A short biography of Tom Barclay, a founder of the Socialist League in Leicester.
Thomas Patrick Barclay was born to an impoverished Irish immigrant family in Leicester in 1852. Tom’s parents from Limerick and Mayo had been forced to quit Ireland because of the potato famine. They lived in a two-room hovel. He never went to school and was taught to read by his mother. His father scraped a living as a rag and bone man. Tom himself had to go to work at the age of eight in Browetts Rope-Walk where he earned one shilling and sixpence a week. He remained in menial jobs for the rest of his life, for many years in hosiery and dye factories and for the last twenty five years of his life mainly as a bottle-washer. He himself said that he worked in twenty factories over a period of fifty years. He can be seen as the founding father of socialism in Nottingham. During the 1870s, Barclay worked at Cooper and Corah’s hosiery factory and took evening classes at the Working Men’s College. He avidly read many books and became self-educated. He eventually rejected Catholicism and became a secularist, influenced by the writings of the American secularist Robert Ingersoll.
After William Morris’ lecture on Art and Socialism to the Secular Society in January 1885, he became a founding member of the Leicester branch of the Socialist League in November of the same year with his workmate and fellow secularist George Robson and an active propagandist speaking wherever he could find a platform. In 1886, he produced a weekly newspaper, The Countryman, that was distributed free to over 50 local villages. This was financed through advertising and the patronage of J.W. Barrs, the secularist tea merchant. In was while he was speaking on top of a dray cart at Humberstone Gate one Sunday that Archibald Gorrie (died 1941) first heard him speak and was converted to the ideas of the Socialist League. Gorrie was from the middle class and was able to fund many activities over the coming years. Tom was to note that “whenever the train-fare to bring a speaker from another town was wanting, or the rent for a hall to speak in was deficient, Gorrie’s hand went into his purse , and the sum was made up..”.
Leicester had been a centre of Chartism as well as of Owenism and had had a tradition of open-air meetings which Barclay and his comrades took up once more.
On March 18th 1888 Tom Barclay met together with Robson, active in the Leicester Amalgamated Hosiery Union (LAHU), Ben Warner on the LAHU executive and the LAHU secretary Jimmy Holmes and eighteen others to have a tea in honour of the Paris Commune. In the following discussion it was decided to set up a Socialist Club by subscription. This became known as the Leicester Labour Club and was a centre of radical socialist ideas in the 1890s.
In 1890 Barclay was Leicester delegate to the Conference of the League in London. It was he who provided regular reports of League and anarchist activity to the anarchist paper Freedom.
On July 6th 1890 J. Casey of the Freedom Group spoke to the Leicester Socialist League on Anarchist Communism. As the issue of Freedom remarked: “Our Leicester comrades, though nominally a branch of the Socialist League, are in reality Anarchist-Communists”. This was followed up by similar talks by Tom Pearson of the Freedom Group, John Bingham an anarchist-communist from Sheffield and Henry Davis, an anarchist-communist from east London.
Certainly these talks were influencing Barclay and Gorrie as well as Warner, son of a noted physical force Chartist. Warner was a delegate of the LAHU to the local trades council and was a strong advocate of direct action, very much a minority position within that body. In 1892 he was reinforced by George Cores a delegate for the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives (NUBSO). Cores had been originally from Leicester and had joined the Socialist League in London. He worked in Leicester in 1892 as a laster and was again there in 1893 taking an active part in the unofficial shoemakers’ strikes. Cores was to propose to No 1. Branch of NUBSO the resolution that: “Hundreds of unemployed who are able and willing to work are in such a state of starvation that they will be compelled and entitled to take the means of subsistence by illegal methods unless help is speedily forthcoming”. There was uproar within the crowded meeting but Cores won the motion by a majority .
Warner’s daughter Clare and Barclay’s sister Kate were both speakers at the open air forums put on by the League. By 1893 there was a separate Leicester Anarchist Communist group and it organised a meeting in the market place on September 10th in regards to the miners on strike who had been the victims of police attacks. Among those who spoke were leading anarchist militants such as Frank Kitz, Charles Mowbray, Billy MacQueen, George Cores and Alf Barton. Both McQueen and Dr. John Creaghe, whose main focus of activity was Sheffield, were temporarily resident in Leicester. It was Creaghe and the Sheffield anarchists who caused a rift between the Leicester anarchists and the national movement when they attacked the Leicester group for religious toleration. The attacks were mainly aimed at Gorrie, who was also active in Christian socialist circles and claimed to be the only Christian anarchist in Britain. Barclay was a long-standing atheist but found himself in the position of taking the side of Gorrie.
In the 1890s Barclay set up a weekly socialist newspaper the Leicester Pioneer, which claimed 5,000 readers. It is not known when the first copy appeared but the earliest surviving copy dates from 3rd January 1895 and is numbered new series no. 6, old series no.157. As it appeared weekly this suggests that it was three years old in 1895. It cost a half penny and numbered eight pages. It was a lively read, thanks to Barclay’s developing journalistic style and as well as providing ideas and news of the socialist and workers movements, had theatre and book reviews, train timetables, football reports and league tables, as well as serialisations of novels.. He opened the pages to the newly established branch of the Independent Labour Party who began to attack the anarchists in its pages. This was to be Barclay’s undoing as two issues later he was removed as editor and the paper came under the control the Trades Council and the ILP. To compound matters the new editor gloated in its pages about the removal of the anarchists from the Leicester Labour Club, of which Barclay had been a founder. The Club had its origins in the 1888 meeting mentioned above, although we do not know when it was actually established at Jubilee Buildings in Bedford Street. Like the Pioneer it became a battleground between the ILP and the anarchists. It had figured in the formation of the local ILP in 1894. The economic slump was over for a while and the ILP was becoming a mass organisation (see Quail p. 197-8).
Leading anarchist militants like Agnes Henry in London and the Bartons in Sheffield moved over to the ILP in this period. Relatively few of the Leicester anarchists were to be lured, with the exception of Bent, an unemployed laster, in October 1894. Bent had lost his job as a result of his anarchist activities and had been advised by Martin Curley, a leading local ILPer, to “follow the policies of the ILP”. Three weeks later he was elected to the local ILP executive committee.
The ILP decided to contest the local elections with Freddy Richards and Curley as candidates. Barclay seems to have had a momentary lapse as he strongly supported Richards in a speech. The following Sunday, anarchists, disgusted by Barclay’s position and incensed by Bent’s defection wheeled away the dray on which Barclay was speaking in the marketplace.
The Labour Club was the location for an open debate between the ILP and the anarchists in January 1895. The new club secretary, Curley, had the anarchists expelled, although Warner was to indignantly exclaim that the anarchists had far more supporters than the ILP.
It is significant that Barclay glosses over many of his activities in the Leicester socialist movement in his memoirs. He barely mentions the Labour Club, only mentions the Anarchist Communist Group once and makes no reference at all to the Pioneer. It seems to have been a particularly bitter experience for him. . As Barclay opined: “(I) have always discountenanced one party’s unfriendly criticism of another party”. This seems to have been a consistent attitude. He always sought to concililate which proved to be an error as it allowed his opponents to take advantage of his good nature. These experiences appear to be the cause of him leaving Leicester for London and becoming active in the Gaelic League there. As Lancaster notes (p.114-115): “his closest friend Archibald Gorrie, who continued his anarchist activities up until the late 1890s, must have been somewhat annoyed at Barclay for having provided their rivals with two major local institutions...”. It is perhaps ironic that many of the players on both sides of the controversy like Freddie Richards on one side and Gorrie on the other had been introduced to radical ideas for the first time by Barclay’s speeches and lectures.
The Pioneer only continued for a few more issues only reappearing after a five year interlude. Gorrie and the remaining old Socialist Leaguers carried on their activity although now they were marginalised in Leicester. In 1898 they re-grouped under the name of the Leicester Socialist Society. They claimed the support of dissident young members of the ILP. However the Society disappeared after August 1898. Gorrie eventually became a Labour Party Alderman in Leicester. As for Kate Barclay, her health was ruined by the harsh conditions she lived in. She turned back to Catholicism a little while before her early death.
Barclay had had to work for several years as a leaflet distributor in the poorer parts of Leicester. He continued this type of work when he went to London. He remained there for eighteen months. He returned to Leicester in 1902 and became once more active as a member and speaker of the Secular Society in Leicester. He met and corresponded with George Bernard Shaw. He appears to have joined the ILP in this period.
Barclay had no desire for office, even within the Secular Society, and despite the harsh conditions of his life he refused offers of financial assistance from his friends. His autobiography, Memories and Medleys: The Autobiography of a Bottle Washer, was published posthumously. He was a shining example of the autodidact and organic intellectual who had educated himself extensively despite the rigours of his economic situation. The fact that the majority of his class seemed to him to be incapable of taking the same road to intellectual advancement and radical politics appears to have been a source of great bitterness to him and this is expressed in his autobiography. These memoirs remain as a nearly forgotten jewel of working class literature.
He died on New Year’s Day 1933 at the age of 81.
Aldred, Guy. Tom Barclay in Dogmas Discarded. Glasgow
Barclay, Tom. (1995) Memories and Medleys: The Autobiography of a Bottle Washer. Coalville Publishing. Leicester
Lancaster, Bill. Radicalism, cooperation and socialism: Leicester working class politics 1860-1906.(1987)Leicester University Press. Leicester.
Oliver, Hermia. (1983) The international anarchist movement in late Victorian London. Croom Helm. London.
Quail, John. (1978).The slow burning fuse. Picador. London.
See also: Archibald Gorrie’s collection of posters at: http://www.le.ac.uk/li/collections/gorrie.html
Photo of Tom Barclay from Leicester Secular Society