John Spargo; a forgotten Cornishman

John Spargo was born at Longdowns, a few miles north-west of Penryn, in 1876. He became a stonecutter, working at one of the quarries that had made the district the centre of the Cornish granite industry from the 1840s. He also became a Wesleyan Methodist lay preacher.

So far, so typical. But the young John came across England for All, a socialist polemic penned by Henry Hyndman, founder in 1881 of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). John was converted, although his socialism combined a distinctively Christian humanitarianism with an intellectual commitment to ‘scientific’ marxism.

In 1895 he moved to Barry in South Wales. There, he became active in the local branch of the SDF and the Barry Trades and Labour Council. In spring 1898 the South Wales valleys were convulsed by a bitter coal miners’ strike for higher pay. This dragged on for six months and was ultimately unsuccessful. During it, John threw himself into writing and speaking in support of the miners, though remaining sceptical about their prospects of winning, preferring ‘political action’ to strikes.

In 1900 he helped Keir Hardie in his victorious campaign to get elected as a Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and participated in the meetings that led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. Soon he was invited to lecture in the States, where he arrived with his wife Prudence in February 1901. Later that same year, John became a founder member of the Socialist Party of America, serving on its National Committee from 1909.

His early days in New York proved difficult. The lecture invitations failed to materialise, forcing John to earn his dollars by, at one stage, shovelling snow. Following the death of his first wife and a child from tuberculosis, he eventually made his name as a lecturer and a ‘muckraking’ writer. Although largely self-taught, he wrote books condemning child factory labour and calling for action on behalf of underprivileged children. He also produced an acclaimed biography of Karl Marx in 1908.

John Spargo in 1919

Around 1912 John moved with his second wife, Amelia, and their daughter to Vermont. At odds with the syndicalism and direct action associated with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, John was by now firmly linked to the right wing of the Socialist Party. However, he broke with the party in 1917 when it opposed American entry into the War.

In 1924 he became a Republican and in the 1930s denounced Roosevelt’s New Deal as a threat to constitutional government and an attack on individual liberty. By 1964 a supporter of Goldwater’s Presidential bid, he ended up politically far distant from his earlier socialist days. Nonetheless, a streak of stubborn individualism might be traced as a constant from his Cornish roots.

He died in 1966, having also become an expert on the local history of Vermont and on ceramics. He even wrote a booklet on his family name – Spargo – which comes from an apposite placename meaning a thorn hedge.

Socialism in Edwardian Cornwall

It’s not generally well-known that Truro and Camborne were relatively early centres of socialist activism. In May 1904 W.A.Phillips, standing ‘boldly as a representative of the workers and a Social Democrat’ was elected to Truro Town Council in a by-election in Truro East. This was the first council seat won by a socialist west of Bristol.

Phillips was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). This had been founded in 1881 as an avowedly Marxist party. In 1900 it joined with the Independent Labour Party and others to form the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. The SDF remained part of the Labour alliance until 1907 and it was during this period that a branch emerged at Truro.

Victoria Square. Now all consumerism and park
and ride buses. In 1904 echoing to demands to
build a better world

By September 1904 the SDF was holding open air meetings in Victoria Square, Truro and in the same month a public meeting in the Town Hall on the housing of the working class. A speaker from the Workmens’ National Housing Council was reported as saying

‘There was just one difficulty about most of the towns in Cornwall that he had seen and that was while houses were being built for the middle and better class people and the better paid artisan class, comparatively little was being done for the poorer workers, who were most in need of accommodation’

Interesting to note how things have changed.

By late 1904 an SDF branch had also been formed at Camborne and there were optimistic plans for similar branches at Redruth and St Agnes. In the general election of 1906, the Camborne branch was confident enough to put up a candidate. Perhaps unwisely, they chose an outsider, Jack Jones, a builders’ labourer from West Ham. Later, in 1918, he went on to become an MP in his home borough. But in 1906 in the Mining Division he won just 109 votes, or 1.5%, as the Liberal candidate cruised to a landslide victory in a year when all the Cornish seats went to Liberals.

Socialism in Cornwall had to wait. For a century and counting.