In his day, Allen Clarke was a friend of Keir Hardie and a correspondent with Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy. As ‘Teddy Ashton’, one of the North’s most popular dialect writers between 1890 and 1935, he was loved by tens of thousands of Lancashire mill workers, amongst whom he had a devoted readership. He helped to end child labour in the mills, and his collected output of novels, poetry, and works of philosophy was astonishing.
I first discovered him as a student at Lancaster in the 1970s, when I stumbled across a collection of dialect sketches set in my hometown of Bolton. These funny, perceptive, and politically incisive stories were authored by Teddy Ashton – who, it turned out, was Clarke. Researching his life in the 1980s, I could still find old mill workers who fondly remembered Teddy Ashton, and still kept hold of well-thumbed copies of his Lancashire Annuals – but who had never heard of Clarke.
Clarke was born in Bolton on 27 February 1863, into a family of cotton workers. His father had emigrated from County Mayo, Ireland in the 1840s to find work in Lancashire, and eventually moved up the ranks into becoming a ‘minder’ – one of the so-called aristocrats of the working class. The Clarke household was highly intellectual, with bookshelves full of ‘the classics’ taking their places next to the work of dialect writers such as Sam Laycock.
When Allen was eleven, the family briefly moved to Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire – most likely because his father had been blacklisted for his union activities. He soon started work as a ‘little piecer’ in a local mill and hated it; when the family returned to Bolton a year later, he started working full-time as a piecer, but for his father. This experience of the bleak mill system gave him a burning sense of injustice, and as an adult in the 1890s, he championed the campaign against child labour in the mills.
Eventually, he managed to escape from the mill life. After a brief time as a ‘pupil teacher’ among other jobs, he took the risk of starting his own paper—the Labour Light—without, as he later reminisced, ‘a ha’porth of capital’. Though the paper was not a great commercial success, it offered him a way into professional journalism, and he soon became a writer for the Lancashire-based Cotton Factory Times, as well as its sister publication, the Yorkshire Factory Times.
However, in 1896, Clarke tried again, establishing Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly. This time his efforts came to great success. Within no time, he had built up a dedicated readership of 50,000 people. These readers were overwhelmingly working-class, as was demonstrated by the huge volume of letters coming from weavers, spinners, railwaymen and engineers from Lancashire and Yorkshire.
This was the northern industrial working class that Clarke saw himself as intrinsically part of. The Northern Weekly contained both serious and comic stories about people’s lives in the mills, weaving sheds, and mines of the North. In 1896, he said that ‘my aim today is to give the working class life (of Lancashire principally, for that I know best) faithful expression in the literature of England.’
Clarke wrote most of what went out in the pages of the Northern Weekly, often using a bewildering array of pennames. His novels, numbering over twenty, were serialised in the paper, with some later being published in book form. Nearly all of them concern life in the Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial towns and cities, such as The Knobstick—an old dialect term for ‘scab’—set in Bolton during the 1887 engineering workers’ strike.
Many of his novels contained strong female characters, such as A Daughter of the Factory, whose revolutionary heroine is the mill worker Rose Hilton. In Driving – a Tale of Weavers and their Work, the main figure is the weaver and trade unionist Bertha Lindley. These serialised works were hugely popular, engaging the imaginations of thousands.
Interestingly, one of his novels made history by being formally censured by a group of railway trade unionists; in October 1897, a Manchester trade union branch secretary wrote to the Northern Weekly informing them that workers had felt it necessary to formally condemn the finish of one of his serialised novels:
At a meeting held last Saturday at Longsight Permanent Way Dept. it was resolved to censure Allen Clarke for ending the tale entitled ‘A Curate of Christ’s’ without any explanation as to how the strike ended, what became of the curate and a hundred other questions. I was asked, as secretary, to write to you as the railwaymen are anxious to know.
Clarke replied, acknowledging the novel’s faults and the personal reasons—the death of one of his children—behind the novel’s unsatisfactory ending. But this reaction was symbolic of the level of engagement so many felt towards his writings. His style was highly personalised, treating his readers as part of an extended family. His ‘Editor’s Gossip’ section was just that, sharing his ideas and experiences with readers and inviting them to respond, while the ‘Children’s Corner’ encouraged working-class children as young as seven or eight to write in about issues like child labour, as well as more normal children’s pastimes.
His work always had a radical political edge. Alongside belonging to the Bolton Walt Whitman Fellowship and contributing poetry to Robert Blatchford’s Clarion, he used comedy to attack the social evils of the time, once writing (of his alter-ego) that ‘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.’
But he wrote serious works too. Of particular note was The Effects of the Factory System, a searing indictment of mill life which castigated the system in which working-class children as young as eleven worked in the mill from six in the morning to lunchtime before attending school in the afternoon. Clarke worked closely with the National Union of Teachers to fight this system, which was abolished in 1918, and Tolstoy organised for the book to be translated into Russian.
And nor was his work limited to writing. In the early 1900s, he started his Teddy Ashton Picnics, the first of which attracted around 10,000 people to Barrowbridge on the outskirts of Bolton and raised funds for the locked-out quarry workers of Bethesda, North Wales. Clarke supported many other unpopular causes from women’s emancipation to Irish independence, and was a staunch opponent of the Boer War. While remaining something of an anarchist, he also stood as a candidate for Rochdale’s branches of the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation in the 1900 general election.
When Clarke’s family moved to Blackpool in 1905, he became a popular local figure. His attempts at setting up a ‘co-operative’ colony near Blackpool in the early 1900s had a rather short life, but he had soon established his own shop and set about building a network of rambling and cycling clubs. He stood for election to the local council, alongside the socialist ice-cream seller ‘Pablo’, but wasn’t elected. His most popular book, Windmill Land, was about the Fylde countryside – an exotic mix of local history and folklore, based around his cycling trips and rambling expeditions. Little Marton Mill, a much-loved tourist attraction in Blackpool today, was preserved by its owner as a monument to Clarke, ‘the man who loved windmills’, when he died in 1935.
In his native Lancashire today, Allen Clarke is little known. The same is true of many great Lancashire dialect writers such as Edwin Waugh, Ben Brierley, and Samuel Laycock. One piece of this pioneering socialist dialect writer’s legacy remains today – his ‘Gradely Prayer’, a copy of which is displayed on Platform 4 at Bolton train station, where the young Clarke once caught the train to Blackpool:
Give us Lord, a chance to be,
Eaur gradely best, brave wise an’ free,
Eaur gradely best, for ourselves an’ others,
Till all men learn, to live as brothers.