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Imagining a Socialist Utopia in Manchester : The Sorcery Shop, an impossible romance by Robert Blatchford (1907)

the Sorcery shop

In The Sorcery Shop Robert Blatchford attempts to describe what a Socialist  utopia might look like, imagining  the   grimy,  smoke-clogged  city of Manchester, which he knew very well, transformed  a sunlit  city of  flowers, fountains  and crystal towers. It is of a piece,  therefore,  with other socialist  utopian novels of the period,  including Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890),  H G Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905)  and Men Like Gods (1923),  and Charlote Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915)

Robert Blatchford

Robert Blatchford and his friends were the  founders  in 1891 of the Clarion newspaper:  the most influential Socialist newspaper ever published in Britain,  which  created thousands of Socialists and inspired  a whole social movement.

Blatchford was born in Maidstone in 1851. He came from a theatrical family, his father John  being  a comedian and his mother Georgina an actress.  He had little schooling and was largely self-educated, spending his time reading during regular bouts of childhood illness. The family eventually settled in Halifax where Robert was apprenticed as a brushmaker. He did not go into the trade, however, instead leaving the town in  1871 and joining the army where he rose to the rank of Sergeant major.

After leaving the army he got a job as a storeman  with the Weaver Navigation Company in Northwich and  began writing short stories in his spare time which eventually  led to him  writing a column for a newspaper in Leeds. This  led him  into full-time journalism, first in London and then in Manchester where he worked for Edward Hulton, writing for the Sunday Chronicle under the penname Nunquam (Nunquam Dormio – I do not sleep.) His salary was now an astonishing £1,000 a year.

Increasingly he  wrote about slum conditions in Manchester and was taken around some of the worst cellars in Hulme and Ancoats by a local Socialist, Joe Waddington. Blatchford finally became a Socialist  after reading A summary of the Principles of Socialism, written by Henry Hyndman and William Morris, sent to him by a reader.  He   was not a theoritician  but came to Socialism because he saw it as  a practical solution to the poverty and misery he had personally witnessed.  He later  wrote, somewhat self importantly:

I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; It is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any Clarion May Daytheory of “economic justice” but upon humanity and common sense.

Hulton would not let  him write about Socialism in the Morning Chronicle  so Blatchford walked out of his job and set up The Clarion, along with  his brother Montague and his friends Alex Thompson, Edward Fay and Robert Suthers. It was a huge gamble but, fortunately for them,  many of Blatchford’s  readers followed him  to the new venture  and The Clarion  soon became  a welcome weekly visitor  to thousands of  households and attracted a fierce loyalty from its readers. The Clarion was never a dry as dust theoretical  journal,  but a jovial mix of news, comment, short stories, songs and  poetry.   As George R Taylor put in his book Leaders Of Socialism, Past and Present, published in 1910:

…..Robert Blatchford…..can manufacture Socialist more quickly then anyone else. Tipton Limited sells more tea than any other firm, Bever sells more soap;  one factory makes more boots; another most chairs. Mr Blatchford and The Clarion make more Socialists than any rival establishment.


The Sorcery Shop

The Clarion always  carried poems, short stories and extracts from novels, many of them written by Blatchford.  He was inspired by William Morris’s News From Nowhere to write his own utopian novel  The  Sorcery Shop:  An impossible Romance, published in 1907.  Blatchford says in his introduction:

It is only reasonable  to suppose that in a wisely-ordered commonwealth the best energies of a highly-trained and intelligent people would be directed towards the improvement all the conditions of national , civic and domestic life; but I have left all that to the imagination of the reader, and have tried to show the possibility of organising and carrying on a prosperous and healthy commune without calling in  any other  mechanical aids  than those  of which we are already the masters…Poverty, crime, disease, war , drunkenness, and ignorance are all preventable evils. Were it not for the ignorance of the many, and the foolish greed and vanity of the few, we might have a happy, healthy, and beautiful England now.

 The book begins in  the Directorate Club in London, where  we meet Major-General Sir Frederick Manningtree Storm, Tory MP for South Loomshire, and  Mr Samuel Jorkle, Liberal MP, for Shantytown East.  In an argument about Socialism they meet a  third man, a stranger named  Nathaniel Fry, a magician in fact   who spirits them away to a Socialist England using a Crystal Car.  “And now gentleman, we are in an impossible country, inhabited by impossible things, and are impossibly happy. I hope you will be amused. Allow me to open the door.” They land in a great, green wood and make their way to a vantage point looking down on a plain:

It was an orchard plain, a plain of flowering trees, in the midst of which was built a city. The roofs and towers and gables of the town stood up like red and white islands out of a broad sea of blossoms…They saw red roofs glowing amid the billows of delicate pink and white.  They saw the domes and towers of marble palaces, and the graceful shaft of a tall campanile with a gleaming golden crown. They heard the rhythmic hurry of a carillon, sounding wonderfully from some distant belfry, and the throbbing and champing music of a marching band, afar off in the hidden streets...Well, gentleman” said the wizard…”this is Manchester. He waved his hand towards the flowery plain, ”this city of health and beauty, of happy homes, and noble palaces, of trees and flowers, this Paradise regained, is Manchester – Manchester under impossible conditions”. 

 road with flowersThey pass Hulme Town Hall, now “a marble place with high towers” and make their way into the city along Chester Road. The wizard tells them:

 You will observe it is wide road, with broad band of well-kept grass along each side, nearest the gardens.  You will observe that the houses are very handsome and homely, and are all detached and homely, each standing in its own garden. There are no walls nor hedges between these gardens and the road. As a matter of fact, there is not a lock nor a fastening in all Manchester.

city with towersThey enter Fountain Square:

The great square presented an animated picture of rich colour, and noble form, and eager, happy, human life. The place was a garden: a garden of green lawns, and bright spring flowers, and sparkling fountains, and stately trees – a garden surrounded by marble palaces, and canopied by a blue and smokeless sky. Here the people – the beautiful, brave, impossible people – gathered in their thousands – walking, lounging, laughing, talking, as though the square were occupied by troops of friends



The wizard explains how the position of women  has changed:

Here if a husband leaves his wife he finds it very difficult  to find another .the women here are very proud, their ideal of purity is very high, and they are completely independent. No woman here marries for bread. No woman dreads a future of solitary indigence. There is no poverty in this country. Every wife is economically independent of her husband. …The maidens here set their entreatments at a higher rate than a demand to parley. They are free. They are men’s  equals…. I tell you and mark it well , that in this country there is no such thing  as an untaught, poor or degraded woman; there is no such thing as a courtesan; there is no such thing as the sale and barter of women’s ’s flesh and women’s honour; there is not a woman tramp, beggar, or slave; there is not a woman destitute of home, of hope, of love. 


Children are seen as the responsibility of the whole community:

The children can find homes in a hundred households. They can take food anywhere. Every house is open, every table free to them, and, still more happily, every heart is open to them also.  No child here is denied food, no child is denied instruction, no child is denied love.

There are no schools in this society, children are taught at home by the women. There is  no distinction between the sexes:

 Nearly every child is taught to draw, to model, or to carve, or to do all those things; and every child is taught to sing, and to dance and draw  and carve, and can read and write the universal language, as well as English, before they are in their teens. They pick up other things as well; botany, astronomy, geography,  gardening – many things…the children, boys and girls, all swim, and row, and play at cricket and many other games


Nobody works more than 3 or 4 hours a day,  and then after pursue other endeavours such as painting or writing. Everybody is paid the same.


What do the masses in our towns ever see of Nature? What do the labourers in our villages ever see of art or hear of music? in our England the great bulk of the people  have no artistic nor intellectuals pleasures. Have you ever been to the average village concert?  Have you ever been to the cheap popular music-halls and theatres? Have you ever studied the cheap popular fiction?  With these people , in this new England, life itself is beautiful. 

 Evolution Not  Revolution.

Blatchford is quite vague about  how this “new England , as he calls it, came into being, but it appears not to have been a revolution. In one passage he appears to indicate that it was result of municipalisation.

You have seen the gas, trams, and waterworks pass from private hands into the control of the municipalities without bloodshed.  Why should there be bloodshed over the cotton mills and soap factories… And it is evident that such co-operation must always beat private competition, for two reasons; the first reason is that the muncipality can produce more cheaply; the second reason is that no private form can afford to trade without making some profit, whereas the municipality can do without any profit at all… The wizard blew a smoke ring and smiled. “I do not defend robbery”,  he said, “I defend the recovery  of stolen property. Socialism is not a thief, it is a policeman.

At the end of the book the two MPs are returned to present-day London where, looking through a window,  see  the unemployed march past.

They were, for the mUnemployed Leicester 1905ost part, the ill-clothed, rough-spun men of the labouring class, with here and there a better-dressed artisan. Their boots were down at heel, their hands were coarse, their faces grimy and weather-beaten. They tramped on silently, looking straight before them, or on the ground. They seemed dull and dispirited, but not angry or ashamed. With a strange stolidity of endurance, worthy of Oriental fatalists, they trudged along upon their hungry march through the wealth and ostentation of the indifferent West .


A Neil Lyons in his book  Robert  Blatchford, The sketch of a personality, An estimate of some achievements,  published in 1910,  say that this is the least successful of Blatchford’s novels

No man has yet succeeded in inventing a satisfactory Utopia and Mr Blatchford, perhaps, has come as near to doing so as anybody else. But – John’s utopia never fits Jim. Mr Blatchford , in this picture of the Ideal State, has seen fit to deprive us of our wine and tobacco. Mr Blatchford expects too much from his fellow-man – especially from his fellow craftsman – when he asks him to consider seriously ideals which eliminate wine and tobacco.

Make your own mind up

You can read The Sorcery Shop online here


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