The story of the cycling socialists of the Clarion Club

National Clarion 1895 Publishing 978-09525071-3-0 210×145 92pp

A century before ideas ‘went viral’ on the internet, membership organisations provided a metric by which popular ideas could be measured. Trades unions, boy scouts, friendly societies, and sporting clubs flourished as industrialisation and universal literacy transformed Britain.

The Clarion Cycling Clubs are a heart-warming legacy of this period, and their story provides a compelling insight into the transmission of progressive ideas among Britain’s working-class communities.

Those clubs owe their foundation to a fortuitous chance. Robert Blatchford’s Clarion newspaper, launched in 1891, thrived preaching a vague, ethical, communitarian socialism. The paper was a hit, and in 1985, a group of enthusiasts in Birmingham decided to form a cycling club dedicated to sharing the paper’s message on two wheels. Their idea went viral.

At the height of the Clarion Cycling Club’s success, the years before the First World War, the paper was selling 80,000 copies a week and the club had 8,000 members. It also ran ten Clarion Houses dotted around rural England, some providing refreshment stops, or more often facilities similar to those offered at youth hostels  – three decades before the organisation of that name arrived.

Denis Pye was a life-long Clarionette (as members style themselves) and a teacher by trade. This is a popular history providing the bones of the the organisation’s rise, decline and renaissance. It is as heart-warming as it is easy to read. My overwhelming reaction was that I wanted to know more – not least, how did the club, in any form, manage to endure nearly a century after Blatchford’s paper foundered on the contradictions of its founder’s politics.

Pye won’t provide the answers, alas. He died in 2018. Nonetheless, there is scope here for far more detailed exploration. 

Perhaps the Clarion cycling movement that endures will provide that one day. It still boasts more than 30 sections, over 1,000 members, and, possibly more by chance than design, was the first club of Adam and Simon Yates, who are currently close to the pinnacle of professional cycle sport. I hope that more research will emerge. Clarion’s ethos is attractive as its history is fascinating.

TD Oct 23

Impressively, this is the book’s fifth edition. Less happily, its publisher is the vehicle of relatively recent schism in the Clarion movement between those who are attached to its socialist heritage and the now dominant faction that wants the cycling club to distance itself from its radical roots.

Many years ago, I stumbled upon the grave of Caroline Martyn in Dundee. That she was prominent socialist campaigner I knew. Her close association with the Clarion movement was unknown until she cropped up in Fellowship Is Life.

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