Today in London radical history: more disturbances in Trafalgar Square, after riot the day before, 1848

Trafalgar Square was built in the 1830s, after the previous mass of royal mews, stables and other buildings, which had grown up over several centuries, was cleared after 1826. The aim was to have a great plaza with outstanding views of the new buildings on it edge, most notably the new National Gallery. The whole square, its monuments and surroundings was touted as a celebration of Britain’s military might, empire, royalty and culture. Us unruly plebs being who we are, the Square was almost from the first a venue for political and social struggles against these institutions and the power they hold over us. Despite the best intent of the authorities, we still gather there and ever now and again we kick off…

The first use of Trafalgar Square, then recently completed, as a rallying point for a demonstration came on 6th March 1848, when protesters gathered to hear speakers denouncing the increase of income tax from 3 to 5 per cent. A planned protest against the then relatively novel idea of income tax had been called by Charles Cochrane for Monday 6 March. Under pressure from the police, however, he reluctantly withdrew and made efforts to cancel the open air meeting.

The plinth of Nelson’s Column was still covered by hoardings as building work slowly progressed.

Scared by police threats of prosecution, Cochrane tried to cancel the rally, and declined to speak for fear of arrest, leaving the platform to G. W. M. Reynolds, then a young Chartist and a republican (later to found the famous Reynolds’ News magazine). The Times lamented, ‘8,000 to 10,000 persons assembled in the Square, belonging entirely to the working classes [some estimates say as few as 1,500], and the great mass of them apparently out of employment … judging from appearances, not a dozen probably were subject to tax.Speaking of the events in France which had toppled Louis Philippe and proclaiming, ‘A Republic for France – The Charter for England’, Reynolds was catcalled by someone in the crowd (an agent provocateur, it was suggested) asking what he would do if he had Philippe in his grasp – would he kill him? Cleverly avoiding a charge of treasonable sedition, Reynolds answered that he would put him in the zoo as an exhibit!

According to the admittedly partisan Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, just as the crowd began to dissolve “some sleek well-fed man asserted that the people assembled were lazy and would not work”. In the uproar which followed, the police moved in with truncheons flying and a riot ensued. The police now had to contend with a pelting of stones from the Column’s base, after which the hoardings were torn down and thrown. Builders’ sheds were also set alight as a section of the crowd made its way to St James’ Park with the cry of ‘To the Palace! Bread and Revolution!’, smashing windows and lampposts on the way.

By 4pm that afternoon, the police were in control of the square. But as they withdrew two hours later, the crowd flocked back in, pulling down the wooden hoardings around Nelson’s Column and arming themselves with granite blocks from the new roads. The fighting continued until late into the evening, with parts of the crowd heading off to smash the windows of the gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall , breaking into bread shops to seize loaves and – shortly after midnight – moving into Grosvenor Square .

It was 1am before peace was restored, and by 9am the following morning (March 7th) the crowd was back, erecting a barricade in Charing Cross next to the statue of Charles I.

All that day and into Wednesday 8 March the fighting continued. The authorities built up their forces over these days. On the Monday, there had been just 1,189 police on duty or reserve in London ; two days later, there were 2,460.

Despite the continuing excitement, the police regained control during the course of the Wednesday and the rioting began to subside. This, however, did little to prevent 700 rioters heading for the City by way of Temple Bar and Fleet Street. After a Chartist meeting on Stepney Green that evening, the crowd once again broke windows in the City and along Regent Street . This, however, was to be the end of the tumult for now.

By Friday, The Times was able to report that “scarcely any traces” of the week’s excitement now remained.

In all, 127 rioters were arrested between Monday to Wednesday. The names of those arrested, taken from police records now in the National Archives (Ref: MEPO 2 64) are set out in the table below. The alleged leaders of the riot were named as John White (“an eighteen-year old wearing epaulettes, smashing windows.. and shattering and extinguishing the gas lamps…”), and Charles Tothill (“a clerk, aged twenty”).

The arrested, by name, age, with the result of their court hearing:

John Jones 20 Committee for trial (felony)
Morris Paton 18 Committee for trial (felony)
James Marchant 23 Fined 20s or 8 days
John Melvill 27 Committed 14 days
James Durkin 17 Fined 20s or 8 days
William Westwood 18 Fined 20s or 9 days
Thomas Leggett 24 Fined 20s or 9 days
Edward Andrews 42 Fined 20s or 9 days
Benjamin Pemberton 24 Fined 20s or 9 days
John Rees 21 Fined 30s or 14 days
Alexander Reeves 20 Committed 21 days
Frederick Cox 21 Fined 30s or 14 days
Jim Meehan 21 Committed 21 days
Charles Tothill 20 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John White 18 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Read 36 To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Feigle 26 Committed for 21 days
William Hack 21 Committed for 10 days
William Harrison 35 To find bail himself in £40 and two sureties in £20 each to keep the peace 2 months
John Varley 48 Committed for 14 days
William Sudbury 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
Michael Foy 28 Fined 10s or 10 days
Francis Holroyd 26 Discharged
Charles Haskin 22 Fined 10s or 7 days
George Robertson 17 Discharged
Charles Allen 17 Fined 10s or 7 days
Frederick Hinde 16 Discharged
Henry Calcutt 19 To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 1 month
John Head 12 Committed 3 days and once whipped
Thomas Condon 16 Committed 6 weeks
Arthur Fanley 16 Discharged
Charles Carey 21 Discharged
William Bute 29 To find bail himself £50 and 2 sureties each £25 to keep the peace 2 months
William Riddle 16 Discharged
William Mullins 24 To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 2 months
William Davis 17 Discharged
Thomas Read 40 Discharged
George Phillips 59 Fined 10s or 7 days
James E Duncan 26 To find sureties in £10 to keepthe peace 2 months
Charles Godwin 36 Fined 10s or 10 days
Robert Davis 17 Committed 10 days
Nathan Parry 26 Fined 20s or 14 days
William Sims 18 Discharged
Frederick Evans 21 Committed 10 days
Thomas Jones 19 1 month
William Carter 17 1 month
Richard Nicholls 22 Committed 14 days
John Gunthorp 25 Fined 20s or 14 days
Henry Hunt 18 Discharged
Charles Banks 23 Discharged
Robert Holmes 18 Discharged
James Simbilcock?? 42 Discharged
Charles Davis 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
George Peck 21 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Lucas 22 Fined 10s or 10 days
John Sage 19 Fined 20s or 21 days
Thomas Bedford 17 Fined 10s or 10 days
Abraham Ruff 30 Discharged
William Bayden 18 Discharged
Robert Rudland 23 Committed 21 days
James Haggar 18 Discharged
Morris Reasding 24 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Scarborough 17 Discharged
John Harbridge 19 Fined 10s or 10 days
George Allsop 20 Father recognisance £10 for 3 months
William Gifford 22 Committed 14 days
Alfred Wilson 23 Discharged
Stephen Callaghan 21 Discharged
Edward Macfarline 18 Discharged
William Dodd 16 Discharged
Michael Sullivan 15 Discharged
Eugene Sullivan 18 10s or 10 days
John Milton 25 Discharged
Thomas Wallis 24 10s or 10 days
Henry Oxbury 26 14 days
Michael Fitzgerald 17 To find surety in £40 to keep the peace 3 months
Peter Fitzstephen 22 21 days
Henry Stamper 19 Fined 20s or 14 days
John David 16 10s or 10 days
William Merry 19 Discharged
Charles Foster 23 Discharged
William Thompson 21 Discharged
John Moloney 20 1 month
Robert Frisby 17 Fined 10s or 10 days
William Woollams 15 10s or 7 days
James Kew 16 Discharged
William Salter 12 Discharged
James Turner 19 30s or 14 days
William Alias 18 30s or 14 days
James Abbott 30 £3 or 1 month
John St Leger 20 30s or 3 weeks
Mitchell Moore 25 20s or 14 days
George Ryan 21 30s or 3 weeks
Frederick Dorrell 20 £3 or 1 month
William Smith 34 1 month
Charles Keen 16 20s or 14 days
Miles Phillips 18 Discharged
John Hopkins 19 30s or 3 weeks
Henry Roach 18 Fined 20s or 14 days
John Johnston 25 Discharged
Henry Davy 17 30s or 3 weeks
Walter Ford 18 40s or 1 month
John Lewis 28 £3 or 21 days

Following these events, a ban on holding political rallies in Trafalgar Square was put into effect, and remained in force until the 1880s.

Chartist agitation would continue to build throughout 1848. A week after the Trafalgar Square agro, there was more rioting in Camberwell after a Chartist rally in Kennington. Meetings continued throughout the next few months, inspired by the revolutions breaking out across Europe. The peak came with the April 10th mass rally’ to precede the handing in of a huge new Chartist petition, which ended in fighting with police around the bridges across the Thames. But demonstrations and riots continued into May and June and with increasing frustration that their aims could not be achieved peacefully, some Chartists began to plan an uprising

Trafalgar Square would go on to become one of the central pillars of both London and national ‘free speech fights’ and come to hold an iconic place in the pantheon of public gathering points, especially for political demonstrations and rallies. From the 1880s, when the emerging socialist movement, eg the Social Democratic Federation, began holding protests. On 8 February 1886 (also known as “Black Monday”), protesters rallied against unemployment leading to a riot in Pall Mall. A larger ‘riot’ (“Bloody Sunday”) occurred in the square on 13 November 1887, when police battered gathered radicals and socialists, leading to 3 deaths.

Through post-war anti-fascist demos, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demos (eg the Aldermaston Marches protesting against the Atomic Weapons Establishment), the Committee of 100 rallies from the early 1960s, the March 1968 anti-Vietnam War demos beginning here… The list is endless.

Just a few things I can remember from my own time… my first demo in London (CND, 1983); gathering to join the non-stop picket of South Africa House after the annual Anti-Fascist Action get-together to block fascists from November 11th cenotaph ceremony (1988); rioting against the poll tax in March 1990 with a building on fire behind me; the illegal Anti-Election Alliance march and rally we put on in the Square in 1992; a huge NHS march in 1993, where we tried to encourage people to go from there to the occupation of a ward at threatened University College Hospital; the Reclaim the Streets carnival to support the striking Liverpool dockers in April 1997, which ended in a huge police assault, driving us over Waterloo bridge; demos against the Afghan and Iraq Wars (both 1991 and 2003)… the occupation of the square by the Camp for Climate Action in 2009… running from the Square up to Piccadilly in the student protests in 2010…

Not to discount the numberless mundane demos with turgid speakers, us milling round muttering ‘which pub we off to then – the Chandos?’


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.