Today in London riotous history, 1886: unemployed riot in the West End

On Monday, February 8, (sometimes called Black Monday), the West End was briefly swept by a riot, which began in Trafalgar Square, after two rival public rallies had been held there. The Fair Trade League (a kind of Tory working class front group) had announced they were going to hold a public meeting – in response H.F. Hyndman’s Marxist-jingoist Social Democratic Federation also decided to hold a counter-demo. This was at a time of high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class – the two organisations had very different solutions to the plight of the thousands on the dole… The Fair Trade League was calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. The SDF argued for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Although the Metropolitan Police vaguely recognised that there might be fighting between some of the rowdier elements of both rallies, there was a complacent attitude from the authorities, who allowed both to go ahead without significant police presence.  There had been little serious public order problems in London since the Hyde Park Reform Riots in 1866-7. So 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, (though a reserve of 563 more cops were standing by). District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old, was in charge, though he may have been somewhat past it – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and wandered 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.

One of the SDF leaders, John Burns, allegedly waving a red flag, gave a rousing speech, and was said by a few witnesses which included a phrase that later got him charged for incitement: “Unless we get bread, they must get lead.” Many others, however, later gave evidence that they had never heard this phrase used.

John While, a reporter to the Times newspaper, gave an account of the SSF leaders’s speeches in the Square at their later trial for incitement. His evidence was challenged t the trial, and may have been, er, a load of bollocks… According to While, John Burns spoke first (in a “stentorian voice… which could be heard distinctly at a great distance”): “He declared that he and his friends of the ‘Revolutionary Social Democratic League’ were not there to oppose the agitation of the unemployed, but they were there to prevent people being made the tools of the paid agitators who were working in the interests of the Fair Trade League. He went on to denounce the House of Commons as composed of capitalists who had fattened upon the labour of the working men, and in this category he included landlords, railway directors and employers, who, he said, were no more likely to legislate in the interests of the working men than were the wolves to labour for the lambs. To hang these, he said, would be to waste good rope, and as no good to the people was to be expected from these ‘representatives,’ there must be revolution to alter the present state of things. The people who were out of work did not want relief but justice. From whom should they get justice?—from such as the Duke of Westminster and his class, or the capitalists in the House of Commons and their classes? No relief or justice would come from them. The unemployed too, the working men, had now the vote conferred upon them. What for? To turn one party out and put the other in? Were they going to be content with that, while their wives and children wanted food? When the people in France demanded food the rich laughed at those they called ‘the men in blouses,’ but the heads of those who laughed soon decorated the lamp-posts. Here the leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic League wanted to settle affairs peaceably if they could, but if not they would not shrink from revolution.” The crowd had increased amazingly by this time; I should think there were 1,500 people there—a very large part of the crowd were of the orderly working class who were certainly men out of work, but the large part were very violent in their expressions—the rougher part cheered and applauded the speeches—Burns asked those who were out of work to hold up their hands, and nearly all the hands were held up—then the speaker took up another strain, dwelling on their right to work and their right to live, and warning them not to give ear to the Fair Traders who were having a meeting for heir own purposes; that was the three o’clock meeting—Mr. Champion spoke next—the defendants were in the hearing of each other when they spoke. (Reads.) Mr. Champion “declared that the Government which had now come into power were able in 24 hours, when they thought they personally needed protection from Dynamitards, to carry a measure. Now was needed a measure to protect lives more valuable and of more importance than any of the governing classes, lives which had to be dragged out in miserable homes, and it behoved this Government to set on foot at once remedial measures for the existing state of things. The speaker demanded the provision of work and the enactment of laws limiting labour to eight hours a day, and insisting upon the erection of better homes for the labouring classes at a rent within the means of workers. He also called upon the crowd not to be made the tools of the flair Trade Leaguers, who wished the people to pay more for their food and necessaries of life, in rich men’s interests, and then proceeded to say that if the demands of the workers were not granted the people must be contented to go back to their starvation and to bear quietly in the future, or else they must bring home in a practical way responsibility to those who had made it impossible for something to be done.” Mr. Williams next addressed the meeting. “He now said he was not contented to clamour any more for work, and advised his hearers as men in want of work to regard the position from his point of view. He quoted words from Shelley, ‘We are many, they are few.’ The many were workers in want, the few were owners of wealth. The few were organised, while the many were not organised, and if the many organised and banded themselves together, the wealth of the country would change hands. The people should not care for Liberal or Tory, but should seek to benefit their own class. They must put the fear of man in the hearts of the rich and so obtain what they wanted.” Mr. Hyndman next spoke. “He said the people out of work were asked to be moderate, but how could they be moderate when they were out of work and starving? If the thousands there had he courage of a few they would very soon alter the existing system of things. But what happened? They went away from meetings like that and forgot all about what they had heard. He and his friends would lead if they would follow, and even 500 determined men out of the thousands present could very soon make a change. It depended upon them whether they would drive the middle classes to bay, and if they did they would soon win.” Mr. Burns then spoke again, “he observed that the next time they met it would be to go and sack the bakers’ shops in the west of London. They had better die fighting than die starving, and he again asked how many would join the leaders of the Socialists, a question in reply to which many hands were held up. The men over there, Mr. Burns added, referring to the speakers at the rival meetings, were paid agitators, who were living on the poverty of the working classes. Those whom he was addressing he said pledged themselves to revolutionary doctrines, which elicited cries of ‘No, no.’ He concluded by asking the question, ‘When we give the word for a rising will you join us?’ to which a large number of the audience replied that they would, and almost as large a number declared they would not.” Besides these speeches other speeches were made—Mr. Burns was constantly, waving the red flag—I heard something said which I did not take down; I heard Mr. Burns make one observation which struck me very much, and that was, “We must have bread or they must have lead”—the speaking at that part of the square went on, I think, till about ten minutes past three, as far as my memory will serve; it might have been a little later—at that time I turned my attention to the other meeting—I did not see the end of the meeting at which the defendants were present; the speaking had finished where they were and the people went away, and I went to the Fair Trade meeting at the Nelson Column.”

By this time “the meeting was getting of a changeful character, and the crowd had very much increased—where I was standing the crushing was not felt—the crushing was on the outskirts of the crowd, 50 or 100 feet from me—there was a roar of voices in the distance, but they did not interrupt my hearing—there was considerable noise and crushing in the square—when there was a noise the speaker turned round and stopped and then went on again… when I left Trafalgar Square I left a very large crowd there—the rough element came on the scene then—there was a very large number of real unemployed people there; people of fustian and with stains of labour upon them—the roughs kept very much together, and so did the working class…”

In the event, there was little fighting between the two demonstrations. Instead, large crowds, made up possibly of a mix of the two, ended up rushing through parts of the West End, looting shops, attacking symbols of class power like the posh clubs of St James, and generally ran amok.

A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off to march towards Hyde Park, planning to hold another meeting. The crowd was later described as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. Garbled reports misled the police to believe there was trouble brewing in The Mall instead of Pall Mall, and they panicked the royal family were to be targeted, and reinforcements were sent to protect Marlborough House and Buckingham Palace. Only half a mile away a mob rushed unhindered along Pall Mall and St James’s, smashing the local club windows along the way, provoked when toffs leaning out of the windows shouted abuse & threw stuff out of the windows at the crowd.

Hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club, the marchers jeered in return. In St James St metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. The ultra-Tory Carlton Club windows got put in, as another red flag was supposedly waved on its steps…

Another ‘fiery speech’ speech was delivered opposite the Reform Club, and “three cheers were given for the Social Revolution.” Some posh carriages were also stopped, and stones thrown at the occupants. 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 speeches, from the steps of the statue of Achilles, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley Street and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went. “the crowd moved towards Stanhope Gate… through Dean Street into South Audley Street; a lot of windows were broken in both those streets – Minton’s china shop windows were smashed and the goods thrown about…shop fronts were smashed in and a lot of things stolen—I saw a lot of bread and some rabbits, and all sorts of things; I did not notice any jewellery—I went with the crowd across Grosvenor Square into North Audley Street, and saw shops smashed in, and then into Oxford Street, where there were some constables, I do not know how many, but the crowd dispersed…”

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.

During much of the riot, the SDF leaders in fact tried to persuade the crowd to stop most of what they were doing. They protected a number of MPs and other upper class men who blundeed into the demo and were roughed up or robbed, and blamed anyone breaking windows for bringing the demo into disrepute… This abject behaviour did however get four of the SDF bigwigs acquitted at their subsequent trial

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.”

 

The rioting in the West End of London, 8 February 1886: Looting shops in Piccadilly, London; from The Graphic, 13 February 1886

At Hyde Park Burns had told the crowd that they intended to submit the resolutions of the meeting to the Government, and asked them if they would be satisfied with that – getting cries of “No!”, “Oxford-street!” and “Shoot the aristocracy!” in response.

But, almost contradictarily, the SDF also clearly let the idea that they had ‘unleashed’ the crowd go to their heads a bit, imagining that this heralded the opening salvo of a popular uprising…

The riot did put the wind up the authorities and many of the upper classes. Although the disturbances lasted only a few hours, and did not herald anything like popular insurrection, or even mass support for the SDF’s socialist program, it did reveal a widespread class hatred and anger that many of the well-to-do were just not aware of.

The following day there was panic in London, as rumours spread that a crowd of unemployed rioters were on their way to Elephant and Castle and Borough smashing shops on their way. Shops were boarded up and extra police sent down the Old Kent Road. A telegram was sent to The Times from the Old Kent Road: “Fearful state all round here in south London. 30,000 men at Spa Road moving to Trafalgar Square. Roughs in thousands trooping to the west. Send special messenger to the Home Office to have police in fullest force with fullest military force to save London”.

There was no 30,000 strong mob. There was a crowd gathered in Deptford Broadway – but no riot. In fact in Deptford the rumours were of a crowd heading towards them from the Elephant and Castle!

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: a plethora charity schemes for the unemployed (including some work for your dole building programs), a determination among some worthy middle class folk 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. The next few years saw a concerted police attempt to batter socialist meetings off the streets, peaking with Bloody Sunday in November 1887.

 

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