Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Chartist rallies in Clerkenwell leads to fighting with police

For several days from the 29th May 1848, 1000s of supporters of the chartist movement assembled on Clerkenwell Green. A general order to police to disperse all chartist meeting led to fighting in the area, which spread to others areas of London…

Chartism, the world’s first mass political working class movement, demanded universal suffrage for all; i.e. the extension of the vote to all workingmen (although there was a vocal female element within Chartism). There were two wings of Chartism: physical force Chartism, which was ready to use insurrection if all else failed to achieve its goals; and the moral force wing, which put its trust in the fact of having right on its side and advocated the peaceful use of political activity as its preferred method.

Chartism emerged at a time when the labouring classes were still in the process of being formed into an industrial proletariat; the combination of artisan craftsmen and a mass of un- and semi-skilled labour were all being reshaped by forces such as de-skilling, an increased division of labour and factory production methods.

The two wings of Chartism reflected changes in the earlier and later periods of working class formation, self-organisation and political expression. In the earlier period, from the 1780s to the 1830s, the physical force aspects were to the fore. As previously described, in the Gordon Riots of 1780 the London Mob of slum dwellers and dissatisfied apprentices ruled the city for several days, finally defeated by Army guns and blades as the Mob attempted to storm the Bank of England. Clerkenwell’s New Prison was stormed, the prisoners released and it was then burned to the ground, as was Newgate. There were numerous riots, violent strikes and attempted insurrections throughout this period, strongly influenced by the1789 French Revolution.

From the 1830s onwards, independent working class political organisation began to replace the earlier spontaneous violent outbreaks and became the dominant form of struggle. The failed great syndicalist union movement of the 1830s had revolutionary goals to abolish (or at least ‘level’) class society through workers mass action, but it was intended to be achieved through an entirely peaceful withdrawal of labour. This domestication corresponded more to the moral force philosophy of the other wing of Chartism.

Clerkenwell Green and the Chartists

Clerkenwell was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London and Clerkenwell Green was a central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and frequent clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force.

Clerkenwell was a major stronghold of Chartism from the late 1830s on. In 1837-39: Chartist mass meetings were held on the Green; a local Chartist division met at Lunt’s Coffee House, at no. 34 Clerkenwell Green.
The London Democratic Association was established in 1837 with its main strength in North and East London. They held regular meetings in the area. Though part of the broader Chartist movement they were closest to the physical force Chartists of the North; their membership cards bore the motto ‘Our rights – peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’.
In 1840: Chartists protested here in solidarity with the imprisoned insurrectionaries of the Newport Rising and abortive revolts planned for northern cities.

Local sections of the various attempts to form united Chartist organisations also existed in the area, eg of the Metropolitan Charter Union in 1840, and the national Charter Association in 1841-2. These organisation were however, either shortlived or had lttle real significance in the capital, though London Chartism was becoming strong in the 1840s after a period of fragmentation.

Clerkenwell Green was one of the centres of large Chartist meetings in the tumult of August 1842, when mass strikes in the north and agitation in London seemed likely to break into wider revolt.
Chartist meetings were banned on the Green after this.

The last major period of Chartist activity was in 1848, in Clerkenwell as elsewhere. The build-up to the planned handing in to parliament of the third great Chartist petition involved a reviatlised Chartism all over he country. On April 10th 1848, a mass rally on Kennington Common in South London was intended to be the launch for a procession to Westminster; however, the government was afraid this would be the spark for revolution. Revolution was breaking out or brewing all over Europe at the time… The government planned ahead, brought in 1000s of troops and police to guard the capital, and enlisted thousands of the upper and middle classes to help out as special constables. They fortified buildings and bridges and prevented the Chartists from crossing the Thames into the City and Westminster, having banned the procession. The Chartists most prominent leaders backed down from confrontation, though many Chartists were up for it.

Far from being the end of Chartism, as orthodox histories often relate, April 10th did not see the end of the tensions and possibilities for the movement; London was gripped with the potential for revolt, and mass meetings were held around the capital’s open spaces and meeting grounds into June. The wave of revolts and radical movements sweeping Europe was both an inspiration to many workers, and a caution to the state, which came down hard on any demos and meetings as it had on April 10th. But rallies, marches and agitation continued into the Summer.

For instance, several days of fighting between Chartists and police took place in Clerkenwell, from 29 May 1848, lasting possibly up till June 4th.

Following Irish revolutionary John Mitchel’s sentencing of fourteen years transportation for allegedly plotting an uprising in Ireland, various Chartist and Irish groups organised a meeting and procession at Clerkenwell Green, London, on Monday 29 May 1848 to “demand from the Queen his release”

Following the meeting, the speakers organised the crowd to march through the streets, encouraging others to join in. Numbers of the marchers were reported to have been carrying ‘bludgeons, pitchforks and other dangerous implements’. However, a ‘strong body of police prevented the march from continuing to Buckingham Palace – the demonstrators then headed
back to Finsbury Square, where the leaders informed the assembly that they would
meet again on Wednesday.

The following day, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner issued a notice declaring all “assemblages and processions are illegal, and will not be allowed … all necessary measures will be adopted to prevent such processions taking place, and effectually to protect the public peace, and to suppress any attempt at the disturbance thereof.”

However the Chartists defied the ban by meeting at Clerkenwell Green again the following day. The Morning Post reported that by nine o’clock the area was densely crowded. This time the police did not even allow the gathering to form into a march, but started to disperse the crowd.

It was suggested in newspaper reports that there were ‘no known Chartist leaders at the assembly’ and that the large crowd of about 2,000 people had engaged in stone throwing, “running in different directions and shouting”. Although part of the crowd did disperse under pressure from the police, some activists called on people to stick together, that they could oppose the police; some asserted that the military would not hurt them.

According to the Morning Post (politically, a paper very hostile to Chartism) then declared that the actions of these “deluded people’ left the police with no option but to use their truncheons indiscriminately to clear the Green, which was still occupied by a ‘few men, women, and children, [who] were removed only by violent measures’.

Police tactics definitely outwitted the marchers. The police were hidden nearby and had plain-clothed observers at the assembly to report on any disorder, which helped the police time their intervention. Information had also been received that Chartists would meet at their several lodges and rush out to form a procession. But the police (amply furnished as usual with the informers and spies sent in to radical movements) had lists of the locations of Chartist meeting places, and a number of plain-clothed officers were stationed to watch them. Reserves of special constables and the City police were concealed nearby as backup.

On the 31st May, a crowd gathered again on the Green. According to one report: “in the absence of the conveners of the meeting, who had abandoned it in the face of immense police precautions, “a singular looking being with long hair, a profusion of beard and that ‘air distraught’ which is generally supposed to mark a child of the Muses” shinned up a lamp-post, and harangued the mob.

“When he had finished speaking, sections of the crowd began to make those desperate rushes, first in one direction and then in another, which generally precede a riot. At this critical moment a strong body of the police entered the Green from the east, and forming a line across the open space, swept the people at once and without opposition into the narrow streets and alleys opening from Clerkenwell Green on the west. Strong Parties of police were then placed at all the entrances to the Green and sections were sent to clear the several streets in the vicinity.”

On the 2 June 1848, The Morning Post declared: “owing to the admirable arrangements of the police, no processions were allowed to take place.”

On the following day, the provisions utilised by the authorities were re-stated: “the instructions given to Superintendents are that no processions are to be allowed, and if may are attempted, they are to be broken up at all hazards.”

The policy of the Whig government seemed to be to allow public rallies, up to a point, but to give the police their head to prevent any marches or demonstrations, anything that seemed potentially more threatening than speechifying. Processions continue to be banned.

Here is an account by James Cornish, a Clerkenwell policeman; referring to action against Chartists on one of these days, (though not sure which day, it might have been June 4th, given the reference to Victoria Park, see below).

“The Metropolitan policeman of the 1840s was a strange-looking individual. I wore a swallow tailed-coated suit with bright buttons and a tall hat. The hat was a fine protection for the head and saved me from many a Chartist’s bludgeon. It had a rim of stout leather round the top and a strip of covered steel each side. Then I had a truncheon, a weapon that was capable of doing a lot of execution and gave a good account of itself in those rough and dangerous times…When the Chartist agitation was at its worst I was stationed at Clerkenwell…in those days there were fields about and many open spaces. Clerkenwell was generally a rustic sort of suburb. There were of course great numbers of the working classes who listened readily enough to what agitators had to say about wrongs of which a lot of people knew nothing until attention was drawn to their existence. Stormy meetings were held everywhere and the police were nearly run off their legs in trying to keep order…Those were rougher, harder and coarser times and where in these days many arrests would be made, we in the ‘40s used to brush the mob off the streets and out of the way, the chief thing was to get rid of them…The rioting in London took the form of running fights between the Chartists and the Guardians of the Law, and the man who wanted excitement could get plenty of it at a very cheap rate. Every policeman became a target, and the way some of us got struck proved what first rate shots the Chartists were.

The weapons that were mostly used in the beginning were bludgeons and stone and bricks…as for the Chartists’ bludgeons they got them easily enough from trees and fences…a stake of this kind was about the only stake most of the rioters had in the country!

A famous battleground was Clerkenwell Green and another place I remember well was Cowcross Street. There was plenty of open space on the Green for fighting and many houses in which the Chartists could hide and throw things at us. Day after day we came into collision with them… One day the Chartists seemed to have vanished mysteriously and only two or three police were left to guard the Green. But that was merely a blind. They swooped down on us. By the time reinforcements arrived…the Chartists were giving us a thoroughly bad time. It turned into a massive battle that extended to neighbouring streets, into houses and onto roofs.

Truncheons were useless against the defenders of the roofs but we made good use of them in clearing the streets…there was a terrible to-do that day and I have often thought that I should like to see a picture of the street as it looked when sticks and stones and bricks were flying and police and Chartists were struggling furiously for mastery…we cleared the streets at last leaving many an aching bone and sore head.

Then a message was received to go to Victoria Park “to the relief and rescue of ‘N’ Division’ who were besieged in the church there.” A busy day for Clerkenwell’s coppers.”

Clerkenwell local Dan Chatterton, a Chartist at the time, and later a well-known secularist, republican and communist orator and writer/publisher, participated in these events in his youth; he later wrote he was badly injured during these clashes.

The fighting between Chartists and police spread to the East End. On Sunday June 4th, in Bonners Fields, Bethnal Green, a large Chartist meeting was scheduled, (in preparation for a protest march hoped to be the successor to April 10th). By eight in the morning approximately 300-400 people had gathered. As speakers addressed the crowd the meeting was broken up by mounted police with drawn swords, whose presence and precipitate action did little to calm an already agitated assembly. At least two policemen were attacked in Virginia Gardens during the afternoon in a revenge attack.

In  London Fields, on the same day, a potential Chartist meeting was prevented by a large body of police under a superintendent and two inspectors.

The Chartist leaders had planned to keep up the pressure after April 10th by holding more mass demos and marches, but the Home Office ban, and police willingess to crack heads, left this strategy on tatters by June 4th. The movements more prominent spokesmen and moral force representatives lost their hold on some of the more radical elements at this point. It was clear that moral force methods were not working. A dedicated number of Chartist activists began to meet to plot more direct action – in short, an uprising. An ‘Ulterior Committee’ was formed and began meeting regularly to co-ordinate efforts towards revolt…

… to which we return in this post