Today in London riotous history, 1887: police attack demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’

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.

Others of the battered contingents regrouped in the Strand, to be repeatedly baton charged.

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.


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2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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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 SDF 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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Today in London funereal history: William Curner buried, Brockley, 1888, after being killed by police.

‘ON Saturday, 7th, another Trafalgar Square victim was buried with the ‘honours of war.’ William Curner, member of the Deptford Liberal Club and N.S.S., was at Trafalgar Square, got bludgeoned, arrested, and in the approved law’-n’-order fashion sentenced to fourteen days for doing nothing. The inquest is not finished, and so we do not know all particulars, only enough to make it sure that his death lies at the door of the police. The society to which he belonged gave him a public funeral, in which the Law and Liberty League and Socialist League took part.’ (Commonweal, January 14 1888).

In November 1887, the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League organised a demonstration against ‘coercion in Ireland’ in Trafalgar Square. The day became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after a clashes with police left hundreds injured and at least three dead.

Among those who died was a Deptford radical, William Bate Curner. In circumstances similar to the death of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 demonstration, there was a dispute about the cause of his death. The inquest, held at the Lord Clyde pub in Deptford on 16 January 1888 heard that ‘he was stated to have received injuries to the head, inflicted by a policeman’ described as ‘barbarous and cruel’. However a verdict of ‘death from natural courses’ was returned, after medical evidence that he also suffered from heart problems. (Times January 17 1888). As with Tomlinson it is surely hard to believe that the injuries sustained at the hands of the police didn’t contribute to the death, even if there was an underlying health problem.

Curner’s funeral in Brockley Cemetery was a major event, reported in The Times on the 9th January 1888 (although they call him Curwin):

‘The remains of William Bate Curwin, stonemason, of 58, Henry-street, Deptford, who had died suddenly after undergoing a sentence of 14 days’ hard labour for taking part in riotous proceedings in Trafalgar Square, in the course of which he received certain injuries, were interred in Brockley Cemetery on Saturday. The circumstances of the death are forming the subject of an inquiry by coroner’s jury, the case standing adjourned.

The funeral procession reached the cemetery about 4 o’clock. It consisted of a hearse and two coaches and a walking party numbering about 1,000, and was made up of representatives of the Deptford and Greenwich branches of the National League, the Deptford branch of the Social Democratic Federation, the East Greenwich, Deptford, and Woolwich Radical Clubs, the West Deptford Reform Club, the Home Rule Union, &c.

The bands of the local branch of the National League and the East Greenwich Radical Club played the ‘Dead March’. The hearse bore the inscription ‘Killed in Trafalgar Square’. On banners draped in mourning were such inscriptions as ‘Honour to the Dead’ and ‘Assist the Widow. There was a very large gathering at the grave and a number of torches were used while the burial ceremonial adopted by the Secularists was performed by Mr Robert Forder. Addresses were then delivered by Mr W T Stead, Mrs Besant, and Mr J J Larkin, and a ‘Death Song’ having been sung by a Socialist choir, the proceedings terminated’ (Times, Jan 9 1888).

As can be seen from these two reports there is some confusion about the name of the dead man. The Times report of the inquest has the surname Curner, but in their funeral report gives it as Curwin. The former name seems, however, to be correct; genealogy sites have a William Bate Curner in Deptford, but not Curwin. Also the name Curner is used elsewhere – in the Socialist League’s report (below), and in E.P Thompson’s biography of William Morris (Romantic to Revolutionary).

Morris wasn’t at the funeral but he did write the Death Song which closed it – it was first used at the funeral of another of those who was killed in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Alfred Linnell. The line up at Curner’s funeral was quite impressive though. Annie Besant was already well known as a socialist and secularist, and later in 1888 was to play a role in the famous Match Girls Strike. W T Stead was a prominent campaigner and journalist – he was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette at the time.
Robert Forder was secretary of the National Secular Society.

Henry Street, Deptford, is probably now part of Childers Street. Efforts to locate Curner’s grave in Brockley Cemetery a few years ago brought no result: if anybody else knows its whereabouts please comment.

Commonweal, newspaper of the Socialist League, also reported the funeral, on January 14 1888:

“Last Saturday afternoon William B. Curner, who died from injuries received from the conflict with the police on Sunday 13th November, was buried in Brockley Cemetery. The deceased was a Secularist and Radical, and as such occupied a somewhat prominent position in the borough of Deptford, where he resided. The occasion of his burial was marked by a public funeral, and the whole line of route from his residence in Henry Street, Deptford, to the cemetery was lined with sympathetic spectators. Blinds were drawn and mourning borders were displayed from houses, one of the chief. tradesmen displaying over his shop black flags, two with mottoes, ” Honour the Dead,”  and “Let all assist the Widow.” The funeral hearse bore Radical, Irish, and Socialist flags, and also a shield with the inscription “Killed for Trafalgar Square’. A band playing the “Dead March” preceded the hearse, the whole procession to the cemetery being most imposing.

At the grave R. Forder, surrounded by a dense throng of people, among them being representatives of Secular, Radical, and Socialist bodies, read the secular burial service. After which Mrs. Besant made a most impressive speech, in which she urged her hearers not to shrink back from the struggle for freedom in which their brother in the grave had fallen, for in their efforts to make life worth the living some must fall. Let them go from the grave the more determined than ever to carry on the fight for which, he had given his life. Mr. Stead followed with a most fervid speech, and speaking as a Christian at the grave of an Atheist dwelt on the necessity for the sinking of mere minor differences of opinion: the cause of the people was the cause of humanity, and all its lovers would unite for the overthrow of its enemies.

Mr. Larkin then made a brief speech, and the choir of the Socialist League brought the proceedings to a close by singing William Morris’s ” Death Song,” written to commemorate the death and burial of Linnell.

This is the second public funeral that has taken place within a month, the dead in each case being martyrs to the cause of freedom of speech. How many more are to be sacrificed ere “liberty the parent of truth” shall triumph?”

Good question – still waiting on the answer…

The majority of this post was lifted from our good friends at Transpontine (hope they don’t mind…)


Appendix: William Morris’s Death Song

As noted above, written by socialist poet and artist William Morris, for the funeral of Alfred Linnell. Linnell was not in fact killed at Bloody Sunday, but was beaten by police a week later, on November 20th, in further clashes in Trafalgar Square as radicals attempted to re-establish public meetings there.

Linnell was buried in a huge radical/socialist funeral in December 1887, which tens of thousands attended, and Morris was one of the orators. he later led the crowd in singing the Death Song.

What cometh here from west to east awending?
And who are these, the marchers stern and slow?
We bear the message that the rich are sending
Aback to those who bade them wake and know.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

We asked them for a life of toilsome earning,
They bade us bide their leisure for our bread;
We craved to speak to tell our woeful learning;
We come back speechless, bearing back our dead.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

They will not learn; they have no ears to hearken.
They turn their faces from the eyes of fate;
Their gay-lit halls shut out the skies that darken.
But, lo! this dead man knocking at the gate.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

Here lies the sign that we shall break our prison;
Amidst the storm he won a prisoner’s rest;
But in the cloudy dawn the sun arisen
Brings us our day of work to win the best.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

EP Thompson’s book gives a good account of Linnell’s funeral.


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s legal history: trial of SDF leaders for incitement to riot ends in acquittal, 1886.

On 8 February 1886 a rally was held in Trafalgar Square, organised by the ‘Fair Trade League’ (a kind of tory front aimed at recruiting the working class), calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. At this time there was relatively high unemployment, due to a trade recession. The radical-cum-Marxist-cum-jingoist Social Democratic Federation resolved to hold a meeting to oppose the rally, arguing for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Workers should join the socialist movement, not the Conservative Party (Unashamedly brushing under the carpet the unpleasant fact that the SDF had taken money from the Tories just the previous year to stand several candidates in the general election, with the aim of splitting the liberal vote).

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, and a reserve of 563 men standing by, and District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old in charge. Walker may not have been up to the task – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and disappeared 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. A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off marching towards Hyde Park. The crowd was later reckoned as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. The march took them past various clubs and aristocratic hang-outs, where toffs and club servants slinging abuse & chucking shoes and nail brushes out of the windows out of the windows, led to the clubs being stoned by the crowd in return. The unemployed were hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club and jeered in return. In St James St they metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. 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 inflammatory round of speeches, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley St and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went.

In the aftermath of the riot, a public panic swept respectable London; rumours flew on the following day that whole armies of the poor were marching from the East End or Deptford, whole areas of London saw shops putting up their shutters…

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: charity schemes for the unemployed, a determination 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.

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.

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. What they desired was to discountenance the Fair Traders, and to repudiate their claims to the leadership of working-class opinion.   But they had so roused the indignation of the people that the jeering of the club habitue’s had been like applying a torch to a mass of gunpowder. And there was a very serious danger that the authorities would punish them Messrs. Burns, Hyndman, Champion, and Williams for what was really the fault of the men who assembled in the club windows, and insulted the men in the procession.”

However, the, as ever, slightly myopic government and police, always more afraid of the influence of radical groups than that influence generally warrants, felt it was time to crack down harder on the overt propagandists for socialism.

Four of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, Jack Williams, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The Old Bailey trial lasted six days, from the 5th to the l0th April. Hyndman, who defended himself, said “had it been necessary he could have called hosts of witnesses as to character, and to prove that he was not likely to aid in looting shops. It was unnecessary to do so, because the great social work in which he was engaged would have been greatly injured by such action. “As to their position in the dock, he, with his co-defendants, really felt it an honour, for they appeared as representatives of a great social and national movement. “The real root of the prosecution was that the Government was instigated by the Grand Viziers on the Continent, who thought that too great freedom was allowed to the people of England, and that it might prove dangerous to Continental nations. He had found the condition of the people in this and other countries was worse than that of slavery and savagery, thus proving that there was a deep social question that had to be solved, and it was to help to solve that problem that he and the other defendants had spent their money and leisure.”

Burns added: ” My Lords and Gentlemen of the Jury:  ” As an unemployed worker, and a Social Democrat, I am placed in a somewhat peculiar position in this case. I expected when I was of the age of sixteen or seventeen that, at some time of my life, I should be brought face to face with the authorities for vindicating the class to which I belong. ” Since I was sixteen years of age I have done everything in my power to benefit the workers in a straightforward way. I have deprived myself, as many of my class have done, of hundreds of meals on purpose to buy books and papers to see if we could not by peaceful consultation, by deliberate and calm organisation, do what I am inclined to think the middle and upper classes by their neglect, apathy, and indifference, will compel artisans to do otherwise than peacefully. ” I plead ‘ Not Guilty,’ my Lord, to the charge of sedition, particularly to the charge of seditious conspiracy. I plead not guilty, not to deny the words I used on 8th February, or any other words I ever used, but simply because the language I used on that occasion had no guilt or sedition in it. I expressed the virtuous indignation against the misery and injustice of a man who had from his earliest infancy up to the present moment struggled and worked hard to support his wife and an aged mother, both of whom would instantly repudiate me if I were to go back from one single statement that I made on 8th February. I pointed out the steps that were necessary for a peaceful solution of the difficulties which the industrial classes have to encounter, and which press so hardly on the lower classes of society as they are falsely called. I pointed out how the unequal incidence of taxation pressed upon shopkeepers and others, and how the capitalists and the rich were able to tide over the difficulties. “Against this system of society I frankly confess I am a rebel, because society has outlawed me. I have protested against this state of society by which at present one and a half millions of our fellow-countrymen, adult males, are starving starving because they have not work to do. ” I had very strong feelings upon this matter of the unemployed, particularly on the day in question, when we were brought face to face with men who for month after month had trod the street in search of work, with men whom I knew were honest ; whose only crime was that they let the idler enjoy that which the producer alone should have not loafers and thieves but the real unemployed of our nation city. Talk about strong language! I contend my language was mild when you consider the usage they have received, and that the patience, under severe provocation, displayed by the workers, is almost slavish and cowardly. “Now what have we done? We have pursued the same course for the last five years. These are remarkable defendants who stand in this box. “There must be some unusual agitation to prompt one of the idle classes like Mr. Champion, a skilled artisan like myself, an unskilled labourer like Mr. Williams, and a middle-class man like Mr. Hyndman, to stand in this box for one simple cause. There must be something unusual to bring us here. ” We have gained nothing by this agitation; on the contrary, we have lost what material well-being we had, and we come before you not as paid agitators pecuniarily interested in creating riots, tumults, and disturbances, but men anxious to change the exist- ing system of society to one in which men should receive the full value of their labour, in which society will be regarded as something more than a few titled non-producers who take the whole of the wealth which the useful workers alone produce. “We are indicted for seditious conspiracy. If it were not so serious a charge in itself, it would be enough to raise a smile. Seditious conspiracy! Why, if there is one thing that the Whigs, Radicals, and the Tory Party accuse us of it is this that we have brought these questions and we are the first who have done it into the open street! When we are again accused of conspiracy it will be when all open methods of securing redress have been tried and have failed. ” If you want to remove the cause of seditious speeches you must prevent us from having to hear, as we hear to-day, of hungry, poverty-stricken men who from no fault of their own are compelled to be out of work, who are fit subjects for revolutionary appeals. If you want to remove a seditious agitation, as it is called, you must remove, not the effect, but the cause of such agitation. ” We are not responsible for the riots; it is society that is responsible, and instead of the Attorney-General drawing up indictments against us, he should be drawing up indictments against society, which is responsible for neglecting the means at its command. ” I have not one single word of regret to utter for the part I have taken in this agitation. If my language was strong, the occasion demanded strong language. I say we cannot have in England, as we have to-day, five millions living on the verge of pauperism without gross discontent. Well-fed men never revolt. Poverty-stricken men have all to gain, and nothing to lose, by riot and revolution.   ” There is a time, I take it and such is the present, a time of exceptional depression when it is necessary for men, particularly for the working classes, to speak out in strong language as to the demands of their fellows ; and I contend it would be immoral, cowardly, and criminal to the last degree if I, having what little power I possess to interpret the wishes of my fellow-workers, were not to use every public occasion for ventilating the grievances of those who, from no fault of their own, are unable to ventilate them themselves. “That meeting of 8th February called the attention of the people of Great Britain to this fact that below the upper and middle strata of society there were millions of people living hard, degraded lives men who were forced to live as they do, but who would, if possible, work and live virtuous lives men who through the unequal distribution of wealth are consigned to the criminal classes, and women into the enormous army of prostitutes, whom we see in the streets of our large cities.   “And, as an artisan, I cannot see poor, puny, little babes sucking empty breasts, and honest men walking the streets for four months at a time I cannot hear of women of the working classes being compelled to prostitution to earn a livelihood I cannot see these things without being moved not only to strong language, but to strong action, if necessary. ” Society journals demand our imprisonment. Why? Because £1,000 worth of windows have been broken. But how about the sacred human lives that have been, and are, degraded and blighted by the present system of capitalism? ” I am prepared to stand by what I said on that day. If I go to prison (as I think very doubtful) I shall serve my cause, as Mr. Champion has said, as well inside the prison as out. “The word prison has no particular terrors for me. Through the present system of society life has lost all its charm, and a hungry man said truly (as Isaiah said in the Holy Book) that there was a time in the history of our lives when it was better to die in prison, or better to die righting than to die starving.   “As the holy man said of old, so millions of men are thinking at the present moment; and if the governing classes want to bring on a revolution by force, such as has been mentioned by the counsel for the prosecution, they will find it come more speedily, and with more violence, if they deny to the poor men of England (who are too poor to pay for halls) the right to express their grievances and opinions in public meetings in the open air, and I would ask the jury, as they are for the moment the guardians of the right of free speech, as they have an opportunity in the present instance of laying down a good or bad precedent, I ask them in the interests of justice, particularly in the interests of the great mass of poverty-stricken men and women in this country, not to allow this opportunity to pass without stigmatising by their verdict as absurd, stupid, and frivolous, the prosecution that has been brought against us by Her Majesty’s Government.”

On the jury returning to the Court, the foreman said they acquitted Messrs. Hyndman and Williams, and with regard to the other two defendants, he was desired to say the jury are of opinion that the language of Messrs. Burns and Champion was highly inflammatory, and greatly to be condemned ; but on the whole of the facts laid before them, they acquitted those two defendants of seditious intent. The Judge: “That, gentlemen, is a verdict of ‘Not Guilty.'”

So the SDF leaders walked… But the government hadn’t finished with the socialists, and was to get its revenge a year and a half later, on Bloody Sunday, in November 1887, when a socialist-radical demonstration was outnumbered and heavily battered by the police, causing two deaths, and proving to many that the revolution was not just around the corner, as some had thought…

John Burns went on to leave the SDF, and became a Liberal MP and then a government minister in 1905 (the second working class minister); he resigned in protest at the entry of Britain into World War 1 in 1914 and left politics.

HM Hyndman led the SDF for the next 20 years, mixing dogmatic Marxism with nationalist and militaristic tosh, until he was ousted from the British Socialist Party (the SDF’s successor) after jingoistically supporting World War 1.

HH Champion, an ex-army officer, left the SDF in 1889, became a founder of the Independent Labour Party, but emigrated to Australia and worked as a journalist.

Jack Williams remained an SDF member and served on its executive, being mostly involved in unemployed organization. He died in 1917, having never recovered from his childhood in workhouses and time spent in prison for socialist agitation.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London publishing history: Johann Most arrested for celebrating the assassination of the Tsar, 1881.

“CHARLES HAGAN (Police Inspector). On 30th March, at 4.45 p.m., I went to the house of Most in Titchfield Street—I saw him in the printing-office at the back of the yard—I asked him if he was Johann Most; he said “Yes”—I told him in English that I was an inspector of police, and had a warrant for his arrest…”

Something of the history of the nineteenth century German anarchist newspaper Freiheit has already been recounted in a previous post. We briefly mentioned editor Johann Most’s 1881 nicking, for writing an article celebrating the assassination of the tyrannical Russian Tsar Alexander II.

Today is the anniversary of the police raid on the Freiheit offices and Most’s arrest. Below we reprint the text of his jubilatory editorial…

“At last! “Seize on this one, seize on that one, “‘Some one, nevertheless, will reach thee.’—C. BEEK.

“Triumph! Triumph! the word of the poet has accomplished itself. One of the most abominable tyrants of Europe, to whom downfall has long since been sworn, and who therefore, in wild revenge breathings, caused innumerable heroes and heroines of the Russian people to be destroyed or imprisoned—the Emperor of Russia is no more. On Sunday last at noon, just as the monster was returning from one of those diversions which are wont to consist of eye-feastings on well-drilled herds of stupid blood-and-iron slaves, and which one calls military reviews, the executioner of the people, who long since pronounced his death sentence, overtook and with vigorous hand struck down the brute. He was once more on the point of drivelling about the ‘God’s finger,’ which had nearly saved his accursed life, when the fist of the people stopped his mouth for ever. One of those daring young men whom the social revolutionary movement of Russia brought forth, Risakoff—with reverence we pronounce his name—had thrown under the despot’s carriage a dynamite bomb, which effected a great devastation on the conveyance and the immediate neighbourhood, yet left the crowned murderer to pray uninjured. Michaelovitch, a princely general, and others at once fell upon the noble executor of the people’s will. The latter, however, with one hand brandishes a dagger against the autocrat’s face, and with the other hand guides the barrel of a revolver against the breast of the same. In an instant he is disarmed, and the belaced, betufted, and by corruption eaten through and through retinue of the Emperor breathe again on account of the supposed averted danger. There flies a new bomb neat this time. It falls down at the despot’s feet, shatters for him the legs, rips open for him the belly, and causes among the surrounding military and civil Cossacks numerous wounds and annihilations. The personages of the scene are as if paralysed, only the energetic bomb-thrower does not lose his presence of mind, and is able safely to fly. The Emperor, however, is dragged to his palace, where yet for an hour and a half he is able, amid horrible sufferings, to meditate on his life full of crimes. At last he died. This in reference to the simple state of facts. Instantly the telegraph wires played up to the remotest corners of the earth to make the occurrence known to the whole world. The effect of this publication was as various as it was drastic. Like a thunderclap it penetrated into princely palaces, where dwell those crime-beladen abortions of every profligacy who long since nave earned a similar fate a thousandfold. For three years past has many a shot whistled by the ears of these monsters without harming them. Always and always again could they indemnify themselves in princely fashion for the fright endured by executions and regulations of the masses of all kinds. Nay, just in the most recent period they whispered with gratification in each other’s ears that all danger was over, because the most energetic of all tyrant haters—the ‘Russian Nihilists ‘—had been successfully exterminated to the last member.

“Then comes such a hit! William, Prince of Prussia, the now Protestant Pope and soldier Emperor of Germany, got convulsions in due form from the excitement. Like things happened at other Courts. Howling and gnashing of teeth prevailed in every residence. But the other rabble, too, which in the other various countries pulls the wires of the Government mechanism of the ruling classes, experienced a powerful moral headache and melted in tears of condolence, whether it consisted merely of head lackeys on the steps of an Imperial throne or of Republican bandits of order of the first class. The whimpering was no less in France, Switzerland, and America than in Montenegro or Greece. A Gambetta carried through the adjournment of the Chambers, and thereby put an insult on France from which even Austria was saved by the then President of the Reichsrath. Public opinion is startled, and seeks in vain for the reasons of such a miserable attitude. One thinks of diplomatic motives and the like, but one misses the mark. Much, perhaps, may indeed have contributed here snd there which resembles mere political hypocrisy. In the main the grounds lie deeper. The supporters of the ruling classes see just in the destruction of an autocrat which has taken place more than the mere act of homicide itself. They are face to face with a successful attack upon authority as such. At the same time they all know that every success has wonderful power, not only of instilling respect, but also of inciting to imitation. From Constantinople to Washington they simply tremble for their long since forfeited heads. This fright is a high enjoyment for us; just as we have heard with the most joyful feelings of the heroic deed of those social revolutionaries of St. Petersburg who slaughtered the tyrant on Sunday last. In this time of the most general humility and woe, at a period when in many countries old women only and little children yet limp about the political stage with tears in their eyes, with the most loathsome fear in their bosoms of the castigating rod of the State night-watchman, now, when real heroes have become so scarce, such has the same effect on better natures as a refreshing storm. Let some say behind our backs we are carrying on a ‘game with Nihilists’; let others blame us as cynical or brutal; yet we know that in expressing our joy at the successful deed we were disclosing not only our own feelings, but were also giving utterance to what millions of men, down-trodden and tyrannised over, thought with us when they read of the execution of Alexander. To be sure it will happen once and again that here and there even Socialists start up who, without that any one asks them, assert that they for their part abominate regicide, because such an one after all does no good, and because they are combating not persons, but institutions. This sophistry is so gross that it may be confuted in a single sentence. It is clear—namely, even to a mere political tyro, that State and social institutions cannot be got rid of until one has overcome the persons who wish to maintain the same. With mere philosophy you cannot so much as drive a sparrow from a cherry-tree any more than bees are rid of their drones by simple humming. On the other hand, it is altogether false that the destruction of a Prince is entirely without value because a substitute appointed beforehand forthwith takes his place. What one might in any case complain of is only the rarity of so-called tyrannicide. If only a single crowned wretch were disposed of every month, in a short time it should afford no one gratification henceforward still to play the monarch. Moreover, it is certainly a satisfaction for every right-thinking man when such a capital criminal is done away with—i.e., is punished according to his evil deeds. It does not occur to the jurists of civil society to hang no murderer or to lock up no thief because it is proved that these punishments do not remove murder and theft (both institutions of this society) out of the world. When one has entirely to do with such a subject as Alexander Romanow was, then one must accept his destruction with double satisfaction. If one could believe newspaper writers, then one must, according to their chatter, take it that the exterminated Czar was a real pattern of benevolence. The facts prove that he belonged to the worst doers of abominations that have ever disgraced humanity. Some 100,000 men were banished to Siberia during his reign, dozens were hanged after they had suffered the cruellest tortures. All these victims the Russian Crown Moloch claimed only because those concerned were striving for the improvement of society, wishing for the general welfare, perhaps had only passed on a single forbidden book, or written one letter in which a censure on the Government was expressed. Out of the war abominations which this tyrant conjured up we take but one scene from the last Turkish war. Alexander was celebrating his name-day, and wished a warlike spectacle. He ordered a storming of Plevna. The generals ventured to call to mind that such an one would not only fail, but would cost an enormous number of men. In vain! The order stood good, and in order to witness the slaughter with more gratification the tyrant caused a special stand with a kind of Imperial box to be erected for himself, whence he might watch the storming without himself falling into danger. The result corresponded with the predictions of the generals. The storming was repulsed, and 8,000 dead and wounded covered the ground outside the walls of Plevna. But the ‘little father’, as the despot by preference caused himself to be called, had amused himself cannibalistically. All petitions, all wishes for the introduction of ever so slight reforms which were almost daily laid at his feet, he only answered by fresh meannesses of an Asiatic Government barbarism. Genuine dragonades followed every warning or threat, attempted but unsuccessful attacks on his person increased his baseness to the monstrous. Who is scoundrel enough really to bewail the death of such a beast? But it is said, ‘Will the successor of the smashed one do any better than he did? We know it not. But this we do know, that the same can hardly be permitted to reign long if he only steps in his father’s footsteps. Yes, we could actually wish that it should so happen, for we hate the hypocritical, mock-liberal monarchs no less than the despots sans phrase,’ because the former perhaps have still greater power of retarding the development of civilisation than the latter. In addition, the persistence of the new Czar in the old principle of government must forthwith double and treble its enemies, because in Russia there are a number of people of that sort which has believed in the Crown-Prince legend usual in all countries, and at all times, according to which the successor spoken of only awaits the moment when he may be able to pour over the people a whole horn of plenty, full of blessings. All these enthusiasts are forthwith converted when they see that the new ukases smell as much of Russian leather as the old. Meanwhile be this as it may, the throw was good, and we hope that it was not the last May the bold deed, which—we repeat it—has our full sympathy, inspire revolutionists far and wide with fresh courage. Let all think of Herwegh’s words—

” ‘And where tyrants still exist ” ‘Then let us boldly seize them, ” ‘We have loved long enough, ” ‘And we wish at last to hate.’ “

The Russian government applied pressure on the British authorities to arrest Most (the German government was already on their case about him and his propaganda) and Most was arrested and prosecuted. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

In solidarity, a short-lived English-language anarchist paper also entitled Freiheit was published, reprinting an English translation of Most’s article, but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Socialist Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held. The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech (although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial recommended mercy to the Jury, “in consideration of this being the first paper of his which had such matter in it,” hilariously adding, “being a foreigner, and probably smarting under some wrong, real or imaginary.”

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until they did it again, publishing an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was again raided and its plant seized. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where it continued under Most’s editorship until a few years after his death in 1905.

Read an account of Most’s Old Bailey trial


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s socialist history: a meeting of radical clubs forms the Democratic Federation, 1881.

On March 2nd 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman, a stockbroker recently converted to socialist ideas, and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This meeting (which took place at the Rose Street or Social Democratic Club, an organisation primarily of German socialists) proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation. This grouping would become the Social Democratic Federation, considered the first Marxist organisation in Britain.

The moving factor in the Federation’s birth was the disillusionment of Radicals with the Liberal government, and the growing need for a separate organisation to represent working class interests. Members of a number of London radical clubs had for some months been urging the need for “a labour party which should be independent of the Liberal party”. The idea was for “a non-Ministerial Radical party” to be led by Joseph Cowen, the radical M.P. for Newcastle. But the gathering would probably not have happened without Hyndman.

A man of independent means, widely travelled, a Cambridge graduate aged nearly 40, Hyndman was by nature a radical imperialist Tory in the tradition of Disraeli. He had been converted to the Marxist standpoint by reading a French translation of Capital in 1880, and was to become an undaunted propagandist of English socialism for the next forty years – as well as a major impediment to its development.

The March 2nd meeting was the first of a series of conferences which resulted in the formation of the Democratic Federation. At the next meeting, on March 5th, Joseph Cowen, a radical MP, presided over a large number of delegates from London Radical clubs, meeting at the Westminster Palace Hotel. The proposal to create a new organisation based on a federation of Radical clubs was made plainer and a sub-committee formed to draft its political program.

The official founding conference of the Democratic Federation took place at Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, on 8 June the same year.

Hyndman took the chair. The founder members were a disparate body of radicals, former Chartists, Irish MPs and a few socialists. Radicalism was reflected in the program adopted, which included home rule for Ireland, land nationalisation, abolition of the House of Lords (but not, on the objection of Hyndman, the monarchy), and above all adult suffrage and similar political reforms. Hyndman distributed copies of his book England for All, whose title was a foretaste of the nationalism which was to dog the SDF for the rest of its life.

Within a year or so most of the Radicals had been scared off, mainly by the DF’s complete opposition to the Liberals. After this the DF seemed little more than a middle class think tank. A fair number of such intellectuals were attracted, however most of the 500 or so members were working class radicals. Many of these early working class members were former disciples of ‘Chartist socialist’ Bronterre O’Brien (whose ideas roughly came down to Chartism plus land reform). Gradually socialist ideas began to dominate in the organisation.

But the DF/SDF’s entire existence was to be overshadowed or tainted, as some saw it, by HM Hyndman’s mix of dogmatic Marxism and jingoistic Little Englander nationalism. “A natural gambler and adventurer who delighted in political crisis, he totally lacked the personal tact and strategic skill which a successful politician needs. He made numberless enemies, pissing off Marx and Engels, William Morris, and the trade unionist socialist pioneers John Burns and Tom Mann. He opposed the campaign for an Eight Hour Day as a diversion, and denounced the idea of the First of May as  workers day. He saw trade unions as politically unimportant and their leaders as “the most stodgy-brained dull-witted and slow going time-servers in the country”. He opposed both the syndicalists and the suffragists in the 1900s, and suggested that women who struggled for their emancipation as a sex question “ought to be sent to an island by themselves”. He was a persistent anti-semite, became a violent anti-German, supported Carson and the Ulster Protestants and backed allied intervention against the Russian revolution.’

At first the Federation was a negligible force, with only two branches in 1881-2. It quickly lost the support of the radical clubs when Hyndman’s hostility to “capitalist radicalism” was made apparent.

Paul Thompson argues in his book, Socialist, Liberals and Labour (1967) that it was the publication of the book, Progress and Povery by Henry George that increased the popularity of the SDF: “The real socialist revival was set off by Henry George, the American land reformer, whose English campaign tour of 1882 seemed to kindle the smouldering unease with narrow radicalism. This radical voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness.” The new atmosphere brought important recruits to the Democratic Federation in 1883 and 1884: William Morris, Dr. Edward Aveling, a Darwinian chemist and secularist leader, Harry Quelch, a packer in a city warehouse, H. H. Champion, a former army officer, and John Burns, born in Battersea of Scots parents, a temperance enthusiast who had been influenced by an old French communard in his engineering workshop. By 1885 the organisation had over 700 members.

Some members of the Social Democratic Federation disapproved of Hyndman’s dictorial style and his pro-imperialist and jingoist bollocks. In December 1884 a group including William Morris and Eleanor Marx left to form a new group called the Socialist League… of which more elsewhere…

In the 1885 General Election, Hyndman and Champion, without consulting their colleagues, accepted £340 from the Conservative Party to run parliamentary candidates in Hampstead and Kensington. The objective being to split the Liberal vote and therefore enable the Conservative candidate to win. This strategy did not work and the two SDF’s candidates only won 59 votes between them. The story leaked out and the political reputation of both men suffered from the idea that they were willing to accept “Tory Gold”.

In 1886 the SDF became involved in organizing demonstrations against low wages and unemployment. After one demonstration that led to a riot in London, three of the SDF leaders, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns and H. H. Champion, were arrested but at their subsequent trial they were acquitted.

The SDF was doomed to remain a sect. It participated in the founding of the Labour Party, but withdrew within a year. It suffered continual splits as members attempted to alter its direction or loosen Hyndman’s control and failed; and it failed to significantly gain or keep members during periods of intense class struggle, hampered by its narrow sectarian dogmatism. The racist nationalism of Hyndman and his main support remained as the SDF reformed itself as the British Socialist Party, an organisation which was to be riven by the outbreak of World War 1. Hyndman and a significant minority supported the war; the majority opposed the conflict on internationalist grounds It too them two years to expel the jingoists. The BSP was to form the largest constituent element of the new Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.


Some of the above was shamelessly nicked from writings by Keith Scholey, and

An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s religious history: Salvation Army pelted with mud & rotten fruit by Skeleton Army, Whitechapel, 1881.

Sick of religious fundamentalism leading to murder, rape and war? Feel rage at god-botherers preying on the poor and vulnerable? Infuriated by the vast wealth milked from millions by churches of all denominations… Think the world would be better off without superstition of all kinds…?

…then let’s revive the Skeleton Army!

In the 1880s the growing influence and offensive puritanism of the Christian sect the Salvation Army provoked the birth of the Skeleton Army – locally organized bands of rowdies who disrupted Salvationist crusades, abused and humiliated their preaching and parades, and physically attacked them…

In the 1880s the Salvation Army were regularly attacked when they marched to preach, harass and attempt to convert drinkers in working class areas. Their mission was openly to draw working class people away from the disorderly popular culture that revolved around drinking, singing, smoking, and riotous entertainment and resistance to the police and other arms of the state… towards godliness, respect for authority and sobriety… Like most religious sects of the 19th century, the Salvationists held that the poverty and squalor afflicting the lower classes was largely their own fault, for giving in to drink and gambling and other vices…

An attitude shared by many of the upper and middle class do-gooders, as well as large sections of the more respectable working class – including the chartist and socialist movements…

… as if class divisions, property, the power of the rich and the hierarchies imposed on us all have nothing to do with it…

The original Skeleton Army was organised at Weston-super-Mare, towards the end of 1881. The same year, a Sally Army march to Stoke Newington led to them being attacked outside the Shakespeare pub. According to the Daily Telegraph: “Yesterday morning… the bands issued forth in the afternoon… the largest marched to the Shakespeare… Here the division of about 20 persons, male and female, began to sing but before the end of the first verse a crowd of roughs had gathered round and began a counter chant. At the third verse someone issued forth from the tavern with a can of beer in his hand, and making use of foul expression, offered it to the Salvationists. This was a signal for a general riot, and in a few moments the members of the Army were attacked, knocked down, and shamefully used. Acting under the orders of their captain, the and gave no blow in return but avoiding their brutal assailants as best they could, covered the retreat of the women. There were over five hundred persons present, but not a single hand was raised in defence of the band… One young girl yesterday was seriously injured, two of the men were much hurt, and nearly every member of the band had been robbed of some article of property. All of this took place within a stone’s throw of two large police stations.”

On New Years Eve 1881, the local Skeleton Army assaulted a Salvation Army parade outside the Blind Beggar pub, in Whitechapel, pelting them with rotten fruit and mud. Now that’s the way to usher in a New Year…

As the location of William Booth’s first sermon, which led to the creation of The Salvation Army, this was a very symbolic spot for the god-botherers.

Colonel George Holmes of The Salvation Army, who was a boy Salvationist in 1881, later recalled:

“It was very rough. I remember attending an Open-Air Meeting one Sunday night outside ‘The Blind Beggar.’ Afterwards we marched to our Hall in Whitechapel Road. The ‘skeletons’, directed by Jeffries, headed our procession, proceeding at a snail’s pace and compelling us to do so. Thus handicapped, we were jostled and pelted with decayed fruit and mud. I was only a boy, and for safety was placed in the middle of the ranks.

An enthusiastic Salvationist in our front rank wore a high hat with a Salvation Army band round the crown. Slipping behind him, Jeffries leant upon his shoulders and deftly pushed the high hat over his eyes, whilst wriggling into the desired position. Then, using the top hat as a drum and his legs as a goad, he ‘drove’ his victim in the procession to the Hall. The Salvationists could have dismounted Jeffries only by rolling their comrade in the mud.”

Charles Henry Jeffries, describer here, sadly succumbed himself to the lure of the Salvationists, after this, however, and rose to become a high-ranking officer… His former allies targeted him repeatedly, as you should…

“In the Open-Airs my old mates gave me many a blow and kick – but I stuck fast. At times they would follow me home singing, ‘Jeffries will help to roll the old chariot along’ – and, thank God, I am doing it.”

The ‘Bethnal Green Eastern Post’ described the Skeleton Army “a genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated… These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… the collector told me that the object of the skeleton army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… 

Amongst the skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…”

The skeleton armies usually carried flags bearing a skull and crossbones; sometimes with additions such as two coffins and the motto “blood and thunder! Others decorated theirs with monkeys, a devil, and rats. Another had a yellow banner with three B’s-” beef beer and ‘bacca !

Some of the local Skeleton bands produced “gazettes” – ribald, obscene, blasphemous and slanderous news-sheets. Favourite ammunition for showering the preachers and marchers included flour, red and yellow ochre, rotten eggs, stones, brickbats…

The organisation of skeleton armies in London and the publicity this received inspired the growth of other similar groups throughout the country. Serious fighting and conflicts with the police eventually resulted in drastic repression being introduced to deal with the rowdies in the capital, bringing organised trouble there to an end.

The Skeleton Army however, thrived in other parts of the country until 1892. During those years the corps officer’s wife at Guildford was kicked into insensibility, not ten yards from the police station, a woman soldier was so injured that she died within a week, At Shoreham, a woman captain died through being hit by a flying stone.


As austerity bites, and poverty increases for many; as religious wars multiply, disillusionment and uncertainty, fear and superstition are on the rise… Religious bigots both powerful and powerless try to push back against the freedoms won by hundreds of years of struggle against church, mosque and temple…

But religion by its very nature belongs in the middle ages. Organised faith continues to play a huge role in violence against women, the support of war and of hierarchies and power relations that keep us poor and divided, in the worldwide assault on people’s ability to determine their own sexuality and gender…

Isn’t it time to bring back the Skeleton Army… Not just to harass the modern religious parasites like the United Church of the Kingdom of God…

…but to also oppose the building of new places of worship of whatever religion, to fight religious control over the vulnerable, to support rebels resisting religious control from within.

For a future free from fear, bigotry and hate… from Syria to Tottenham..


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: clashes in South London gas workers strike, 1889.

The following was lifted wholesale from the excellent account by Mary Mills, originally published I think in the South London Record, journal of South London History Workshop.

Mary Mills

South London in 1889 was the scene of a massive strike of gas workers. In these quiet streets workers and police battled while thousands of blacklegs worked under siege conditions until the strike was broken.

The gas industry was changing. Until the 1880s gas had been sold mainly for street lighting – now electricity was a competitor; traditional ways of working were being changed. London Gas Companies had been forced by government and consumer group pressure to cut prices and profits and made to amalgamate for efficiency. Companies were often owned by the local authority but in London (with no unified strong local government) they stayed in private hands. In 1889 the first London County Council had been elected with a remit to municipalise. Gas workers, managers and owners all felt under threat.

The strike took place in the South Metropolitan Gas Company, which supplied gas to Lambeth, Greenwich and Southwark and prided themselves on a good public service; with low prices. They also prided themselves on good employee relations. Since the 1870s there were paid holidays and help with sick and superannuation schemes. They did not get on with the Chartered Company which covered most of North London.

Most important was South Met’s remarkable Chairman, George Livesey. He had helped along several revolutions in the industry. For many years he had nurtured idealistic views. He intended to put these views into practice.

The companies works were at Old Kent Road; South Met’s original works. George Livesey had been brought up in a house on site. Opposite is the library he gave to the people of Camberwell in 1888. These events happened in the same streets we see today, to people who lived in the same houses, used the same shops, churches, parks and pubs.

Gas workers were not all ‘stokers’. Others handled the coal, worked in the streets, were tradesmen, meter readers, fitters. More stokers were employed in the winter than the summer and they were big men at the peak of their strength with more involved in the job than unremitting shovelling. Most works ran 12 hour shifts on and off seven days a week.

Many of these men were churchgoers – deeply respectable, involved in temperance and friendly societies, as well as political parties and trade unions. Among them George Livesey was known as a benefactor, a local Sunday School teacher, a founder of the Band of Hope, local boys and temperance clubs. Both sides laid claim to temperance – it was a sign of respectability and status. Roughs drank in pubs – respectable gas workers were abstainers.

People know about Will Thorne and have read how he and Eleanor Marx formed the Gas Workers Union and won the 8 hour day. There is an impression that gas workers hadn’t been unionised until they arrived. In fact gas workers had organised together from the first days of the industry including a major strike in 1872 federated throughout London when activists were imprisoned. Laws were passed to make strikes illegal and notices hung inside gas works about this. Local union branches probably just lay low. Will Thorne was from Manchester and had worked at the Old Kent Road. He described vividly the hardness of gasworkers lives. By 1889 he had moved to East London and in early 1889 he began to organise meetings and set up a union structure. Individual branches organised separately, gas workers of South London saw very little of him and nothing at all of Eleanor Marx, although she lived in Sydenham.

Some activists were members of the left wing Social Democratic Federation with branches in Deptford, Peckham and Wandsworth – and a social life of brass bands, club rooms, draughts and cards. Union activity spread to South London and on 11th May 1889 a half mile long procession of gasworkers converged on Deptford Broadway with a stevedores brass band, silk banners from local temperance bodies and Will Thorne. They called for the eight hour shift system. Soon branches were active in most works including Old Kent Road (with a paid secretary, Mr Heard, ordering handbills) and Greenwich (buying bills and posters). They met in Coffee Taverns in Blackwall Lane, Peckham High Street and Woolwich; Lambs Lane Schoolroom; St Joseph’s Catholic Church or Three Cups Hall in East Greenwich.

Two South Met. branch representatives attended an all-London meeting of the GWU on 20th May where it was decided to petition management for 72 retorts per shift (the 8 hour day). This petition was agreed to by a mass meeting at Deptford and sent to the South Met. Board. The Manager at Rotherhithe told Mr Rowbottom, the union representative, ‘if the men acted straightforward’ they would be treated similarly.

They met Livesey and a week later a notice appeared in all the works. This gave possible changes and asked the men to decide which scheme – 8 or l2 hours – they would prefer with a ballot for each works. The offer made was complex and detailed. The eight hour system involved a different pace. It was not necessarily easier. The ballot result showed that ‘in all cases the 8 hour shift was preferred’ but the Board minuted that after this there should be ‘no more concessions’. Most gas workers were now on 8 hour shifts and the GWU named 28th July as “the day of our emancipation”. A celebration demonstration was held in Hyde Park. 12,000 heard Will Thorne, and John Bums – with local leader Mark Hutchins, and MP Mark Beaufoy (the vinegar magnate whose Kennington Liberal Party branch had just called on him to support the gasworkers).

Once the eight hour day had been won life returned to normal. A benefit was held at the Deptford Liberal Club, the SDF held meetings at 20 Frobisher Street, and at Hadleys Coffee Shop, Deptford Bridge; their Peckham drum and fife band practised, South Met. Directors were proud to announce a reduction in gas prices following their successful campaign to abolish coal dues and the Star Band of Hope Drum and Fife Band played at the Athletic Club prize giving. Throughout August South Met. fought the Chartered Gas Company in the House of Lords. Judgement was found against them and George Livesey was not happy. He was too busy to attend the meeting of the Local Option Movement but went to the Workmen’s Association for Defence of British Industry in Camberwell, chaired by a Conservative Fair Trader and a few days later he distributed prizes at a Peckham school on behalf of the Band of Hope. At the same time one of the most significant events of the decade was taking place – the great dock strike – ‘the match to set the Thames afire’. Along the Riverside dock workers marched, suffered and won their ‘tanner’. Gas companies and union men watched their progress.

The GWU concentrated on recruitment – ‘a determination to persuade, and if that failed to compel every man in the Company’s employ to join’. They were helped by the SDF with meetings like that outside Christ Church, East Greenwich, where a gas worker talked about socialism, or at the gasworks gates in Marsh Lane which left to intercept churchgoers. A meeting on Peckham Rye called for Livesey to be forced to recognise the union and in September the union wrote to him saying that retort house workers should be union members. The company replied that the union would not be recognised and that non-union men would be protected. Men were sacked at Vauxhall and the union said that unless they were reinstated work would cease. ‘The entire body of stokers’ handed in their statutory weeks notice. Unable to cope and with preparations only partly made ‘Mr Livesey stated his willingness to recognise the union’. An agreement was signed “The Company agree … that members of the Gas Stokers Union shall not … be interfered with by … the company’. The Directors had also resolved that the union ‘cannot be recognised’. All over Britain GWU branches put demands to management, sometimes – Bristol, Manchester – these turned to strikes. Elsewhere they were conceded. The trade press wrote that a major confrontation must soon come ‘in a London works’ and although John Burns was not ‘in the same berth as the anarchist of the Continent’ in South Met. ‘only directors rule’. At a Barking meeting the GWU agreed, with ‘vigorous socialist speech’, to ask for the abolition of Sunday working. Sunday working is a more complicated issue than it appears. Livesey had tried to get it abolished 20 years earlier carrying out a survey with the Lords Day Observance Society – accusations of exploiting workers on a Sunday would provoke an angry reaction.

In times of industrial unrest London Gas Company managements always set up a joint committee and such a meeting was held on 4th November at the Cannon Street Hotel between the Union and London Managements – including South Met. The meeting saw a measure of agreement – both sides acknowledged the need for recreation and agreed that technical problems were the difficulty on a day of peak demand. They adjourned for consultation and reconvened on the 11th with much agreement – the GWU ‘devoutly wished for peaceful working so admirably put by the Chairman’ and the Chair, Mr Jones of the Commercial Co., was ‘overwhelmed by the virtue of the strike committee’. South Met. management did not attend this second meeting and union representatives reported ‘overtures being made by South Met. to the men to detach themselves from the union for a bonus’.

Livesey had declared war on the GWU. South Met. had abandoned moves towards a formal negotiating structure. Between the two Cannon Street meetings Livesey introduced plans to smash the union, reduce costs and implement his grand and long dreamt of scheme for partnership of consumer, shareholder and workforce. He and his wife had been in Eastbourne and on returning to the works he walked across Telegraph Hill. He had the idea then that it ought to be a public park. At Old Kent Road he met Charles Tanner, head foreman, who said ‘the stokers are all in the union – we have lost all authority – unless you do something – we shall be completely in their power’. Livesey said ‘I had not thought out anything but in a quarter of an hour on half a sheet of paper!’. In this he was a liar. This profit sharing scheme was something he had nursed lovingly for years and had only been prevented from using it by Board members who saw it as madness. It was no straightforward scheme but something so clever, and intricately thought out that it became an instrument by which South Met. workers became the willing slaves of the company; happy, obedient, property-owning, non-union men. It called for hard work, conformity and respectability. It offered security. Livesey saw a partnership of company and consumer embodied in the ‘sliding scale’ by which gas industry price and profit was calculated – and originally promoted by him. Now he was to add the workforce into this partnership. The bonus was directly linked to the price of gas; rising as it fell. In order to qualify workers had to sign an agreement to work for a year. Dates of agreements would be staggered to make strikes impossible. Many workers signed at once sending their thanks ‘to the Employers – for their generous concession’. On 21st November the company held a meeting at Old Kent Road for men who had signed (a transcript was published). Livesey told them ‘the orange has been squeezed dry … now is the time to have some- thing more than the mere labour of workmen – we want his interest’. Some of the workers present raised their concerns – what would happen, for instance, if someone was victimised by a foreman? Concessions were made in detail and a consultation structure set up. But the clause penalising strike action, on which Livesey was adamant, remained. A carpenter, Henry Austin, suggested that company shares should’be sold to workers under the scheme. Austin was an eccentric amateur etymologist who became one of the first worker directors at South Met. after share purchase was introduced four years later.

Will Thome said ‘those that signed the agreements were cowards, tyrants and curs’ and he went to Manchester to stay for the next six weeks. Union men did not sign the agreement and within a fortnight union activists at Vauxhall had said they could not work with three men who had signed. They said ‘all the men in the South Metropolitan Gas Works are justified in giving their notices forth with, until the scheme be abolished’. The Board sent this on to the daily papers commenting ‘it has been the rule of the company for at least fifty years that men who strike leave the company without hope of return’.

Before noon on the 5th December, 2000 notices had been handed in and the Board set in motion their plans. Agents had been sent round the country to obtain blacklegs; in the Kent brickfields ‘willing workers’ were being offered a bonus and free food on top of wages – 5/4 for an eight hour shift. The entire staff of Ramsgate Gas Works was recruited – to the annoyance of Mr Valon, its manager; agents were giving away beer in Cambridge. In Yarmouth ‘scabs protected by the police were taken off by train’ but the local SDF branch saw them off ‘with a warm groan’. Barclay’s Brewery sent men, workhouse inmates were told to apply or lose benefit; the Prisoners Aid Society directed discharged prisoners there, Gasworkers on strike from the Manchester arrived – they said Londoners always blacklegged on them. ‘Free Labour’ also came – men recruited as dedicated strikebreakers by politically motivated agents like William Collinson, who wrote a book about it although John Bums said Livesey ‘dropped Free Labour like a hot potato’. Corrugated iron huts were erected inside the works. Food was brought in – animals, tinned meat, tapioca and bread from the Golden Grain Bread Co. Beer from the Lion Brewery was provided — criticised by temperance strikers who thought Livesey was on their side in this -‘this virtuous gent is one of the shining lights of the temperance platform yet he has collected numerous barrels of beer, anxious to make his blackleg crew roaring drunk.’ Success for the strikers would need stoppage of the coal supply. The coal porters union had just submitted a claim to all London employers for an increase but South Met. disputed it. This parallel dispute continued. Another union involved was the Sailors and Firemen’s – with some success in stopping cargoes arriving. A strike committee, with Mark Hutchins as Chair opened its headquarters opposite the works at 592 Old Kent Road.

Picketing began and soon men sent from Mitcham Workhouse were given breakfast and sent home. A party from Portsmouth returned home from Clapham Junction taking union leaflets. John Burns sent a postcard from Manchester ‘Dear Sir, I will render. the strike committee all the help I am capable of to resist this latest demand to crush your union’. He was the local hero – at demonstrations men wore pictures of him in their hats. In very cold weather 2000 people met on Peckham Rye to hear Mark Hutchins say the bonus scheme had been set up to break the union. A lamplighter called out ‘stokers did not get such a bad wage’. He was knocked down, and dumped in a pond.

The incident pointed to a problem. The public did not understand why relatively well paid gas workers should strike against something apparently offering financial advantages and security. ‘People are willing to help the docker because he was very poor but are not willing to help the stoker who is reported to get 35/- a week’. The strikers had given a weeks notice; tension mounted. On Monday afternoon Livesey returned from an interview with Police Commissioner Munro to find a crowd of stokers in the yard at Old Kent Road arguing with the Chief Engineer. He threatened them all with prosecution alleging the reply was ‘can’t help that master we must obey the union’. Forms for summonses had already been made out and by late afternoon 50 policemen had marched into each works ‘to relieve public fear of destruction of gasometers’.

On Tuesday morning nine strangers were seen in East Greenwich and men downed tools until they were gone. On Wednesday Livesey met the Union Executive. Positions were restated. The Union wanted the scheme withdrawn – the company refused. There were attempts at reconciliation by outside bodies. A deputation of local MPs and local clergymen tried for an hour and a half to persuade Livesey Hh at the right to strike was ‘sacred’. He told them to mind their own business. Non-conformist ministers were told unionists had given in their legal notice and were leaving. Later on the Labour Co-partnership Association which had been agitating for years for schemes like Livesey’s as a solution to industrial ills made a major attempt at negotiating a settlement. The Strike Committee issued a statement: ‘the directors will not advance one inch …. we deeply regret this step fully knowing the inconvenience to which it will put the general public …. we hope that all trade unions will see in this a test case as to the right of existence of trade unions versus bonus’.

Arrangements were made for the day when men would leave. All workers contributed 3d a week to a superannuation scheme and would withdraw their ‘lump sums’ – they would have to live on some- thing. The ‘old men’ would leave the works by 6am – the ‘new men’ would come in two hours later. Men at West Greenwich threw blankets into Deptford Creek. The last gangs at Greenwich and Old Kent Road set fire to washrooms. An effigy of Livesey was burnt outside the Pilot in Riverway, and a black fog hung over London. Men began to leave on 13th December, played out by the SDF brass band. A procession of sympathisers was turned back by police who, many mounted, lined the streets – others were in reserve in railway 14 waiting rooms. A train from Spalding arrived at Victoria and replacement workers marched across Vauxhall Bridge. A train from Margate came into Cannon Street at 10am with new workers for Bankside. Men were brought to the West Greenwich works wharf in ‘two strange steamers’ having embarked at Woolwich from trains at Arsenal station.

The ‘new men’ needed to be big and strong to do the work. Reporters had noted the ‘old men’ had an ‘average height of at least 5’10” and were all of powerful build’. Now the ‘new men’ were evaluated, ‘there were many of Herculean build – there were seamen, navvies and raw youths’. 1000 stokers’ wives lined the streets to see the shift out watched by the police under Inspector Munro. The press reported men leaving ‘in a dejected state’. The ‘new men’ left the station and walked two by two down the middle of the road between ‘two compact lines of constables on foot’ to gates where the pickets had been withdrawn.

In Old Kent Road there was a fight at Canal Bridge gate – the Strike Committee wanted Livesey to come and witness police behaviour. There had been a fight at Rotherhithe. Out of a crowd of 100 Fred Cook from Wapping was arrested for striking a policeman on the back. He said the policeman had cut his lip and he had a witness to it – William Causton, secretary of the Rotherhithe Strike Committee. Causton took the policeman’s number to the police station – from where he was ejected with force. Jim Bright of Peckham was arrested for kicking policemen in the legs while drunk – Jim Beaton had tried to rescue him until he too was arrested with Sarah Manor and Edith Calvert for throwing stones at the police. In Blackwall Lane 50 mounted police escorted blacklegs from Westcombe Park Station to East Greenwich works when ‘a lively scrimmage’ broke out. Police said that striker’s stones had concussed one sergeant – a stone was produced in court. Another had his helmet knocked off- also produced, muddy and dented. One striker had been snatched from custody by pickets. Despite a local clergyman’s testimony to the good character of James Parker, age 20, he and three others all living around Blackwall Lane were sentenced to hard labour. Picketing was more successful at Vauxhall where 160 from Birmingham agreed to return. Reports circulated that police would not let blacklegs out even if they wanted – they were pushed back over the wall when they tried to climb out.

The blacklegs were now in the works and the only question left was – can they make the gas? It was mid-December-freezing and foggy. Local people watched the great gasholders at Old Kent Road, Oval and East Greenwich all landmarks in their districts, to try to gauge the success of the strike by the amount of gas in them. Rumour said that the holder at Old Kent Road was really full of air. By morning the fog had begun to disperse. Gas was made – the company was coping. The ‘loyal workforce’ produced an ecstatic memorial of thanks but the people showed sympathy for their striking neighbours. The local papers thought the strike committee ‘a fine body of men’ and the local vestrys would not co-operate with Livesey’s requests for help. Mr Stockbridge, Vice-Chairman of the Lambeth Guardians spoke on strike platforms. Dulwich and Penge Liberal Party passed a resolution against police violence and collected for the strike fund. The George Livesey Lodge of the Old Comrades and Sons of Phoenix changed its name to the John Burns Lodge. At Bermondsey vestry Harry Quelch, SDF activist, complained the street lighting wasn’t safe and proposed they sue the company – it was referred to the LCC. Kennington Liberal and Radical Club passed a resolution against the use of police in labour disputes.

Support came from other unions, the Dockers’ Hydraulic Branch would not lift coal, the Bakers’ Union would not bake bread inside the works. The Sailors and Firemen were ‘still pegging away to prevent coal arriving. 50 men watched from Creek Bridge as a screw collier was unloaded. By Tuesday two ships were ready – one at the jetty and one in the Commercial Docks. Fifty men were sent under police escort to unload them. Conditions were bad inside the works. Blacklegs complained of drunkenness. A foreman left because of the dirt. Men were ill. There were special sanitary arrangements with unpleasant disinfectant – blacklegs were ‘wallowing in filth’. The Medical Officer of Health at Lambeth Vestry inspected works at the striker’s request. There was ale in zinc buckets, and clay pipes. Between the gasholders at Old Kent Road was a marquee with a piano and an old retort bench for heating. The work was unfamiliar and more skilled than many recognised. Men were injured – 150 were burnt and one was killed moving a coal truck. Military ambulances were requisitioned for injuries. William Deny, a striking stoker, got into a fight at the Dover Castle, Deptford – he had taken a ‘pint of ale’ there together with two herrings and a haddock from a blackleg’s pocket. The police found them all in the Rose and Crown unable to walk and buying hot rum. ‘Free Labour’ meant Birmingham teenagers. ‘Not worth the expense of bringing them down’ said the Company Thomas Cooper and John Henny both 16 from Birmingham were arrested drunk and disorderly in Rotherhithe. Disgusted strikers said they were ‘a rough lot who did not mean to work and were busy dodging the foremen’. They said blacklegs smoked through church services held in the works. Mr Cady complained bitterly – Birmingham roughs, too young to work.

Union representatives met Livesey to find he would make no concessions. He would take men back when there were vacancies – he could not discharge new hands to whom he had a legal obligation. The union stated ‘We went out on strike with no object of gaining an increase, we cannot forget the attachment that we feel to our old employers and nothing would give us greater satisfaction than a return to our previous good relations.’ Two strikers entered the West Greenwich works on Saturday night – Tom Elliot (31 Bellot Street) and Tom Jevons (21 Coleraine Road). They spoke to the blacklegs in the canteen ‘why don’t you act as men – it’s through you our wives and children are starving’. They were arrested. Strikers’ families were feeling the pinch. Money collected at demonstrations was the main source of income and men were advised to find other work if they could. Strikes in Manchester and Woolwich Arsenal had to be financed too.

Parades as morale builders continued every day and funds collected. R. Smith of Deptford raised money through publishing a book of poems. Deptford SDF held a ‘grand dioramic and vocafentertainment’, and at Trinity Hall, Deptford the brass band of the Greenwich branch of the gas stokers played selections. Strikers marched from East Greenwich to the concert where there were speeches. Despite very bad weather, Greenwich gasworkers marched all the way to Hyde Park with an effigy of Livesey to hear Edward Aveling and Ben Tillet. They were overshadowed by Mr Weir, a compositor who said that Livesey should not be allowed ‘to live 24 hours – he ought to be got rid of.’ There was a furore in the press and Weir was tried for incitement to murder. Livesey also received threatening letters ‘Note Mr Livesey as you won’t give in and my family is starving for a bit of bread beware o’dynamite your place will be blown up a bit before Christmas’. On Christmas Eve the holders were full of gas and the strike in Manchester had collapsed. Xmas brought extra strike pay, beer and tobacco at Vauxhall Working Men’s Club thanks to Reverend Morris. Blacklegs got extra food, tobacco, pay and amusements. Street fighting continued in Rotherhithe. 800 met on Peckham Rye, ‘in the middle of a dense fog upon turf frozen as hard as iron and white with hoar frost’. What they needed was support from North London gasworkers who had stayed resolutely in work. An unsavoury incident involving the leader of the Coal Porters Union who offered the North London Chartered Company a no strike deal if they would persuade their workers to leave the GWU and join the Coal Porters. By New Year 1890 the ‘new men’ were hardly new any more and afraid they would be discharged if the strike was settled – they were reassured but ‘old men’ were returning to work – coal porters at West Greenwich with promises of future good behaviour. Those still out described them as -sneaking rats, double dyed traitors – the ordinary blackleg is white in comparison with such miserable curs’. Rumours of fever at Rotherhithe led to notices of denial on entrances although five men were in Guys with ‘Russian influenza’. Worse were rumours of lice. Anxious to end the siege conditions the company got local reverend gentlemen of the State superstition’ from Greenwich to find lodgings through a door to door canvass by their Sunday School teachers.

On the 8th January the strike committee were thrown out of their offices. The police came in the morning and without knocking broke down the shutters and windows. Furniture, books, papers and musical instruments were all thrown into the street. They went to a coffee house at 87 Old Kent Road and put up a poster The Battering Ram Brigade of London’. Meanwhile Greenwich branch had a new banner – two figures standing in the road, one a gas worker about to enter the gas house and in the other a capitalist dressed in the usual Mother Grundy fashion’. By the end of the next week the press were claiming the strike was over. A meeting was held at Mile End Assembly Rooms – 2000 men were still out and it was costing £1000 a week, while weather was improving and the chance of casual work lessening. They said they would call on Parliament, people and trade unionists for help – for unity and freedom, and for progress and right. They must appeal to the trade union movement. Livesey could not hold out against the miners and the coal trimmers. There was a promise of a weekly levy from 800 hatters and £5 a week from the glassblowers but the press claimed Mark Hutchins was paying nothing. T. Bailey of the Southern Counties Labour League said from the window of the Rose and Crown in Lambeth that the union was not bankrupt. Thorne had told West Southwark Radical Club that there was only £800 left. Thorne spoke on 17th January: ‘they had come out for eight hours and they would go back for eight hours,’ continuing with more drama ‘they were not going to creep and crawl to Livesey for work, they would become revolutionists – a revolt of every working man in England to overwhelm the country’. Mark Hutchins said he had hoped to be able to announce the end of the strike. They had been to Livesey with an offer but while they were talking the Secretary pulled him away The London Trades Council had been asked to find a solution and on 4th February it was announced that an agreement had been reached at a mass meeting at the Hatcham Liberal Club. ‘That except where mutually agreed to the contrary the company reverts to the eight, hour system – that in the event of any vacancies arising the directors will give their former workmen the opportunity of returning to their employment in preference to strangers.’ The strike headquarters became an agency co-ordinating help for hard-pressed families and an appeal was issued. They were soon to be visited by Livesey with a donation.


Telegraph Hill was dedicated as a memorial to the strike. Livesey’s bonus scheme flourished. It became ‘co-partnership’ and all workers became shareholders. They were encouraged to put bonus payments into property – the company formed a building society. A consultation process was set up with elected representatives to discuss workplace problems and policy. Three company directorships were elected by the shareholding workforce – with the same rights and powers as directors appointed by capitalist shareholders. Livesey fought long and hard to get legislation for these changes through a hostile board and House of Commons. By the 1920s most gas companies still in private hands had schemes like it – but without the worker directors. Following a speech by Will Thorne in 1892 GWU membership was on banned at South Met. There are stories of workers victimised when their union membership was discovered. Although GWU maintained branches in the area membership was often from other trades. The South Met. gas workers’ dispute has been described as an episode in new unionism. This is only partly true – it is about some- thing more complicated. New unionism is about the casual, unskilled, previously unorganised joining together. Gas workers in 1889 probably didn’t see themselves as casual and unskilled but as workers whose status as respectable people with steady jobs was under threat. The union offered them a means of maintaining their identity and achieving some control over it. George Livesey responded by offering his workforce a means of achieving both identity and control. The union spoke of liberty of the individual; Livesey offered them the chance to become Company men. His success can be measured in the hundreds of gas industry employees who still in 1989 see themselves and their families as something special because they work in gas in South London. To quote one ‘I am a socialist, and I know it was all wrong – but it was a very good scheme’. Today workers are being offered property ownership, respectability, status in return for membership of the institutions of labour – which is why what happened in South London in 1889 is something we should take heed of.

A wide variety of source material has been used. It includes archive material – South Met. Minutes held at GLRO, etc, Press sources. Also see Derek Matthews’ thesis The London Gasworks’ (Hull 1983) and Mary Mills ‘Profit Sharing in the South Metropolitan Gas Company’ (Thames Polytechnic 1983). There are detailed bibliographies in both these works.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: More than 300,000 London workers are on strike, 1889.

“The proverbial small spark has kindled a great fire which threatens to envelop the whole metropolis.” (The Evening News, 27th August 1889)

The seminal strike of the London dockers in 1889 began on 14th August, as thousands slaving in one of the hardest, most insecure and worst paid job in London refused to work until wages were raised, minimum hours guaranteed, and other conditions improved. Within a few days the port of London was a standstill. There was widespread sympathy for the dockers, but money for strike pay was scarce. But a strong campaign of processions into the City, calls for support going out nationally and internationally, and effective picketing and blocking of scabbing, kept the struggle powerful.

The dockers’ strike may itself have been partly inspired by the 1888 matchgirls’ strike and the agitation of the East End gas stokers for better wages and conditions… But the outbreak of the strike itself lit a fuse among London workers, especially the low paid and casually employed.

A rash of strikes and disputes broke out in the second half of August and early September 1889; concentrated in (though not limited to) East London. In a rough triangle between the City, Kings Cross and Blackwall, there were at least 50 strikes outside of the docks. In South and west London there were at least another 16.

A newspaper report listed some of the trades that had come out: “…coal men, match girls, parcels postmen, carmen [cartdrivers], rag, bone and paper porters and pickers and the employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railways works…” Not included here is the large-scale strike of Jewish tailors in the East End in August-September. It has been suggested that 300,000 workers in London were out on strike on September 1st 1889, a huge number, which may even be an under-estimate.

There was also a rent strike in Commercial Road in Stepney: a banner in Hungerford Street announced “As We are on strike landlords need not call”, following it with a rhyme:
Our husbands on strike: for the wives it is not funny
And we all think it is not right to pay the landlord money
Everyone is on strike; so landlords do not be offended
The rent that’s due we’ll pay when the strike is ended.

The spreading of the strike into social struggle in this way was hardly surprising in East London, where workers often lived close to their work, in close proximity to others who worked with them, and in dire poverty. Solidarity was a necessity. Many of the workers erupting were largely unskilled or semi-skilled, like the matchgirls and dockers, traditionally ignored by the craft unions of the skilled workers who had achieved relatively good wages and conditions and a position in society. This wave of ‘new unionism’ as it became known was spreading practical and committed trade union organization among those who the ‘aristocracy of labour’ had long considered feckless and not capable of collective bargaining. But is was also confrontational, where many of the craft unions had long settled into a collaborative relationship with employers. The status quo was threatened in more ways than one.

The whole of working class London was in ferment. The spreading of the strike to other trades began to worry the establishment – how many other industries would follow suit? A committee of the great and the good was formed to try to get the dock strike settled before things got too out of hand. The intransigent employers were to some extent leant upon to give concessions in order to lessen the pressure on London’s economy being jacked up as strike after strike broke out.

The bourgeois press of course was largely scathing of the strikes; the language used is interesting, as in several reports the spreading of strike action is likened to disease. “Strike Fever”… “the infectious example of coming out on strike”… “the infection has spread to other classes of laboring men…” Workers attempting to collectively push for a rise on wages to levels they can survive on and conditions bearable to work under are basically a plague, a pox, a sickness. It’s obvious really.

But if the employers were nervous and the press jumpy, the leaders of the dockers’ strike were also unnerved by the strike wave that their dispute had to some extent unleashed.

The Strike Committee’s response to the wildfire of class struggle had not been exactly joy… Far from it. To some extent they saw it as a distraction, likely to reduce donations for their own struggle, and as threatening the public sympathy the dock strike had garnered; they also disapproved of strikers simply walking out without organising in a union first. This they justified by suggesting that unionisation was essential for winning any dispute.

They issued a statement in late August: “We, the undersigned, strongly deprecate the rash action taken by unorganised workmen not directly connected with dock work of coming out on strike without reflecting that by doing so they are increasing the strain upon the upon the strike committee’s resources. Organisation must precede strikes, or defeat is certain.”

To some extent the committee’s view reflected a rigid approach that wasn’t taking account of the strength of enthusiasm spreading through the city. Rather than struggle growing from organisation, organisation was growing from struggle, all around them.

The statement seems to have created an intense debate, among the strike organisers and leaders, because on two days later, they took a step that directly contradicted the spirit of it. On 28th August the dock strike committee voted to issue a call for a general strike in London – not only recognising the strength of the widening strike wave, but arguing by implication that its extension would achieve a victory for the dockers.

It can only be imagined what might have then developed. Perhaps the wave had already reached its peak; but perhaps it might have lit a fuse that could not be put out.

In the end it is speculation, as less than a day later, before the call had in fact really been made, the committee reversed the general strike call. Some socialists and anarchists later denounced the decision as betraying a potential revolutionary situation… It has also been suggested that the call for a general strike was itself a last desperate throw, with the strike committee afraid that the dock strike was on the verge of collapsing; that it was calling for something that could not happen, a bluff that could only be called.

Whatever the truth of it, withdrawing the call did not abate the spread of organization through the unskilled workers of London, though it may have signaled to the dock owners and employers in general that the committee were willing to deal with disputes on an individual level, rather than escalate to an all-out class war. In this sense it may have hastened the settlement of the dock strike a few days later, with the wining of a wage rise. Unionisation continued to spread among the unskilled, though there were many battles to come, and victories were often followed by the clawing back of concessions.

The last few days of August and early September 1889 though, remain a time evocative and compelling, when both spontaneous activity and organization were growing, when possibilities seemed open…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Strike begins at Spottiswoode’s Printers,1889.

In August 1889 a strike started at Spottiswoode’s, an old printing firm (based near Lincolns Inn Fields) which dated back to 1739.

The workers who went on strike were employed to feed paper into the presses; in the highly specialised and demarcated printing industry, they had been denied membership of the London Printing Managers’ Trade Society on the grounds that they were too unskilled.

But 1889 was the year unskilled workers broke the bounds; striking across London and beyond, after years of exclusion from craft unionism. The dispute at Spottiswoode started on August 26th, just 13 days after the great Dock Strike; were the workers there inspired by the dockers? Many other workers were – a whole crop of strikes broke out as the dock strike reached its peak – some people 300,000 were on strike in London by the end of the month.

The Spottiswoode workers had struck for a wage rise, demanding 20 shillings a week; they were soon joined on strike by employees doing the same job at 14 other London printing firms. From the strike committee organising this dispute, the Printers Labourers Union was created. Soon it had a membership of 500 in London, organised through workplace ‘chapels’, as the older craft societies in the print trade were. They rapidly established closed shops in a number of London print firms. The union grew in strength in subsequent years as technological change saw an increase in rotary printing presses in large publishing houses.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online