[This is a preliminary account of the Milnsbridge Socialist Club, a more complete story, with notes and references, will be published shortly.]
Milnsbridge Socialist (initially Labour) Club was formed on 1 April 1892 at a meeting of around 50 men held, ironically, in the Conservative Club. One of the founders was James Turner, uncle of local pioneer socialist Ben Turner. By August some 150 members had been enrolled and premises acquired at Whiteley Bottom. The opening ceremony was conducted by Tom Mann, a leader of the 1889 dockers’ strike, who addressed a meeting of 300 people from a top floor window of the building. In the evening he also spoke in a weaving shed along with Ramsden Bamforth, a Fabian and Alan Gee and J Downing, leaders of the local weavers association. From the start the club was based on the bringing together of trade unionists and socialists of various hues. It also expressed a strong ethical socialist element, supporting the work of the Labour Church in the area.
Through the Colne Valley Labour Union (CVLU) the Club was affiliated to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Keir Hardie spoke at a meeting in 1893 and the Club supported Tom Mann as ILP candidate in the 1895 election. Following his defeat membership of the CVLU declined, although the Club, with around 50 members in 1899, survived as the strongest affiliate. As well as involvement in election campaigns it continued to support the development of trade unionism, for example, the Teamers holding meetings on the premises in 1896 and the Dyers and Finishers a decade later.
On 5 August 1905 a demonstration was held at Milnsbridge led by T Russell Williams, the Huddersfield Socialist parliamentary candidate, marking the revival of the movement. The following year Emmeline Pankhurst spoke on women’s suffrage and by March, when Victor Grayson first visited the Club, there were 208 members. His victorious election campaign in 1907 further boosted membership. The Club apparently outgrew its original premises on two occasions before moving into the present building at Bankwell Road around this time. It became the custom of the contingents of the now Colne Valley Socialist League to muster at the Club for the May Day march into Huddersfield’s St George’s Square.
From the early days there were differences about the degree to which the Club should be a working men’s social club. After much discussion it had become a Ltd Company and began the sale of alcohol. In 1908 this was put forward by some members as a reason not to hold Socialist Sunday School (SSS) meetings on the premises. Others were concerned that a SSS would encourage the teaching of atheism. There was also an argument about whether the large upstairs lecture room should be partly occupied by a billiard table – a request denied on the grounds that the room was too damp.
The Club promoted cultural activities which helped to establish it in the community. By 1907 the Milnsbridge Clarion Vocal Union choir was established to provide rousing entertainment both at meetings, such as one addressed by J R Clynes MP in 1907, and at non- Club events. But the clearest example of how the Club was rooted in the local community was the formation of the Milnsbridge Socialist Brass Band in 1908. This arose from the difficulty of getting local bands to take part in Socialist events because of pressure from rich patrons. About 70 men and women pledged a penny a week towards expenses and 24 new instruments ordered from Hyams of Manchester for £300. A weaver, Shaw Singleton acted as conductor and James Lodge, a socialist poor law guardian, arranged favourite tunes such as the Marseillaise and the Red Flag. Around a month after the new instruments arrived and after only six practices the band held its first public parade on 28 November 1908. Their photo was taken outside the Club and the band marched up Factory Lane and back into Milnsbridge attracting a crowd en route. Tragedy struck the band in April 1909 when the conductor’s son Gladney, a cornet player, died from ‘rapid consumption, aged only 15.
By December 1910 the debt on the instruments had been cleared after a series of whist drives, bazaars and garden parties. This was in addition to the fund raising needed to clear the debt on the Club premises. The band became an indispensable part of the local Socialist scene, leading May Day and other demonstrations and playing at club events throughout the Colne Valley, such as the opening of Golcar Socialist Club’s new building in 1909 and Honley’s in 1911. From 1909 it took part in the prestigious band competition at Belle Vue Manchester, eventually with some success, styling itself a ‘prize’ band by 1915. It wasn’t until 1914 that the band decided to adopt a uniform, allegedly because it was commented at a competition at Mossley that they shouldn’t come back until they had one. The uniforms were duly ordered from Beever’s of Huddersfield for £60.
Meanwhile the Club did not neglect the work of Socialist education and agitation. Victor Grayson, supported by the Huddersfield candidate Harry Snell spoke in a field near Milnsbridge Baptist Schoolrooms in 1909 when a resolution was passed condemning the Czar’s visit to Britain. In 1911 an irate letter entitled ‘Is Milnsbridge to be governed from the Socialist Club’ appeared in the local paper after the Socialist councillor Dan Taylor opposed spending money on the Coronation. Against a background of widespread industrial discontent, the guest speaker at the annual Club tea and meeting in 1912 was Tom Mann, now the leading syndicalist in the country, who recollected his long association with the Club and the Colne Valley. The Club’s sympathy for industrial action was shown when Socialist Brass Band, now in their splendid uniforms, led a demonstration of striking engineering labourers through Huddersfield in July 1914. Less than a month later war was declared on Germany.
Hubert Thornton a member of the brass band is the only recorded Conscientious Objector associated with the Club, the strong Christadelphian congregation in Milnsbridge providing the main local opposition. At least two Club members were killed in 1917 and money was raised for those called to the colours. However, this does not indicate unanimous support for the war itself. The Club supported ILP peace resolutions in 1916 and protested about the brutal treatment of the COs Dukes, Beardsworth and Benson. It also donated £1 to the No-Conscription Fellowship. In July 1917 the Band played at a meeting of 3,000 people in St George’s Square addressed by Mrs Despard and John Bruce Glasier to support the Russian Revolution. Following the Armistice a resolution was also passed calling for the earliest possible release of COs.
With the reorganisation of the Labour Party the Club resolved in March 1918 to affiliate to the Colne Valley Divisional Labour Party. It did not, however, surrender its independence and continued to affiliate to the ILP and support other Socialists. John Maclean, popular due to his anti-war stand was engaged for a meeting at Bridge Croft on 30 May 1919.
The Club also maintained its support for trade unionsm. The Dyers and Finishers Union met on the premises and all prospective Club members had to be able to show a union card. The Club sent a delegate to Huddersfield Labour and Trades Council. Financial support was provided for disputes such as the miners in 1921 and the engineers the following year.
The Band was by now apparently in some difficulty and received a grant from the Club. Not all the bandsmen were Club members leading to disputes about them using Club facilities. Women too were still not members, although the Club could not have existed without their organising and fund raising skills. In December 1923 their role was recognised somewhat patronisingly by a resolution to ‘provide a free tea to our female friends.’ When they were allowed membership in 1931 they were still barred from holding office or voting at AGMs.
By 1924 concern was expressed that members were losing interest in ‘both Political and Industrial affairs’ as the first Labour Government was elected. The following year there were even problems drumming up support for local elections. Apparently not all were affected by this malaise. In 1925 a protest resolution was sent to the government over the arrest of Communist leaders and interest was shown in events in Russia. Collections were held in 1926 to support a miners’ soup kitchen at Skelmanthorpe and when the local MP Philip Snowden attacked the miners’ leader A J Cook in the press a resolution was sent deploring his action. The following year the US Ambassador and the Governor of Boston were condemned for the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
Although the Colne Valley ILP Federation became moribund in 1928 the Club continued to send grants to the ILP political fund and a meeting of the ILP at the Club in 1930 criticised Philip Snowden, now Labour chancellor. The change in political culture from participatory politics rooted in the community towards electoralism was symbolised by the disbanding of the Socialist Brass Band in 1934. The instruments and uniforms were sold off but the Club had a long battle to retrieve the money for them.
There were still glimmers of interest in wider political events as the film ‘Russia past and Present’ was shown at the Club in 1934 and in 1936 collections were made for the Spanish Republic, resulting in the Club windows and doors being plasters with Fascist stickers. By the outbreak of War the Club was in financial difficulties and was unable to pay its subs, based on a book membership of 90, to the CVDLP.
Despite this, the Club survived into the 21st Century, but as primarily a social club rather than a Socialist Club. Although retaining some links with the Labour Party it was no longer the centre of a vibrant alternative Socialist culture as it had been in its early years.
(Milnsbridge Socialist Club has been reincarnated as the Red and Green Club. For further information see: