As I go wild in amongst the shelves of Working Class Movement Library and roller racking of the People’s History Museum, ferreting out those long forgotten treasures, the interesting, the unknown and the plain odd, one thing that has struck. There were a lot of organisations whose purpose was to instruct children in the benefits of a particular political ideology or faith. The Working Class Movement Library (WCML) for instance holds lots of material about the Woodcraft Folk, the Co-ops version of the Scouts/Guides. While the People’s History Museum (PHM) has quite a lot of material on the Junior Imperial and Constitutional League which in a rather convoluted way ended up being today’s Conservative Future.
In addition, both organisations hold significant archives relating to the Socialist Sunday School. Indeed, such is the depth of resources about the organisation were you interested in learning more a trip to the North West is probably required (or you could read to end of this post).
The SSS was formed in 1892 in London, and quickly grew into a national organisation whose aim was to teach both children and adults how to live good socialist lives. Similarities with their religious counterparts extended beyond the name and time of the week meetings took place. Didactically SSSs taught socialism as faith, there were ten precepts and commandments to learn, and tunes or hymns to sing.
Many Socialist Sunday Schools had banners. These would hang in the halls in which they met and be brought out for May Day parades and other events. If you happen to be around Manchester or Salford in the coming weeks and months you can see two of the surviving banners on display. The People’s History Museum has an example from East Barking. Design wise, it’s quite a simple affair though the foliage ending at the top of the banner with a flower motif provides a certain elegance. We are not completely sure when the object was made, although the school was founded in 1938. The banner survived near disaster in March 1957 when the hall in which East Barking SSS met burnt down. A report in the Young Socialist – the organ of the SSS – stated that ‘Woodward Hall, our meeting place since the School began, had been burned to the ground. However, our flag [the banner] and song books were salvaged’.
Along the road at the Working Class Movement Library, is displayed a more vibrant Socialist Sunday School banner. It was made in 1914 by a Bradford Councillor Fred Liles for the East Bradford School. Unfurled regularly for May Day events it was by all accounts the pride of the school, and you can see why. Liles clearly had an eye for design. The trees of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ both frame and draw the eye into the centre where the sun at dawn, which represents the coming of a better world, dominates. Liles banner is full of symbolism, the field of corn and fruit on the trees showing the potential for a world of abundance of under socialism. On the back of the banner is the fourth Socialist Sunday School precept ‘Honour good men, be courteous to all men, bow down to none’.
The banner lay undiscovered for years in the basement of Bradford’s Textile Hall. In the early 1980s, Gina Bridgeland and Bob Jones rescued before the Hall was sold, and donated to the WCML. You can read Gina Bridgeland’s article about finding it and her research into its history in North West Labour History No. 32, 2007-8.