Selina Cooper, C.L.R.James, Sir Learie Constantine
‘I am a better person: I am better materially, I am better socially. I have grown more tolerant, I have grown less selfish. I am a better citizen for the time I have been in Nelson.’
Sir Learie Constantine: Howatt, 98
A town called Dignity
The forecast was for fine sunny skies, speckled with fluffy broken cumulus. I jumped in the car and nipped over the Pennines to Nelson. As I dipped down into Lancashire I met with low, light blocking cloud and persistent rain. It crossed my mind to turn back. I’m glad I didn’t.
First stop Nelson library, where enthusiastic staff disappeared into the archives, retrieving forgotten photographs, yellowing paper cuttings, defunct journals and obscure books. At the same time, the sweet sound of children’s nursery rhymes drifted from the children sitting cross legged on the floor below. On the mezzanine, users were shown where they could browse newspapers, the internet, read over their notes, plan their visit, or find solitude to gather their thoughts.
Friendly staff registered me, an outsider, for a borrowers ticket, and scoured those archives for me. As I left I pondered on the treatment of even the most difficult users of the library with such dignity. What a joyful experience and what an asset to the town.
Next stop, the Town Hall, where another friendly encounter resulted in a free Pendle Guide and Street Atlas (retrieved from the basement). The rain continued to pour, but I spotted Seedhill cricket ground on the map, and headed under the M65. The motorway embankment slashed through the edge of Nelson, doing its best to sever the cricket club from the town.
I pulled into the empty car park, climbed out of the car and wandered through the open gate. Silence, but for the constant rumble and rush of traffic from the motorway embankment. The clubhouse was in darkness, but the door was ajar. I squeezed into the small entrance hall, peered through a heavy glass door into the bar and lounge. A shadow moved in the middle distance. I gingerly pushed the door, stepped inside.
‘Hello?’ I said tentatively.
‘Hello,’ replied the shadow,’ ‘I thought you were the joiner.’ A middle aged man moved out of the shadows towards me, and smiled.
He said the club had been broken into during the night. I prepared to leave, but the friendly man asked if he could be of any help. I nervously muttered something about CLR James and Learie Constantine, expecting him to say something along the lines of , ‘very interesting, but I’m rather busy right now.’ Not a bit of it.
He asked me what I wanted to know. ‘Is there any information on the time the two men spent in Nelson?’ I answered. ‘There’s mountains of it,’ he said, ‘waiting to be archived. Most of it stuffed down the backs of drawers in Nelson’s attics and bedrooms.’ He warmed to the theme, said I must see a BBC programme, Race and Pace. ‘You will like it.’ He reached out to touch my arm to reassure me. ’You really will,’ he said. When I got home later that day I found a radio podcast and then the BBC TV programme on Youtube. Both full of warm memories of great cricketers, such as Sir Learie Constantine, Wes Hall, and Sir Viv Richards, drawn to the Lancashire Cricket League from the West Indies. The kind man from the shadows was right, I did indeed like it. I really did.
In 1932, Learie Constantine invited CLR James to move from London and lodge with him in Meredith Street, honouring pledges the two men made to each other back in Trinidad. CLR helped Learie complete his autobiography, ‘Cricket and I’. While CLR, ambitious to become a writer, found in Nelson the inspiration he couldn’t find in Bloomsbury.
After moving to the town CLR James was to become The Guardian’s cricket correspondent, and sought publication of his novel. ‘Minty Alley’ is based upon the intimate lives of working people living in close proximity in Trinidad. Living lives not that different to many working people in Nelson. He also gathered notes for ‘Beyond a Boundary’, described in the Sunday Times as ‘the greatest sports book ever written’.
Learie was not initially as enamoured with Nelson as CLR. At the end of his first year Learie wanted to return to Trinidad. But his wife Norma could see a bright future for them in the town and encouraged him to stay, living in the same house in Meredith Street for nineteen years.
CLR befriended Harry Spencer, owner of two bakery shops in the town, and President of Nelson Chamber of Commerce. They would walk the hills of Nelson on a Sunday, discussing social and political issues. Harry funded research trips to Paris for the socialist revolutionary CLR James so that he could complete his seminal work on the slave revolt in Haiti, ‘The Black Jacobins’. CLR dedicated his book to ‘My good friends Harry and Elizabeth Spencer of Nelson, Lancashire.’
Nelson is a town of immigrants. In the late nineteenth century tin miners from Cornwall, and lead miners from Yorkshire came looking for work in the mills and mines of East Lancashire. One immigrant was an infant Selina Cooper. After her father’s death in 1875 she moved north with her family from Cornwall to find work in the mills. Selina started work as a half timer (half time in school, half time in the mill) from the age of 10. Selina Cooper, ‘Belle of Brierfield’ – whose international, national and local legacy began with her part in the organisation of women textile workers in 1903, continued with the Suffragists, the anti war movement of the First World War, in a delegation of women to Nazi Germany to campaign for the release of women prisoners, as an elected member of Nelson’s Board of Guardians, as a JP, and in the creation of the Independent Labour Party and Clarion House – remains a towering figure in the history of social reform.
Nelson was a frontier town, thrown up between the looming hills of Boulsworth and Pendle in the late nineteenth century. ’Dignity’ running through the town like Blackpool rock. Dignity stretching back to its industrial foundations and Lomeshaye Industrial Hamlet, with the hamlet’s housing, school and care for the elderly. The struggle for dignity continued through the Nelson Weavers Association based in Pendle Street, and through campaigns for peace and women’s rights, maternity hospitals and improved child welfare.
In 1935, Nelson chose to spend their money on dinners for school children and the unemployed, rather than on celebrations for the Jubilee of George the Fifth. Action which created another epithet for the town, Red Nelson.
Methodism and its commitment to self improvement was at the heart of Nelson’s struggle for dignity. Carr Road Wesleyan Chapel had room for 800 worshipers and a thriving institute with speakers who did not confine themselves to issues of religion. Selina Cooper, CLR James and Learie Constantine drew inspiration from the self educating traditions of Nelson and the desire to seek out opportunities to discuss and learn together.
The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote; ‘ Nelson has no past and no architectural shape’, and on first impressions, Nelson is not a pretty place. But, buildings remain from Nelson’s weaving heyday which still reflect the dignity of the town.
‘Nelson came into existence from virtually nothing…A peat covered and rain sodden wilderness.’ (Hill 2-5). Nelson’s defining feature at its birth in the late nineteenth century was a public house. The Lord Nelson was within hailing distance of the railway on the moor. The guard would shout ‘Nelson!’ as the train came to a halt. The name stuck.As the friendly man from the shadows of Seedhill might have said: You will like Nelson. You really will.
The Tale of a Lancashire Heroine ‘Hard Faced Women’
Suffragettes story set to hit streets
Selina Cooper Biography
Sir Learie Constantine
Race and Pace: the West Indians in East Lancashire
Facsimiles of CLR James correspondence addressed to Meredith Street, alongside a photograph of Harry Spencer, photographs of the old Seedhill Pavilion before it was demolished for the M65, and a ‘Boulevard’ view of Carr Road.
Paul Robeson stars in Toussaint L’Overture
Every Cook Can Govern (DVD) Documenting the life, impact and works of C.L.R. James
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