Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Leek Cycling Club in the Edwardian Age

Some time ago the BBC repeated Alan Bennett's 1972 play “ A Day Out”. It concerns a group going on a cycling trip to the Yorkshire Dales in 1911. The piece is elegiac, funny and concludes poignantly. At the end of the play there is a reunion of the club in 1920 who stop before a First World War memorial to honour the memory of members of the club who did not return from the trenches.

I was thinking of the programme after an afternoon spent in Leek Library turning the pages of local newspapers of the Edwardian Era. A report of Leek Cycling Club's tour of the Isle of Man in May 1904 caught my attention. The anonymous writer of the article detailed evocatively an escapade that a group of friends made ten years before the outbreak of war, and I am sure that as in the Bennett play, some of the cyclists would have died in the war.

After a rough crossing from Liverpool the men meet up with old friends in the Smoke Room of the Talbot Hotel, kept by a Staffordshire man Mr Weston. They refreshed themselves and set out for a tour of the island. The camp-site is at the Union Mills near Peel. The weather conditions are poor( so much for the Golden Edwardian summer) and the camp site waterlogged . The party were forced to seek refuge in a laundry room where they make the best of it. The conversations are boisterous and good natured joshing occurs. It is obvious the men delight in each others company. Engaging fragments of comment illuminate the article- the erratic chiming of Douglas Town Clock, the novelty of an early telephone box, the Whit Sunday parade with children dressed in white and a military band playing Strauss.

Cycling by 1904 was a major leisure activity. It was made easier by a number of innovations in the design of the bike. By the 1880s springs were added to seats ( not for nothing were early bikes called bone shakers), later pneumatic tyres was invented. In 1891 Eduard Michelin had patented the inner tube making the speedy repair of the tyre far more easier. ( The intrepid adventurers of the Leek Club repaired punctured tyres at Rainhill on the way back). By the last years of the century Cycling Clubs were being created . Leek now is one of the longest surviving clubs in the country.

An early problem which Clubs tried to exert an influence over was the lamentable state of the roads. A particularly egregious example were the roads of North Staffordshire. According to the 1874 'Book for Riders' “ Liverpool to Prescott 8 miles of good road, then within 6 miles of Newcastle under Lyme a very bad bit full of holes”... plus ├ža change

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Leek Labour Church: On ale houses and sedition

Leek Labour Church: On ale houses and sedition

On ale houses and sedition

My usual hostelry on a Friday night is the Wilkes Head named after the radical politician John Wilkes whose cross-eyed portrait stares ,one eye looking down St Edward Street and the other toward Napoli Pizza restaurant. Wilkes libertine, zealous defender of free speech and dogged opponent of monarchical absolutism-was still alive when the pub was called after him in 1786.

( Wilkes was responsible for a memorable put down directed at his great rival and inventor of the snack, the Earl of Sandwich. “ Wilkes, I have long considered your fate and have concluded that you will either hang or die of a pox” Wilkes “ It depends if I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistress”) are now only two pubs named after the great reprobate . One in in Leek and the other in up Chichester in Sussex.

I believe that the pub has a long history in the dissident tradition from its earliest days to 1900s where it was the meeting place of trade unionists up until today. In the early 19th century it was a much bigger pub and crucial to my argument it was also a coaching inn with regular coaches to Birmingham and Manchester ,both hotbeds of radicalism. News would have been carried and information on the upheavals gripping the country in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars would have been eagerly debated. Every town would have a pub while working men, some in more formal groups than others met to discuss current affairs.

The Tory poet Southey described the scene, the crackling fire, a hard days labour done, smoking pipes, heady brews and over heated political debate. “ Every pot house is supplied with the Sunday papers- doses of weekly poisons . One reader serves for the whole tap room full of open mouthed listeners and at the moment the army is the single plank between us and destruction”. He wrote this on the day that the Prime Minster Percieval was assassinated in 1812.

For the authorities it was a dangerous, unsettling prospect. In 1819 Magistrates issued a threat . “They had learnt that SEDITIOUS PAPERS are taken in, for the purpose of poisoning the minds of the ignorant and unwary” so they reminded the publicans that their business could be closed any time until they stopped circulating such papers. Despite the threat of official sanction alehouses like the Wilkes Head provided a rowdy setting for political debate and would not have been exceptional.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Early women's rights campaigners in Leek 1872

I saw “Lincoln” at the Foxlowe some weeks ago. The film describes the struggles the American President had in getting through the House of Representatives legislation granting civil rights for slaves in the last days of the Civil War. In one incident a speaker argues against the proposition that Negroes should have the vote and mockingly describes an even more absurd suggestion that women should qualify for the franchise. The debating chamber erupts in derisive laughter.

That was in 1865, but only 7 years later the notion that women should exercise their democratic rights was earnestly debated in Leek. In October 1872 at the Temperance Hall, the site of which is occupied by the College, the following motion was passed without dissent at a well attended meeting.

“ That the exclusion of women from voting in the election of Members of Parliament is contrary to the principles of just representation”

Two formidable women addressed the meeting- Lydia Becker and Elizabeth Wolstenholme. These Manchester women can with some justification be described as some of the earliest exponents of women’s rights in the Victorian era. They set the path that was followed by others into the early 20th century.

Lydia Becker was the granddaughter of German immigrants. A scientist by training, Becker in 1868 moved the resolution that women should be granted voting rights on the same terms as men at the first public meeting of the National Society for Women's Suffrage in Manchester. In June 1869, Becker and others were successful in securing the vote for women in council elections. The following year women gained the right to vote and stand for election in the School Boards in England and Wales. She successfully stood for and was elected to the Manchester School Board.

In 1870 Becker founded the Women's Suffrage Journal. Soon afterwards, she began organising speaking tours– a rarity in Britain at the time. At an 1874 speaking event in Manchester organised by Becker, fifteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst attended her first public meeting in the name of women's suffrage.

 Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was one of the most significant pioneers of the British women's emancipation movement; though she is now overlooked. She was central to every campaign Victorian feminists conducted.

A strong advocate of human rights, as the secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights she earned the nickname of the parliamentary watch-dog from Members of Parliament anxious to escape her persistent lobbying.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who was pregnant at the time, married a poet from Congleton named Elmy at Kensington Register Office in October 1874. The wedding was a civil ceremony and true to her principles, Elizabeth refused to make a promise of obedience to her husband and to wear a wedding ring or to give up her surname.

She supported the rights of the disenfranchised to exert force in pursuit of the vote and Emmeline Pankhurst lauded her as first among the most determined of suffragettes.

Where Becker and Wolstenholme led , the Pankhurst's, Emily Davison and Leek's own Harriet Kidd followed. Poignantly, Elizabeth Wolstenholme died only days after women over 30 obtained the vote in 1918.