Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford (17 March 1851 – 17 December 1943) was a socialist campaigner, journalist and author in the United Kingdom. He was a prominent atheist and opponent of eugenics. He was also an English patriot. In the early 1920s, after the death of his wife, he turned towards spiritualism.
Robert Blatchford was born 17 March 1851 in Maidstone, England, the second son of John Glanville Blatchford, a strolling comedian and Georgina Louisa Corri Blatchford, an actress. His early life was mostly spent close to the stage, and his father died when Robert 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.
Military 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 grammar, syntax and shorthand. By 1880 he was married to his sweetheart Sarah Crossley, having been married at the Zion Chapel in Halifax; they then settled in Norwich. She was the daughter of a domestic servant and a 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 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, Bell's 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 Bell's 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 Sunday Chronicle and he wrote a series of articles denouncing the housing conditions in Manchester and he organised two working men's Sanitary Organisations.
Blatchford stated in the Fortnightly Review in 1907 that "Dr Cozier is mistaken if he thinks I took my Socialism from Marx, or that it depends upon the Marxian theory of value. I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H. M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; it is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any theory of "economic justice" but upon humanity and common sense".
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 Bradford East. Due to his socialist stance he had to leave the Sunday Chronicle which in turn left him with a severe reduction in income as his salary had been 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 or more 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 about 80,000 copies for each issue.
By 1892 Blatchford removed himself from the candidature of Bradford East and began siding with the SDF against the Fabians' permeation policy. The outcome of this joining of Clarion and SDF was the Manchester ILP 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 two 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 Clarion Cycling Clubs, Socialist Scouts and Glee Clubs are a reminder that British socialism in the 1890s and 1900s placed a distinctive emphasis on convivial organisation.
By 1889 Blatchford's influence was beginning to be fully felt and 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 its 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 supported many 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 Neighbour' 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 but in 1912 troops were used for strike breaking and Blatchford turned against it: "Universal military service under the (present) ruling classes would result in slavery. I regard invasion as the lesser evil". However he supported conscription again in 1915, and proclaimed it should be implemented along with the "conscription of wealth". Before the Great War, Blatchford toured Germany and after he returned to England he wrote:
I am convinced that...they will be plunged into war without their will. I like Germany; I like German cities; and I like the German people. But I believe that the rulers of the German people are deliberately and cynically preparing to hurl them into a wicked and a desperate war of conquest...The Germans cannot prevent that war, because they do not believe it is coming. The British could prevent that war if, before it is too late, they could be really convinced that it is coming. That is why I want to convince them that war is coming, because I want to prevent that horrible war.
Blatchford was impressed by the cleanliness and efficiency in Germany: "You don't see anything like that in Germany. I thought to myself, is this how we are preparing to fight for the existence of our Empire? What use will these ragged, famished spectres be when we have our backs to the wall?"
On 4 August 1914 Blatchford wrote to his friend Alexander Thompson: "I shall write today a cautious article counselling peace and suggesting that Sir E. Grey should ask Russia and Germany to suspend hostilities pending a friendly mediation by America, England and Italy, or any one of those powers. But I do not think really that European peace is possible until Germany has been defeated and humiliated. And I realise the great possibility that we shall be at war with Germany before the Clarion comes out. And I hope we are". The Clarion Movement was split when Blatchford swung his paper in support of the British participation in the First World War. The circulation for The Clarion fell by 10,000 in a week but when in September 1914 Blatchford wrote a page of The Weekly Dispatch every Sunday its circulation rose by 50,000. In his first article for that paper, Blatchford correctly predicted that the German Army would not reach Paris and of General Joffre's flank along the Marne.
Blatchford visited France in October 1914 and was shocked by the conduct of the Germans in waging war. Initially warning his readers of fake atrocity stories, Blatchford was shocked by the ruined villages in France and the stories he heard, "too horrible and too unclean to be revealed in print". He wrote to Thompson in 1933: "In the early days of the war the movement howled with indignation about the lying charges brought against the German General Staff and troops. The noble Germans were incapable of such crimes. British and Belgian and American witnesses were all liars. Today the same intelligent comrades are denouncing the atrocities committed by the Nazi 'storm troops' upon innocent and helpless Jews. Well, old pal, may I suggest that if the Germans of today are guilty perhaps the Huns of 1914 were not quite innocent".
In his articles during the war, Blatchford campaigned for better pay for the soldiers and considerable pensions for disabled soldiers, soldiers' widows and children. When a soldier wrote to him, claiming his opinions would not be accepted by the Army but those of Philip Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald would, Blatchford replied: "I am sorry. I cannot help it. You want peace. But you cannot have peace without victory...The struggle with Germany will not end with the present war, and we may some day have to fight Germany single-handed".
In 1915, Blatchford formed the National Democratic and Labour Party (NDP) as a right-wing split-off from the British Socialist Party and for the 1918 General Election, the NDP stood in 18 constituencies and won 9 members of Parliament with a total of 156,834 votes, making it the first party formed by a right-wing split from the Labour party in Britain to win seats in Parliament at a general election.
His wife died in 1921, at which point he took an interest in Spiritualism. In 1923 he wrote in response to claims in the press that he had been converted away from socialism by reading Henry Ford's autobiography:
I have never been converted from Socialism. But careful observation of the facts of for the last twelve years or so has convinced me that Socialism will not work, and a study of Mr. Ford's methods has provided what seems to me as good a substitute as we may hope in this imperfect world. Socialism as I knew it in past years was an excellent, almost a perfect, theory...The golden rule will not work in international politics, because the nations are not good enough to live up to it. Real Socialism strongly resembles real Christianity. It is a counsel of perfection and cannot be adopted and adhered to by our imperfect humanity. There is nothing the matter with Socialism, but the people are neither wise enough nor good enough to make it a success. Socialism implies the self-abnegation of the individual for the good of the community.
When the first Labour government took office in 1924, Blatchford responded to Thompson's enthusiasm: "I don't like their policy and I don't trust them. They are in no sense Socialists. At present they are Liberals and we shall have a blend of Liberal shibboleths and communist insanity". When Sir Edward Hulton sold most of his newspapers to Lord Rothermere, Blatchford wrote a letter to The Morning Post:
As a protest against the attempt of the syndicated newspapers to muzzle the press and dictate to the Government, I have resigned my position on The Sunday Chronicle and The Sunday Herald...the public should be helped to realise that the political judgments of the syndicated newspapers are not sincere and considered opinions of trained, independent thinkers, but the broadcast railings of one rich man in a panic over the Capital Levy. It is important that this should be said, and that the country should understand that the voice of Lord Rothermere is not the voice of public opinion. His standardised newspapers are journalistic tied houses, where proprietorial dope is sold as honest beer.
Blatchford voted Conservative in 1924. However, his later books indicate a continued faith in his own English version of socialism. Moreover, the Clarion Movement carried on as a socialist popular movement, taking its cue from Blatchford, into the 1930s and beyond, as indicated by the continued existence of the Clarion rambling and cycling clubs and the founding of the newspaper The New Clarion in 1932. In a 1931 letter to Alexander Thompson, Blatchford proclaimed his last political credo:
I have always been a Tory Democrat...You remember that from the first the Clarion crowd and the Hardie crowd were out of harmony...I loathe the “top-hatted, frock-coated magnolia-scented” snobocracy as much as you do; but I cannot away with the Keir Hardies and Arthur Hendersons and Ramsay MacDonalds and Bernard Shaws and Maxtons. Not long ago you told me in a letter of some trade union delegates who were smoking cigars and drinking whisky at the House of Commons at the expense of their unions. You liked them not. Nor do I like the Trade Union bigots who have cheated J. H. Thomas of his pension...I am glad the Labour Party is defeated because I believe they would have disrupted the British Empire. I dreaded their childish cosmopolitanism; their foolish faith that we could abolish crime by reducing the police force. All the other nations are out for their own ends. American enthusiasm for Naval Disarmament is not dictated by a love of peace. It is an expression of naval rivalry. All the nations hated our naval supremacy. Do the Americans love us? Do the French love us? Is France, America, Italy, devoted to an unselfish and human peace? Can we dispel the bellicose sentiments of Russia and China and Japan by sending an old pantaloon to talk platitudes at Geneva, or by disbanding the Horse Guards and scrapping a few submarines?...The England of my affection and devotion is not a country nor a people: it is a tradition, the finest tradition the world has ever produced. The Labour Party do not subscribe to that tradition; do not know it; could not feel it. And if that tradition is to survive, the policy of scuttle and surrender must be abandoned. You agree with all this I feel sure. You always upheld the Pax Britannica. We have not drifted apart, old pal: our separation is only geographical.
After Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933, Blatchford "began to smell brimstone", in the words of his biographer Laurence Thompson. Blatchford said: "The people ought to know; but who will let me say what ought to be said?" Blatchford feared that people would say: "Oh, Blatchford. He has Germany on the brain." When Winston Churchill began warning of the dangers of Nazi Germany, Blatchford remarked: "Ha! He's learning! Now watch him get it in the neck". Later on, Blatchford believed Churchill's conduct redeemed what he considered his past political errors.
Robert Blatchford died on 17 December 1943 in Horsham, Sussex.
Blatchford's 'love of country' themes were not a late aberration but can be found throughout his output. His combination of libertarianism, socialism and conservatism mark him out as one of the more original activists in English political history. The first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, said of Blatchford in his autobiography:
In these years Mr. Blatchford gave invaluable help to Socialist propaganda. No man did more than he to make Socialism understood by the ordinary working man. His writings in them had nothing of economic abstruseness. He based his appeal on the principles of human justice. He preached Socialism as a system of industrial co-operation for the common good. His arguments and illustrations were drawn from facts and experiences within the knowledge of the common people. Socialism as he taught it was not a cold, materialistic theory, but the promise of a new life as full, sweet and noble as the world can give...Mr. Blatchford is still living, hale and hearty, his mental powers undiminished at the ripe age of eighty-three. I saw him recently, and we talked of those grand and inspiring times of forty years ago. Only the men who were in the Socialist movement in those days can know the great part Robert Blatchford took in making it popular, and of the personal devotion he inspired by his writings.
The General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress from 1925 to 1946, Sir Walter Citrine, was influenced by Blatchford's writings. He said of Britain for the British: "I found it a cogent and reasoned argument for Socialism. It was written with a clearness and bite which were unusual".
Writings by Robert Blatchford
- The Nunquam Papers (from the Sunday Chronicle) Edward Hulton and Co., 1891.
- Fantasias John Heywood, Manchester, 1892.
- Merrie England Clarion Office, Walter Scott, 1893.
- The Nunquam Papers (from 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)
- My Favourite Books, London, Clarion Press, 1901.
- Tales for the Marines, London, Clarion Newspaper Co., Ltd., 1901.
- Britain for the British, London, Clarion Press, 1902.
- A Book About Books, London, Clarion Press, 1903.
- God and my Neighbour Clarion Press, 1903.
- Not Guilty: A Defense of the Bottom Dog Clarion Press, 1906.
- The Sorcery Shop: An Impossible Romance, London, Clarion Press, 1907.
- The Dolly Ballads (Illustrated by Frank Chesworth) Clarion Press, 1907.
- The War That Was Foretold: Germany and England, Reprinted from “The Daily Mail” of 1909.
- My Life in the Army, London, Clarion Press, 1910.
- More Things in Heaven and Earth: Adventures in the Quest for a Soul, London, Methuen & Co., 1925.
- As I Lay A-Thinking: Some Memories and Reflections of an Ancient and Quiet Watchman Hodder & Stoughton, London, (1926)
- Essays of To-Day and Yesterday, London, George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., 1927.
- Saki’s Bowl, London, Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, 1928.
- Where Are the Dead, London, Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1928 [Contains a chapter by Blatchford, “Secrets of Life and Love.”]
- My Eighty Years, Great Britain, Cassell & Company Limited. 1931.
- What's All This?, London, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1940.
- General Von Sneak, London, Hodder & Stoughton, Publishers, n.d.
- Julie A Study of a Girl by a Man, London, Clarion Press, 1904
- Stunts, London, Clarion Press, n.d.
Books about Blatchford
- Anon The Clarion Van at Norton: Willie Wright's report to Julia Dawson reprinted from The Clarion, Sheffield, 1898.
- Chesterton, Gilbert Keith The Blatchford Controversies _____________ ca. 1905.
- Lyons, Neil Robert Blatchford Clarion Press, 1910.
- Jones, Leslie S. A. Robert Blatchford and the Clarion Hyde Park Pamphlets Number Nine, 1986.
- Judge, Tony Tory Socialist: Robert Blatchford and Merrie England Mentor Books, 2013
- 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.
- Williamson, Robert Robert Blatchford Calendar Frank Palmer 1912.
- Laurence Thompson, Robert Blatchford. Portrait of an Englishman (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1951), p. 215 + n.
- Thompson, p. 213.
- Thompson, p. 214.
- Thompson, pp. 222–223.
- Thompson, p. 223.
- Thompson, p. 223.
- Thompson, p. 223.
- Thompson, p. 224, p. 226.
- Thompson, p. 226.
- Thompson, pp. 229–230.
- Thompson, p. 230.
- Thompson, p. 232.
- Thompson, p. 232.
- Thompson, pp. 230–231.
- Thompson, p. 233.
- Thompson, p. 216.
- Philip, Viscount Snowden, An Autobiography. Volume One. 1864–1919 (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1934), pp. 58–59.
- Lord Citrine, Men and Work. An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1964), p. 62.
- Lord Citrine, Men and Work. An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1964).
- Philip, Viscount Snowden, An Autobiography. Volume One. 1864–1919 (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1934).
- Laurence Thompson, Robert Blatchford. Portrait of an Englishman (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1951).
- Works by Robert Blatchford at Project Gutenberg
- Spartacus on Blatchford
- The Clarion Movement 1891–1914 (from WCML site)
- A slightly reworked version of the WCML article which includes the lyrics for the anthem of the Clarion cyclists 'The song of the Clarion Scouts.'
- 'The good old summer time.' Tressell's account of a meeting held by The Clarion Cycling Scouts
- Robert Blatchford: Neglected Socialist