Allen Clarke – a forgotten socialist pioneer

PAUL SALVESON recalls a doyen of the Lancashire labour movement whose dialect writing still has relevance today.

‘I daresay Teddy Ashton’s droll sketches have done more to help reforms than far more pretentious and direct articles. For Teddy, even in his comic (dialect) sketches, pokes sly fun and undermining sarcasm at the iniquities and social injustices of the day.’

Allen Clarke, Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly, 26 August 1905

Allen Clarke was one of the most important figures in the growth of socialism in Lancashire. Like his better known contemporary Robert Blatchford, he was a great propagandist, but he used dialect as his chosen medium to put across a socialist message. He became the doyen of late 19th century Lancashire dialect writers but is virtually forgotten today.

He was perhaps the most popular socialist dialect writer, but not the only one. Across the Pennines, the trade unionist and future cabinet minister, Ben Turner, also wrote dialect poetry that supported the socialist cause. In the north east, miner Tommy Armstrong wrote songs and poetry in the dialect of the Durham coalfield to support his fellow miners, be they strike ballads or laments about pit disasters.

What they had in common were deep roots in their respective communities and a desire to use their literary skills to promote the cause of Labour. Writing in dialect sent a strong message that they were part of a very distinctive community based on shared values and experiences.

Allen Clarke was the son of cotton workers, born in Bolton in 1863. It was a highly political family. Both his father and grandfather were men of strong convictions and his father was active in his trade union. Clarke was strongly influenced by the 1887 Bolton engineers’ strike, which formed the backdrop to his novel, The Knobstick.

The strike, lasting six months, was over wage cuts and reductions in overtime, and brought thousands of Bolton’s most skilled workers out onto the streets. During the strike troops were drafted into the town and though the employers claimed victory, several ‘labour’ candidates were subsequently elected to Bolton Council. These included James Kirkman, ‘a fine old fellow, with a spirit full of zeal and fire for progress’, and Robert Tootill, ‘a powerful speaker, though at times carried to rashness by his own eloquence’. (‘Amongst the Agitators’ Northern Weekly 1 July 1905).

Local vernacular

Clarke’s early political writings, in papers such as his own Labour Light, were hardly original. It was when he used the Lancashire vernacular to put over a socialist message that he really came to life as a writer, as we see in his novels, early poetry, and many of the ‘Tum Fowt’ sketches.

Clarke’s invention of Teddy Ashton as the archetypal Lancastrian was following a well-established literary convention. His fellow Boltonian, JT Staton was one of several dialect writers in the 1860s and 1870s who created a standard character – in his case Bobby Shuttle – who could be used as a commentator on issues of the day. The character was usually, superficially, slightly daft, but with plenty of common sense and homely wisdom. In later years George Formby became such a stage creation – the seemingly thick Lancashire lad who always managed to turn the tables on the ‘toffs’.

Clarke created a character with whom his working class readership could identify – Bill Spriggs, but also his wife Bet. His supporting characters – Joe Lung, Patsy Filligan, Ben Roke, and other denizens of The Dug an’ Kennel – were used to poke fun at authority and affirm a strong sense of pride in being part of the Lancashire working class. Teddy Ashton featured as a character in some of the sketches, occasionally acting as secretary to The Tum Fowt Debatin’ Menociation.

Clarke became a strong supporter of the Labour Church movement which had a strong base in Bolton from the early 1890s. The movement was led by John Trevor who wanted to create a secular religion based around the Labour movement. It was founded at a meeting in Chorlton Town Hall on 4 October 1891.

Bolton’s Labour Church was a congenial home to socialists and radical Liberals. It was led by James Sims – ‘a sturdy old veteran in the cause of labour’ – who became a good friend of Clarke’s. Its breadth and non-sectarian character appealed strongly to Clarke, who hated the rivalries and jealousies of the left. Clarke was a regular attender at Labour Church meetings – he was advertised as speaking on ‘The Riddle of the Universe’ on Sunday 19 April 1903.

Clarke and Blatchford were good friends for many years, until Blatchford’s support for war and empire became too much for Clarke to stomach. They had a major falling-out over the Boer war which resurfaced in 1903 with an acrimonious exchange of letters. The friendship did not survive.

Clarke supported the broad socialist cause and in 1900 was selected as the joint ILP and SDF candidate to fight the Rochdale seat in the general election. This was shortly after The Boer War, which Clarke, and most socialists, had strongly opposed. His election manifesto – ‘My Say to the People of Rochdale’ – emphasises his moral beliefs and his understanding of working class life. He opposed colonialism, child labour and unemployment, and wished to ‘make the world brighter for everybody’. His election manifesto was written in Lancashire dialect and appeared in Rochdale Labour News.

Non-violent anarchism

Clarke’s politics evolved in a quite radical direction after 1900, with a growing interest in Tolstoyan anarchism. Anarchism in Britain, indeed in most European countries, was as diverse as ‘socialism’, with violent and non-violent wings. Tolstoy was a leading proponent of non-violent anarchism, advocating rural communes to alleviate unemployment in the industrial cities, which would ultimately become the way of life for everyone.

Clarke’s socialism was akin to the libertarian ‘larger socialism’ of Edward Carpenter, the fellow Whitmanite, who shared many friends with Clarke, notably JW Wallace, John Johnston and Fred Wild, the main figures in the Bolton Whitman circle. Clarke admired Carpenter’s writings and spoke glowingly of Love’s Coming of Age in a Northern Weekly editorial on 20 January 1906. The same edition carried a review of Ernest Crosby’s pamphlet Edward Carpenter: Poet and Prophet.

Clarke also ran a major feature on Carpenter by Crosby in Northern Weekly of 7 and 14 February 1903 as well as an article by Carpenter himself on ‘The Unrest of Civilization’. Writing in Northern Weekly some time later, on 20 January 1906, Clarke talked about ‘this wise and good man’ and urged readers to get a copy of Tom Swan’s book, Edward Carpenter – The Man and His Message.

Clarke’s peak of popularity was between the years 1896 and 1908, when he was producing his weekly newspaper. Alongside The Clarion, Cotton Factory Times and Yorkshire Factory Times (all of which he wrote for), he was able to influence tens of thousands of Lancashire and Yorkshire readers. Perhaps not quite as influential as Blatchford, he nonetheless had a huge impact, converting people to socialism through laughter and love of the open air. Not a bad combination.

He moved to Blackpool in the early 20th century and wrote perhaps his most popular book, Windmill Land, an exotic mix of local history and folk lore, cycle trips and rambling expeditions, and the occasional injection of radical politics. He remained true to his early beliefs, writing a series of biographical articles in The Liverpool Weekly Post in 1934 which celebrated great figures in the socialist movement, including James Connolly. He died in December 1935.

Does Clarke have any relevance for us today? I would say yes, he does. His open and inclusive politics, strongly influenced by Tolstoy and Edward Carpenter, but rooted in the soil of Lancashire – urban as well as rural – suggests a political practice which is broad and popular. He used humour to attack his political opponents and to win over the doubters. How seldom do we see humour used in modern politics.

Lancashire’s Romantic Radical: The life and writings of Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton, by Paul Salveson, was published by Little Northern Books in 2009 and is available price £15 (or £25 hardback).

Supporters of the ILP can get the books at £10 and £20 respectively. To order, send cheques, made out to ‘Little Northern Books’ to: 90a Radcliffe Road, Golcar, Huddersfield HD7 4EZ. Tel. 01484 844846. Email:

Paul Salveson’s new book, Socialism with a Northern Accent – radical traditions for modern times, will be published in February 2011.

1 Comment

  1. John Miller
    27 December 2010

    An illuminating article. Thank you.

Comments are closed.