Harkive: Labour Leaders in the Pall Mall Gazette – H. H. Champion


This month we continue our series of Harkive entries chronicling Margaret Harkness’s relationship with the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG).

When W.T. Stead resigned from the editorship of the PMG in 1889 in order to found the Review of Reviews, the newspaper became increasingly conservative. While Harkness’s association with the PMG continued into the early 1890s, she often made use of its pages to express her enduring commitment to socialist thought and radical politics.

We continue the series of four portraits by Harkness of the ‘labour leaders’ with whom she worked during the London Dockworkers’ Strike of 1889. By 1891, the PMG had already published several articles by Harkness in which she had voiced her disillusionment with the socialist and labour movements, and particularly with the lack of cooperation she saw between different leaders in the movement. In October 1890 she had written: ‘Mr. Stead tells us that the success of the dock strike was the result of a series of flukes. Well, the greatest fluke of all was that last autumn three of the Socialist leaders happened to be working together in amity. If the strike had come a few weeks sooner or a few weeks later the dockers would not have had John Burns’s strong lungs and cheery presence; H. H. Champion’s diplomatic skill, and Tom Mann’s organizing genius united in one common cause’.

From ‘Labour Leaders II. — H.H. Champion’, Pall Mall Gazette, 7 February 1891.

Harkness’s ‘Labour Leaders’ portraits are highly personal: each one offers a critical assessment of a ‘leader’s’ particular qualities, but evades acknowledgement of the deep personal disappointment that is evident in some of her other articles. The portraits include personal memories of their subjects; but Harkness does not state her relationship to the ‘labour leaders’ outright. Each article is signed only with ‘J. L.’, which suggests a degree of anonymity, but one that would also be easily recognisable to any reader familiar with her work in the socialist and labour movements as ‘John Law’.


Source: Pall Mall Gazette, 7 February 1891. Accessible via Gale.



JOHN BURNS summed up Mr. Champion very well when he said, “Champion is a patrician.”

Inalienably fixed on H.H. Champion are the traditions of many generations, and he cannot cut off the entail. He has done his best to declass himself, but he remains what his forefathers made him – a soldier, brave and tender-hearted, a proud and very reticent man.

When he was a boy he used to say, “There is something wrong somewhere,” and after he became a man he tried to right that wrong by joining the Socialists.

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From ‘Labour Leaders II. — H.H. Champion’, Pall Mall Gazette, 7 February 1891.

In June, 1883, we find him writing in the first number of the Christian Socialist, “We, at any rate, are not afraid to take the name of which Maurice and Kingsley were proud, with all the broadened meaning of the term brought out by the lives and teachings of our predecessors in the title, ‘Christian Socialist,’ and with all the significance which socialism has derived from thirty-five years of patient economic investigations. We are convinced that the fulfilment of the wish to give to the labourer the fruit of his labour, as well as the performance of the command that ‘if any would not work neither should be eat,’ should be the aim of those who are the disciples of Christ.”

To achieve this ideal Mr. Champion gave up his position in the army, his relations and friends; in fact, he declassed himself. But it is one thing to become a Socialist because your class is oppressed, and another to throw in your lot with the oppressed because your class is the oppressor. In the latter case you may preach that all class is wrong, and spend your time and strength in trying to break down social barriers; but you will merely find yourself declassed in a world of classes. Your own class will treat you as a renegade, and the oppressed class will be suspicious.


“We use men like Champion and Graham,” remarked one of the “new” trade unionists, “but directly we can do without gentlemen we shall chick them up. We want to gentlemen amongst us.”


The chief feature in Mr. Champion’s character is reticence, which means “concealment by silence.” If he were to drop this reticence (which he cannot do, by reason of his constitution) his enemies would have a bad time with the general public. Supposing, for instance, he took the press into his confidence about the Labour Elector office? The public is always on the look-out for something fresh, and a paper would sell well with an article by H.H. Champion, entitled “the True History of the Labour Elector.” He is not likely to do this; for let alone his reticent disposition, he has a peculiar contempt for applause. He dislikes cheers and enjoys hisses.


But the Labour Elector office had a most amusing post-box: e.g. : — Dear —–, I am sorry my conscience calls on me to abuse you roundly in the ——- to-day. I will send you the £15 you lent me as soon as I have any money – Yours fraternally.


Dear —–, I have a pamphlet ready for the press. Mr. —-, in  —- street refuses to print it without money down. I know you will do t gratis, so I send it to you by this post. – Yours, &c.,


Dear —–, I have some hundreds to invest, but I do not know what you do with them. I am afraid to put them into stocks or railways, or anything un-Socialistic, for if I do there is sure to be a fuss. Can you give me 6 per cent? If so, drop in to-morrow evening. I know it is risky to invest in a Socialist business, but you are a man of honour, so I the money is lost, you will replace it. – Your comrade ——.


Mr. Champion’s enemies said that the Labour Elector was run in the interests of the Conservatives, and his so-classed friends talked about Tory money flowing in and out of his office. It may interest the public to hear that after the Labour Elector became a house divided against itself, a bid for this paper was made by the Conservatives. They were anxious that the editor and proprietor of the paper, Mr. Champion, should be deposed, and this being done, they were willing to enter into business negotiations. Needless to say, the offer fell flat, and it is probable that Mr. Champion never even heard of it.


Why did the Labour Elector die? people ask. This question can only be answered by Mr. Champion himself, and he is not likely to divulge secrets. It was the only good paper the Socialists ever possessed, and during the dock strike the circulation was over 20,000 a week. The Eight Hours question had a foremost place in its columns, and it was read by all who wanted to know what the people thought and felt about labour politics.


“No man has done so much for the Eight Hours question in England as Champion,” wrote Burns after the monster demonstration in Hyde Park, on the 4th of May. And where on that 4th of May was the man who had fought the workers’ cause for seven long years, who had laboured night and day to give the workers a paper, who had carried the negotiations of the dock strike to a successful issue? Where was Mr. Champion when the workers came in their thousands to Hyde Park and cheered for an eight-hour day?


Pride and reticence are not qualities calculated to make a man popular with the working classes, and Mr. Champion will never be a favourite. But the leopard cannot change his spots, and H.H. Champion must remain what his forefathers made him. Deeply rooted in his nature is contempt for popularity, and a certain asceticism that makes him court suffering. He took the Man of Sorrows as his example when he became a Socialist, and he tells us in the first article he wrote in the Christian Socialist that he is a disciple of Him who “Struck singly out and dashed upon the rocks; And in that shock did meet his human doom of suffering, and took it for a crown.”


But Mr. Champion is young and full of energy; so when he saw John Burns and Tom Mann going on what he considered a wrong track, he did not sit down and wait for them to find out their mistake: he went off to study the Labour Question in the Workman’s Paradise, in order that he might be better prepared to play his part in home politics when the New Trades Union movement had run the length of its tether in England.


He arrived in Melbourne at a very extraordinary juncture. The Trades Hall Council had called out a large number of unionists on a small issue. For the last five or six years the employers had given way to the demands, right or wrong, of the Trades Hall Council, and the latter had begun to think that it entirely bossed the continent. But the employers had turned at last. They had banded themselves together, and were prepared to fight to the death. So the Trades Hall Council found itself in a fix – no reserve funds, public opinion and the press dead against the strike.


Mr. Champion was asked by all sides to interfere, but refused saying he had come for a holiday after seven years’ unbroken work in England. When, however, he saw that the English unions under Burns and Mann had decided to send large sums of money to Australia, he thought it his duty to prevent the moneys from being spent in a hopeless struggle. He tried to place the strike on a higher level to use such tactics as would enable an arrangement to be made which would be magnanimous on the part of the Trades Unionists, whilst it would enable the employers to climb down, and thus preserve unionism from a defeat, and gain for it a moral victory. He failed in this attempt; so he telegraphed to Mr. John Burns on the 16th October that success was “impossible,” that the “mismanagement” of the strike had been gross, and that the loan of £20,000 Burns was asked to obtain was “useless.”


His statements have been justified by the irrefutable logic of events; and the position he now holds in Australia is peculiar.


Some cannot forgive him because he foresaw the bitter fruit of failure; others think him a great prophet, and listen to all he says. A few Socialists declare that he has been sent by the Emperor of Germany to make investigations; and it is even hinted that he may be spying out the land for General Booth’s labour colonies. Meanwhile, he is investigating the State Railway Department, which is the biggest application of Socialism to industry in any Anglo-Saxon community, in order that he may know the real difficulties in the way of State control of industry. How long he will stay in Australia seems very uncertain; but it is not likely that he will return to England before he has visited China and Japan, and formed his conclusions on the labour supplies of those countries.

“The strongest man is he who stands alone,” said John Burns, with a gloomy smile, when he heard that the man who had stood with him in the dock was about to leave England. Will Burns and Champion ever work side by side again? It depends upon the position John Burns takes up when the New Trades Union Movement has run its course in the United Kingdom.



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