Brighton & Hove Clarion Cycling Club  



Contributed by Michael Walker of Unison.

Harry Pollitt

Our old friend Michael Walker has sent me the following piece about the pre-1914 involvement in the Clarion C.C. of Charlie Openshaw and Harry Pollitt. Pollitt (1890–1960), of course, is well known mainly as the general secretary of the British communist party from 1929 to 1956 apart from 1939-1941 when - his finest hour in many people's view - he refused to entirely go along with opposing the war against Nazi Germany during Stalin's notorious alliance with Hitler.

This probably, in part, accounts for the fact that he was viewed with some affection by many who had no sympathy for the CP or its ideology and policies. One indication of this is the song about him that appeared on the 1961 LP The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters. They were, and I think still are, an American folk (or as purists might insist 'folk') group – bit like The Kingston Trio but with a sense of humour. Where they got their Harry Pollitt song from I haven't a clue. If you have, please let me know.

Anyway, the song, obviously written many years before, begins with the (very fictional) death of Pollitt:

Harry Pollitt was a worker - one of Lenin's lads.
He was foully murdered by those counter-revolutionary cads.

Harry then presents himself at the pearly gates, asks to speak to 'Comrade God' and then negotiates his way in:

"Who are you?" said Saint Peter, "Are you humble and contrite?"
"I'm a friend of Lady Astor," "Then come in, that's quite all right."

For his further 'posthumous' activities - organising the angels and bringing them out on strike and so forth - Google 'Harry Pollitt lyrics'. Pollitt joined the CPGB via Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers' Socialist Federation, which became the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), which merged with the CPGB early in 1921 - though Pankhurst herself was soon expelled for refusing to hand over her paper The Workers' Dreadnought which would have been wound up very quickly had she complied. [For this, see my piece on Pankhurst's path to 'Left Communism'" in Ian Bullock and Richard Pankhurst (eds) Sylvia Pankhurst. From Artist to Anti-Fascist (Macmillan, 1992) and my The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left which is due to be published later this year. For Pollitt I recommend the biography by my friend Kevin Morgan. (End of plugs!)]

Here's Michael's contribution: (I've checked with him - it really was Charlie Openshaw … of Openshaw! Ian)

Charlie Openshaw was a close friend of the young Harry Pollitt. He was engineer, literature secretary at the Openshaw Socialist Society (established in 1906) and a founding member of the Communist Party.

Harry Pollitt referred to Charlie Openshaw in "Serving my time" as overseeing the "finest literature stall to be found anywhere in the country at the time".

Charlie was ten years older than Harry. "He was a lad in knickerbockers when I first knew him," he said. "And he wasn't all that much older before he started public speaking."

Openshaw states: "We were in the Clarion Cycling Club together. Off we'd go on our bikes into the country. We'd put up fly posters round about, choose a spot, and hold a meeting. We didn't always get many listening, but by God, we enjoyed it."

Harry recalls his summer Clarion speaking tours of 1912 and 1913:

Meeting at the Openshaw Socialist Hall – the greeting "Boots", the answer "Spurs" – they went into villages of Cheshire and at a suitable spot would dismount and led by Harry Fisher or Jim Crossley would sing:

In Youth as I lay dreaming, I saw a country fair,
Where plenty shed its blessings round and all had equal share.
Where poverty's sad features were never, never seen
And idlers in brotherhood would meet with scant esteem.

The unaccustomed sound of singing brought people to stand around and Harry would then make a ten minute speech, they would wind up by singing "England Arise". Returning in the evening they repeated the performance in another village.

A favourite destination for the Clarion cyclists was Handforth Clarion Club House opened in September 1903. Manchester Clarion Cycling Club had been established on Wednesday 16th January 1895 with its Secretary being Mr R. Dawson, 697 Rochdale Road, Manchester, and Mr C. Ellinger, 53 Palmerston Street, Moss Side, Manchester.

Harry Pollitt states: "I have heard a lot of scoffing at fellowship" ... "but in this club it was reality which made hard, poverty stricken lives much brighter." Harry Pollitt even attended the Clarion's famous Easter meet in York (March 1913) with one thousand Clarion cyclists, Harry on the Sunday speaking to a huge audience from a Clarion van.

The Openshaw Socialist Society met at the Openshaw Socialist Hall, Margaret Street off the Ashton old road opposite the Alhambra. Its construction by voluntary labour began in March 1907 and it was officially opened on July 20th by John Hodge MP (Smelters Union).

At the opening three inscribed stones were laid at ground level, that of the Openshaw Socialist Society to the singing of "England arise", that of the Clarion cyclists to the "Red flag", that of the Clarion vocal union (Choir) to the "Comrades' song of hope".

The Openshaw Socialist Hall was rectangular, the long side facing on Margaret Street, the elevation pleasant and dignified, presenting a series of arched windows and a handsome doorway on the right topped by a stone inscribed "Socialist Hall 1907".

The visitors entered a vestibule from which rooms opening on each side ended in a double stair leading to the big hall on the floor above. It could seat 400 and had an excellent parquet floor for dancing. Between the two entrances was a low platform, above a gallery ran the whole width of the building, on the opposite wall was a large painting by Walter Crane, with scrolls bearing the words "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman". The tall windows and high angled roof gave an exhilarating impression of light, space and elegance, the ample basement contained more rooms.

Charlie Openshaw along with the young Harry Pollitt polished the parquet floor of the Hall every Sunday morning.

Michael Walker


Daily Worker 11 July 1960
Harry Pollitt Kevin Morgan
Harry Pollitt John Mahon


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