Tom Maguire – Leeds Radical and Poet by Chris Nickson

Continuing his series of Leeds history posts for the Big Bookend, Chris Nickson explores radicalism in Leeds through the radical and poet, Tom Maguire 

Leeds – and the West Riding – has a history of radicalism. Think of the Luddites, for instance, and all that’s happened since. But there are a number of Leeds people whose involvement with the radical movement has never been properly celebrated. Tom Maguire is one.

Tom Maguire

Tom Maguire

I’d never heard of him until a friend told me a little last year, but he’s a seminal part of the Labour movement, one who was far more interested in doing than in theory. Born in 1865 or 1866 in the Bank area of Leeds (think Richmond Hill), where the Irish immigrants lived in terrible conditions. His parents were poor. They’d moved to England in the hope of a better life, one that for many was little more than a cruel dream.

Thomas sang in the choir at St. Anne’s Cathedral, and received at least part of his education at Sunday school. He was aware of his Irish heritage, with a love of the country’s literature and music, but he was also drawn to the Romantic poets, people like Keats and Shelley, who had published early in the 19th century. Leaving school he took a job as a photographer’s assistant. It wasn’t well-paid or prestigious but it was better than the labouring or mill work that was the fate of so many of the Irish.

So far, so ordinary. He was a bright young man with a questing mind but few real prospects. His road to Damascus moment came in 1883. He was 18 and at the Secular Hall when he picked up a copy of The Christian Socialist and Maguire’s life changed. He was an instant convert to the cause, and within a year he was addressing crowds at Vicar’s Croft, talking about socialism and how it could help their lives. He believed. He even set up a Leeds branch of the Socialist Democratic Foundation. The following March, the Foundation possibly split (depending who you believe) in two. Whatever happened, some of the members joined artist William Morris’ Socialist League, and Maguire’s name appears in the League’s manifesto.

Socialism was new. Previously, radicals had been aligned with the Liberals; now they were starting to carve out their own niche. And Maguire was a working-class socialist, one who saw how the ideals could better the lives of his friends and neighbours. He saw how hollow the stance of many supposedly radical organisations was and proposed new ideas like full employment, and even published a handbill in 1887, stating that “a definite step is now being taken towards the formation of a socialist Labour Party in Leeds… The objects of socialism are briefly … to put a stop to the mad competition for existence, which is the cause of poverty, and to establish a co-operative commonwealth.”

In 1888 and 1889 he worked to help establish unions for builders – helping to organise a strike that won them their demands – and millworkers. From there he aided gas workers to form a union, one that beat the council during the gas strike in 1890. He was a passionate, eloquent speaker, often addressing crowds numbered in the thousands. The same year he was instrumental in setting up the Labour Electorate League in Leeds.

The first half of the 1890s saw the consolidation of all that Maguire had fought to achieve. The young Labour movement began to coalesce and the Independent Labour Party was born. It was a time when Maguire, who wrote a great deal, found time to indulge his love of poetry, much of it political.

Plaque for Tom Maguire, 1866-1895 Photo credit: Unite the Union

Plaque for Tom Maguire, 1866-1895
Photo taken from Unite the Union

But none of this had made him rich, only poorer. In March 1895, friends found him collapsed, living in a room with no fire, and no food in the larder. He had pneumonia and died on March 8 after refusing the last rites from a priest. More than a thousand people turned out for his funeral; his simple gravestone can be found in Beckett Street Cemetery. A posthumous collection of poems was published, Machine-room Chants, and there was (aptly) a red plaque to commemorate him in the bus station, the area where he lived and worked when buildings stood there, erected by the Fod-Maguire Society, although it was apparently taken down a few years ago. There were plans to return it, but I haven’t seen it there. Anyone?

Tom Maguire, and others, like Quaker Isabella Ford, were a vital part of the development of the Labour movement in Britain. In Leeds he gained a great deal for the workers. A fictional version of Maguire appears in my upcoming book, Gods of Gold, centred around that 1890 gas strike. It was important to have him there as the eminence grise of the strikers, part of it in a novel just as he was in life. We should be proud he was ours, a political figure and writer.

From A New Nursery Rhyme, by Tom Maguire

Sing a song of England,
Shuddering with cold
Doomed to slow starvation
By the gods of gold;
See her famished children
Hunger-marked, and mean,
Isn’t that a dainty dish
To lay before the Queen?

Chris NicksonChris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s. Gods of Gold, about the 1890 gas strike, will be published in August 2014.

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