Today in London’s legal history: trial of SDF leaders for incitement to riot ends in acquittal, 1886.

On 8 February 1886 a rally was held in Trafalgar Square, organised by the ‘Fair Trade League’ (a kind of tory front aimed at recruiting the working class), calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. At this time there was relatively high unemployment, due to a trade recession. The radical-cum-Marxist-cum-jingoist Social Democratic Federation resolved to hold a meeting to oppose the rally, arguing for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Workers should join the socialist movement, not the Conservative Party (Unashamedly brushing under the carpet the unpleasant fact that the SDF had taken money from the Tories just the previous year to stand several candidates in the general election, with the aim of splitting the liberal vote).

Both meetings were given permission to meet in different parts of the square; with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, and a reserve of 563 men standing by, and District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old in charge. Walker may not have been up to the task – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and disappeared into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

The SDF managed to take over the Free Traders platform, where were some fiery speeches from SDF leaders, which led to some fighting in the Square. A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off marching towards Hyde Park. The crowd was later reckoned as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. The march took them past various clubs and aristocratic hang-outs, where toffs and club servants slinging abuse & chucking shoes and nail brushes out of the windows out of the windows, led to the clubs being stoned by the crowd in return. The unemployed were hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club and jeered in return. In St James St they metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. In Piccadilly people started looting shops, some nicking posh clothes then taking them off to nearby Green Park and Hyde Park to try them on.

When the SDF leaders and entourage arrived at Hyde Park they gave another round of inflammatory round of speeches, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley St and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went.

In the aftermath of the riot, a public panic swept respectable London; rumours flew on the following day that whole armies of the poor were marching from the East End or Deptford, whole areas of London saw shops putting up their shutters…

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: charity schemes for the unemployed, a determination to study and understand poverty as a motivator for violent events so as to head it off in the future, and last, increased repression of socialist meetings and groups.

Though the SDF had used fiery invective from the platform, there was little real link between their ideas and the rioters more immediate class resentment and willingness to get stuck in, hassle the poshos, and maybe grab a bit of loot into the bargain.

In addition, they, like the authorities, were slightly afraid of what they had partly unleashed: “THE steps taken by the authorities are an eloquent testimony to the alarm created by the riots in the minds of the middle and upper classes. But they had by no means a monopoly of alarm at the moment.   The leaders of the Social Democratic Federation were genuinely afraid of the Frankenstein that had been raised. It was no part of their plan that rioting should take place. What they desired was to discountenance the Fair Traders, and to repudiate their claims to the leadership of working-class opinion.   But they had so roused the indignation of the people that the jeering of the club habitue’s had been like applying a torch to a mass of gunpowder. And there was a very serious danger that the authorities would punish them Messrs. Burns, Hyndman, Champion, and Williams for what was really the fault of the men who assembled in the club windows, and insulted the men in the procession.”

However, the, as ever, slightly myopic government and police, always more afraid of the influence of radical groups than that influence generally warrants, felt it was time to crack down harder on the overt propagandists for socialism.

Four of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, Jack Williams, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The Old Bailey trial lasted six days, from the 5th to the l0th April. Hyndman, who defended himself, said “had it been necessary he could have called hosts of witnesses as to character, and to prove that he was not likely to aid in looting shops. It was unnecessary to do so, because the great social work in which he was engaged would have been greatly injured by such action. “As to their position in the dock, he, with his co-defendants, really felt it an honour, for they appeared as representatives of a great social and national movement. “The real root of the prosecution was that the Government was instigated by the Grand Viziers on the Continent, who thought that too great freedom was allowed to the people of England, and that it might prove dangerous to Continental nations. He had found the condition of the people in this and other countries was worse than that of slavery and savagery, thus proving that there was a deep social question that had to be solved, and it was to help to solve that problem that he and the other defendants had spent their money and leisure.”

Burns added: ” My Lords and Gentlemen of the Jury:  ” As an unemployed worker, and a Social Democrat, I am placed in a somewhat peculiar position in this case. I expected when I was of the age of sixteen or seventeen that, at some time of my life, I should be brought face to face with the authorities for vindicating the class to which I belong. ” Since I was sixteen years of age I have done everything in my power to benefit the workers in a straightforward way. I have deprived myself, as many of my class have done, of hundreds of meals on purpose to buy books and papers to see if we could not by peaceful consultation, by deliberate and calm organisation, do what I am inclined to think the middle and upper classes by their neglect, apathy, and indifference, will compel artisans to do otherwise than peacefully. ” I plead ‘ Not Guilty,’ my Lord, to the charge of sedition, particularly to the charge of seditious conspiracy. I plead not guilty, not to deny the words I used on 8th February, or any other words I ever used, but simply because the language I used on that occasion had no guilt or sedition in it. I expressed the virtuous indignation against the misery and injustice of a man who had from his earliest infancy up to the present moment struggled and worked hard to support his wife and an aged mother, both of whom would instantly repudiate me if I were to go back from one single statement that I made on 8th February. I pointed out the steps that were necessary for a peaceful solution of the difficulties which the industrial classes have to encounter, and which press so hardly on the lower classes of society as they are falsely called. I pointed out how the unequal incidence of taxation pressed upon shopkeepers and others, and how the capitalists and the rich were able to tide over the difficulties. “Against this system of society I frankly confess I am a rebel, because society has outlawed me. I have protested against this state of society by which at present one and a half millions of our fellow-countrymen, adult males, are starving starving because they have not work to do. ” I had very strong feelings upon this matter of the unemployed, particularly on the day in question, when we were brought face to face with men who for month after month had trod the street in search of work, with men whom I knew were honest ; whose only crime was that they let the idler enjoy that which the producer alone should have not loafers and thieves but the real unemployed of our nation city. Talk about strong language! I contend my language was mild when you consider the usage they have received, and that the patience, under severe provocation, displayed by the workers, is almost slavish and cowardly. “Now what have we done? We have pursued the same course for the last five years. These are remarkable defendants who stand in this box. “There must be some unusual agitation to prompt one of the idle classes like Mr. Champion, a skilled artisan like myself, an unskilled labourer like Mr. Williams, and a middle-class man like Mr. Hyndman, to stand in this box for one simple cause. There must be something unusual to bring us here. ” We have gained nothing by this agitation; on the contrary, we have lost what material well-being we had, and we come before you not as paid agitators pecuniarily interested in creating riots, tumults, and disturbances, but men anxious to change the exist- ing system of society to one in which men should receive the full value of their labour, in which society will be regarded as something more than a few titled non-producers who take the whole of the wealth which the useful workers alone produce. “We are indicted for seditious conspiracy. If it were not so serious a charge in itself, it would be enough to raise a smile. Seditious conspiracy! Why, if there is one thing that the Whigs, Radicals, and the Tory Party accuse us of it is this that we have brought these questions and we are the first who have done it into the open street! When we are again accused of conspiracy it will be when all open methods of securing redress have been tried and have failed. ” If you want to remove the cause of seditious speeches you must prevent us from having to hear, as we hear to-day, of hungry, poverty-stricken men who from no fault of their own are compelled to be out of work, who are fit subjects for revolutionary appeals. If you want to remove a seditious agitation, as it is called, you must remove, not the effect, but the cause of such agitation. ” We are not responsible for the riots; it is society that is responsible, and instead of the Attorney-General drawing up indictments against us, he should be drawing up indictments against society, which is responsible for neglecting the means at its command. ” I have not one single word of regret to utter for the part I have taken in this agitation. If my language was strong, the occasion demanded strong language. I say we cannot have in England, as we have to-day, five millions living on the verge of pauperism without gross discontent. Well-fed men never revolt. Poverty-stricken men have all to gain, and nothing to lose, by riot and revolution.   ” There is a time, I take it and such is the present, a time of exceptional depression when it is necessary for men, particularly for the working classes, to speak out in strong language as to the demands of their fellows ; and I contend it would be immoral, cowardly, and criminal to the last degree if I, having what little power I possess to interpret the wishes of my fellow-workers, were not to use every public occasion for ventilating the grievances of those who, from no fault of their own, are unable to ventilate them themselves. “That meeting of 8th February called the attention of the people of Great Britain to this fact that below the upper and middle strata of society there were millions of people living hard, degraded lives men who were forced to live as they do, but who would, if possible, work and live virtuous lives men who through the unequal distribution of wealth are consigned to the criminal classes, and women into the enormous army of prostitutes, whom we see in the streets of our large cities.   “And, as an artisan, I cannot see poor, puny, little babes sucking empty breasts, and honest men walking the streets for four months at a time I cannot hear of women of the working classes being compelled to prostitution to earn a livelihood I cannot see these things without being moved not only to strong language, but to strong action, if necessary. ” Society journals demand our imprisonment. Why? Because £1,000 worth of windows have been broken. But how about the sacred human lives that have been, and are, degraded and blighted by the present system of capitalism? ” I am prepared to stand by what I said on that day. If I go to prison (as I think very doubtful) I shall serve my cause, as Mr. Champion has said, as well inside the prison as out. “The word prison has no particular terrors for me. Through the present system of society life has lost all its charm, and a hungry man said truly (as Isaiah said in the Holy Book) that there was a time in the history of our lives when it was better to die in prison, or better to die righting than to die starving.   “As the holy man said of old, so millions of men are thinking at the present moment; and if the governing classes want to bring on a revolution by force, such as has been mentioned by the counsel for the prosecution, they will find it come more speedily, and with more violence, if they deny to the poor men of England (who are too poor to pay for halls) the right to express their grievances and opinions in public meetings in the open air, and I would ask the jury, as they are for the moment the guardians of the right of free speech, as they have an opportunity in the present instance of laying down a good or bad precedent, I ask them in the interests of justice, particularly in the interests of the great mass of poverty-stricken men and women in this country, not to allow this opportunity to pass without stigmatising by their verdict as absurd, stupid, and frivolous, the prosecution that has been brought against us by Her Majesty’s Government.”

On the jury returning to the Court, the foreman said they acquitted Messrs. Hyndman and Williams, and with regard to the other two defendants, he was desired to say the jury are of opinion that the language of Messrs. Burns and Champion was highly inflammatory, and greatly to be condemned ; but on the whole of the facts laid before them, they acquitted those two defendants of seditious intent. The Judge: “That, gentlemen, is a verdict of ‘Not Guilty.'”

So the SDF leaders walked… But the government hadn’t finished with the socialists, and was to get its revenge a year and a half later, on Bloody Sunday, in November 1887, when a socialist-radical demonstration was outnumbered and heavily battered by the police, causing two deaths, and proving to many that the revolution was not just around the corner, as some had thought…

John Burns went on to leave the SDF, and became a Liberal MP and then a government minister in 1905 (the second working class minister); he resigned in protest at the entry of Britain into World War 1 in 1914 and left politics.

HM Hyndman led the SDF for the next 20 years, mixing dogmatic Marxism with nationalist and militaristic tosh, until he was ousted from the British Socialist Party (the SDF’s successor) after jingoistically supporting World War 1.

HH Champion, an ex-army officer, left the SDF in 1889, became a founder of the Independent Labour Party, but emigrated to Australia and worked as a journalist.

Jack Williams remained an SDF member and served on its executive, being mostly involved in unemployed organization. He died in 1917, having never recovered from his childhood in workhouses and time spent in prison for socialist agitation.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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