Popular Politics and Popular Culture in the Age of the Masses

Studies in Lancashire and the North West of England, 1880s to 1930s

by Jeffrey Hill (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 269 Pages
Series: British Identities since 1707, Volume 6


The book is a selection of essays from the author’s work since the early 1980s. It presents an analysis of political and cultural trends based upon a series of case studies drawn from the North West of England, covering mainly the years between the Third Reform Act (1884) and the outbreak of the Second World War. The region was a heavily industrialized one, seen by many as in the vanguard of changes that gave rise to what is often referred to as ‘modern’ society. In politics the emergence in North West England of a new labour consciousness is plainly evident, but so too is the survival and adaptation of older political allegiances, notably popular Toryism. The region is also renowned in cultural terms for the emergence of modern sport, examined here in relation to both association football and cricket. Keenly aware of the general political, social and cultural developments in Britain and elsewhere during these years, the author is also alert to their impact in particular localities. The theme of locality has been a recurring one in the author’s research, and the composition of this book reflects his changing approaches to it and to other, related issues of identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Lancashire and the North West
  • Part I
  • Chapter Two: The Lancashire Miners, Thomas Greenall and the Labour Party, 1900–1906
  • Chapter Three: Social Democracy and the Labour Movement: The Social-Democratic Federation in Lancashire
  • Chapter Four: Manchester and Salford Politics and the Early Development of the Independent Labour Party
  • Chapter Five: Lib-Labism, Socialism and Labour in Burnley, c. 1890–1918
  • Chapter Six: Politics, Gender, and ‘New’ Toryism: Lancashire in the 1920s
  • Part II
  • Chapter Seven: Cricket and the Imperial Connection: Overseas Players in Lancashire in the Interwar Years
  • Chapter Eight: A Hero in the Text: Race, Class and Gender Narratives in the Life of Learie Constantine
  • Chapter Nine: Rite of Spring: Cup Finals and Community in the North of England
  • Chapter Ten: Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer and Manchester
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgments

I gratefully acknowledge the permission given by editors and publishers to reproduce, in whole or in part, textual material that originally appeared in the following books and journals.

The Editor, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire for ‘The Lancashire Miners, Thomas Greenall and the Labour Party, 1900–1906’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 130, (Nov) 1981, 115–30.

The Committee, North West Labour History Society for ‘Social Democracy and the Labour Movement: The Social Democratic Federation in Lancashire’, North West Labour History Society, Bulletin 8, 1982–1983, 44–55.

The Executive Editor, International Review of Social History for ‘Manchester and Salford Politics and the Early Development of the Independent Labour Party, International Review of Social History, 26 (1981), 171–201.

The Editors, Northern History for ‘Lib-Labism, Socialism and Labour in Burnley, c. 1890–1918’, Northern History xxxv, 1999, 185–204.

The Editor, Sport in History for ‘“Connie” – Local Hero, National Icon: Cricket, Race and Politics in the Life of Learie Constantine’, Sports Historian, 22 (1), 2002, 79–99.

Taylor and Francis Publishers for ‘Cricket and the Imperial Connection: Overseas Cricketers in Lancashire in the Inter-war Period’, in J. Bale and J. Maguire eds, Worlds Apart: Sports Labour Migration in the Global Arena (London: Frank Cass, 1994), 49–62.

Edinburgh University Press for ‘Rite of Spring: Cup Finals and Community in the North of England’ in Jeff Hill and Jack Williams eds, Sport and Identity in the North of England (Keele: Keele University Press, 1996), 85–111.

← vii | viii → Peter Lang Publishers for ‘“You Don’t Upset the Shaygets”: Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer’ in Jeffrey Hill, Sport and the Literary Imagination: Essays in History, Literature and Sport (Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), 171–90.

← viii | 1 → CHAPTER ONE

Lancashire and the North West


Writing of the town of Bochum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the American historian of Germany, David F. Crew, made an important point about the relationship between the local and the national in historical perspective: ‘it is a question of asking how and in what ways and to what extent local areas participated in, contributed to, were affected by and reacted to the larger-scale social, economic and political transformations that changed much of Europe during this period.’1 A similar point was made equally plainly by one of the foremost historians of North West England, John Marshall. Marshall, who had done as much as anyone to champion local and regional approaches, felt strongly that such histories must be related to the wider discourse of national and international developments, lest they descend into mere antiquarianism.2

These prescriptions have long been honoured in relation to the North West of England, Lancashire in particular.3 The region has been a continuing ← 1 | 2 → focus of interest for historians and social commentators interested in the big picture. Most have given prominence to the material and intellectual features of the North West.4 Size has much to do with this. During the period to which this book refers the region possessed an economy and a population greater than that of many European countries. There were almost five million people living in the North West on the eve of the First World War, many of them employed in the various branches of cotton production. It was the region’s dominant industry – and a leading one for the country itself – accounting for perhaps a quarter of Great Britain’s export trade earlier in the twentieth century. ‘Britain’s bread’, as a later government slogan had it, ‘hangs by Lancashire thread.’ It therefore appeared to many, at least until global trading relations underwent a profound change in the interwar years, that this was an area of considerable importance: a ‘world region’, so to speak, to be seen in much the same light as were later centres of international dynamism such as the West European ‘golden triangle’ or California’s Silicon Valley.

As the site of the world’s first industrial revolution the North West of England was assured a historic significance: not simply one region among many, but a primus inter pares. In this sense it has been a barometer by which to gauge the economic, social and political climate of Britain as a whole. It was the first of Britain’s highly urbanised and industrialised areas, with almost two thirds of its population living in towns by the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of the century a significant proportion was immigrant, some half a million Irish in origin and mostly Catholic: a source of social ← 2 | 3 → and cultural discord that spilled over into politics. Thus many of the features of ‘modern’ society were evident here for the first time. It was this that in the 1840s had drawn Friedrich Engels, a futurologist if ever there was one, to write about Manchester, the city at the region’s heart, the ‘shock city of an age’5, and the one to which many analysts of modern society were to follow him at one time or another.

In its politics the region was, in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, at the forefront of progressive movements that carried national and international weight. ‘Peterloo’ had early been a symbol of resistance to power unjustly wielded. The Chartists flourished here, with their mass meetings on Blackstone Edge outside Rochdale. The Anti-Corn Law League drew much of its momentum from Lancashire; among its leaders John Bright was a local man, Richard Cobden MP for Stockport. The Pankhursts of Manchester inspired the Suffragette movement. Free Trade was created here, celebrated intellectually in the ideas of the Manchester School, and at much the same time in bricks and mortar in the form of the Free Trade Hall, for many years the home of the Hallé Orchestra. It was in Lancashire that the Labour Party made its first sizeable electoral impact in the General Election of 1906, fought in this part of the world very largely to defend Free Trade.6 Since the Reform Act of 1832 the constituencies of the region have been a ‘pendulum’ whose swings, together with London, determined the outcome of national elections.7 It is little wonder that inhabitants of this part of England felt themselves to be distinctive, in the vanguard of modernity: ‘what Lancashire thinks today … the rest of the world thinks tomorrow’ according to an old saw. Stuart Rawnsley’s claim for the North of England – ‘No other region has such an intensified sense of place’ – aptly applies to the mentality of the north-western corner of it during this period.8

← 3 | 4 → Much of the self confidence evident in the decade before the First World War arose from an unshakeable belief in the region’s industrial strength, founded on cotton and supported by coalmining, chemicals and engineering.9 But any expectations this might have aroused in the future longevity of the region’s economic strength would have been profoundly misplaced. Faith in continued prosperity was quickly dashed, ‘fatally undermined’ (in Trevor Griffiths’s stark phrase) within ten years of the Great War’s end.10 In 1934 the writer J.B. Priestley, after visiting the weaving town of Blackburn while compiling his English Journey, noted that the cotton trade ‘is almost finished … Few of them there now believe that it will ever return.’11 It was a gloomy though prescient vision, shared by many others in the industry. Even before Priestley wrote, the local newspaper in Nelson, a town less badly affected by the depression than Blackburn, cannily summed up the historic dimensions of the situation when it pointed out that ‘we are passing through an epoch in our industrial life, not one of those periods of bad trade that we have been accustomed to in past years. We see no genuine reason for optimism’.12 The downturn in the region’s economy was sudden, and ← 4 | 5 → largely unrelieved. Writing some thirty years after Priestley, and in defiance of the ‘affluence’ that was often attributed to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, the geographers Freeman, Rogers and Kinvig were able to pronounce of the North West that ‘coal and cotton are no longer inexhaustible employers of labour, and the need for regeneration is all too clear.’13 At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is by no means clear that the hoped-for regeneration has occurred. And industrial decline can provoke moral collapse. Places once intimately associated with those old radical and progressive causes have been, in the recent past, susceptible to the enticements of the far Right.14 The whirligig of time does indeed bring in its revenges.

Such economic misfortunes were happening in a different social setting. Between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the Second World War there came into being in the North West a civil society that exhibited new forms of behaviour. It was a society not only bigger and more populous but one which displayed qualitative differences from the initial industrial society of Lancashire that had attracted so much attention a generation or two earlier. We might refer to this newer manifestation as ‘modern’, in the sense that features of social life were emerging that were to become commonplace almost everywhere in twentieth-century Britain: for example, the consolidation of class identities and relationships as a principal form of social identity and dynamism; the acceptance of urban life as the ‘normal’ context of civilised living; a slow decline in the attachment to religious belief and behaviour; the rise of new institutions in associational life, from trade unions to the Women’s Institute; the increasing ← 5 | 6 → dependence upon the provision of goods and services in the market place, with the consequent commercialisation of popular culture; and, a process evident especially during the First World War, a marked expansion of the role played by various agencies of the state in day-to-day life. One effect of the combined force of these changes was a greater presence of people in public life; what had once been the preserve of the few was now invaded by the many, a process that sociologists might refer to as ‘massification’. The problem it raised was not only one of numbers and space. As Raymond Williams has pointed out the words ‘mass’ and ‘masses’ connote many things, some positive, others negative; they bring into consideration all manner of issues covering taste, education, knowledge, politics, and religion that presaged a new kind of society in Europe.15

Two outstanding characteristics of the social arrangements of mass society provoked doubt and debate. One was the involvement in politics of new groups of the population, often considered by old elites to be unready either to form intelligent opinions or make sensible choices. There was an indication of such thinking in the rush to ‘educate’ new voters following the reforms that brought women and many men into parliamentary elections for the first time in the decade after the First World War. Such ‘masses’, it was thought, could be seduced by the blandishments of demagogues. The other concern was aroused by the increase in the amount of leisure time among those who previously had known little. The question of how this time might be used occasioned doubts, especially when leisure became the target of intensified commercial activity. People’s attainment of a level of ‘enjoyment’ in life came to be determined by what they could afford to pay rather than what they created for themselves. This purchased leisure became a passive activity lacking the vitality that had defined the Victorian concept of ‘recreation’.16 Such concerns were notably evident on the political Left, where it was felt that mass culture might too readily ← 6 | 7 → acclimatise people to the ways of capitalism. It accounted in part for the formation of an oppositional cultural life within socialist movements. The big European workers’ parties were active in this, with the Germans well in the lead, but Britain was not without smaller-scale versions, pockets of which were to be found in Lancashire.17


The essays in the present volume have been prompted in various ways by this general discourse on ‘the age of the masses’. They deal with popular politics and popular culture, two subjects that have customarily been treated in isolation from each other. Yet, as historians of political behaviour have now come to recognise, the political and the cultural are but complementary aspects of a single social process. Those seeking political changes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries did so in the presence of some powerful new forces in popular culture, which as Eric Hobsbawm noted many years ago, introduced significant qualitative improvements in people’s lives.18 The influence of popular culture consequently set constraints on what was possible in politics. Moreover – a point noted forcibly by recent historians of political allegiance – politics cannot be understood simply by relating belief to a prior and pre-determining economic and social ‘experience’.19 Instead, ← 7 | 8 → people’s ability to ‘think’ politically depends on the existence of a language through which their beliefs can be articulated. To understand this language we need, as the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci argued, to understand the texts and practices of the popular culture that frames it.20

A further characteristic of the collection is its methodology; or, more precisely, the influences from which the methodologies at work here have been shaped. Changing paradigms of historical analysis are present. Whilst the essays are all based upon sources that historians would recognise as ‘primary’, and are therefore ‘empirical’ in terms of their evidence, there is nonetheless a movement towards ideas, concepts and theories developed from the inter-disciplinary project of cultural studies; and a concern therefore to bring historical enquiry into contact with ideas developed in cognate disciplines. In the later work this brings forth a ‘postmodern’ inflection, though one employed not in the abstract form to which this paradigm sometimes gives rise, but in the service of empirical historical enquiry.

In Part I the essays cluster around the subject of politics, and have as their focus the theme of change, innovation and adaptation in a formative period of political transformation. The early ones (Chapters Two to Four) were written as a contribution to the debate over the rise of the Labour Party and the decline of the Liberals, an issue that has now perhaps lost some of the momentum it once possessed. They deal with the problems of establishing the new political strategy of independent labour representation (Chapter Two) and of attempting to implant socialism of different kinds in often unpromising terrain (Chapters Three and Four). The more recent political essays (Chapters Five and Six) reveal a shift of emphasis; less concerned with a ‘forward march of labour’, and more attuned to the survival of ‘old’ political cultures such as Lib-Labism (Chapter Five), and ← 8 | 9 → with the continuing popularity of Toryism as a political creed into the first truly democratic age of British politics (Chapter Six). This latter discussion also brings to the fore a gender dimension sometimes overlooked by political historians, especially those concerned with labour history. In all of the essays (and the same is true in those of Part II) particular attention is give to local histories, and their relationship to national and even global developments.

Part II leads us into popular culture. If a displacement of status and religious loyalties by those of social class is one of the chief themes of political change in Britain at this time, it is paralleled in cultural life by the rise of a commercial mass culture alongside older voluntary and mutualist associations. If politics during this period was increasingly bowing to the interests of ‘the people’, this was certainly the case in cultural life. The aspects of this process that are most closely scrutinised in Part II relate to something with which the North West has, since the late-nineteenth century, become firmly associated in the popular mind: sport.

The sport of this region had important influences on the development of sport more generally, both in Britain as a whole and internationally. Northern influences continue into the present day, as the success of association football teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool has shown. Historians of sport have recognised this, and accorded to the region its due place in the creation of what is sometimes referred to as ‘modern sport’.21 What have more often been overlooked, however, are the global dimensions to be found in sport, and their particular relationship to the local. Some aspects of sport in the North West resulted from and contributed to the region’s international role. In cricket, the sport most responsive to this, international, imperial and local interests interacted to produce a set of powerful influences shaping people’s views about themselves and their communities (Chapters Seven and Eight). Among such communities was the ‘imagined’ one of the North itself. This particular notion of place contributed greatly to the distinctiveness ← 9 | 10 → of the region. ‘Northern-ness’ and its associated forms of local patriotism, and their relationship with ‘nation’, are the subject of Chapter Nine, which examines the rituals attached to association football’s Cup Final and the ‘meanings’ inscribed in its attendant rituals. During the period in question the medium though which many of these meanings were communicated, and which was absolutely fundamental to the emergence of modern sport, was the provincial newspaper press. Historians of sport have recognised the rich vein of information provided in newspapers, and mined it accordingly. What has been less recognised is the way the newspaper text worked on its readers. In Chapter Nine we see it creating the sense of local identity that so sustained the development of sport in this period. It does so by utilising in particular a sense of ‘other’, in this case the capital city London.22


In these ways, therefore, this is also a book about a personal intellectual journey. It charts the interests of an individual historian over a period of some forty years. The milestones and landmarks that have provided direction along the route are therefore important. They are provided by the work of numerous historians whose influences shape the content of the book. The earliest essays arose from doctoral research carried out in the late 1960s. One of the major scholars from this period for a historian interested in the Labour Party was Henry Pelling, in particular his Origins of the Labour Party 1880–1900, which had first appeared in 1954.23 Pelling ← 10 | 11 → disentangled in this work the many threads of political and social thought and action that combined to produce a new form of politics at the end of the nineteenth century. The book developed a theme of ‘independent labour representation’, a notion that appealed (often for different reasons) to both trade unions and socialist bodies. Together they constructed a new political instrument – the Labour Representation Committee – to create a parliamentary presence for the labour interest. A local example of its early work is illustrated in Chapter Two. There was however a certain ‘whiggish’ tone in Pelling’s work. It took its bearings from what was later to happen – notably the decline of the Liberal Party after the Great War and its replacement by the Labour Party as the main alternative to the Conservatives. Pelling, it could be argued, accorded this pre-1914 political initiative greater significance than its impact at the time might have warranted. After all, the new Labour Party, a name adopted in 1906, had fewer MPs throughout the pre-war years than the Irish Nationalists, a party and its leader (John Redmond) now largely forgotten. What Pelling probably also over-emphasised was the importance of socialist bodies in this process. The two main ones – the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) – were both always small parties, though they contained quite influential individuals. The Labour Party was never formally socialist before 1914, though in 1918 and largely as a result of wartime collectivism it adopted a new constitution that included a statement (Clause IV) calling for the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Quite what this implied is uncertain. When faced, for instance, with the financial crisis of 1931 two of the Party’s earliest socialist activists, James Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden – who both assumed high ministerial office in the 1920s – chose to save capitalism by joining a coalition (the National Government) with the Conservatives. Socialism, it seemed, was something that could only result from a stable capitalist base. This, however, is not to suggest that Pelling was completely wide of the mark in his emphasis on socialism. There were areas, in Lancashire and elsewhere, where it was important in the creation of a local labour movement and significantly shaped its political ideology. Manchester was one such area (Chapter Four), Nelson ← 11 | 12 → another.24 Any analysis of the changes in politics in these places in the two decades before 1914 that does not take into account the work of the ILP, and to a lesser extent the SDF, would be a misleading one.

Socialism is the subject of Chapters Three and Four. What we might call a ‘centre-periphery’ approach emerges (especially in relation to the SDF), pointing up a number of local variations from what had been understood to be the national ‘model’ of behaviour. Interpretations of the SDF’s failure to establish a firm socialist base, as advanced for example by Henry Collins,25 are reviewed in the light of local conditions and tactics in the North West. This approach was later taken up in far more comprehensive form in a fine book by Martin Crick,26 and reveals a different picture from that of London. What, however, was severely lacking in most work done at this time was the question of gender, a subject not squarely tackled until the appearance of Karen Hunt’s study of women and the ‘woman question’ in the SDF.27 Hunt, quite properly criticising much labour history for its male centred-ness, directed her attention not only to women within the SDF (scrutinising women’s circles in, for example, Rochdale and Northampton) but gave most prominence to the perennial and still important issue of the relationship between socialism and feminism. The SDF never fully resolved this problem – female social democrats were always on the margins of the party when they tried to challenge the priority given to class and economics with questions about the place of women – just as, according to Hunt, it continued to bedevil the Labour Party into the late-twentieth century.

Hunt’s work is therefore a necessary corrective to the emphasis given here, which is on questions of strategy, in particular the notion of the ‘labour alliance’, a theme prominent in Pelling’s work. The ILP’s success in ← 12 | 13 → Manchester is one of the achievements of this strategy in the years before 1914. But this too should be contextualised by more recent studies. Mark Bevir’s The Making of British Socialism is noteworthy in that it scarcely touches upon this issue, though it does have quite a lot to say about the SDF.28 Bevir also eschews electoral tactics in the localities. For him the forging, or not, of alliances to secure the aim of labour representation is not what socialism is about. Indeed his study is far more a broad history of ideas. The Labour Party is not neglected, but unlike many previous scholars Bevir does not see socialism as synonymous with working-class organisations. To an extent his work is motivated by the desire to ‘re-revive’ socialism, so to speak, in the light of critiques from neo-conservatives of the late-twentieth century ignorant of the richness of socialist thought and its relevance to the contemporary world. The work of both Hunt and Bevir thus extend and augment the discussion of socialism to be found in Chapters Three and Four.


VIII, 269
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
society labour consciousness identity sport Toryism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 269 pp.

Biographical notes

Jeffrey Hill (Author)

Jeffrey Hill is Emeritus Professor of Historical and Cultural Studies at De Montfort University, Leicester, where from 2001 until 2007 he was Director of the International Centre for Sport, History and Culture. He has previously worked at Nottingham Trent University, and has been a visiting professor at both the University of British Columbia and Columbus State University, Georgia, USA. His research has concentrated chiefly on the politics and leisure activities of working-class society in Britain during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Title: Popular Politics and Popular Culture in the Age of the Masses
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