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How a speech 140 years ago kickstarted Leicester's socialist movement
'Events on that night 140 years ago kickstarted a robust socialist movement in the city that still endures'.
On 21 January 1884, the great Victorian polymath and social campaigner William Morris arrived at the Secular Hall in Leicester to deliver an important speech on 'Art and Socialism'. 140 years ago, his words that evening struck a chord with an appreciative local audience. Some of those present would be crucial in establishing Leicester's first socialist movement less than a year later.
Morris is now most associated with the arts and crafts movement, which combined a passion for outstanding craftsmanship and design with a desire to arrest the decline in standards caused by mass factory production. He set up his first interior company in 1861. After that, he produced classic textile and wallpaper designs featuring stylised flower, leaf, and fruit motifs, for which he is best known today.
Amongst his Victorian peers, Morris was far better known for his writing and political activism than for his contribution to interior design. He credited John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle with first sparking his interest in politics, but only after reading the work of Karl Marx in the early 1880s did he become more convinced than ever of the pressing need for social activism. In May 1883, Morris became treasurer of the newly established Social Democratic Federation (SDF). He began to lecture regularly across the country, advocating socialism at a time when the concept was still new and untested.
Early in the following year, he was invited by the Leicester Secular Society to speak at a meeting at the Secular Hall on Humberstone Gate. In the church-led world of Victorian England, this group was itself considered controversial, as it challenged the place of religion in society. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that it also actively promoted the work of other radical thinkers.
In his speech on art and socialism, Morris decried the excessive consumerism creeping into Victorian society. He urged wealthy middle-class people, like himself, to spurn the inferior quality goods often produced on factory production lines and rid themselves of unnecessary possessions in favour of "simple and decent lives". Only by doing that, Morris argued, would society be freed "from the slavery of capitalist commerce", allowing factory workers to be treated more humanely.
Morris concluded with the following powerful mission statement regarding the objectives, as he saw it, of the emerging British socialist movement:
"In a properly ordered state of Society every man willing to work should be ensured: First, Honourable and fitting work; Second, A healthy and beautiful house; Third, Full leisure for rest of mind and body".
32-year-old Tom Barclay was present that night at the Secular Hall. The son of impoverished Irish immigrants, Barclay was raised in the worst of Leicester's Victorian slums. Such was his drive to better himself that he was said to have gone without food to be able to afford the books he needed to educate himself. From such unpromising beginnings, he would become one of the leading figures in Leicester's early socialist movement.
Even as Morris spoke in Leicester, divisions in the SDF membership were already beginning to develop. Within a year, Morris and his supporters split from the SDF after clashing with its leader, Henry Hyndman. They set up their own breakaway group called the Socialist League. Tom Barclay was instrumental in setting up a branch of the new Socialist League in Leicester, the first known formal socialist organisation in a city previously a Liberal stronghold.
Known for his rousing oratory, Barclay was happy to speak on any street corner where he could attract an audience. The story goes that another founding member of the Socialist League in Leicester, Archibald Gorrie, was first persuaded to join the socialist cause after hearing Barclay speak from the back of a brewer's dray (a type of horse-drawn vehicle) in Humberstone Gate. This was just the start of Gorrie's remarkably long involvement in local politics. In 1934, he created history and provoked much controversy. When he was 78, he became the oldest elected to Leicester City Council.
Barclay's association with a third founding member of the Socialist League, George Robson, stemmed from a stint of employment in the hosiery business at Leicester's giant Corah factory, where both men were active trade unionists. Robson died only four years after the Socialist League was formed. The League's weekly newspaper, Commonweal, wrote of him: "Wherever there was any lecture, discussion, newspaper controversy, or anti-Socialist cant, there was Robson in the midst of it, fighting fiercely for Socialism".
Edited in its early years by William Morris, Commonweal played an essential role in publicising the activities and aims of the early socialist movement through the eyes of Socialist League members. However, the League itself was comprised of such a broad cross-section of left-wing political groups, from social democrats to revolutionary Marxists and anarchists, that a schism in the movement proved inevitable. Morris decided to leave the group in late 1890, and in 1901, the Socialist League disbanded altogether.
In the late 1880s, several leading lights of the local branch of the Socialist League, including Tom Barclay and George Robson, founded the Leicester Labour Club. Despite being just one of several socialist societies in the city, the continuing influence of its members is reflected in the fact that they spearheaded the formation of the first permanent local branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) during the following decade.
Following the ILP's formation in 1893, Manchester-born Joseph Burgess ran unsuccessfully as the party's candidate for Leicester in a local by-election the following year. He did, however, secure over 4000 votes. Buoyed by this encouraging result, it was unanimously decided at a meeting attended by over 1000 local supporters that: "We, the workers of Leicester, in view of our political and social condition and circumstances, form herewith our ILP branch in Leicester to defend and develop our social rights and political powers".
Despite this development, the ILP failed to increase its share of the vote in Leicester in either the 1895 or 1900 General Elections. Local supporters had to wait until 1906 for parliamentary representation when one Ramsay MacDonald, who would later become the first ever Labour Prime Minister, was elected as one of two MPs for Leicester, winning nearly 40% of the vote.
Unlike Ramsay MacDonald, the names of those early pioneers of the socialist movement in Leicester have been mainly forgotten, and the significance of William Morris' January 1884 speech at the Secular Hall was overlooked. Yet events on that night 140 years ago kickstarted a robust socialist movement in the city that still endures.