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Robert Blatchford

Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford, (17 March 185117 December 1943), was a socialist campaigner, journalist and author in the United Kingdom.

Early life

The second son of John Glanville Blatchford, a strolling comedian and Georgina Louisa Corri Blatchford, an actress, he was born in Maidstone, England. His early life was mostly spent close to the stage, and his father died when he was very young, in 1853. However, his mother continued to act for the following nine years. To help support the family the two sons, Montagu and Robert, would perform with their mother doing comedic renditions and dances for extra income which was insufficient. In 1862 the family settled in Halifax to attempt to start a better life by allowing the sons to learn a trade. Robert's first job being an odd job boy in a lithographic printing works; his salary being only eighteen pence a week. As a child he did attend school only occasionally, firstly in Halifax and then in Portsmouth for only a few weeks. These brief experiences though did provide him with enough insight to be able to label the education system as a 'cram' method.

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.

Life in the Army and Early Journalistic Career

He joined the army at an early age and rose to become a sergeant major by 1874 and had also achieved the army's second class certificate of education. To reach this level took seven years, he served with the Irish regiment 103rd Dublin Fusiliers and the 96th Regiment of Foot. The pleasures of army life stimulated in Robert some of his best writing. In 1877 he left the army to become a clerk in the Weaver Navigation Company earning a guinea per week. Although he had left the army in 1878, he served a few months with the reserve army due to the scare about the threat that Russia posed to England. During this time as a clerk he carefully used his spare time to learn, he learnt grammar, syntax and shorthand. By 1880 he was married to his sweetheart Sarah Crossley. They were married at the Zion chapel Halifax and settled in Norwich. She was the daughter of a domestic servant and mechanic. It was around this time that Robert was becoming frustrated with his job, as he had the desire to become an artist. Unfortunately in Norwich the opportunities to become an artist were not available, so instead he decided to become a writer. His career began in 1882 on the Yorkshireman Newspaper, where he had merely had a sketch published. He obtained a full time job through his friend Alexander Muttock Thompson who worked for the Manchester Sporting Chronicle. Thompson recommended him to a friend who ran the newspaper, Bells Life in London. He started at this paper a year later and he also began writing for the Leeds Toby. This new job lead to a new life for the family and also a move to South London.

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.

Move to Socialism

In 1890 based in Manchester he became actively involved in the Labour Movement, Blatchford founded the Manchester branch of the Fabian Society, and then he launched a weekly newspaper, The Clarion in 1891. In 1893 he published some of his articles on socialism as the book, Merrie England. This influential work was largely inspired by William Morris.

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.

He died on 17 December 1943.


Dictionary of Labour Biography, Vol4, John Savile, Joyce Bellamy

Further reading

Books by Blatchford

These include:

  • The Nunquam Papers (from the Sunday Chronicle) Edward Hulton and Co., 1891
  • Fantasias John Heywood, Manchester, 1892
  • Merrie England Clarion Office, Walter Scott, 1893 (reprinted New York, N.Y., Monthly Review Press, 1966)
  • The Nunquam Papers (from the The Clarion) Clarion Newspaper, 1895)
  • A Bohemian Girl (McGinnis, P., pseudonym), London, 1898, Clarion Newspapers Co., Walter Scott, Ltd.
  • Dismal England, London, Clarion Press, May 1899
  • My Favourite Books The Clarion Office, (also Chesworth, 1900)
  • God and my Neighbour Clarion Press, 1903, also 1906
  • Not Guilty: A Defence of the Bottom Dog Clarion Press, 1906
  • The Dolly Ballads (Illustrated by Frank Chesworth) Clarion Press, 1907, also The Utopia Press Limited, (also Odhams Press, 1950)
  • My Life in the Army, London, Clarion Press, 1910
  • As I Lay A-Thinking: Some Memories and Reflections of an Ancient and Quiet Watchman Hodder & Stoughton, London, (1926)
  • A Book About Books, London, Clarion Press, 1903
  • Britain for the British, London, Clarion Press, 1902
  • Essays of To-Day and Yesterday, London, George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., 1927
  • General Von Sneak, London, Hodder & Stoughton, Publishers, n.d.
  • Julie A Study of a Girl by a Man, London, Clarion Press, n.d.
  • My Eighty Years, Great Britain, Cassell & Company Limited. 1931
  • My Favourite Books, London, Clarion Press, 1901
  • Saki’s Bowl, London, Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, 1928
  • Stunts, London, Clarion Press, n.d.
  • Tales for the Marines, London, Clarion Newspaper Co., Ltd., 1901
  • The Sorcery Shop: An Impossible Romance, London, Clarion Press, 1907
  • The War That Was Foretold: Germany and England, Reprinted from “The Daily Mail” of 1909
  • What’s All This?, London, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1940
  • Where Are the Dead, London, Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1928 [Contains a chapter by Blatchford, “Secrets of Life and Love.”]

Books about Blatchford

  • Anon The Clarion Van at Norton: Willie Wright's report to Julia Dawson reprinted from The Clarion, Sheffield, 1898
  • Lyons, Neil Robert Blatchford Clarion Press, 1910
  • Jones, Leslie S. A. Robert Blatchford and the Clarion Hyde Park Pamphlets Number Nine, 1986
  • Peacock, Arthur Yours Fraternally Pendulum Publications, 1945
  • Suthers R. B. and Beswick H. The Clarion Birthday Book Clarion Press, 1951
  • Thompson, Alex M. Here I Lie George Routledge & Sons, 1937
  • Thompson, Laurence Robert Blatchford: Portrait of an Englishman Victor Gollancz, London, 1951 238 pp.
  • Williamson, Robert Robert Blatchford Calendar Frank Palmer 1912

External links

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