Dialect writer and more

Born 150 years ago this month, Boltonian writer Allen Clarke was a noted dialect poet but also a radical political novelist and newspaperman, writes Paul Salveson

I first discovered Allen Clarke when I was a student at Lancaster in the 1970s. 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 socially incisive. The author was “Teddy Ashton” who, it turned out, was a writer called Allen Clarke. It began a close life-long friendship, though we have yet to meet.

Clarke, born in Bolton in February 1863, was one of the north’s most popular dialect writers, following in the footsteps of Edwin Waugh, Ben Brierley and Samuel Laycock. He was at his peak between the mid-1890s and late 1920s, with thousands of devoted readers amongst the mill workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. 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.

The son of cotton workers, his father emigrated from Co Mayo in the 1840s to find work in the Lancashire mills, moving up the ranks to become a minder – or cotton spinner – one of the aristocrats of the working class. It was a highly intellectual family, with a bookshelf full of the classics as well as the work of dialect writers such as Laycock.

This experience of mill work gave him a burning sense of injustice

The family briefly moved to Mirfield, in the West Riding, when Clarke was 11, probably because his father had been blacklisted for his union activities. He started his first job, as a “little piecer”, in a local mill. He hated it. When the family returned to Bolton a year later he started working full-time as a piecer for his father. This experience of mill work gave him a burning sense of injustice and he championed the campaign against child labour in the mills in the 1890s.

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”. Though 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.

He set up his own paper with an estimated weekly readership of 50,000

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, minders, 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, 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. He was a good poet and his Gradely Prayer is still recited at Lancashire gatherings – though the author is often cited as that famous laureate Anonymous.

Clarke at the Dug an Kennel pub, Tum Fot (Tonge Fold), Bolton
Clarke at the Dug an Kennel pub, Tum Fot (Tonge Fold), Bolton

He used his newspaper to develop a highly personalised message, treating his readers as part of an extended family. His Editor’s Gossip column was just that, sharing his ideas and experiences with his readers and inviting them to respond. Children’s Corner encouraged hundreds of boys and girls, as a young as seven or eight, to write in about serious issues like child labour, as well as comment on more traditional children’s pastimes. In the early 1900s he started his Teddy Ashton Picnics, the first of which attracted around 10,000 visitors to Barrow Bridge, on the outskirts of Bolton. Later picnics took place at Hardcastle Crags, Rivington and other northern beauty spots.

Clarke’s work had a radical political edge. He used comedy to attack the social evils of the time. He once wrote (of his alter ego!): “I daresay Teddy Ashton’s droll sketches have done more to help reforms than far more pretentious and direct articles. For ‘Teddy’, even in his comic dialect sketches, pokes sly fun and undermining sarcasm at the iniquities and social injustices of the day.” Read his hilarious Bill Spriggs as a Policeman if you need convincing.

He wrote some serious works as well, including The Effects of the Factory System, a searing indictment of conditions in the Lancashire 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 then 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.

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 Ribble Valley, Rivington and the Pennines during the First World War.

He moved to Blackpool, establishing his own shop and a network of rambling and cycling clubs

The family moved to Blackpool in the early 20th century and Clarke became a popular local figure, establishing a shop and a network of rambling and cycling clubs. He wrote his most popular book, Windmill Land, about the Fylde countryside. It’s an exotic mix of local history and folklore, based on his cycling trips and rambling expeditions. Little Marton Mill, celebrated in the book, has been preserved as a monument to this “man who loved windmills”. He died in 1935.

Clarke’s literary output was vast. His dialect writings are funnier than anything Ben Brierley or John Hartley wrote, and his novels about working class life are infinitely better than Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. And if you do have some dog-eared copies of his Tum Fowt Sketches or Lancashire Annuals – treasure them!

Lancashire’s Romantic Radical: The Life and Writings of Allen Clarke/Teddy Ashton, by Paul Salveson, is published by Little Northern Books and is available price £15 (or £25 hardback). Readers of The Big Issue in the North can buy it for £10 paperback or £20 hardback plus £2.50 post and package – visit www.paulsalveson.org.uk for more details and quote “Big Issue Book Offer”. An event on the life and work of Allen Clarke takes place at Blackpool Library on 27 February at 2pm.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Dialect writer and more

  • Pete Hill
    22 Dec 2017 22:06
    Going to have a look for your book Paul, find it hard to believe this is the first and only comment on it, Allen Clarke wrote some brilliant "stuff" and I believe some just as relevant today as when he wrote it, times are going backwards some might think, but they are doing so in a negative way - true the gap between the rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate-the difference I believe is that employers care very much less about their employees than they did back then - even the people who were opposed to the factory's act were very good employers albeit misguided about the need for the act (thinking of the owners of New Eagle yersen mill Bolton, quakers forgotten the name...lived at Great oak hall nr Halli'th wood...) my favourite poem by Allen Clarke is A FACTORY HANDS LONGING here's the first bit just to whet yer appetite - Oh, I’m tired o’facts and factories, Mill-smoke an’ engine steam, An’ I’m pinin’ for the moorlands, For the green fields and the dream I am longin’ for sweet freedom From iron fret an’ strife,- For this is but a grind of death An’ what we want is life .

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.