When Fellowship is Life – cyclists, socialism and civil war in Spain

When fellowship is life

Joel Aubet

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In the summer of 1937 George Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938) telling his experiences as an International Brigadier in the Spanish Civil War. As Orwell, tens of thousands of supportive chaps from 54 different countries set out to defend the Republic against the fascist horror. Among them, 2.500 British —500 of which would never come back— crossed the sea to help their republican comrades. A pair of them, Ted Ward and Geoff Jackson, did it on their bicycles.


February 1894. Six young men gather in Birmingham. The reason? To discuss how to combine the pleasure of their beloved cycling with the propaganda of their wanted socialism. They want to join what makes them feel free with what it actually has to make them free. With this determination they found the Socialist Cycling Club, name that they are going to change in his second meeting for Clarion Cycling Club in honour to The Clarion, their favourite newspaper. This way, they join the Clarion movement, a popular stream arisen from the socialist weekly newspaper in which socialism was exposed more as a way of life rather than as an abstract and difficult to understand economic and philosophic theory.


That very same year there was a boom. At the end of 1894 there are already four more Clarion sections: in Potteries, Liverpool, Bradford and Barnsley. In 1895’ Easter, when the first national meeting is held, a 120 people from the Midlands and the North attend to Ashbourne to found the National Clarion: «the association of the various Clarion Cycling Clubs for the purpose of Socialist propaganda and for promoting inter-club runs between the clubs of different towns» according to the founding principles included in the book Fellowship is life: The story of the Clarion Cycling Club from Denis Pye.


The objects of the club were made clear and its principles were carved in stone: «protect and ensure the interest of cycling and cyclists; promote Mutual Aid, Good Fellowship; and support for the Principles of Socialism». From this first meeting, we have to highlight the words by Tom Groom, founding member and first Clarion Cycling Club secretary:


«We are not neglectful of our Socialism. The frequent contrasts a cyclist gets between beauties of nature and the dirty squalor of towns make him more anxious than ever to abolish the present system. To get healthy exercise is not necessarily to be selfish. To attend to the social side of our work is not necessarily to neglect the more serious part. To spread good fellowship is … the most important work of Clarion Cycling Clubs. Then perhaps, the ‘One Socialist Party’ would be more possible and we should get less of those squabbles among Socialists which make me doubt whether they understand even the first part of their name.»


The National Clarion increased to 8.000 members with several sections nationwide at the beginning of the 20th century: 30 clubs in 1895 and 70 in 1897. The peak moment was in 1914 Easter Meeting in Shrewsbury. The poet William Morris wrote the club’s motto ‘Fellowship is life, lack of fellowship is death. Socialism, the hope of the world’ and the illustrator Walter Crane designed the emblem.


In a moment in which people could not afford a car, bicycle provided freedom and strengthened the boundaries of fellowship. Thus, working class people achieved freedom on top of their bikes in the idyllic environment of the English countryside and The Clarion, honouring its name —a Clarion is a kind of trumpet— spread the message in the industrial towns.


The socialist seed


One of the reasons that made The Clarion, founded in 1891 by Robert Blatchord, so popular are found in its flat and pleasant language. In a moment in which the theorics «used solemn, difficult, highbrow, dreary and theoretical words to espouse socialism» Blatchford, instead, knew how to explain socialism «in the simplest and best language» as appears in Denies Pye’s book —essential guide to deepen in Clarion’s history—. This concept of ‘socialism as a way of life’ anchored in the working class and, around the newspaper, a whole movement that would overcome the journal when its support decreased due to Blatchford’s support to the Great War was formed.

Lots of cultural, social and leisure activities which helped the urban population to avoid the toil and the dullness of the urban life were organised around the Clarion movement. And in that sense bicycle was —and still is!— chain and motor. According to William Morris, socialist and influent victorian multidisciplinar artist, the Clarion movement was «an attempt to pre-figure life under Socialism».


The experience also meant an extremely important advance in the unity between the different socialist branches. For instance, in some areas in the country —mainly in the north west— clubhouses were established: the Clarion Cyclists’ Clubhouses. These, together with the Clarion drama clubs, choirs and rambling groups were determinant for the movement expansion. However, the star section was, with no doubt, the cyclist.


The Clarionettes


Charles Jepson, unflagging socialist and present National Clarion Cycling Club 1895 president, confirms our suspicion: without the Clarion Cycling Club’s importance the movement influence would not have achieved the dimensions it acquired. And it is because a big amount of work was done by the Clarion Scouts who, loaded with leaflets and newspapers which they left in the most appropriate places —often beyond the circulation areas of the paper— ensured the expansion of a movement as romantic as effective. They were the responsible for the distribution of a million copies of Merrie England, the book written by Blatchford which, according to Jepson, was a book that encouraged its readers to deepen in the socialist thinking and, for some others «it was the originator of the socialist movement and the Labour Party».


Clarionettes and Clarionettes women, by the way —because we can not forget that the Clarion accepted women as members in a moment when they were banned in most of the cycling clubs—, pedalled, distributed leaflets, held meetings and supported strikes. They did it plenty of times escorted by their famous horse-drawn vans. But they did all of this enjoying cycling and stopping for the mandatory pints in the closest pub in a pure fellowship environment.


The fraternity between club members was so huge that they introduced a greeting between clarionettes: when you crossed by a non-identified cyclist, if you said ‘Boots!’ aloud and he responded ‘Spurs!’ everything was already said. And that is still the same nowadays.


With the new century entrance and the outbreak of war, the paper which named the cycling club, under the management of an every time more retrograde Robert Blatchford, aligned in favour of the conflict and against Women’s suffrage losing that way loads of readers (from 60.000 to 10.000 according to Jepson). Even so, it did not close until 1932. Obviously, the movement suffered but the Cycling Clubs were spread nationwide —many of them to stay until nowadays— and in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, many of their members did not hesitate to line up in favour of the Republican side in different ways.




The internationalist solidarity route. From Glasgow to Barcelona.


17th of July 1936 Spanish Civil War outbreaks. Just three month later, in October, the first International Brigadiers start to arrive. They will not stop until the controversial Non-intervention Committee withdrawal in 1938. Among these, some Clarion members which embarked to the mainland in order to defend humanity against the fascist horror. According to Charles Jepson, it is complicated to keep a record from Clarion members because when the Brigadiers were asked to declare their political affiliation they would simply write ‘anti-fascist’ and they did not state their Clarion Cycling Club membership. At this moment they know about nine former members: Ray Cox, Tom Dolan, Tom Oldershaw, Ray Watts, Colin Bradsworth, Joe Maiden, Lionel Poxon, Joseph Boyd y McMahon. Some of them travel as soldiers and others —some of them because of pacifist convictions— as doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers. Unfortunately, not all of them will go back home alive.


These were not the only clarionettes that supported the socialist side. From the British Islands, lots of clubs organised acts to fundraise whatever it was. Sometimes even just cigarettes for the comrades in the front. Others, like the previously mentioned Ted Ward and Geoff Jackson, decided to use their most wanted passion —cycling, of course!— to help with the feat.


Jackson had already been in Catalonia when the fascist coup broke out because he was one of the seven riders who were to represent England in the People’s Olympiad of Barcelona that was never held. Forced to pack up and go home because of the coup, he did not stay idly watching as the conflict escalated. In 1938, after two years of war and barbarity in the Spanish state, Ward and Jackson, members of the Kinning Park Glasgow Clarion Cycling Club section, embarked on a bicycle trip from Glasgow to Barcelona in order to raise money for the Republican side and spread and propagate their cause worldwide. It took more than two thousand kilometers of pedalling going from town to town, crossing the Strait of Calais and overcoming the Pyrenees. First escorted by clarionettes from the various English towns they passed that joined them in a gesture of solidarity zigzagging towards the English Channel. Then, from Dieppe, relieved by French riders that led them to the Pyrenean border. Through the way, they were engaged to give talks and acts in order to get the £70 -about £3,500 nowadays- in order to help child victims of war and gain support for the cause along the way. The result? They got £400 -about £20,000-. And who knows if they also inspired other youngsters to join the republican side. What is certain is that they wrote a historic page in the memory of the International Brigades and in the one about cycling feats.


The National Clarion Cycling Club today


Today, the National Clarion Cycling Club has more than 1,600 members in 32 sections spread by the British geography, which makes it one of the biggest clubs in the country. While it is true that socialist ideology has been quite left aside, today, the club still ensures that “the bike even gives us freedom, freedom of the motor vehicle, the urban stress and gives us great friendships and many friends all over the country. Whether we compete, as if we socialize, we do routes or in coffee, the Clarion is a real club, not a partnership.” As in so many other areas it seems that postmodernism has engulfed the strength of the original ideals of the club and dissolved them in warm and easier to digest concepts by today’s society. In 2006, Charles Jepson and other comrades created the National Clarion Cycling Club 1895, a split from the original. “We remain committed to the socialist principles from the founders of the first Clarion cycling clubs and proud of being in the streets with  the Unions and labour movements to fight for a new society.” They publish a quarterly magazine entitled The Clarion.


The Socialist flame stays on. The journey of 2008.


In 2008, as the old is always beautiful, the National Clarion Cycling Club 1895 — a Catalan among them, by the way— decided to recreate the journey of Ted and Geoff in an act of pure historical memory. They slightly changed the original route to pass through the Basque Country and the scenes of the Battle of the Ebro and pay tribute to the victims of fascism. After 70 years, the solidarity was still alive and from village to village today Clarionettes found complicity —popular and institutional— everywhere they went. Charles Jepson says that “we received an extremely warm welcome in all the places we visited, television following us and covered our actions. In Barcelona, ​​we were escorted by the police and received by the City Hall”. Nostalgic, he also tells us that he will never ever forget “the gratitude and emotion with which the mayors of two towns in Aragon received, with tears in his eyes, the entourage with the Republican flag and how, when they were riding down the hill into Barcelona, workmen at the roadside dropped their tools to give them the clenched fist salute. At the end of the day it seems that, although not with the strength with which it had years before, the socialist flame still stays on.


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