Yorkshire s extraordinary railway professor Paul Salveson has re-discovered the life of the cycling journalist Teddy Ashton, real name Allen Clarke, author of the Lancashire dialect poem A Gradely Prayer and commemorated in his home county by Little Marton Windmill. Both men were born in Bolton. Clarke was the son of a migrant cotton worker from County Mayo and born during the cotton famine in 1863.
Professor Salveson s father worked at Walker s tannery and his mother was a machinist in Farnworth.In an amazing railway career, Salveson has been train-spotter, volunteer engine cleaner at Bolton shed, campaigner against station closures at Horwich and Lostock Junction, blacksmith in Horwich railway works, freight guard on the Settle Carlisle line, signalman at Bolton, senior technical officer with British Railways Property Board, head of government and community strategies at Northern Rail, external relations manager at Grand Central Railway and board member of Passenger Focus.The visiting professor in transport studies at Huddersfield University once said, I ve been a socialist since about the age of nine when I first encountered class snobbery at Crewe station on a train-spotting trip .After discovering the work of C. Allen Clarke when he was at Lancaster University in the 1970s, Prof. Salveson has now published Lancashire s Romantic Radical: The Life and Writings of Allen Clarke / Teddy Ashton .
Mooching about in the university library I came across a collection of dialect sketches set in my home town, Bolton. They were funny, perceptive and politically incisive. The author was Teddy Ashton whom, it turned out, was a writer called Allen Clarke.
It began a close life-long friendship, although we have yet to meet! He was best known by his Teddy Ashton pen name which he used for his Tum Fowt Sketches set in Tum Fowt (Tonge Fold) just outside Bolton. Researching Clarke s life in Bolton back in the 1980s, I could still find old cotton workers who fondly remembered Teddy Ashton and even had well-thumbed copies of his Lancashire Annual but had never heard of Allen Clarke.
He loved this ambiguity but it may have cost him wider recognition. Clarke s father was a minder, a top man in the mill with a bookshelf of the classics at home that included the work of the Saddleworth dialect poet Sam Laycock. The minders worked a pair of spinning mules with the help of two boys, the little piecer and the big or side piecer.
Young Clarke was a little piecer for his father from the age of 11 but hated the work and child labour in particular. Professor Salveson says: He managed to escape from the mill and after a brief time as a pupil teacher and other jobs, he took the risk of starting his own paper The Labour Light . Without, as he later reminisced, a ha porth of capital .
Although not a commercial success, it gave him a way into professional journalism. He got a job writing for the Lancashire-based Cotton Factory Times and its sister The Yorkshire Factory Times . In 1896, he once again set up his own paper, Teddy Ashton s Northern Weekly .
This time it was a success, with an estimated readership of about 50,000 a week. His readership was overwhelmingly working class, as shown by the huge volume of readers letters from weavers, spinners, railwaymen and engineers in South Lancashire and the West Riding. Clarke saw himself as being part of that northern industrial working class, and wrote both serious and comic stories about ordinary people s lives in the mills, weaving sheds and mines.
Clarke wrote most of the copy for Northern Weekly, often using a bewildering array of pen names. His novels, numbering more than 20, were serialised in the paper and some were later published in book form. Nearly all of them are about life in the Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial towns and cities, such as The Knobstick , set in Bolton during the 1887 engineers strike.
One of his novels made literary and labour history, by being censured by a group of railway trade unionists. They passed a resolution condemning the ending of one his serialised novels and the branch secretary wrote to the Northern Weekly thus: At a meeting held last Saturday at Longsight Permanent Way Dept, it was resolved to censure C. 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 and acknowledged the novel s faults and the personal reasons the death of one of his children behind the novel s problematic ending. He was a good poet and his A Gradely Prayer 1 , is still recited at Lancashire gatherings although the author is often cited as that famous laureate Anonymous .
In the early 1900s, he started his Teddy Ashton Picnics , the first of which attracted around 10,000 visitors to Barrowbridge, on the outskirts of Bolton. Later picnics took place at Hardcastle Crags, Rivington and other northern beauty spots. Allen Clarke s work had a radical political edge.
He used comedy to attack the social evils of the time. He wrote some serious works as well, including The Effects of the Factory System , a searing indictment of life in the mills. Tolstoy had the book translated into Russian and the two men corresponded.
Clarke was always on the side of the underdog and supported many unpopular causes, from women s emancipation to the ending of child labour. He was strongly opposed to the Boer War and was a pacifist for most of his life. Politically, he was something of an anarchist but stood as joint socialist candidate for the Rochdale Independent Labour Party and Social Democratic Federation at the 1900 general election.
He set up a co-operative colony near Blackpool in the early 1900s but it had a rather short life. He loved cycling and spent much of his spare time exploring the byways of Lancashire and Yorkshire. His book on the Lancashire countryside, Moorlands and Memories , is a series of articles describing his rides around the moorlands during the First World War.
He was also very fond of railways and wrote some nice tales about the Garstang and Knott End Railway, as well as rides on cheap trips from Bolton to Blackpool. He was a staunch advocate of public ownership for the railways. The family moved to Blackpool in the early 20th century and Clarke became a popular local figure, establishing his own shop and building a network of rambling and cycling clubs.
He wrote his most popular book, Windmill Land , about the Fylde countryside an exotic mix of local history and folklore, based around his cycling trips and rambling expeditions .In 1937, two years after the death of C. Allen Clarke, Cornelius Bagot, the miller who owned Little Marton Mill, gave it fully-restored to the Allen Clarke Memorial Fund in memory of his friend, the man who loved windmills . Owd Tom Hughes, 1866-1950, founder of the Autumn Tints cycling club for the over-fifties and father of Tom Hughes the Wigan cycle dealer, cycling with Teddy Ashton.
The pair cycled to the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.
Author Paul Salveson on the footplate of 47234 on the East Lancashire Railway Lancashire s Romantic Radical : The Life and Writings of Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton, by Paul Salveson 15 (or 25 hardback)Send cheques payable Paul Salveson to 90a Radcliffe Road, Golcar, Huddersfield.
HD7 4EZ References ^ A Gradely Prayer (www.somersetmade.co.uk)
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Teddy Ashton of Windmill Land and A Gradely Prayer rides again …