Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford (17 March 1851 – 17 December 1943) was a socialist campaigner, journalist, and author in the United Kingdom. He was also noted as a prominent atheist, opponent of eugenics, and English nationalist. 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 father died in 1853, and subsequently his early life was mostly spent close to the stage. After his father's death,his mother continued to act for 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. 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 was being an odd job boy in a lithographic printing works; his salary being only eighteen pence a week. As a child he attended school only occasionally, firstly in Halifax and then in Portsmouth for only a few weeks. Despite the brevity of his educational experience, it 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, reading the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and the works of Dickens. Throughout his childhood he was frail and sickly, with doctors suggesting that he would not reach adulthood, but his poor health gave him time to read. Around 1864 his mother secured full-time employment as a dressmaker and immediately apprenticed both her sons, sending Montagu to a lithographic printer and Robert to a brushmaker. It was at a factory that Robert 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, though his reason for doing so has been the cause of debate. Laurence Thomson argues that it is because of a quarrel with his mother, but Robert's daughter Dorothea states that he decided to leave because of the difficulty of his life in Halifax. On May Day 1871, Robert walked to Hull, then continued on to London via Yarmouth.
Military and early journalistic career
Blatchford joined the Army at an early age and rose to become a sergeant major by 1874; by this time, he had also achieved the Army's second class certificate of education. Reaching this level took seven years, during which time he served with the Irish regiment 103rd Dublin Fusiliers and the 96th Regiment of Foot. The pleasures of army life stimulated some of Robert's best writing. In 1877 he left the army to become a clerk in the Weaver Navigation Company, earning a guinea per week. While employed as a clerk, he carefully used his spare time to learn grammar, syntax, and shorthand. In 1880 he was married to his sweetheart, Sarah Crossley, at the Zion Chapel in Halifax; they then settled in Norwich. Sarah was the daughter of a domestic servant and a mechanic. Around this time Robert became frustrated with his job, as he had the desire to become an artist. Unfortunately, opportunities to become an artist in Norwich were scarce, so he instead decided to become a writer. His writing career began in 1882 at the Yorkshireman newspaper, where he had a sketch published. He obtained his first full-time writing job through his friend Alexander Muttock Thompson, who worked for the Manchester Sporting Chronicle. Thompson recommended Blatchford to a friend who ran the newspaper Bell's Life in London. A year later, Blatchford moved his family to South London, where he wrote for Bell's Life and the Leeds Toby.
In 1885, Blatchford began to write for the Manchester Sunday Chronicle. When Bell's Life failed two years later, he moved to a full-time position at the Sunday Chronicle. Before beginning at the Sunday Chronicle, Blatchford took a short holiday on the Isle of Wight after the death of his two children. At this time he was not yet a socialist, but the reaction to the competitiveness of industrial society in Northern England affected his sentiments. The largest influence on Blatchford was the South Salford Social Democratic Federation. In 1889 he wrote a series of articles in the Sunday Chronicle denouncing the housing conditions in Manchester and 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, while based in Manchester, Blatchford became actively involved in the Labour Movement. He founded the Manchester branch of the Fabian Society, and launched a weekly socialist newspaper, The Clarion, in 1891. Later that year, he used his column announced that he had accepted the invitation of the Bradford Labour Union to become the Independent Labour candidate in Bradford East. However, his socialist stance forced him to leave the Sunday Chronicle, which in turn left him with a severe reduction in income.
Having left the newspaper on 12 December 1891 Blatchford set up The Clarion, but 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. Bernard Semmel described it as "the most successful socialist publication in Great Britain during the period before the war of 1914".
By 1892 Blatchford removed himself from the candidature of Bradford East and began siding with the SDF against the Fabians' permeation policy. The joining of The Clarion and SDF resulted in the formation of the Manchester ILP in 1892, which soon 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, whose extraordinary dynamism was expressed in its numerous choirs and Clarion Cycling Clubs, Socialist Scouts, and Glee Clubs.
By 1889 Blatchford's influence was beginning to be fully felt and the Clarion movement was having a profound effect on the Labour movement, affecting communities throughout the North and holding the movement together during difficult times. Central to the Clarion movement were the Clarion Cycling Clubs who, accompanied frequently 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. Blatchford denounced his "cosmopolitan friends, who are so cosmopolitan that they can admire every country but their own, and love all men except Englishmen". He criticised the "smug, self-righteous prigs" in the labour movement who while "despising military glory, are yet so eloquent over the marksmanship and courage of the Boers". He said his "whole heart is with the British troops...When England is at war, I'm English. I have no politics and no party. I am English".
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. However Blatchford was critical of the Labour Party, which was founded in 1900, for what he perceived as its complete subservience to Liberalism, especially in its Cobdenite, internationalist views on foreign policy. Blatchford said of himself and his colleagues of The Clarion: "We were out for Socialism and nothing but Socialism and we were Britons first and Socialists next".
The Liberal-Labour support for free trade he criticised from an economic nationalist perspective. Free trade had made it impossible for Britain to feed herself and had destroyed British agriculture. This was especially serious in wartime because Britain could be starved into submission due to the dependence for her food on foreign nations. When Joseph Chamberlain launched his crusade for Tariff Reform in 1903, Blatchford's response was ambiguous. He did not formally endorse Chamberlain's campaign but his aims—the revival of British agriculture, a self-sufficient Empire, and producer-focused instead of consumer-focused economic system—were praised in The Clarion. Blatchford said he did not believe in Tariff Reform as applied by Tories but that a socialist government would find it a necessary instrument.
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.
A series of articles on socialism in The Clarion were published in book form in 1893 as Merrie England. The first edition sold 30,000 copies. The year after a pocket sized edition was published, which sold 25,000 copies. A penny edition was published in 1894, with 250,000 copies being ordered before publication and within a year 750,000 copies had been despatched across the English speaking world. In Britain and America the book sold over two million copies. In the opinion of Robert Ensor, the book "helped to make socialism really well known in England for the first time...It was Blatchford's highest flight as a propagandist; he never surpassed it, and through it mainly he left his mark upon history". The book was translated into Welsh, Hebrew, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and German.
William Thomas Stead picked the book as the Review of Reviews book of month and called Blatchford "the poor man's Plato". Dr Horton the Congregationalist minister compared Blatchford to Isaiah, Amos and Micah and said that "if Jesus Christ were a man on earth today, He would read the book not only with interest but with approval, and He would say to any officious disciples who took exception to parts of it, “Forbid him not; he that is not against Me is for Me”." C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian wrote to Blatchford, saying: "I have been reading Merrie England and (pace the reviewers) find a great deal in it!" The Manchester Guardian said that for every British convert to socialism made by Das Kapital there were a hundred made by Merrie England.
At the Oxford Union a motion was approved by 103 to 54 that stated that "the aims of the Socialist tract, Merrie England, are but the baseless fabric of a vision". The motion was seconded by Hilaire Belloc.
War Scare of 1909
At the end of the second week of December 1909 Blatchford wrote ten daily articles for the Daily Mail warning of the German menace:
I write these articles because I believe that Germany is deliberately preparing to destroy the British Empire; and because I know that we are not ready or able to defend ourselves against a sudden and formidable attack...At the present moment the whole country is in a ferment about the Budget and the Peers and the Election. It seems sheer criminal lunacy to waste time and strength in chasing such political bubble when the existence of the Empire is threatened.
The articles received considerable attention in Britain and Germany, and when published as a pamphlet sold over one and a half million copies. The King "lamented Blatchford's violence" and the Kaiser read Blatchford's articles with care and denounced them as "very mischievous and singularly ill-timed". Sir Charles Ottley, the Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, wrote to Lord Esher that Blatchford's appeal was not based on a partisan, political basis as he had said that the country did not want a Liberal or Unionist government but a MAN: "His strength is that he knows what he wants and is not afraid to ask for it in plain language...The burthen of the song is - compulsory service, a strong navy and a general raising of the standard of education and living of the masses of the British people". Lord Cromer publicly declared that he shared Blatchford's patriotism. The articles ensured that defence was a major issue in the ensuing general election of January 1910. After the election the Liberal MP Reginald McKenna boasted that Blatchford had not cost the Liberals a single vote. Keir Hardie said that "the whole Socialist movement was rocking with suppressed laughter".
The Daily Mail′s Berlin correspondent told Lord Northcliffe: "In a long experience...I do not recall a foreign journalistic event which so focussed the attention of the German press and public". There was universal condemnation in German newspapers, including Social Democratic, Catholic and Pan-German organs. When the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg complained to Edward Goschen, the British ambassador in Berlin, the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey advised Goschen to explain the articles as "not really anti-German but alarmist...to create a scare".
Shortly before the general election of December 1910, the Daily Mail published Blatchford's series of articles on ‘The Greatest Issue of All’, the German threat. However these were nowhere near as influential as his previous ones and defence was not an issue in the election.
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". Clement Attlee also spoke of Blatchford's influence on his beliefs. A. J. P. Taylor said that Blatchford was "the greatest popular journalist since Cobbett".
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.