To gain an education he taught himself from the age of eight, and he read the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and works by Dickens. His poor health provided him with this free time, as throughout his childhood he was frail and sickly and in fact doctors stated he would not reach adulthood. Around 1864 his mother secured full-time employment as a dressmaker and immediately apprenticed both her sons, Montagu as a lithographic printer and Robert as a brushmaker. It was at a factory that he met the girl he would later marry, 'Within a few weeks... I told myself I would marry Sarah Crossley.' They would eventually marry in 1880.
By 1871 Blatchford left Halifax, and why he did so has been the cause of debate. Laurence Thomson argues that it is because of a quarrel with his mother. His daughter Dorothea stated it was on May Day he decided to leave because of his hard life. On this day he decided to leave for Hull by foot then on to London via Yarmouth.
In 1885 he began to write for the Manchester Sunday Chronicle, when Bells Life failed he moved to this full time in 1887 via a short holiday on the Isle Of Wight due to the death of his two children. He was not yet a socialist, although back in the North there was much more to influence him towards it. In the North there was huge reaction to the competitiveness of industrial society. The largest influence on Blatchford was the South Salford Social Democratic Federation. In 1889 he was working full-time for the Chronicle and he wrote a series of articles denouncing the conditions of the housing in Manchester and he organised two working men's Sanitary Organisations.
In 1891 through his column announced that he had accepted the invitation of the Bradford Labour Union to become the Independent Labour candidate in East Bradford. Due to his socialist stance he had to leave the Sunday Chronicle which in turn left him with a severe cut- back in income as he had been paid a £1,000 a year.
Having left the newspaper on 12 December 1891 Blatchford set up the Clarion Newspaper, but unfortunately due to a printing error the first edition of it was almost completely illegible. Fortunately it still sold 40,000 plus copies due to the sales to ILP members. It continued to sell this amount and much more during the following years. By 1910 the paper was selling around the 80,000 mark for each issue.
By 1892 Blatchford removed himself from the candidature of East Bradford and began siding with the SDF against the Fabians' permeation policy. The outcome of this joining of Clarion and SDF was the Manchester ILP party in 1892, together they devised the Manchester Fourth Clause. However, the ILP refused to adopt this. By 1893 Blatchford was the leader of his own clique within the ILP, the Clarionettes and in 1894 he published Merrie England in order to educate the British about Socialism; this sold over 2 million copies, many at football matches and other public events. The book’s sales reflect the extraordinary dynamism of Blatchford’s ‘Clarion Movement’. Its numerous choirs and cycling clubs, Socialist Scouts and Glee Clubs are a reminder that British socialism at the start of the last century placed a distinctive emphasis on convivial organisation.
By 1889 the influence of Blatchford was beginning to be fully felt, the Clarion movement was having a profound effect on the Labour movement. It was affecting the communities throughout the North and holding the movement together when perhaps it's support would have dwindled. 1889 Cinderella Clubs were established for children, 1894 the Clarion Scouts and Vocal Union. The Clarion Song Book was published in 1906. Central to the Clarion movement were the Clarion cycling clubs who, often accompanied by the "Clarion Van", would travel the country distributing socialist literature and holding mass meetings. Robert Tressell's classic socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists contains a detailed account based on a meeting Tressell saw, which was organised by the Clarion's cycling scouts.
The Clarion movement also gave support to many of the industrial disputes at this time, including the famous three year lockout of the slateworkers of the Penrhyn slate quarry in North Wales, with the Clarion collecting £1,500 to support the people of Bethesda.
There was a revolt in the county federation created by the ILP in 1894, as Blatchford urged for the formation of a united socialist party. Also in the same year he resigned from the position as editor of the Clarion due to ill health and developed depression around this time. He started to edit it again in 1896. However, he supported the Boer war which lost him support from the Labour movement, this was perhaps in part due to his military past. After the war he continued to agitate for a United Socialist Party and supported the London Progressive Party who were the accepted Radicals in London. A further development in Blatchford's thinking cost him further readers, when he began denouncing organised religion in such works as ‘God and my Neighbourhood’ in 1903 and ‘Not Guilty: A Defence of the Bottom Dog’ 1905. Again, to antagonise the ILP, the Clarion raised funds for Victor Grayson, whom the ILP had declined to support. He justified his attacks as being because Labour was too close to the Liberals. In 1909 he began advocating conscription, later in 1912 troops were used for strike breaking and Blatchford turned against it.
The Clarion Movement disintegrated when Blatchford swung his paper in support of the British Government and the first world war. In 1914 he left the Socialist movement and continued to oppose conscription. He worked on the Sunday chronicle and weekly dispatch, in 1927 he went freelance. His wife had died previously in 1921 at which point he became a Spiritualist and voted Conservative in 1924, and continued to antagonise the Labour Party.
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