Review of Meeting 30 June 2012

Second Meeting a Success

It wasn’t just a matter of numbers, though we trebled the attendance from the first meeting and barely squeezed into the premises, despite half a dozen absentees who sent their apologies. It was also the much broader spectrum of people who came, their enthusiasm for the idea and for the subject matter, and their appreciation of the open-minded and intelligent discussion.

The business element was brisk, to make way for the real feast of subjects for debate. Martin Bashforth continues as moderator for the website and email forum and de facto ‘secretary’ (though no such job exists), and was thanked for making sure that this second meeting got off the ground. The next meeting will be co-ordinated by newcomer Bluebell Eikonoklastes from Leeds and will take place on Saturday 6 October, in Manchester, at a venue to be confirmed. This time the venue will be fully accessible and big enough to take even more visitors. It was also agreed in future to move the location around the region to make it easier and more affordable to get there.

Sadly, Steve Higginson from Liverpool was unable to give his talk on the Writing on the Wall and other local projects, but will come to a later meeting. Martin Bashforth stepped in at short notice to deliver a short talk on whether or not there was any radical potential in the popular genre of ‘Family History’. He gave examples from his own use of family history to enable new light to be thrown on historical subjects: the mass recruits of WW1 in Durham, an early friendly society in Barnsley and events surrounding an ancestor prosecuted for stealing from Cannon Hall in south-west Yorkshire. But he also demonstrated the way in which other writers used family history, especially Louise Raw in her book, ‘Striking a Light’ on the 1888 Bryant and May strike by the match-girls, and Bill Adler’s biography of Joe Hill, ‘The Man who Never Died’. Some disputed whether or not the avid ‘ancestor collectors’ that haunted local studies libraries and archives could possibly possess a radical thought, and if anything the pursuit tended to deepen their existing prejudices. Others pointed out the way in which family history could lead to an interest in social history, how the personal could become political this way, while the search for meaning that sometimes lay behind the interest also led to a sceptical outlook. Martin acknowledged that there was nothing automatic about this and that, so far, only a minority of family historians were asking awkward questions – but the potential was there.

After lunch, Paul Salveson introduced us to his new book, ‘Socialism with a Northern Accent’ and to a challenging interpretation of how a socialist tradition emerged on both sides of the Pennines that differed culturally from the movement in London and the south-east. He argued that metropolitan influences such as Marx and Hyndman were of less importance than local and regional writers, thinkers and activists. The North could claim to have been particularly vital in the development of early working-class radicalism, radical nonconformity in religion, co-operativism and Chartism. One of the common features was the growth of self-education and cultural creativity. A novelist such as Alan Clarke was often more widely read than others, citing an example when the Longsights railwaymen passed a union resolution criticising the ending of one of his novels – can you imagine that these days? At a time when ‘socialism’ meant Owenite ideas, a philanthropic style of social thinking from ‘on high’, the North was marked by a robust independent labour movement focused on practical organisation and change, and culminating in the emergence of the ILP in 1893 in Bradford. In a short talk, it was not possible to do full justice to the range of influences, and even less so in this summary, but what became evident was the shared culture of the movement as a whole, not at all given to the sectarianism that has infected the Left since the 1920s, almost (in the view of this reviewer) to the point of absurdity. The discussion questioned whether the Labour Party had taken this movement down a wrong path towards ‘state socialism’, when decentralism had been more prominent. Reference was also made to the split between ‘romanticism’ and the emergence of working-class syndicalism, and to the influence of people like Michael Davitt, especially among Irish immigrants in Lancashire. Paul had to acknowledge the difficulty round the concept of ‘North’ in this context, and that there were equally distinctive traditions in the North-East, Merseyside and elsewhere.

Karen Springer ended the day with a talk on the experiences of Alice Wheeldon of Derby in 1916. She was a widowed shopkeeper, specialising in the sale of high quality second hand clothes at 12 Peartree Road, Derby. She and her daughter Hettie were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union and, with the outbreak of war in 1914, joined the No Conscription Fellowship and Women’s Peace Army. Her son, William Arthur, became a conscientious objector and went on the run. The family were involved in a wide range of leftwing activities – the Clarion Clubs, spiritualism among them – and had contacts with Clydeside. They very much fitted in to the description of ‘northern socialism’ in the previous talk. In 1916 they were involved in smuggling fugitives from conscription and were infiltrated by one William Rickard, a volatile ex-radical socialist employed by a department of MI5. Their mail was intercepted and it was discovered that they had obtained a phial of curare. The Wheeldons claimed it was to drug guard dogs at internment centres, but the authorities chose to allege a plot to assassinate Lloyd George and others. The prosecution in 1917 was led by FE Smith and they were imprisoned. They were all very soon released, Alice in 1918 but she died from influenza the following year. Her son William Arthur later went to live in the Soviet Union, where he fell prey to the Stalin purges in the 1930s. Truly remarkable that the family should become targets of both MI5 and the NKVD! There is now a campaign in Derby to clear their name, to mark the burial site and rehabilitate the family in local traditions, with Derby People’s History Group playing a leading role.

We ended the meeting with a short feedback session. The good, comradely atmosphere was singled out for praise, alongside the intelligent discussion. As there had been a lot of references throughout the day to ‘history from below’, it was suggested that there were other radical ways of looking at history and it would be wrong to become too fixated on that one approach. We should not lose sight of perspectives on society as a whole, not just one class. We hope that future meetings will create opportunities for contributions like this.

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