Today in London rebel history: Fashionable strollers mobbed in Hyde Park in Sunday Trading Bill riots, 1855.

In June 1855, Hyde Park was the scene of mass defiance of the authorities. The spark was Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill, which sought to stop shopping and other activities on the Sabbath, and would have mainly affected the poor. There was also resentment at the Crimean war and at the hypocrisy of the aristocracy who wanted to parade up and down Hyde Park on Sundays while stopping others from enjoying themselves. It was not surprising therefore that the Park became the centre of opposition to the Bill. The first protest took place on Sunday June 24th, and among those present was Karl Marx, then in London, who wrote a report of the events for the German newspaper Neue Oder Zeitung:

“There has been a rapid succession of measures of religious coercion. The first measure was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 pm. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill. In both cases there is a conspiracy of the Church with monopoly capital, but in both cases these are religious penal laws against the lower classes to set the consciences of the privileged classes at rest. The Beer Bill was as far from hitting the aristocratic clubs as the Sunday Trading Bill is from hitting the Sunday occupations of genteel society. The workers get their wages late on Saturday; they are the only ones for whom shops open on Sundays. They are the only ones compelled to make their purchases, small as they are, on Sundays. The new bill is therefore directed against them alone.

This was the occasion yesterday of a mass demonstration in Hyde Park. We were spectators from beginning to end and do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began Yesterday in Hyde Park (sorry Karl, we’re still trying!).

Lord Robert Grosvenor, who fathered the Sunday Trading Bill, when reproached on the score of this measure being directed solely against the poor and not against the rich classes, retorted that “the aristocracy was largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays.” The last few days of past week the following poster, put out by the Chartists and affixed to all the walls of London, announced in huge letters:

“New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all kinds of recreation and nourishment, both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and `the lower orders’ generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o’clock on the right bank of the Serpentine, on the side towards Kensington Gardens.”

It should be borne in mind, of course that what Longchamps means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine in Hyde Park means to English high society – the place where of an afternoon, particularly on Sunday, they parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings, followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be realised from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there- the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the “lower orders” against their “betters”.

“we are treated like slaves”

At 3 o’clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered at the spot announced on the right bank of the Serpentine in Hyde Park’s immense meadows. Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000 due to additions from the other bank. Milling groups of people could be seen shoved about from place to place. The police, who were present in force, were obviously endeavouring to deprive the organisers of the meeting a place to stand upon. Finally a rather large crowd made a firm stand and Bligh the Chartist constituted himself chairman on a small eminence in the midst of the throng. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon swinging constables explained to him that the Park was the private property of the Crown and that no meeting might be held in it… meanwhile Finlen, a member of the Chartist executive, rushed to a tree some distance away followed by a crowd who in a twinkle formed so close and compact a circle around him that the police abandoned their attempt to get at him. “Six days a week,” he said, “we are treated like slaves and now Parliament wants to rob us of the bit of freedom we still have on the seventh”.

Suddenly shouts could be heard on all sides: “Let’s go to the road, to the carriages!” The heaping of insults upon horse riders and occupants of carriages had meanwhile already begun. The constables, who constantly received reinforcements from the city, drove the promenading pedestrians off the carriage road. They thus helped to bring it about that either side of it was lined deep with people.

“A music that could drive one mad”

The spectators consisted of about two-thirds workers and one-third members of the middle class, all with women and children. The procession of elegant ladies and gentlemen in their high coaches-and-four with liveried lackeys in front and behind, did not this time pass by in review- but played the role of involuntary actors who were made to run the gauntlet. A Babel of jeering, taunting, discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English, soon bore down upon them from both sides. As it was an improvised concert, instruments were lacking. The chorus therefore had only its own organs at its disposal and was compelled to confine itself to vocal music. And what a devils’ concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squeaking, snarling, growling, croaking, shrieking, groaning, rattling, howling, gnashing sounds! A music that could drive one mad and move a stone.

Meanwhile the metropolitan electric telegraph had informed all police stations that a riot was about to break out in Hyde Park and the police were ordered to the theatre of military operations. Soon one detachment of them after another marched at short intervals through the double file of people, each received with the popular ditty: “Where are the geese? Ask the police!”. This was a hint at a notorious theft of geese recently committed by a constable in Clerkenwell.

The spectacle lasted three hours. Only English lungs could perform such a feat. During the performance opinions such as “this is only the beginning!” “That is the first step!” “We hate them!” and the like were voiced by the various groups. Shortly before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Canes were raised in menace at the carriages and through the welter of discordant noises could be heard the cry of “you rascals!”.

Most of the London papers carry today only a brief account of the events in Hyde Park. No leading articles as yet, except in Lord Palmerston’s Morning Post – it claims that “a spectacle, both disgraceful and dangerous in the extreme has taken place in Hyde Park, an open violation of law and decency- an illegal interference by physical force in the free action of the legislature.” It urges that “this scene must not be allowed to-be repeated the following Sunday, as was threatened.””


A week later another protest took place in the Park, in defiance of a ban on meetings there. Faced with such protests, Lord Grosvenor eventually withdrew his proposals. Marx describes what happened on July 1st:

“Even according to the account given in the police bulletin at half past two already 150,000 people of every age and social estate surged up and down the park and gradually the throng swelled to such dimensions as were gigantic and enormous even for London… once again the crowd lined both sides of the drive along the Serpentine, only this time the lines were denser and deeper than the previous Sunday. However, high society did not put in an appearance. High society had given wide berth to the place of combat and by its absence had acknowledged vox populi to be sovereign.

It got to be four o’clock and it looked as if the demonstration for lack of nutrition was going to simmer down to harmless Sunday amusements, but the police reckoned differently. Were they going to withdraw amidst general laughter, casting melancholy farewell glances at their own big-lettered placards – posted up on the portals of the park? Eight-hundred constables had been strategically distributed. Big squads were stationed in neighbouring localities to serve as reinforcements. In brief, the police had drawn up a plan of campaign which was “of a far more vigorous description,” according to the Times “than any of which we have yet had notice in the Crimea.” The police were in need of bloody heads and arrests in order not to fall from the sublime to the ridiculous without some intermediate link.

[Orders were issued] allegedly for the protection of passing carriages and riders. But as both carriages and riders stayed away and there was therefore nothing to protect, they began to single some individuals out of the crowd and have them arrested on false pretences, on the pretext that they were pickpockets. When this experiment was repeated more and more often and the pretext no longer sounded plausible, the crowd raised one big cry. At once the constabulary rushed from ambush, whipped their truncheons out of their pockets, began to beat up people’s heads until the blood ran profusely, yanked individuals here and there out of the vast multitude (a total of 104 were thus arrested) and dragged them to the improvised blockhouses.

Only a small strip of land separates the left side of the drive from the Serpentine. Here an officer of the police and his detail manoeuvred the spectators to the very brink of the lake, threatening to give them a cold water bath. To escape the clubbing one of the crowd swam across the Serpentine to the opposite shore, but a policeman followed him in a boat, caught him in a boat and brought him back triumphantly.

During the demonstration several attempts were made again to hold separate meetings in various places. At one of them an anonymous speaker harangued his audience about as follows: “Men of Old England! Awake! Rise from your slumbers, or be forever fallen! Oppose it every succeeding Sunday, as you have done today… Don’t fear to demand your rights and privileges, but throw off the shackles of oligarchical oppression and misrule. His lordship wants to drive us to church and make us religious by act of Parliament; but it won’t do. Who are we and who are they? Look at the present war; is it not carried on at the expense and the sacrifice of blood of the producing classes? And what do the non-producing classes do? they bungle it”. The speaker as well as the meeting were stopped, of course by the police.”

The following extracts are from the report of the parliamentary enquiry “into the alleged disturbance of the public peace in Hyde Park on Sunday, July 1st, 1855; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in connexion with the same”:

“It was observed that many of the most disorderly characters were collected in front of the rails on the south side of the Drive near the Receiving House… to clear the crowd back to some distance from the railings [orders were given] to the police to clear the road and the rails, and to use their staves… the police advanced with their truncheons drawn along the carriage road of the Drive, clearing it of people. Some of whom, not readily yielding or quitting the road, were pushed, struck, and roughly handled. The policemen also passed along the Drive, striking on the rails, and brandishing their staves over the heads of the crowd there, and in some instances striking at them, in order to compel them to . These proceedings produced or increased irritation and ill feeling on the part of the people assembled; offensive expressions were used to annoy the police, some stones were thrown at them, and frequent collisions took place.

About six o’clock in the evening a large mass of people set out from Hyde Park towards Grosvenor Gate and Pink Street, with cries of “Now to Lord Robert Grosvenor’s.” Soon afterwards a crowd was collected before Lord Robert Grosvenor’s house in Park Street. No actual violence, beyond throwing a stone at Lord Robert Grosvenor’s messenger, was committed by them; but their number and clamour were alarming. The crowd yelled and groaned, calling “Chuck him out,” and using other expressions of hostility to Lord Robert Grosvenor, and their aspect and proceedings were sufficiently menacing to excite the fears of the inmates of the house, though some of the cries were of a jocular character.

The police rushed forward with their staves drawn. Though there was no serious resistance, some of them, whilst dispersing and pursuing the crowd, used their staves, and otherwise acted with violence, inflicting severe injuries on several persons who were not shown to have been guilty of any violence, but who refused to move off when requested so to do, or who, being inoffensively there, ran or stood still when the police came up the street.”

This is an excerpt from ‘Ruffians Radicals and Ravers: The Battle for Hyde Park 1855-1994.’
which is coincidentally available from past tense

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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