Today – and yet not today – in London festive history: the first UK Workers May Day held, 1890

In the late nineteenth century a new layer of meaning was added to May Day, as the first of May became associated with the international workers movement.

For the early workers’ movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action. Unlike most strikes which respond to particular events, this date was set several years in advance.

It is unlikely to have been a purely arbitrary date – but why the first of May? In parts of the United States May 1st was known as Moving Day, the date when leases expired and when new terms and conditions of work were set for building tradesmen and others who worked outdoors. This would make it an obvious date for setting new hours of work. Of course the notion of May 1st as effectively the start of a new year might itself be related to older seasonal traditions. It is also quite possible that for some within the workers’ movement at the time the date had a symbolic value as a time of renewal, related to these traditions. Immigrants to the USA brought with them various May Day customs from their home countries. For instance a Maypole was famously set up at Merrymount in New England by Thomas Morton in the 1620s.

There does also seem to have been a precedent for radical movements to regard May 1st as significant. We have already seen that the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ was published on 1 May 1650. The proposed French Revolutionary Calendar renamed the month Floreal, with the opening day envisaged as a celebration of love and nature. The utopian socialist Robert Owen announced in 1833 that the New Moral World should begin on 1 May 1834 – Owenite ideas certainly had their influence in the US so this may have been a factor.

Whatever the factors involved in choosing the date, the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated. In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city. Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death.

There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write ‘The Red Flag’ anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross, after attending a meeting about the Chicago martyrs.

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris.

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come.

From the start, though, there was a division over whether to mark the day on May 1st it, or at the nearest weekend. Most of the socialist parties and trade unions in Europe and the US were going ahead for May 1st, and many UK socialists and trade unionists were in favour of holding a demonstration on Mayday, feeling it would be more powerful for workers to stop work, and to be in step with their comrades internationally. A meeting in late March 1890, organised by the Labour Electoral Association, attended by delegates of 50 trade unions, discussed the proposal for “a general public demonstration in favour of the legislative enactment of an Eight Hours Day.” This meeting voted, after some debate, for May Day; a resolution was passed that “where the workmen’s organisations were strong enough, all men should leave work, except such as were certain of being dismissed altogether if they did so; and that where they were not strong enough, there should be a meeting in the evening and a petition should be signed.”

However, nine days later, another, larger, meeting, with 94 attending, again under the auspices of the Labour Electoral Association, reversed this decision, and voted instead to hold a demo on Sunday 4th May, beginning in Hyde Park.

Despite their reservations, many socialists fell into line behind this, including the Bloomsbury Socialist Society (dominated by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling), who had previously pushed hard for May Day. Others, like the radical newspaper, the People’s Press, blamed the hidebound conservatism of some of the older craft-based trade unions for bottling it:
“It is unfortunate that this year the English workers could not see their way clearly to falling in line with their continental brethren on 1st May, for which the ‘apathy and abstention’ of the older and richer unions were held responsible.”

A May Day Central Committee was set up, representing the federated radical clubs, trades unions, and various socialist groups and societies. But even when May 4th was agreed on, there were divisions, with the London Trades Council (suspicious of the Marxist links of some on the Committee, and not yet committed to a legally legislated 8-Hour Day) insisting on separate speaking platforms, and on marching separately.

While the Mayday Central Committee was committed to the statutory enactment of the eight-hour day, the London Trades Council in 1890 would go no further than to declare itself in ‘favour of the principle of reducing hours of labour, leaving the precise method to the future’. It was dominated by an older generation of trade unionists who were nervous about supporting even the Sunday demonstration. However, as one of the old guard of trade unionists, George Howell, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green, put it, “Goaded by the attacks of the Socialists and New Trade Unionists, the London Trades Council found itself obliged to participate in May Day celebrations in favour of ‘solidarity of labour’, Eight Hours and other idealist proposals”. Tom Mann, a leading socialist and New Unionist, succeeded in getting round the majority’s opposition to a legal, eight-hour day by proposing that the London Trades Council hold a separate demonstration on May 4th. Hence the Trades Council made its own separate arrangements, including marching to Hyde Park by a different route from the Central Committee’s procession and having seven separate platforms for its speakers in the Park.

Meanwhile, support from the two main socialist organisations was also sketchy… the Social Democratic Federation dithered as to whether to take part. SDF leader, the strange tory-Marxist HM Hyndman, was bitterly sectarian towards anything not originated by himself, and particularly opposed to anything that had been resolved by the 1889 Paris socialist Congress He also held a grudge against Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, who had split from the SDF due to his jingoistic and dictatorial behaviour). In the end, Hyndman arranged with the London Trades Council for the Federation to speak from two of its seven platforms in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, the smaller, more puristic Socialist League, as usual a bundle of contradictions, enthusiastically supported May Day as an international Day of working class solidarity – but disparaged the issue of an 8-Hour Day as of lesser importance, and a mere ‘palliative measure’ distracting from the fight for a socialist society. The League also stuck to the letter of the international resolution and declared they would support only an event on May 1st itself.

May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday: the Socialist League and London anarchists marked the day by holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green (still a venue for a mayday march today!), which attracted a few thousand people. It also attracted the hostility of the police, who hated the socialists, and harassed and attacked both a contingent of Soho socialists & French anarchists, marching to Clerkenwell Green, and women strikers from a Clerkenwell envelope factory, also on their way to the Green. (Polie violence against socialist open air meetings was a regular occurrence at the time, and they would continue to target Mayday events in later years).

The main demonstration took place on the following Sunday – May 4th – and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. Reports credited the demo with attracting over 300,000 people.

There were, as detailed above, two demonstrations even on the 4th, with the Trades Council, supported by several unions (including the dockers), marching up Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park, while another demo began at the Embankment and marched through Holborn and Oxford Street…

The following description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:

“A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club’s excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, ‘The Proletariat Unite’, and on the reverse side the legend, ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay; Eight hours’ rest, eight bob a day’. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians – one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant’s stirring speech from the Socialists’ platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout'”(South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The various speaking platforms spread out around the park, centred on the famous Reformers Tree. Platform 1 featured Miss Robertson of the Women’s Trade Union League, WM Thompson, Radical candidate for Deptford, and John Turner of the Shop Assistants Union. From Platform 2, Robert Bontine Cunningham-Grahame, the Liberal but socialist MP for North West Lanarkshire, Irish land League leader Michael Davitt, and George Lansbury (then an SDF member but later Labour MP and leader) spoke. Platform 3, organised by the Gasworkers Union, hosted several of their members, as well as Eleanor Marx, German Socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, and others. Platform 4, with Bloomsbury socialist Edward Aveling as MC, included Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak, French Marxist Paul Lafargue, and the representatives of various radical clubs as speakers. Platform 5, was also run by the Gasworkers Union, and their leader Will Thorne, the SDF’s John Burns, and several women trade unionists spoke. George Bernard Shaw and others spoke from platform 6. Finally platform 7 included representatives of various small trade unions.

Friedrich Engels reported on the demo in a letter to the German socialist August Bebel:

“The demonstration here on 4th May was nothing short of overwhelming, and even the entire bourgeois press had to admit it. I was on Platform 4 (a huge dray cart) and could catch sight of only a part – a fifth or an eighth – of the throng, but it was head upon head, as far as the eye could reach. 250 or 300,000 people, of whom over three-quarters were workers demonstrating. Aveling, Lafargue and Stepniak spoke from my platform – I was but an onlooker… Stepniak, and also Ede [Eduard Bernstein] on the platform where Tussy [Eleanor Marx] was, had a brilliant reception. The seven platforms were 150 yards apart, the last some 150 yards from our end of the Park, thus over 1200 yards long and our meeting (that for the introduction of the 8-Hour day by international legislation) was at least 4 to 500 yards wide and all tightly packed, and on each side the 6 platforms of the Trades Council and the two of the Social Democratic Federation, though not even half as well attended by the public as ours. All in all, the most gigantic meeting that has ever been held here…”

From the numbers of banners, contemporaries assessed the May 4th demo as being hugely strengthened by members of supporters of ‘new unionism’, the recently born organisations, mainly born among poorly paid ‘low skilled’ workers. This wave had begun in the East End of London with the matchwomens’ strike in 1888, followed by the gasworkers and dockers’ strikes of the following year, all of which had inspired a flush of strikes and unionisation among industries generally ignored by the longer-established, craft unions. Based as they were in the skilled workforce, almost exclusively male, conservative in their outlook and tied to political parties, the craft unions observed new unionism with suspicion. The London Trades Council, created by the older unions, was slow, ponderous and cautious, and not keen to associate with some of the radical elements who were emerging.

The London Trades Council’s attempt at separate organisation didn’t go well. The Leicester Daily Mercury’s correspondent gave the following assessment:

“The fact is that the Trades Council were beaten by their very numbers. They marched into the park in straggling detachment, and all interest in the demonstration had died away and the crowd had gone before the last detachment arrived, weary and forlorn, at ten minutes to six. Thus the Eight Hours Bill party gained a triumphant victory. They showed their full strength, and their opponents, the numerically stronger, never even looked imposing. They occupied the ground first and engaged the interest of the crowd. They had excellent and well-known speakers, whereas their opponents confined themselves to working men orators. Last, but not least, they had a clear and definite proposition to make.

The only Trades Council platform which drew a large crowd was the main one, at which Tom Mann and Ben Tillett of the Dockers’ Union spoke. This was surrounded by dockers, barge-builders, ropemakers and railwaymen. Mann, though he was a well-known advocate of the legal eight-hour day, loyally spoke to the Trades Council motion.

The Central Committee’s organisation coped better with the huge number of demonstrators. At 4.00 p.m. a bugle sounded, and their speakers, standing on the seven wagons serving as platforms, began.”

However as The Times correspondent noted: “Procession after procession came streaming into the park, bands played through speeches and it was a medley of sounds.”

The biggest crowd gathered around platform five, the Gas Workers’ Union’s platform, to hear John Burns, then at the height of his radical reputation, who gave a fiery speech, which included very blunt criticism of the older generation of trade union leaders on the TUC and London Trades Council. He said that he and the men on that platform ‘had done more for unionism in the last twelve months and had formed more trade unions in that time than all the Broadhursts and Shiptons put together. Burns said that although the gas workers “had got an eight hours day by voluntary effort and by combination”, they knew that “directly trade declined and the boom was past” the employers would take such gains away unless they were protected by an act of parliament.

While the main theme on the Central Committee’s platforms was the eight- hour day, it was not the sole one. On their second platform Thomas Sutherest, then Radical prospective parliamentary candidate for Doncaster, gave a vigorous speech against sweated labour. Michael Davitt, the great Irish Nationalist advocate of land nationalisation, also spoke from that platform, urging not only that “the land should belong to the people” but also that, “It rested with the people themselves to send to Parliament men from their own ranks who were really representatives of labour, and the working classes would never achieve any satisfactory reform until they realised and acted upon this fact”.

While the massive London demonstration of May 4th, 1890, received international attention, there were others elsewhere in Britain. These were held in places with marked SDF, Socialist League or New Union activity or a blend of these. Within England, the largest May Day demonstrations appear to have been in Northampton and Leeds.

In Northampton, in spite of pouring rain, there was a large procession headed by a temperance hand. The Times reported that:

Nearly 10,000 working men assembled in the market square, representing almost every branch of labour in the town and district, including about 2,000 agricultural labourers from adjacent villages.

In Leeds some 6,000 workers marched in procession, with a band playing the Marseillaise. At their head was a banner of the Leeds Jewish Tailors, Pressers and Machinists, and those in the march included 1,100 Jewish tailors, 900 slipper makers and 800 gas workers, followed by contingents of dyers, maltsters, teamsters and general labourers. There were also sizeable demonstrations in Bristol and Plymouth.

In Scotland the largest demonstration was in Aberdeen on Saturday, May 17th. Some 6,000 trade unionists took part in the procession and between 10,000 and 20,000 heard H.H. Champion speak at the open-air meeting. In Edinburgh, in spite of the opposition of the trades council to a demonstration, between 400 and 600 people turned out to hear Keir Hardie and other speakers on Sunday, May 4th.

The question of whether to go for a working day or not was more than one of caution and practicality however, and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s assessment of the argument concludes that the decision to plump for the weekend actually did damage the prospects for May Day as a festival of working class resistance in Britain (in contrast to some countries on the continent where it became a huge part of workers’ cultural tradition):

“The crucial matter at issue was whether the workers should be asked to demonstrate in working time, that is to go on strike, for in 1890 the First of May fell on a Thursday. Basically, cautious parties and strong established trade unions – unless they deliberately wanted to be or found themselves engaged in industrial action, as was the plan of the American Federation of Labor – did not see why they should stick their own and their members’ necks out for the sake of a symbolic gesture. They therefore tended to opt for a demonstration on the first Sunday in May and not on the first day of the month. This was and remained the British option, which was why the first great May Day took place on 4 May. However, it was also the preference of the German party, although there, unlike Britain, in practice it was the First of May that prevailed. In fact, the question was to be formally discussed at the Brussels International Socialist Congress of 1891, with the British and Germans opposing the French and Austrians on this point, and being outvoted. Once again this issue, like so many other aspects of May Day, was the accidental by¬product of the international choice of the date. The original resolution made no reference at all to stopping work. The problem arose simply because the first May Day fell on a weekday, as everybody planning the demonstration immediately and necessarily discovered.

Caution dictated otherwise. But what actually made May Day was precisely the choice of symbol over practical reason. It was the act of symbolically stopping work which turned May Day into more than just another demonstration, or even another commemorative occasion. It was in the countries or cities where parties, even against hesitant unions, insisted on the symbolic strike that May Day really became a central part of working-class life and of labour identity, as it never really did in Britain, in spite of its brilliant start. For refraining from work on a working day was both an assertion of working-class power – in fact, the quintessential assertion of this power – and the essence of freedom, namely not being forced to labour in the sweat of one’s brow, but choosing what to do in the company of family and friends. It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour. And, of course, in the circumstances of 1890 it was also a celebration of victory, a winner’s lap of honour round the stadium. Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope.” (Birth of a Holiday: The First of May Eric Hobsbawm)

Two weeks after the events of May Day 1890, this article was published in the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal, written by William Morris, artist, designer and communist. It pretty much expresses the League’s disapproval of not observing May 1st itself, bit spends more time expounding their view of the 8-hour agitation as a waste of time, a mere sop to ‘slaves’. This was their theoretical approach to most campaigns for immediate daily improvements in working people’s lives (though many League members in practice also took part in such work). Their purist disdain for everyday struggles was only one of the reasons the SL never really took off; within a couple of years the organisation had dwindled to nothing.

The ‘weekend’ Maydays continued to be held in Hyde Park for a number of years through the 1890s, moving to Crystal Palace in 1900…

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Some more on the history of May Day:

Peter Linebaugh: The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Some of the history of Maydays in South London (from which some of the above article was nicked.

Other bits were lifted from Hayes Peoples History

Other useful reading on this:
Eleanor Marx, Volume Two, By Yvonne Kapp

Edward Aveling’s account of the organising of the 1890 May Day

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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