedometers” – led swiftly to the formation of Clarion clubs elsewhere and an Easter Meet was arranged at Ashbourne in Derbyshire the following year to organise a national body.
 
The inaugural conference held there was an unpromising, damp, outdoor affair and the accompanying public rally fared little better; speakers harangued throughout by a “beery person”: “Aw don’t know nowt and Aw don’t want to know nowt.” Conference duly obliged by delivering…er, nowt. Notwithstanding agreement on a set of rules and adoption of a national badge and slogan – “Fellowship is Life; Lack of Fellowship is Death” from Morris’s A Dream of John Ball – no attempt was made to actually define socialism other than in the vaguest of “caring-sharing”, “happy-clappy”, “ethical” terms. Contentiously too, membership was opened to professed non-socialists, Groom strongly maintaining that “Clarion reasoning and comradeship” coupled with “physical exercise and glorious countryside” would effect speedy conversion.

The rest, as they say, is history. Whilst number-wise at least, the Club blossomed – membership nudging 7,000 in 1913 – and did despite Blatchford’s hankerings for informality, bring some order to its administrative procedures, this collective failure to achieve understanding and consensus over the actual meaning of the term “socialism” and how it might be implemented, rendered it politically impotent; tyres well and truly punctured at the bikeshed door. Ironic indeed since by 1914, the Club badge now also incorporated a proud “Socialism the Hope of the World”.

And as for the redoubtable Blatchford, it was terminal decline; his initial demand for “common ownership” and boast of “converting England to Socialism in seven years”, soon becoming a plea for “brotherly love and respect”, before plummeting to an outrageous exhortation for young Clarionettes to both shed and spill their working class blood in the Imperialist Cause, firstly in Transvaal and subsequently Flanders. In later life, embittered and disillusioned – “The Working Class is not yet ready for Socialism” – he embraced Conservatism, supporting Stanley Baldwin, “the finest British politician”, in the 1924 General Election.
 
The Clarion remained popular until 1914 but its jingoistic stance, abhorrent to so many, saw circulation collapse from sixty to ten thousand. Hostilities ended, it emerged as a smaller threepenny weekly but readership continued to haemorrhage in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the seductive pull of the new-born Communist Party of Great Britain. Repackaged in 1927 as a sixpenny monthly, life became increasingly difficult for a self-styled “independent Socialist review” supporting a Labour movement “as opposed to Bolshevism as it is to Fascism” and after a last brief tango as The New Clarion, it disappeared in 1934.

Oddly, the journal’s demise coincided with an upturn in Club numbers. Despite serious economic recession, bicycle ownership was increasing and on the back of the 1930s “outdoors/fitness” craze, membership soared to an all-time high of 8,300. To what extent the Club’s politics contributed is, of course, debatable: other pastimes, rambling and hiking for example also flourished and besides, activism within the ranks, by no means universal from inception, had continued to diminish. For that minority who remained otherwise, there was little evidence of improvement in the calibre of that activism.

Discord reigned between the pro- and anti- war camps, whilst both the Workers’ Sports Movement and Esperanto language were lauded as the keys to “developing solidarity”, “dismantling international prejudices” and “eradicating misunderstanding”. Never, throughout decades of fresh air, camaraderie and carousing, did there ever appear to have entered into the broad Clarion psyche, a recognition of the single global root cause of Humanity’s multiple socio-economic problems and therefore of the single global remedy required. It really was, and is, that straightforward.

Post-war, a brief membership boom was followed by serious decline as growing affluence brought with it mass car-ownership and in the prevailing Cold War environment, there began an inexorable process of airbrushing out its political roots. The Constitutional “propagation of the principles of Socialism” clause became “support for…” and office bearers, once required to actually belong to “an approved Socialist organisation”, could now be simply avowed socialists. And so it continued.

These days, the Clarion Cycling Club survives as a 600-strong rump and – lest it deter potential sponsors – presents itself as “The Club for Wise Cyclists”. May it prosper: pro-Human sentiments are, after all, preferable to none. It is tragic, nevertheless, that so much benevolence, enthusiasm and integrity should, for want of a bit of clarity and direction, have gone to waste; doubly so because in terms of its sloganeering at least, the Club had it pretty-well nailed all along.

And since the Socialist Party remains – on several levels – untroubled by commercial considerations, we are pleased on behalf of countless long-departed and intrepid wayfarers to brandish the muddied Clarion banner one final time: “Fellowship is Life” and “Socialism” – properly defined and understood, is indeed – “the Hope of the World”.

ANDREW ARMITAGE