On Saturday May 13th, Dr Paul Salveson MBE gave an interesting talk on the life and work of Allen Clarke, also known as Teddy Ashton. Group members were fascinated to learn about Clarke’s poetry and are now working on reciting his poems in local dialect.
Below, an article by Paul Salveson that discusses the life and works of Allen Clarke (Teddy Ashton), one of Bolton’s remarkable yet relatively unknown literary figures.
Allen Clarke – Lancashire’s Romantic and Forgotten Radical
Allen Clarke was one of the North’s most popular writers between the 1890s and 1930s, yet today he’s virtually forgotten. He was born in Daubhill, a poor area of Bolton, in 1863. Both his parents were cotton workers and he followed them into the mill at the age of 11. Yet by 1900 he was a popular novelist, publishing a weekly newspaper and turning out poems, short stories and even works of philosophy. Many of his themes, particularly the environment but also spirituality, have a modern message but none of his books are in print.
His first attempts at writing, as a teenager, were encouraged by his parents and also by a helpful employer – like his father, he worked at Cross’s Gilnow Mill in Bolton, and one of the partners in the firm encouraged his talent. He left the mill and earned a meagre wage as a ‘pupil teacher’ in a local school, attempting to provide a basic education to many children not much younger than himself, who were victims of the ‘half-time’ system. Children would typically start work at 6 a.m. and do dangerous and demanding work until dinner-time, then they would go to school in the afternoon. No wonder so many fell asleep at their desks! These early experiences gave Clarke a loathing of child labour and he played a key role in the attempts by the National Union of Teachers to abolish the system – in the face of bitter resistance by the cotton unions.
By his late teens Clarke was certain that he wanted to become a professional writer, but trying to get a break into journalism proved difficult. So, at the age of 27, he decided he’d go it alone and set up his own paper – The Labour Light. Clarke had joined the local socialist movement in Bolton after the tumultuous events around the Engineers’ Strike of 1887. His paper was a mixture of union news, political reports, and a special ingredient which rescued the paper from rapid decline. This was the Lancashire dialect sketches, which featured the adventures of ‘Bill and Bet Spriggs’ of ‘Tum Fowt’, or Tonge Fold, a small village on the outskirts of Bolton. They had been included on the advice of his printer, who suggested that the paper needed ‘lightening’ a bit. The sketches, which as Clarke later said “poked sly fun and undermining sarcasm at the iniquities and social injustices of the day“, combined humour with a radical cutting edge. In tales such as ‘Bill Spriggs as a Policeman’ he exposed local municipal corruption. In other sketches he described conditions in the mills and weaving sheds, or on the railways.
His readers loved them, and over 30 were published as ‘penny pamphlets’ going through several editions from the 1890s to the 1920s. He later claimed that over a million copies had been sold. The success of the dialect sketches was not enough to keep The Labour Light afloat. He had an offer of a job on the pro-union Cotton Factory Times, based in Ashton-under-Lyne, which he jumped at. He continued the dialect sketches and wrote his first novel – The Lass at The Man and Scythe, published in 1891. It was set at the time of the English Civil War and features the horrific massacre in Bolton in 1644 when Royalist troops broke the siege of the town and massacred hundreds of the inhabitants. The troops were under the ultimate command of the Earl of Derby who was eventually beheaded in Bolton for his part in the genocide, having his last drink in the historic pub, The Man and Scythe, close to where he met his fate. It had many of the themes that were to form the basis of future novels – a strong love interest, radical politics, and a very local setting. Some of the dialogue used the Bolton dialect that he had been brought up with. The novel was a modest success and was serialised in The Cotton Factory Times and published in book form.
His next novel had a more contemporary resonance. The ‘Great Engineers’ Strike’ in 1887 had seen troops on the streets of Bolton and pitched battles between strikers and blacklegs – known in Lancashire as ‘knobsticks’. Clarke used the events around the strike to create a love story between a mill girl – the daughter of the strike leader – and an ‘incomer’ who gets caught up in the events around the strike. There are heroes, as well as villains – but all ends well and boy and girl are united in matrimony. The Knobstick – sub-titled a story of Labour and Love – was published in 1891 and was serialised, many times over, in various publications as well as in book form.
He soon felt constrained working for an editor so he left The Cotton Factory Times and once again tried his hand at running his own paper. The first edition of The Bolton Trotter appeared in 1892 and was aimed at a popular working class readership within a few miles of Bolton. The dialect sketches continued, as well as anecdotes and tales. He did much to encourage readers’ letters and comments. There was some more serious comment and many of his short stories and serialised novels appeared for the first time. By then he had started using his popular pseudonym, ‘Teddy Ashton’. Most of his dialect writings appeared with that, rather than ‘Allen Clarke’ as the author. Arguably, this was to diminish his profile as many readers assumed that the two were quite separate people. He reserved his own name for the authorship of more serious works, such as the novels, his critique of the cotton industry (Effects of the Factory System) and some of his short stories. He became increasingly interested in eastern philosophy and wrote a number of works including What is Man? and Science for the Soul, written under yet another pseudonym, ‘Ben Adhem’.
The Bolton Trotter morphed into other publications before he launched his most successful journalistic venture. This began life in 1896 as Teddy Ashton’s Lancashire Journal but the name changed to Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly in 1898, reflecting Clarke’s aim to reach a wider market, including the West Riding mill towns. He played on the popularity of ‘Teddy Ashton’, continuing the adventures of Bill and Bet Spriggs but also publishing serialised novels, political sketches and reviews.
Clarke was a feminist, and this comes through strongly in many of his novels and short stories – particularly A Daughter of the Factory, and Driving. Sadly neither were ever published in book form, but were serialised to an appreciative readership in Clarke’s newspapers. They deal with issues around sexual harassment in the mills, and feature strong female characters. His comic character, Bet Spriggs in his Tum Fowt Sketches, is every much the equal of her male neighbours and hapless husband Bill.
An important part of Clarke’s achievement was his encouragement of other working class writers. James Haslam, who went on to become the national president of the National Union of Journalists and, started his career as a half-timer in a Bolton mill and knocked on Clarke’s door asking for a job. Clarke obliged – and Haslam went on to great things. Other writers whom he encouraged included Sarah Robinson and Ethel Carnie, both weavers from East Lancashire, and Fred Plant, one of Stockport’s first Labour councillors who wrote short stories and novels which Clarke serialised. This nucleus of working class writers formed the basis of the Lancashire Authors’ Association, formed in 1900 at Clarke’s suggestion, in Rochdale.
Probably the greatest literary influences on Clarke were Thomas Hardy and Tolstoy. He met Hardy during a cycling holiday in Dorset. He corresponded with Tolstoy, who translated his Effects of the Factory System into Russian. By the early 1900s Clarke’s politics were strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s non-violent anarchism. His poetry was influenced by Walt Whitman, whose writing he loved. Clarke was a member of the Bolton ‘Whitman Fellowship’ and often went on cycling trips with some of its members.
Clarke was highly effective in building a loyal readership. He encouraged readers’ comments and organised picnics, walks and cycle trips for Northern Weekly readers. In 1893 he wrote that “there is nothing gives me greater pleasure than letters from my readers”, adding “whether they be ill-spelled or not!” The most remarkable event he organised for readers was the ‘Teddy Ashton Picnic’ of May 1900 at Barrowbridge, near Bolton. It was organised to raise funds for the locked-out quarry workers of Bethesda, North Wales, and attracted around 10,000 visitors. Through the ‘Children’s Column’ in his paper Clarke encouraged his young readers to raise funds for the locked-out workers, with considerable success.
The writer with whom Clarke probably had most in common was Robert Blatchford, editor of the Manchester-based Clarion newspaper. Blatchford published many of Clarke’s short stories. They shared a house together in Blackpool for a while and their writing styles were similar – popular, irreverent and humorous. Yet they fell out – and the friendship never recovered. During the Boer war in the late 1890s Blatchford became increasingly jingoistic, much to his friend’s horror. Clarke was anti-militarist and critical of imperialism. A number of increasingly acrimonious letters between the two men resulted in the end of any contact between them. Blatchford went on to champion the First World War and much of his former popularity within the socialist movement was dissipated.
Clarke’s Northern Weekly came to an end in 1908 and he was able to make a living off his dialect sketches and syndicated novels with a wide range of newspapers, mostly handled by Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau, which had a world-wide reach, at least in the English-speaking world. Some of Clarke’s stories appeared in local newspapers as far afield as New Zealand. His Lancashire Annual continued each Christmas with its mixture of dialect sketches, whimsical tales and potted biographies of Lancashire figures – including Gracie Fields! The last edition appeared a few days after his sudden death in December 1935.
Despite his great popularity Allen Clarke’s fall into obscurity by the 1960s was rapid. Perhaps his most popular achievement – the dialect sketches – was out of fashion and his novels were largely forgotten. The confusion over his name didn’t help – he had at least six pseudonyms! But perhaps his biggest mistake was to steer clear of the mainstream publishing business. He preferred to do his own thing, even when he might have had some success with commercial publishers. This could have been at the expense of some of the political radicalism that infused most of his novels. That said, the last novel he wrote – The Men Who Fought For Us, a story of the early days of the Co-operative movement, was published in 1914 by the Co-operative Newspaper Society.
Paul’s updated edition of his biography Allen Clarke (‘Teddy Ashton’) – Lancashire’s Romantic Radical is published by Lancashire Loominary – see www.lancashireloominary.co.uk or email [email protected] for details
Paul’s new book, Lancastrians: Mills, Mines and Minarets: a New History will be out soon and you can find information at the following website: http://www.lancashireloominary.co.uk