Public meetings held in the open used to be one of the main venues of propaganda and winning converts in the early socialist movement. Local ‘speakers corners’ were to be found in many working class areas, in London’s inner city areas and later suburbs. But larger demonstrations and rallies obviously targeted more central meeting places, nearer to the centres of power of the state. Of these, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park were favourite rallying places in the 19th century, as they still are today.
But the government feared and hated large demonstrations of working class people thronging the centre of the capital, and discussing dangerous and subversive ideas…. The police were regularly ordered to prevent demonstrations and meetings. In the 1850s Hyde Park, in particular Speakers Corner, was the centre of a fierce fight for the right to assemble and speak, a right which was eventually won.
But if Hyde Park was a bit farther from Parliament and power, allowing meetings in Trafalgar Square was felt to be too dangerous, from the 1840s, when it opened, but especially after a mass meeting there in February 1886 led to riots and looting in the West End. In November 1887 government and police determination to keep the plebs out of the Square would lead to a traumatic and violent episode of repression – Bloody Sunday.
Unemployed processions and meetings in Trafalgar Square in October 1887 would again (as In February 1886) led to violent events – but this time, however, the authorities were not about to allow a repeat of the looting and rioting of a year and a half earlier. 1887 was a year of deep recession; large numbers were out of work and in the latter part of the year seasonal layoffs made people’s situation worse.
“Of the misery here in London I do not think even you can form a faint conception” Eleanor Marx wrote to her sister,”Thousands who usually can just keep going at any rate during the first months of the winter are this year starving…”
Groups of unemployed had taken to gathering in the square daily, and had begun to form precession from there, carrying black flags, through the West End, sometimes down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey.
According to socialist leader William Morris’s diary, on October 14th, a Black flag-led procession to the Lord Mayor was dispersed by police; (the same day, a joint meeting in Trafalgar Square protested against the sentence on the Chicago Anarchists).
On October 16th, a Sunday, the unemployed paraded at Westminster Abbey.
Between October 16th and November 3rd, Socialists and the unemployed met in Trafalgar Square almost every day.
Trafalgar Square had been built in the 1840s, and had been contested by the authorities and radical crowds ever since. But the government and the police now insisted that Trafalgar Square was Crown property and that the right of meeting there did not exist.
On October 17th, another Unemployed deputation in Trafalgar Square was cleared by charges of mounted police, after a struggle. Socialists spoke to the crowds.
On the 18th, Trafalgar Square was again cleared; there were also disturbances in Hyde Park.
The 19th saw Trafalgar Square cleared by police again.
On the 20th, a deputation went to the home Office, to protest the actions of the police, and to demand a bill to introduce an eight hours working day, measures for ‘outdoor relief’ (benefits) for the unemployed, and public works to employ 10,000 men. A crowd following the deputation was itself attacked by police at Piccadilly.
On 23rd October 1887 400-600 unemployed managed to elude large numbers of police and Grenadier Guards and invade the Abbey demanding charity. Police Commissioner Charles Warren ordered police to detain anyone trying anything similar the following weekend…
On November 3rd, a meeting of shopkeepers took place at nearby Exeter Hall, protesting against use of Trafalgar Square by the unemployed. As the Illustrated London News put it. “That locality… contains shops and hotels rented at high prices the owners of which must lose a great part of their custom by such occurrences frightening away their visitors at the best time of the day… it cannot be doubted that many families from the country who would spend money on London would be deterred from coming up at the season by fear of annoyance.”
The following day, the police again cleared Trafalgar Square, making two arrests, and seizing a red flag taken.
On November 6th, a meeting in the Square in the morning was banned, but an afternoon meeting allowed.
On November 8th, Police Commissioner Charles Warren issued an order prohibiting all public meetings and speeches in Trafalgar Square, on the grounds that it was Crown property.
This spurred an alliance between elements of the Radical clubs and the socialists. Reynolds News and the Pall Mall Gazette, the leading Liberal-radical magazines of the time, championed the cause of free speech and denounced polices ‘excesses’. William Morris wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette on November 10th, proposing the formation of a Law and Liberty League to defend the rights of free speech.
This was supported by the Metropolitan Radical Association, elements of the Secularist leadership, including Annie Besant, and Irish Home Rule supporters… A call went out, sponsored by the Irish groups and the Radicals, for a large demo to the Square on Sunday 13th November, to protest coercion in Ireland and the prison mistreatment of Irish MP O’Brien, and to assert the right of free speech and assembly in the Square.
On the 11th, an English Land Restoration League meeting in the Square led to arrests.
On the 12th Police Commissioner Warren announced he had banned the Irish coercion procession from entering the Square the next day. But the organisers planned to go ahead, with a rally to take place in the Square at 4pm.
On the 13th, huge crowds attended the demonstration. Irish Londoners came in their thousands. The SDF, Socialist League and other groups supported several marches assembling at various meetings points, including several in East London. William Morris and Annie Besant addressed one contingent, numbering around 5000 or 6000, which gathered at Clerkenwell green, long a public meeting point for radicals and workers’ protests. There were many red flags and caps of liberty in the Clerkenwell contingent, which numbered “Most of those who joined the Clerkenwell contingent,” recorded a Times reporter, “had the appearance of respectable artisans … in the most cases neatly dressed … they assembled without noise or disorder.”
However, the authorities had fully prepared their forces to prevent Trafalgar Square being re-appropriated. Approachable from many directions (especially the east) only by marching in narrow files, far from the working class areas, Trafalgar Square was easily defended in numbers, especially if you seized it in force. Sir Charles Warren had turned the Square into a fortified stronghold by 9 in the morning. 4000 police, 300 on horseback, were supplemented by soldiers – 300 from the Grenadier Guards and 350 Life Guards of the Household Brigade. The main force of foot police and soldiers lined the sunken area of the Square; squads of mounted and foot police guarded every approach. Extreme violence was used to disperse the demonstrators.
The Clerkenwell contingent marched from Clerkenwell Green, along Theobald’s Road, Hart Street, across Oxford Street to Seven Dials: here they were attacked, beaten up and dispersed by the police before reaching St. Martin’s Lane:
“It was all over in a few minutes: our comrades fought valiantly, but they had not learned how to stand and turn their column into a line, or to march on to the front…. The police struck right and left like what they were, soldiers attacking an enemy…. The band instruments were captured, the banners and flags destroyed, there was no rallying point and no possibility of rallying and all that the people composing our once strong column. could do was to struggle into the Square as helpless units…”
Morris himself was in the centre of this group. The Socialist League banner was seized from the hands of one Mrs Taylor who was holding it; flags and musical instruments grabbed and destroyed.
The western contingent had already marched without incident from Paddington and Notting Hill, their flags and banners fluttering and their own bands playing. At the Haymarket they too were stopped and found themselves embroiled in a street melee, attacked by police who had been concealed in the theatres, who were determined to allow no demonstrator near the square. Some marchers did inveigle their way into Trafalgar Square, where a vicious street fight continued all day.
Another march from Rotherhithe and Bermondsey was attacked as they approached the Strand. This section was forced into Wellington Street and into Covent Garden.
An 8000-strong march from South London (uniting processions from Peckham, Bermondsey, Deptford and Battersea) marched over Westminster Bridge and via Parliament Square. They were attacked by Big Ben, the police attacking with their staves and demonstrators using their flag and banner poles, as well as lengths of gas pipe, oyster knives and iron bars to defend themselves.
Eleanor Marx wrote:
“I have never seen anything like the brutality of the police; the Germans and Austrians, who know what police brutality can be. have said the same to me…. I was in the thick of the fight at Parliament Street, and afterwards in Northumberland Avenue I got pretty roughly used myself My cloak and hat (which I’ll show you) are torn to shreds; I have a bad blow across the arm from a policeman’s baton…”
They fought their way up Parliament Street and around 400 reached the southern end of the Square.
At four o’clock, Warren still held the Square but at that moment 400 men led by John Burns (later ILP MP for Battersea) and the socialist MP Robert Cunninghame Graham (North-West Lanarkshire) attempted to march into the Square, and made a strike for Nelson’s Column.
Cunninghame Graham and John Burns were arrested and Graham’s head was cut open.
Both Graham and Burns, surrounded by police and standing still, were violently beaten up by their captors. Graham’s wife noted they ‘stood perfectly quiet to be murdered’ and a witness in the nearby Morley’s Hotel (the site of South Africa House), Sir Edward Reed MP, confirmed the unnecessary force used, which amounted to assault by police officers.
“After Mr Graham’s arrest was complete one policeman after another, two certainly, but I think no more, stepped up from behind and struck him on the head from behind with a violence and brutality that were shocking to behold. Even after this, and when some five or six other police were dragging him into the Square, another from behind seized him most needlessly by the hair… and dragged his head back, and in that condition he was forced forward many yards.” (Sir Edward Reed MP)
At this point 150 Life Guards rode into the Square ,with a magistrate, who read the Riot Act. Soldiers with their bayonets also entered the Square. They were jeered at by the crowd but the soldiers pushed protesters into the police who pushed them back against the rifle butts of the soldiers. Other mounted troops rode up from Whitehall, as police repeatedly charged the southern end of the Square to clear it.
“The tops of the houses and hotels were crowded with well-dressed women who clapped their hands and cheered with delight when some miserable and half-starved working man was knocked down and trodden under foot. This I saw as I stood on almost the identical spot where a few weeks ago the Government unveiled the statue of Gordon. . . . We are so completely accustomed to bow the knee before wealth and riches, to repeat to ourselves we are a free nation, that in the end we have got to believe it.”
“At ten minutes to five,” recorded a Reynolds’s News reporter, “the Grenadier Guards . . . wheeled down into the square . . . with their rifles on their shoulders, their bayonets fixed and twenty rounds of ball cartridge in their pouches . . . in front of the National Gallery they … drove the crowd … on to the pavement. where they came into contact with the police.”
By early evening 200 people were injured, of whom three died, two – WB Curner and John Dimmock – soon after and one – a man named Harrison – a few days later of injuries sustained that day. ‘Bloody Sunday’ had been an unmitigated disaster for socialism and a triumph for police order. 300 were arrested, 126 summarily charged at Bow Street Police Court, of who 99 were jailed. By the end of the resulting trials some 160 people went to prison. Many of those arrested on Bloody Sunday were jailed with hard labour, with sentences ranging from a month up to one year.
The arrested were kept awake all night in police cells as the victorious cops sang repeated choruses of ‘Rule Brittannia’.
The Times, as ever the mouthpiece of law and order, triumphantly celebrated the defeat of the demonstrators:
“Putting aside mere idlers and sight-seers… and putting aside also a small band of persons with a diseased craving for notoriety… the active portion of yesterday’s mob was composed of all that is weakest, most worthless, and the most vicious of the slums of a great city… no honest purpose… animated these howling roughs. It was simple love of disorder, hope of plunder, and the revolt of dull brutality against the rule of law…”
Crucially the paper hit on the central point at issue – control of the central space of the city could not be ceded to working people: “If this meeting had been permitted, no other meetings, even if they had been held day and night, could have been put down.”
For more than a fortnight, Trafalgar Square was in a state of siege; thousands of special constables – middle class volunteers – were sworn in. The struggle again drew Radicals and Socialists together. The Law and Liberty League was inaugurated on November 18th (“the first organisation in which Socialist delegates as such are seated at the side of Radical delegates” was Engels’s delighted comment) and many did good work providing legal aid and looking after the homes and families of those who had been injured and jailed.
Eleanor Marx, W. T. Stead and Annie Besant went bail for many prisoners; the barrister, William Marcus Thompson, known as ‘the People’s Attorney General’ for his legal defence of people arrested in strikes and demos, took on many cases.
John Bums and Cunninghame Graham, M.P., defended by young Mr. H. H. Asquith, were sentenced at the Old Bailey on January 18th, 1888 to six weeks’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly (charges of conspiracy were withdrawn); a stonemason, George Harrison, accused of trying to stab a policeman, was given five years’ penal servitude.
Bloody Sunday wasn’t the end of the troubles in the Square. Despite the traumatic events of the 13th, some among the socialist and radical movements were determined to keep trying to meet and assert free speech and assembly… Other felt this was to provoke further beatings. Animated debate consumed the radical clubs all week, with some of the prominent Radical spokesmen advocating a legal challenge to the Commissioner’s order, rather than another demo; others, including Eleanor Marx, felt further demonstrations necessary, and thought that the police repression was useful, in that it helped some of the Radicals shed illusions about the government and constitutional campaigning. In the event on the 20th, a meeting did take place in Hyde Park, which the Commissioner had undertaken not to ban so long as it came nowhere near Trafalgar Square. Some 40,000 attended. Most drifted away early on (it was an especially cold and gloomy day) – but a large crowd found its way to the Square, where 1000 special constables, and large numbers of police again battered the demonstrators.
As a week earlier, the police violence on the 20th was to lead to death. A workman, Alfred Linnell, maybe attending the demo, but possibly simply a bystander, standing at the corner of Northumberland Avenue, was ridden down in a charge of mounted police. His thigh was smashed; he died in Charing Cross Hospital on December 2nd. The funeral procession of Alfred Linnell on December 18th, organised by the Law and Liberty League and headed by a red banner, was the greatest seen in London since the funeral, in 1852, of the Duke of Wellington. The Square and Northumberland Avenue being forbidden ground, the procession, eventually a mile and a half long and comprising 120,000 people, went from Great Windmill Street via King Street, Covent Garden and the Strand to Bow Cemetery. Three flags flew side by side on the shield surmounting the funeral car: the green flag of Ireland, the crimson yellow and green flag of the Radicals, the red flag of the Socialists. At the graveside, reached at dusk in pouring rain, the Death Song written by Morris was sung.
WB Curner’s funeral in January 1888 also saw a significant turnout.
Bloody Sunday left a long bitter scar in the minds of many radicals and socialists. In the more immediate, it dented William Morris’ belief, for one, of the easy possibility of a mass revolutionary uprising ushering in a social change. While he didn’t abandon his belief in revolution, his vision of how soon it might occur underwent serious revision. Already, earlier in 1887, Morris had been rethinking his belief that social revolution was imminent; Bloody Sunday confirmed that the time was not yet ripe. He began to feel he would not see it in his lifetime. He was depressed and shocked at how easily a co-ordinated body of men could disperse the larger mass of demonstrators, and gloomily recounted the failure of attempts to coordinate people’s fightback on the day. “I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in concert and each knowing his own part…. Sir Charles Warren has given us a lesson in street-fighting.” The authorities’ response had shown the true face of reaction, and against this the workers movement were not yet strong enough.
‘Free speech’ movements in the capital and elsewhere featuring socialist and radical speakers would continue; in contrast to Bloody Sunday, some would ultimately force the police to back off (mainly because the local speakers’ corners were located was in working class areas where the movement was on its own ground, better prepared and outnumbered the police). Fights for free speech would remain a central plank of socialist life, however…
Demos of course still begin and end in Trafalgar Square – and in our own time serious rioting as cataclysmic as Bloody Sunday have taken place. Eg the poll tax riot in 1990 – but his one WE won, on balance…
There are good accounts of Bloody Sunday in ‘William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary’, by EP Thompson, and the biography of ‘Eleanor Marx’ (Volume Two)’, by Yvonne Kapp.
An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online