How the Clarion Cycling Club Put the Brakes on Socialism

After more than a century of tradition, the Clarion Cycling Club severed its historic link to socialism earlier this month at a contentious AGM – breaking ties to the workers' movement which brought the club into existence.

On the evening of Monday 26 February 1894, six young members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) met at the Bond Street Labour Church on Constitution Hill, Birmingham. There, they agreed to form the Socialist Cycling Club, with the objective of combining ‘the pleasures of cycling with the propaganda of Socialism’. At the Club’s second meeting some ten days later, they unanimously agreed to rename it the Clarion Cycling Club after the Clarion, their favourite weekly newspaper edited by the campaigning socialist journalist Robert Blatchford.

On Good Friday 1894, seven members of the newly formed Clarion Cycling Club set out on a three-day tour from Wolverhampton, down the Severn valley, and back to Birmingham in time for the Sunday evening service at the Bond Street Labour Church. The group’s leader, Tom Groom, wrote an account of their adventure which was subsequently published in the Clarion. His lively account of cycling, eating, drinking, having fun, and spreading the message of socialism resulted in a number of Clarion Cycling Clubs being founded, mainly (but not exclusively) in the industrial regions of the Midlands, West Yorkshire, and Lancashire.

The following year, it was agreed to hold a ‘meet’ in Ashbourne to which all newly established Clarion Cycling Clubs would be invited. On Easter Sunday, a very informal conference was held on the front lawn of the Isaak Walton Hotel in Dovedale, Peak District, where it was agreed to form the National Clarion Cycling Club, ‘an association of the various Clarion Clubs for the purpose of Socialist propaganda and for the promoting of inter-club run between clubs of different towns’. It was also agreed that club membership should not be restricted to socialists but rather open to all, including women who were then excluded from almost all cycling clubs dominated by ‘gentlemen’.

Clarion banner featuring the slogan ‘socialism is the hope of the world.’

There was a rule that officers of the Club should be a member of a recognised Socialist organisation, which at the time meant the Independent Labour Party, the Marxist SDF, or one of the other fledgling socialist organisations. The Club’s ethical socialism was loosely based on the programme advocated by H. M. Hyndman and on the socialist Ten Commandments, which were taught in the halls and meeting rooms of the Socialist Sunday Schools, a movement which had spread fast across the country.

The Club reached its peak in the years immediately before the First World War, when close to 150 Clarion Cycling Clubs were established with a national membership of over 7,000. The onset of war was tragic for both the cycling clubs and the wider Clarion movement that had grown in its wake. For over two decades, Blatchford and the Clarion advocated peace, brotherhood, and international worker solidarity. Yet following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, the Clarion beat the drum of war. Blatchford’s full embrace of the war effort disappointed and divided his readership, and newspaper circulation fell from over 60,000 to less than 10,000.

From its very inception, the Clarion Cycling Club’s commitment to socialism has been something of a problem. For some, the Club was never political enough; for others it was too political, especially the activities of the Clarion Scouts, the Club’s flying column of socialist propagandists. They cycled the country lanes sticking political tracts on the flanks of cows and loudly proclaiming the approach of one of the horse-drawn Clarion Vans with their prominent Socialist speakers.  Some argued that socialism deterred potential members from joining the Club. But others believed that if the Clarion ceased to have any association with its ideals, then it no longer has a reason to exist.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were various attempts at the Clarion’s annual conference to remove its constitutional commitment, with all attempts failing to secure the votes needed. This on-going attack on the Club’s heritage led to a split in 2006, when one of the Clarion Clubs in the north of England was expelled for changing its name to National Clarion Cycling Club 1895 (North Lancs Union) to protect the founder’s historic commitment to ‘combine the pleasures of cycling with the propaganda of Socialism’ from future attacks.

Names of Clarion members killed in the Spanish Civil War.

In June this year, a National Secretary—who had been unsuccessfully attempting to delete socialism from the Club’s constitution for more than forty years—took the opportunity of the Covid restriction to gerrymander an unconstitutional annual general meeting using the medium of Zoom. He argued the founder’s original objective ‘has the potential to alienate those members and future members who do not find a political statement originating from the 1890s relevant to their membership of the Clarion Cycling Club today’.

The move was successful in convincing a sufficient number of delegates that the reference to socialism was both divisive and non-inclusive, and following a vote, ‘support for the principles of socialism’ was replaced with support for ‘fairness, equality, inclusion and diversity’.

Tony Benn once said that ‘it’s important to know your history, to study your history, to understand your history, but most important of all – you must never, ever forget your history’. Shortly before his death in 1945, Tom Groom—who had led the very first Clarion Cycle Club ride half a century earlier—wrote that ‘so long as the Clarion Cycling Club keeps true to its Objects: Mutual Aid, Good Fellowship and the Propagation of the Principles of Socialism, it will have good cause and reason for keeping alive.’

At present, it is too early to comment on the wider organisational consequences of the deletion of the Clarion’s commitment to socialism, which has distinguished it from every other cycling club for the past 126 years. However, there are several Clarion Cycling Clubs for whom the slogan ‘Socialism is the Hope of the World’ is too important a part of our past to lose, and for who the link between Clarion cyclists and socialism will forever remain unbroken.