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…

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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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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some more on the history of May Day:

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

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

Other bits were lifted from Hayes Peoples History

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

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

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

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Today in radical history, 2003: 1000s of schoolkids rebel against the Iraq War

The recent schoolkids’ strike in protest at inaction over climate change reminded us of this day of actions, from 16 years ago… so we thought we’d re-post this roundup of the inspiring actions of March 20th 2003.

Up the youth…!

Originally compiled by Endangered Phoenix in 2003… it is online elsewhere, though their site no longer exists, but we think it needs flagging up every so often. We have republished the list/comments in their entirety. Sometimes the present tense is used; we have left this as it was. However, we have added some clarification on locations of some actions where we could and tried to eliminate duplication where we could.

The actions of schoolkids in March 2003 throughout the world were perhaps the most interesting aspect of the opposition to the [US-led coalition war against Iraq]. Undoubtedly they failed to stop the war, surprise, surprise. They fizzled out as it became obvious that the war would just go on despite what was done in the streets. But their real failure is that though they were based in daily life – the refusal of school in a situation where they knew that kids in another part of the world were going to be killed – they didn’t go on to consciously develop an ongoing opposition to education in this society, which would have extended the movement into something beyond just the war. 

Here we have 4 sections on this movement:

  • A list of various actions, mainly by schoolkids against the war. We do not necessarily agree with everything said here, and in fact it’s a fairly eclectic collection – but it gives some idea of the enormity of this movement. This list is not meant to be definitive – probably some things are missed out.
  • An interview with a London schoolkid at the time of the war.
  • A personal account of someone’s experience in London, the day the war broke out.
  • A leaflet given out to various schoolkids in London at the start of the war.

ACTIONS AT THE START OF THE WAR, March 20th 2003

CENTRAL LONDON DEMONSTRATION

Throughout the day several thousand school and university students together with trade unionists and others demonstrated in Parliament Square in Whitehall. All streets and roads around Westminster and Whitehall were blocked throughout the day. Westminster Bridge was closed.

SCHOOLS

Teacher support: 65 teachers at Copland School in Wembley walked out for the last lesson

NUT at Arthur Terry school

NATFHE at Preston FE and Pendal FE colleges, Lancashire

NUT at Beeston Comprehensive, (Nottingham?).

NATFHE and AUT at Bristol City FE college

NUT at Neston High School, Neston Cheshire, and Wallasey High School (on the Wirral, Merseyside?)

NUT at Forest Hill School & Sydenham school, (South London) St. Paul’s Way School (possibly Mile End, East London)

NUT at Ducie High School/Oakwood High School (Manchester)

Up to a thousand school kids were holding a demonstration inside school grounds in St Dunstan’s School, Glastonbury – supported by the school authorities who even called the local media to come and film the event.

At least 100 students at St Boniface School in Plymouth face being suspended after a protest on the Hoe and in the city centre.

200-300 pupils at Helena Romanes School and Sixth Form Centre in Dunmow, Essex, staged a peaceful protest outside the school gates this morning

Pupils from Priory High School in Exeter, who joined a demonstration in the city centre said they had been given permission to take part by their parents.

School students from Parrs Wood school in Didsbury, Manchester joined the student march

There were actions in Glebelands School, Cranleigh, Surrey; Broadlands School, Keynsham, Bristol; QEHS School, Hexham, Northumberland

Hundreds of schoolkids walked out from Priory, West Exeter, St Peter’s school and others

500 kids walked out of lessons from Clyst Vale school, Devon and held a protest meeting outside that went on all day.

Queen Elizabeth Community Comprehensive Upper School, Crediton, Devon

Tiverton, Devon 200 schoolkids walked out from Ivybridge school, Devon and marched through the town

20 pupils at Cape Cornwall School in St Just, near Penzance, were suspended after joining a march on Wednesday.

Also reports of some actions in Taunton, Somerset; Minehead, Somerset; Kingsmead School, Wiveliscombe, Somerset; Wellington, Somerset; Morley, Leeds; Broadlands School, Keynsham, Bristol; by 126 students at Hazelwick School, Crawley

200 students at Farnborough FE college are occupying the canteen

Thomas Hardy School, Dorchester (despite threats from school board) The headmaster gave them the day off to protest

Mearns Castle High School, Glasgow walk out by 250 third year pupils against war in Iraq. Tried to converge on Eastwood council but were stopped.

Eskdale Middle School, Whitby, North Yorkshire, and Whitby Community College walking out at 3. 30pm.

Around 60 school student walked out of Anderson High School, Lerwick, Shetland, today, 20 March 2003 at 12 noon to protest against war in Iraq. The students marched to the town centre, and from there to the harbour where they picketed a Royal Navy minesweeper.

Pupils at Shenley Brook End School, Milton Keynes, staged their own spontaneous protest after morning break at 11 o’clock. Instead of going back to lessons pupils assembled in the “Street“ (as the school’s common area is called) where they remained for 10 minutes until the protest was broken up by teachers.

Pupils at Limavady in Northern Ireland walked out of lessons

Students from at least three schools in Bedford who had staged a walkout to synchronise with the demo

Brynteg School, Bridgend, South Wales held a successful demonstration, leaving lessons to march around the town.

80 students plus a dozen teachers from two local comprehensives and a college staged a march around Abingdon town centre

350 school and sixth form kids sat outside the front of their school in a quite leafy suburb in Surrey.

School children walk out of their classes and stop traffic in City Centre and Tyne Bridge in the morning.

Pupils from Oathall Community College, Haywards Heath, West Sussex blocked the A272. Students at three other local schools were locked in by staff.

Dozens of students in Wigan walked out, sparked by one student’s stand.

200 11-16 year old schoolkids walked out of Caldew school, Dalston, Cumbria, at morning break, and taking police by surprise, marched into the centre of the village chanting anti-war slogans. More than 500 – ie about half the school – walked out of William Howard School, Brampton, Cumbria, into town and held a minute’s silence. Both these actions were totally self-organised.

Students at John Barrow School, Barrow were forced to climb an 8 ft fence to get out of their school after the headmaster locked them in. They occupied the town hall and handcuffed themselves to the gates.

100-150 students from Clifton school demonstrated against the war in Rotherham town centre in the evening

200 school-students walked out of classes in York and occupied a roundabout in the centre.

30 students in Swindon walked out to join a march

300 12-15 year olds left 3 schools in Edinburgh and were blocked from reaching the American Consulate by police after attempting to occupy Edinburgh Castle.

Cardinal Newman School in Preston saw a walk-out

Pupils from Our Ladies and Girls’ Grammar Schools, Lancaster joined protests

Students in Plymouth walked out despite staff changing break times and locking doors to attempt to stop students joining protests.

In Nottinghamshire, more than 100 pupils walked out of lessons at West Bridgford School to stage a demonstration on a nearby playing field.

LONDON

There were actions or wallkouts in the following schools/areas:

Christ’s College 6th Form – Finchley, North London.

200 at Acland Burley School, Tufnell Park, North London. Hundreds of pupils from 3 North London 6th forms – William Ellis, Parliament Hill, Acland Burghley and La Sainte Union  – marched to Parliament.

200 from Stepney School, Mile End, East London.

Hundreds of staff and students at Tower Hamlets College marched to Mile End.

Walthamstow Central is blocked – walk outs by Kelmscott school, Walthamstow School for Girls and 2 6th form colleges. Over 400 school kids in Walthamstow blocked traffic.

400 students out at Fortismere School, Muswell Hill, N. London, marched up Muswell Hill Broadway and blocked traffic up to Highgate Tube. Also students from Alexandra Park school walked out.

Police were called to pen students in at Charles Edward Brook school in Lambeth after they started shouting anti-war slogans.

Pupils of Villiers High School in Southall, West London, organised protest and walked out of school. Up to 300 pupils took part and as a result many have been suspended.

Staff and students from schools in North East London – Northumberland Park, Gladesmore and William C. Harvey walked out.

Gunnersbury Catholic School in West London saw a spontaneous protest by 200 pupils, 50 of whom joined the protest at Parliament Square.

WALES

The following actions reported:

Swansea – Cwmtawe Comprehensive School, Pontardawe.

Newtown High School 1/2 hour protest – children have been threatened with two week suspension if they join the protest.

Llanidloes High School, walk out in face of opposition by senior staff.

Around 100 pupils walked out of Llandrindod Wells High School, In Powys, Wales and held a rally at the war memorial.

Mass walkouts in Gowerton, Llanelli and Bridgend each involved a hundred or more students.

12-15 Llanelli students were arrested.

In Olcfha school the gates were firmly shut in an attempt to stop a repeat of Wednesdays action (?). Instead the school students held a sit in and refused to attend lessons.

UNIVERSITIES

Queen Mary and Westfield, Uni of London, Tower Hamlets,  – students protest at Mile End, Stepney

Salford University, Manchester – The Crescent blocked twice.

At Manchester Metropolitan University, 80 staff and 150 students rallied and marched to Albert Square. 100s of students from Manchester Uni have walked out of lectures and blocked traffic on Oxford Road, a busy main road out of

Manchester AUT and UNISON at Manchester University walked out at 1pm to join the student rally.

Essex Uni students binned Daily Mail and Sun copies in the campus shop.

Students are striking today at Southampton Uni

At Stirling university about 1, 500 staff/students walked out of lectures, then 500 marched to Stirling centre.

North West London College sites at Willesden, Wembley, Kilburn, classes closed, staff walked out to a protest given paid time off, more than 1000 staff and students at Willesden, most walked out to Westminster

London Met Uni and City & Islington College walk-out in Highbury and Holloway Road, several hundred marched to Islington Town Hall.

Students in Oxford are planning to occupy the town centre.

Students at Keele Uni blocked the main entrance to the campus as lecturers arrived for work, before being dispersed by campus security. Students and staff later staged a protest today in which they went to their cars at midday and blew their car hours for five minutes.

Cambridge University students have blocked the traffic along with 400 people at the war memorial, and 50 students have occupied the army recruitment centre.

600 students walked out of Westminster Kingsway College to join central London protests.

Students including the Welfare Officer of Lampeter Uni, Wales joined a protest in the town centre.

More than 400 staff and students demonstrated outside the College of North East London against the war on Iraq.

Anti War University students at Swansea Uni invaded large lectures on Thursday morning and asked for a vote on the war before asking people to walk out and join them. They found in every lecture at least two thirds were against the war.

Staff and students at Bradford College walked out at midday yesterday to join protests at the outbreak of war. Around 25 lecturers in Natfhe and a hundred students marched from college sites into Bradford’s Centenary square.

Lecturers at Swansea University spent the morning leafleting against the war.

Lecturers in Neath College held a rally outside the college gates.

Barnsley College NATFHE members held a dinnertime protest rally.

At the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham up to 100 NATFHE members and students walked out of lectures at 12 Noon, including a group of students who had been given the go-ahead by their Women’s Studies lecturer and another lecturer led two-thirds of her Social Work students out.

Protest were also held by:

NATFHE at Handsworth College and East Birmingham College.

AUT at Exeter University.

NATFHE at Leeds Metropolitan Uni.

Fircroft College of Adult Education, NATFHE.

AUT, Bristol University lunchtime walk-out.

NATFHE, UNISON, Bristol University, University of the West of England.

UNISON Leicester uni.

Liverpool UNISON, AUT John Moore Uni.

AUT at Liverpool University.

NATFHE at Sheffield Uni, Sheffield Hallam.

NATFHE at Greenfield College & Goldsmith’s, Tower Hamlet’s College, Guildhall, UEL, East Ham College.

SOAS and UCL lecturers (AUT).

NATFHE at Southwark College.

JUST SOME OF THE TOWN CENTRE PROTESTS

Altogether around 500 assembled in Albert square in Manchester at lunchtime. 2000 people including uni students, school students, council workers and lecturers marched round Manchester city centre, closing major road junctions. A rally took place in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, drawing over 5, 000 people.

Bristol

“School kids in Bristol demonstrated that they’re more sussed than the liberals and Vicars leading the Stop The War Coalition when they staged a number of wildcat anti-war strikes.

200 pupils at St.Katherine’s school at Pill, walked out of lessons and gathered on the school field for three hours to protest the attack on Iraq. They also blocked traffic on the road outside the school till police were called. Another 300 students, mainly from Cotham school, also took strike action and protested in the City Centre – no disciplinary action was taken. Pupils from St. Mary Redcliffe were only stopped from staging their own strike by teachers rushing to lock the school gates when they realised people were about to walk out – nevertheless a number of committed pupils ignored these rule-following idiots and clambered over the fences – one breaking his ankle in the process – at least he’s got something to show when people ask what he did to try and stop the war. Two local people have been locked up for an act of direct action, in which they disabled thirty vehicles which provide essential support to the US B52 bombers at Fairford Airbase. The usual round of anti-war graffiti and pacifist peace vigils have also taken place – but the spontaneous and inspiring actions of school students, unencumbered by party positions, surely points out the way to go if we wish to stop the war machine in its tracks.”

London

“In London, smaller local protests starting with school walk-outs in the morning converge into Parliament Square around noon and remain centred around that area into the evening. Schoolkids in a sit-down protest are punched or thrown aside in an attempt by cops to clear the streets – but some of these teenagers prove to be the most valiant in resisting the police. Later on, as the square fills with several thousand protesters, graffiti, and bonfires, breakaway marches head towards Victoria but are pushed back, and others block Westminster bridge. The square is surrounded by police.”

Newcastle.

“The first day of war in Iraq saw some of the largest and most militant activity that Newcastle has experienced in recent times. Events began at 8 am at the Haymarket. At 8.20 the crowd of 80-odd that had gathered moved into the road and blocked traffic for three quarters of an hour. Eventually, the crowd moved on. Some went to work but the schoolkids present weren’t finished yet. They marched to the Monument and spent half an hour chalking anti-war slogans all over the area. Then they got off and made straight for the Tyne Bridge. Stopping traffic on the Tyne bridge was child’s play. No coppers showed for ages. The group then marched back into Newcastle, this time accompanied by police vans the whole way. At lunchtime, it met up with the 1,000 strong main march and again stopped traffic at the Haymarket. A large group hung about until the end and then marched up to the Haymarket and again stopped traffic by sitting in the road. Then they tried to march onto the main road north out of Newcastle but were stopped by large numbers of police vans. They turned round and tried to march the other way, moving towards the civic centre but again were corralled by the cops. So, the crowd ran over the park by the church and sat in the road back where they’d just been; the cops didn’t have a clue what to do.

The Socialist Workers Party regional organiser then announced that the demo was over and everyone should go to the next one. After, some argued that loud hailers should not be allowed on marches. But it’s not really the loud hailers, but the fuckers using them. The way in which such a high level of solidarity, spontaneity and militancy was effectively killed by people who were meant to be supporters of the cause was nothing short of a disgrace. It remains to be seen whether the experiences of that night will encourage people to hold their nerve in the future or whether the shiteness in which it ended will put people off doing similar things again. It didn’t need to end that way, and we need to find ways of combating those who elect themselves to sell us out. Hopefully, the kids, who were the main inspiration of the days’ events, will learn to deal with this in the future, and won’t be put off by it.”

KIDS AGAINST THE WAR

School kids across the UK walked out of lessons to stage demonstrations against the start of the war with Iraq starting on Thursday March 20th. Hundreds joined crowds protesting at Westminster. School kids have been played a big part in many demonstrations across the UK while others have staged their own protests at their schools.In Carlisle, the police were called to a school after hundreds of pupils staged an anti-war demonstration. Around 200 11-to-16 year olds from the Caldew School in Dalston marched into the centre of the village chanting anti-war slogans. A demonstration in Edinburgh caused extensive disruption in the city centre. The demonstrators were mainly school-age youngsters who gathered near the Scottish Parliament and then split in to smaller groups which stopped traffic. Stirling University was closed due to protest action.

There were two separate demonstrations in Belfast with more than 1,000 students and schoolchildren mounting a sit-down protest, blocking the road outside Queen’s University.

In Nottinghamshire, more than 100 pupils walked out of lessons at West Bridgford School to stage a demonstration on a nearby playing field.

In Manchester, about 200 school students joined a big demonstration.

In Sheffield, two schoolchildren were arrested by police for alleged criminal damage during a demonstration.

They occupied Lancaster town hall, shut down the centre of Leamington Spa and took to the streets of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile a Manchester head teacher took up police tactics to intimidate pupils who protest against the war.

In Bristol, the centre of the city was gridlocked as thousands joined protesting students in blocking roads. Crowds pushed through police lines and the M32 was blockaded.

In Edinburgh, demos and student strikes started on the Monday before the war broke out. Protesters stormed the castle and Princes Street several times. Up to a thousand school kids were holding a demonstration inside school grounds in Glastonbury – supported by the school authorities who even called the local media to come and film the event.

Students rallied on campus in Keele, and in Leeds council workers joined students for a day of protest, and further actions took place in Aberdeen, Barnsley, while in Cardiff evening protests brought the city to a standstill, which were later attacked by police.

Around 200 school students staged a walk-out at George Stephenson school, Killingworth, near Newcastle. The students walked out at dinner time after the headteacher sent out a letter banning younger students from going outside school for their lunch. They made placards and marched out, to be confronted by mounted police.

Near the City of London, kids blocked a road, whilst over 400 schoolkids in Walthamstow were blocking traffic and causing mayhem; demos of mainly schoolkids all over the place. In Edinburgh, they stopped the city centre. In Lewisham, schoolkids had a walkout to demonstrate at the town hall. When many of them took a bus to join the protests in Central London they were violently stopped by the police. Most were forced to go back to school but some were detained.

From: from Mike Marqusee site, May 2003

On the morning following the launch of the US-UK war on Iraq, the headline in Dawn, the leading English language daily in Pakistan, proclaimed: “World condemns invasion, fears for civilians”. The story underneath itemised the protests lodged by the vast majority of the planet’s governments and the street demonstrations that greeted the outbreak of war in every continent. You could find similar headlines in newspapers everywhere – except in Britain and the USA.

As the war in Iraq has unfolded, the British media have focussed on the battle front, and largely ignored the parallel story of sustained and unprecedented global protest. In doing so, they’re misleading us about the real impact and consequences of the war.

Of course, for huge numbers in Asia and Africa, the war is an attack on Muslims and their outrage stems from their Muslim commitments. In the Arab world, the war has spurred a revival of long-dormant Arab nationalism – precisely the phenomenon most feared by the US oil elite. But the world-wide anger reaches far beyond Muslim or Arab ties. From Moscow to Seoul, Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, popular indignation with the US-British invasion has found expression in countless marches and rallies.

From the first day of the war up to the present moment, protests involving hundreds of thousand have been staged regularly in Germany, Italy and Spain. In Barcelona, every evening at 9pm, thousands open their windows and beat on saucepans to voice their protest. In Greece a general strike shut down banks, stores and government services. 15,000 marched to the US consulate in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. Cyprus was brought to a standstill by a 30 minute work stoppage – even the stock exchange was closed. Although Poland is one of the very few countries to have supplied even a token number of troops to the US-British operation, an opinion poll has showed that 69% of Poles are against the war. Dissident MPs brought anti-war banners into the Polish parliament (precipitating a scuffle with government officials). Students in Sarajevo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, hurled eggs and red paint at the US embassy. Some protesters carried posters with a picture of Bush and the text: “Wanted – dead or alive. Preferably dead. Reward – peace.’”

It’s striking that so many protests have taken place in societies that might seem both remote from the conflict and preoccupied with their own pressing and desperate problems. But everywhere this war is perceived as a global question. Not surprisingly, the spectacle of an unchecked superpower imposing its will by force where and when it pleases makes people uneasy. In that large section of the world blighted by poverty and repression, many feel that their hopes for democracy and economic development depend on a peaceful and equitable world economic order and, with reason, do not believe that such an order can be built under the dictatorship of the USA. What they see in the war on Iraq is a contempt for their own right to determine their destinies and a disregard for the value of non-US, non-British human life.

Only two African governments can be found among the “coalition of the willing” – Eritrea and Ethiopia, both competing for US assistance. In Accra there have been demonstrations protesting the cautious ambivalence of the Ghanaian regime. Tens of thousands have opposed the war in the streets of all the major South African cities. Kenya – itself a victim of terrorist atrocities – has opposed the invasion. Hundreds of young people marched in the coastal town of Mombasa carrying placards and banners denouncing Bush and Blair. In Niger and Nigeria, there have been protests outside UIS and British embassies. In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, there was a blanket ten minute work stoppage in solidarity with Iraq.

There have been huge and angry protests in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. 80,000 marched in Bangkok. In Pattani, an estimated 30,000 people prayed in the streets. “I think what Bush is doing is equal to Satan’s work. Why can’t he find a better way to stop a problem?” said Waetalee Waebuyi, a 21-year-old Thai student.

The war has highlighted how intertwined our destinies have become. In Kerala, in south west India, many communities are dependent on remittances from relatives working in the Gulf. Local fishermen have launched a boat named Iraq on “a voyage of peace” across the state’s intricate network of palm-fringed waterways. The vessel carries a banner reading: “Every bush will be ploughed some day.” “The war affects us immensely and we want to protest against it in a unique way so that people take note of it,” said one of the organisers. Across the state, expatriates who have returned to their villages after years of working in the Gulf have set up “anti-war corners” where artists display anti-war messages. These messages have been echoed in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Calcutta and Delhi.

The war has won support from only four of the 21 South and Central American governments. In Ecuador, 1,000 people massed outside the US embassy chanting “peace, yes – war, no”. There have been demonstrations outside US embassies in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.

Of course, the war looks different depending on where you’re watching it. Television coverage outside Britain and the USA has shown civilian suffering in much greater detail. Far more airtime has been given to expressions of indignation by ordinary Iraqis – largely excised from our screens here.

But even in the USA, where war coverage is sanitised and the reality of death and destruction veiled, protest has continued. On 22 March, a quarter of a million demonstrated in New York City. There have been marches and rallies in cities and towns across the country. Non-violent direct action has proliferated – almost entirely unreported in the media. Trade union bodies representing 5 million US workers – one third of organised labour in the country – have come out against the war, as have most of the major religious denominations. Student activism has reached levels not seen sine the 1970s. The level of visible public dissent is greater than it was during most of the Vietnam War.

So the thousands of British schoolkids who walked out of their classes in protest against the war are very much part of a vast global movement. It’s a highly diverse movement with varying and sometimes conflicting ideologies. There’s certainly no single political mastermind behind it – it’s bubbled up from the grass roots.

The world-wide demonstration on 15th February were unprecedented in the history of our species: never before have so many people in so many different societies spoken with one voice on one day. These demonstrations did not stop the war, but they did herald the growth of a new internationalist consciousness among many millions spread across the globe. That consciousness places the value of human life first, and national loyalties some way behind. And despite the triumphalism of the war party, it has not receded with the advance of US troops on Baghdad. As a front-page article in the New York Times acknowledged, “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” That second super-power has only begun to flex its muscles.

——

KIRKBY TIMES NEWS WEBSITE – MARCH 03

“School Pupils walk out as War in Iraq begins

Kirkby times can report that were protests by School Pupils in Liverpool City Centre today Weds 20 March 2003. The Pupils walked out of lessons to protest at the news of the Iraq War starting off in earnest at around 2.45 am early this morning, early dawn in Iraq.

Pupils Block Roads

The pupils were said to number between 250 and 300 and the protests began at 1.00pm when it became apparent to Merseyside Police that large numbers of the protestors blocking roads at Mount Pleasant/Brownlow Hill were pupils aged between 12 to 15 according to Police spokesman Superintendent Alan Cooper who said on Radio Merseyside that “Officers noticed many protestors in uniform” and also said that they were “Obviously truanting” However, a lot of parents support their kids making a stand and will not agree with Supt Alan Cooper.

Police very unhappy at events

Some pupils from Calderstone School denied ‘truanting’ and said that the school has told pupils “those with notes could attend protests”, however, many pupils admitted to not having permission from the school and one pupil told the media that ‘they just walked out” and that they “wanted to do what they could to stop this war” Supt Cooper was at pains to present reasons that kids should not protest at Iraqi Children being murdered, one of the reasons kids should not be protesting, he claimed , was because “they could fall victim to unscrupulous characters who will subject them to be victims of crime” Er, what? Are you saying 300 kids are going to preyed on by perverts or something? Maybe Supt Cooper may be as well to just go after the unscrupulous characters which he admits are out there on his patch.

Headmaster tries to accuse political groups of ‘using’ kids

Brian Davies the Head Teacher of Calderstone School, one of the schools who took part in the protests, told the local radio that “Some of these children will be exploited for political ends by political groups”. One thing’s for sure, Tony Blair would use these Pupils, and is maybe using some of their older brothers as cannon fodder which may well be said to be ‘political exploitation’ of the very worse sort. Kirkby Times is sure pupils will be able to make there own minds up as to whether or not to take part in protests or join political groups. We should be glad our kids have an interest in such matters.

Civil Disobedience

Councillor Paul Klein of Liverpool Education Authority was sympathetic as to the reasons that the kids protested and walked out of lessons. He reminded people that every generation had its own things to stand up for and it was, in some ways, refreshing to hear someone in a position of authority show some compassion to these kids and an understanding as to why they have done what they done. The Police were not happy at all with these protests, but as we all know the Police are only happy if protesters behave like a herd of polite sheep. Now is not the time for polite protests, we’ve been down that road and it never worked. The only route left, as protesters and Police will soon discover, is Civil Disobedience. Many of us, who are going to London on Saturday, do so to cause as much noise etc as possible. The time for niceties is over. We cannot allow our Government to Kill children in our name.

To all the pupils involved in today’s protests, Kirkby Times salutes you.”

———————

AFRICA

* In South Africa, schoolkids led the protests in Cape Town and were joined by workers from factories. The US consulate has seen a continuous picket outside it since the war started, with at least 50 people always maintaining a presence.”

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CLASS STRUGGLE

Striking school children, some as young as 11 and 12, brought Brighton City Centre to a halt last Thursday in protest over the British and American invasion of Iraq. Taking to the streets with chants of “No War,” “One, two, three, four, Tony Blair is Bush’s whore,” and other brilliantly unprintable slogans, the students blocked roads in the city centre for nearly four hours, telling perturbed motorists to “Turn off your engines, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Cynical, disillusioned Brighton activists were spotted in the area, wandering in a haze of shock, awe and respect, gobsmacked by people half their age with twice as much energy and imagination. “I was just about to trade in my Palestinian scarf and trendy body jewellery for a thankless call centre job,” said one old, formerly disenchanted 23-year-old in a faded Che Guevara t-shirt. “But today has convinced me that the revolution may still be possible!”

Meanwhile, one group of school kids (pursued by rabid Socialist Worker’s Party paper-sellers) broke off from the main march and paid a visit to the local American Express building. The pledge of allegiance was not said, the star spangled banner was not played, but nonetheless, the American flag became the centre of attention for much of the crowd, who decided the old stars and stripes were in need of a drastic makeover. An upstanding, tax-paying, Daily Mail-reading bystander who was later quoted in the Argus, described the event as sickening and depraved, but a nearby American reckoned it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Earlier in the day, in an important lesson on free speech, teachers and heads around the city locked many young pupils into their schools, desperate to keep them from expressing an opinion. Pupils at Blatchington Mill, Cardinal Newman, Dorothy Stringer, Varndean, and Patcham were threatened with suspension, expulsion, and extra citizenship classes (to teach them the real meaning of democracy and blind obedience) if they left school to participate in protests. In some cases, pupils even faced locked gates and the harrowing spectre of future visits from local blood-thristy pro-war Mps. But in a series of daring walk-outs and escapes, hundreds of locked-down school kids still managed to join the protests in the town centre.

SchNEWS were on the scene at Blatchington Mill when, at 11am, a brave group of around 50 students walked out of school past barely-opened iron gates and a grimly frowning headmaster. (Readers may remember Blatch’s open-minded head, one Mr. Neil Hunter, when he referred to pupils that had staged a spontaneous anti-war demo a few weeks ago as “mindless idiots.” Since the spontaneous walk-out, six Blatch kids have been excluded and the “always wanting to show both sides of the argument” Mr. Hunter has invited the local pro-war MP, Ivor Caplin, to come and spew pro-war propaganda at the school. After leaving Blatchington, the triumphant procession of Blatch kids met up with nearly 200 other excited and out-of-breath pupils who had just rushed out of Cardinal Newman. “We’ve just escaped, we’ve just escaped our school,” they panted. “They tried to lock us in!” Teachers had tried to lock gates and chase anti-war escapees through the school grounds, but many kids still managed to find a way out. As SchNEWS rounded a corner near Cardinal Newman school, the sight that awaited was grand indeed – 20-30 blue and grey-jumpered Newman kids pouring over an exterior stone wall after teachers had blocked all other routes of exit from the school.

Eventually the whole group of anti-war pupils made it safely and soundly down to the Old Steine for a day of protest and road-blocking. Many of the kids were still around at 5:30 the same afternoon, when nearly 5,000 people (probably Brighton’s biggest ever demo) converged on Churchill Square. Even in the evening, most of the chants and road sit-downs were led by school kids from all over the city.As one young protestor explained, “We did it because we wanted our voices to be heard. We were rebelling against the Government because we feel it is rebelling against us.”

* Kids in Therfield school Leatherhead who bunked off to go to an anti war demo where given lines by the Headmaster “I will not walk out of school.”

* Thousands of newly politicised school kids took part in anti-war demonstrations all across the UK last week. For more info from the school-uniformed frontlines in Manchester, London, and hundreds of other cities, check out http://www.indymedia.org.uk

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AUSTRALIA Sydney – March 03

“I was in the city yesterday, and witnessed the protests. While some of the protesters I spoke to were shy and not all that articulate (that’s why they’re still at school, to learn), those I spoke to understood well the arguments against the war on Iraq. Amongst these were a pair of siblings who had been adopted to Australia after their parents had been killed in the 1991 bombings of Baghdad, and two sisters who had come to Australia as Palestinian refugees. To say that these children do not know about war is simply patronising. I only wish I was as passionate and enthusiasm about opposing the war as they were. Maybe older Australians could learn a thing or two from them.We should not let the fact that there were small (very isolated I might add) incidences of violence detract from the rally. The main violence (sadly unreported by the corporate media) was from the police. I witnessed over 300 police decked out with revolvers and goggles (to protect from pepper spray) blocking the exit of a mere 500 high school students who were peacefully protesting John Howard’s office in Phillip Street, surrounding them from both sides (with two regiments of mounted police on horses) and arresting anyone attempting to leave. Amongst these were very young children, who were extremely frightened, with older siblings and parents were trapped on the other side and pleading with police to let them out, and a young diabetic who was needing to leave to get insulin. When I questioned police about why they were holding the crowd prisoner, none of them could answer. This made the young protesters scared and angry enough to try to force passage out.The other horrifying thing I witnessed was mounted police (6 or 7 of them) on mounted horses, charging straight over a group of demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them. I was absolutely ashamed for the police, especially after I saw a young girl of about 12 from a Middle Eastern background brutalised and arrested by 3 massive police, seemingly for doing nothing other than voicing her opposition to the war. As an Australian and an educator, I was absolutely horrified. It was a dark day for Australian democracy.”
Daniel

MARCH 2003 – MANCHESTER & NORTH

Two lots of protests took place in Liverpool City Centre. One was largely led by groups of schoolkids many still in uniform, blocked major city centre roads, causing havoc. The main protest took place at 5pm in Liverpool city center as around 1500 people people blocked many major roads in the city centre. Reports [1,|

2| 3]. In Hebden Bridge and Halifax the days events included school students demonstations, candle-lit vigils and shutting down two Esso filling stations.

On Wednesday day a demonstration arranged by school children in Manchester city centre turned into an impromptu reclaim the streets as around a thousand pupils ran circles around GMP for three and a half hours.

School children stormed Lancaster in anti-war protests. A peace camp was set up in centre of town, the Town Hall occupied and the ring road shut down. While earlier on Monday Whalley Range schoolchildren organised their own protest.

* * *

San Francisco protesters stage a ‘vomit in’

“Bay City News

Thursday, March 20, 2003

08:41 PST — In a unique form of opposition, some protesters at the Federal Building staged a “vomit in,” by heaving on the sidewalks and plaza areas in the back and front of the building to show that the war in Iraq made them sick, according to a spokesman.

Many of the approximately 300 protesters demonstrating at the building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. attempted to block building entrances.

Seven anti-war demonstrators were arrested at mid-morning as they sought to block a group of about 20 federal employees and other visitors seeking to enter the building, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Ron Rogers said.

Rogers said all seven were charged with creating a disturbance and two were additionally charged with resisting arrest.

Only the back entrance of the Federal Building on Turk Street was open this morning. People with business inside the building were required to wait outside and were allowed to pass through metal barricades at intervals. The seven arrests occurred during one of the intervals as federal police officers sought to lead visitors around the metal barricades into the building.

On the Larkin Street side of the building, demonstrators blocked the driveway that leads into a basement garage used by federal judges and other officials who work in the building.

Numerous officers from the Federal Protective Service and San Francisco Police Department, wearing helmets and other riot protection gear, formed lines around the building.”

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Switzerland, Thursday, March 20th, 2003

10:30 thousands of schoolkids start to assemble in Bern, whole schoolclasses are marching through the neighborhoods to join the others

11:30 chaos in the city. kids everywhere protesting the war. i spot some funny signs: piss on war [uuuhhh] frenchkiss not war [good one! but would “make love not war” be too sexual for todays youth?] or seid lieb [which i find quite cute, it translates as “be nice”]

13:30 after protesting in front of the us-embassy in bern, the kids need a big mac. huge lines at mcdonalds. a girl is complaining as she slurps her coca cola, she has never seen such a long line

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Capitalism-as-usual (no security) comes to Japan, and schoolkids turn violent

YOKOHAMA, Japan — By sixth grade, a growing generation of preteenage rebels has begun walking in and out of classrooms at will, mocking the authority of adults and even attacking teachers who try to restrain them.

Similar problems show up in higher grades too, with nearly half of all high schools reporting violence, higher dropout rates and problems like student prostitution.

“Up until now, Japan was a society in which children obeyed adults, but this relationship between children and adults is no longer workable, because the system was built around the idea that by doing well in school you should enter a good company, and having lifetime security,” said Naoki Ogi, an education expert. “Over the last 10 years, however, Japan hasn’t found a way out of its economic depression, and from the children’s viewpoint, the academic record-oriented system has collapsed. Moral values are collapsing, too.

“So children feel they have no one they can trust, no adult society they can look up to.”

(NYT 9/23/02)

Interview With A Schoolkid

The following is an interview with a 15 year old from North London about the 12 March (2003) Schools Walkout

How did you first hear about it?

By word of mouth – the schools are all close to each other and people know each other. It wasn’t particularly done on the internet.

Why that day?

Don’t know. I knew a week in advance, and it was clear from the beginning that the teachers must not find out. We were told to spread it around among our mates.

What about the rest of the country?

The organisers had some kind of network.

What happened on the day?

We went to school without our bags or anything. The walk out time was 9.30 for everybody, that is when it all happened. We had a supply teacher who didn’t know what was going on. We all just got up, the whole class, she tried blocking the door and saying ‘you will get in trouble’. So we all marched out, and everyone was there because it was the same time for everyone. Once we were outside the school we got everyone together and marched up to Parliament Hill School to pick up the people there, and on the way, La Santa Union. They were already waiting for us. Then we all marched down to Kentish Town where we all got on the tube.

How many people were you?

Out of our year…um… everyone. Apart from three or four people.

What was the reaction from people on the streets as you marched to the tube?

People seemed quite shocked. Looking at their watches because we should have been in school.

How did you feel?

Great! Cheering, banging on the escalators. Writing no war signs. It was amazing when we got on the tube. There was a bit of debate before we got on about our tickets – whether to bunk it or not.

How was that decision made?

We were all standing around outside talking about it then this guy who is quite big and loud stood up on this box and shouted for everyone’s attention. He said “how should we get on the tube, should we pay or not”. Everyone shouted out what they thought and it was clear that most people thought we shouldn’t pay – so he said that was what we are going to do.

We got to Embankment tube and more people had come by then – from more schools around London. It was amazing at Embankment tube – they have a line of ticket barriers and we were all standing there, looking around, thinking “Shit, what should be do?” and then we walked up to the barriers and said “shall we just jump it?” and we had about 600 people all jumping over the barriers at Embankment station. It was an amazing sight.

When we got out everybody was quite worked up. We marched to Parliament Square.

By that time people were taking notice. People that go on marches all the time. Organisers of marches, people with placards. They came when they heard what was going on.

How do you think they found out so quickly?

Through local news coverage.

How did you feel about that? What was your reaction?

I thought it was good. They realised what was going on even though it wasn’t organised by them. Everyone thought it was good.

Was there any sense of “this is our thing”?

NO – not at all!

So – we were at Parliament Square and shouting and getting people to beep their horns and we started talking about what to do. Some of us started talking to some older people (about 16 years old) and thought we should do a road block by Big Ben, in front of Parliament. Everybody was up for that. That was the bit where the police started to get a bit heavy. They weren’t being really bad though. And then we generally decided, by people shouting, that we should move to Whitehall. So everybody stood up at the same time and we went. There was a big dash to Whitehall, by Downing Street. Once we were there we spent quite a long time demonstrating, with placards etc. By this time there were about 1000 people there. Then loads of police arrived in vans.

What was the reaction to this?

There was a bit of panic. Some people left, but most people decided to stay. We were pushed up against the gates of Downing Street just because there was so many people. Then the police decided to push everyone away from Downing Street. They had crash barriers that they were using to push us back. They were quite obviously prepared. So everybody got pushed back and we decided to sit down. The police then really wanted to be people away. They were picking people up by whatever means possible and dragging them back to the other side of the street behind a big set of barriers. People being picked up by their throats, having hands twisted behind them, that wasn’t nice.

What was peoples reaction?

Mostly anger.

Did people fight back a bit?

A little bit, but mostly they were overpowered quite easily. They were angry though. It was weird because we were behind the barrier we stood and watched as one by one people were dragged off and put behind us. It was like watching a film.

Was anyone arrested?

Some people were cautioned, but I don’t think they wanted to arrest anyone.

So it was about 3.00 pm and generally everyone was quite pissed off by this point. It slowly dispersed. I went back with my mates on the tube.

How were you talking about it?

It was an excited atmosphere that we had managed to do something quite spontaneous. It was fun as well because so many people had turned up – you could go round to people and ask what school they were from. And we were all the same age.

Did you have any repercussion from your teachers?

The only one was my head of year being sarcastic and patronising saying “oh you feel really good now, you can give yourselves a pat on the back”. We haven’t got in trouble from any of the other teachers, but also no support. One week later everybody who went on the march had to say something in assembly of the whole school about why they went. Everybody said a little bit. It was meant as some sort of punishment, but we were all up for it. A chance to have our say. People said stuff about the police brutality. [The boy’s dad recons the assembly was the teachers supporting the kids].

How did the other kids react?

They all cheered and stuff.

Are there other plans now? Has this spurred you on?

There have been a lot of meetings and stuff. The school council has been turned into an anti-war thing.

Are discussions taking place anywhere else as well – amongst you lot?

Yes – there are Socialist Worker discussions organised. They spread the word for the walk-out too. The meetings are at Euston Square.

What sort of people go to that?

Quite a lot of people, a whole mix of people.

Is there a buzz? Has it changed the way you talk generally, with your mates or other people you come into contact with?

Oh definitely! Before it was like ‘what’s the point in talking about things like that, we can’t make a difference’, but now we feel that we CAN do that. Something can happen if we all talk to each other.

What sort of conversation are you having now?

People asking what is going to happen next. What should we do. What would happen if the war started. On that day what would happen. That we would walk out when war starts.

Have any of those conversations been about other stuff too – what you think about other stuff? Why there is this war for example. Has the conversation got broader?

Yeah – I think so. We can talk to each other more now.

Are there people who you weren’t friends with before who you talked to on the demo, who you now have a different relationship with?

Yeah – I met people who I knew years ago who I am now back in contact with. I am staying in contact with them to talk about what is happening. There is a general feeling that if we keep in contact then it is going to spread more. There is more sense of communication.

Do you think that this might turn into something more than an anti-war thing – or was it always more than that?

Definitely. It is about a number of things. Walking out of school was definitely the focus. We could easily have done it on a Saturday but coming out of school was more effective.

Do you think people realised that – that that is why they were doing it and why they were doing it on a Wednesday?

Yeah.

What do you think the point is, though?

I think the point is that you can easily punish one person for doing something wrong – but you can’t punish everyone and even though one person may have a good point – a group of people are going to be much more effective.

Do you think it is something about school and authority and being forced to be in school?

Yeah – what is authority if it doesn’t work.

Have you talked to people who didn’t go?

Yeah – the year 10s (14 &15 year olds) didn’t know about it – there was quite a big dividing line between the years. There was a major hype in year 11 about it and I don’t think that happened in the lower years. I don’t think it really changed anything for those who didn’t walk out.

Do you think that they would walk out with you if it happened again?

Definitely. Now they realise what can go on – what a group of people can do.

Have you been reading more leaflets? Have people been passing round bits of paper?

A little bit – but mostly talking.

Do you think this is about the war?

It partly is – but it is not the only thing. It is also about the police. Not just that they were they brutal last Wednesday, but that they are not helping with the crime. Kids from my school are getting mugged and threatened on an everyday basis. It is also about school. The teaching has reached the point now where is all just focused on the exams – it is not really about what you are learning, just about how to pass. How to get good grades.

Personal Account

The following is a personal report of the school kids actions from the Thursday, 20 March, the day war broke out.

I went down to Parliament Square about 10.00 am and there were mostly school kids there. About 500 school kids and maybe 50 adults. They were milling about in Parliament Square. Then suddenly they moved – fast – into the road on the north side of the square. “SIT DOWN, STOP THE WAR”. So we did. Loads of us, suddenly. The police take time to react and then start coming round with their lines, their discipline, their orders. When the crowd sense they are coming near – they move – FAST! They remind me of the starlings by Brighton West Pier. They are unified – in touch with each other – there is a group mood and a group mind. We run across Parliament Square to the south side and repeat the sit down. When it is time to move again the word goes round to go to Downing Street. We run – it is thrilling – to be running in a big crowd. The police helpless and confused. Foolishly grabbing out as we streamed past them. But I also saw anger on some police faces. The cars were furious and taxis were driving into people.

So we get to Downing Street. Hundreds of us. “SIT DOWN. STOP THE WAR”. When the police come – which takes them time with to get up from Parliament Square – we move again. First to the other side of the road, then the crowd splits – half up to towards Trafalgar Square and half of us back down to Parliament Square – running – exulted, pulsing with the trill of the big group, the power, the moment, keeping the cops on the run. (I noticed that I was taking a moment to decide which group to go with – which way to run – but the kids were just moving.)

When we get back down to Parliament Square there are lots more of us, people have been arriving all the time. Then there are blocks on all sides of the square all the time. Fluid, moving and constant. We were knocking over the crash barriers every time we ran onto the road and sometimes dragging them round into the road to help our block.

The police get really pissed of and the tension rises. They start being really nasty – sticking fingers into pressure points, pulling ears and hair. They knocked one girl unconscious. We were chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and also “peace, peace, peace” as they got rougher and rougher. To be in this situation and to look round and not see direct activists, or trots, but 15 year old Muslim girls, or young boys in school uniform – was amazing. This was not the usual run-of-the-mill demo!

One precious sight was the cops trying to push us back and people throwing stuff at them – rubbers, pencils, note books, pencil cases sailing over my head and pelting the cops. One cop was standing on the corner bit of a crash barrier and we tipped him off. Ha ha.

Later – when the adults arrived and the kids went home the whole tone changed. We were a disparate bunch of individuals and small groups. If some of us started running the whole mass would not automatically turn. We stuck to our own and did not trust the group to take risks together.

School herds them all together, homogenises them into the mass, troops them into assemblies and into the playground together, the whistle goes and they troop back in – so it is there, ready to backfire. Also – when you are that age – all that matters is being with the group – being with everyone and being where it is at. And – no-one told them the standard pattern of actions – wait in one space so the police can section 60 you. Stand behind the crash barriers, etc – they didn’t have no rules, especially as they had just broken out of their school (some had to climb the walls when the schools locked the gates) – they were going where they wanted. They had energy, power and unity and I felt really privileged to be there in that moment with them.”

* * * * * * * *

No Class Today – No Class Society Tomorrow
[a flier put out by Endangered Phoenix at the time].

School kids have been walking out of school and taking action all over the world in order to protest against the war. In London they went to Whitehall and did not just passively allow the police to tell them what to do,but fought back and tried to climb the gates into Downing Street.  In Oxford 500 school kids walked out and took over the town centre, forcing an Army recruitment stall off the streets, trapping soldiers in their van for half an hour, and blocked the roads. At Parliament Hill School the teachers locked the kids in to prevent them from going on the anti-war action.

They are not just protesting against this war, they are fed up with a world where such wars are possible, fed up with the authoritative, stifling, boring factory of school. Fed up with being the victims of muggings then blamed as anti-social.  In London 50,000 kids bunk off every day.  Now there are hundreds of new initiatives and partnerships designed to control this. The government is introducing an ‘anti-social behaviour’ white paper so parents of truant kids can be fined up to £8400.  They are trying to control an increasingly explosive situation.  The widening gap between wages (or dole money) and the cost of living means that young people are having to live with their parents for longer, threatening the autonomy young people have achieved in recent years. In Italy in the 70s students took over schools and universities and turned them into social centres, to create their own autonomous spaces.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education speaks of team spirit:  “Everyone in a school ­ teachers, pupils, parents, classroom assistants, technicians, administration, caretakers, catering staff ­ are part of a team and the school itself is likely to do best where the school is working well.”  What a great team it is!  Frequently kids kill themselves because they are bullied by their teachers or classmates.  No government has increased competition in the classroom more than New Labour.  Their obsession with tests and tables places more and more pressure on students.  Most kids sit at least 30 formal tests before they reach secondary school; some take as many as 43.  Even 7 year olds are assessed now!  How much longer do they think students will accept this?  A team based on competition is a strange thing.  Not surprising that another element is needed to get it working.  Clarke: “Teamwork is crucial.  But the grit in the oyster is leadership.”  This leadership is nothing more than a nice word for oppression.

School is there to prepares for future exploitation.  To accept low wages and bad conditions because we ‘failed’ at school.  The system is set so that 80% of people will get less than a ‘good mark’, thereby having their self-esteem knocked enough so they will be more resigned to their fate of exploited worker, parent, unemployed reserve workforce.  The discipline at school prepares us for obeying the orders of the bosses.  School learning is split into single subjects; everything is reduced to answers to be spat out in exams.  The division of subjects prepares us for the division of jobs ­people doing one boring job over and over again for years.  Human existence could be a fluid moving between activities, ideas, creativity…  the beauty of building, the dance of design, the poetry of pottery, the music of maths, the love of languages… (not so sure about the lyricism of that one…)

Schools are part of a world where creativity, spontaneity and individual expression only count if you can sell them or they help you work profitably.  This is why kids are fed up with knowledge they don’t really need, which is knowledge for their future bosses. Throughout history there is also a tradition of working class people organising their own education. In prisons, within social movements, organising their own discussion groups etc.  This continues to this day and what each person learns in moments of struggle is part of it.

When we act together in struggle we learn more than they could ever teach us.  It is in this act that we really find out what real cooperation can be.  We are not divided into specified roles, we can think for ourselves, disagree and discuss, act together, plan out practical things and work out how to do it together, get into contact with other groups, break down the separation into generations.  We learn languages to communicate with students struggling in other countries, we learn about technology to communication over the internet, we have to work out what we really think, because it matters for once.  We read other peoples words to help us understand the present, to inspire us and give us new ideas.  This reading feeds into our discussions and decisions ­ it is not cold and sterile as it is in school.  This is where we can learn what a better future society could look like.  When we see what is possible with each other it makes a mockery of their discipline.

NB: the old Endangered Phoenix website where this was initially compiled is now largely migrated to Dialectical Delinquents

See also “Kamikaze Kapitalism” (about the situation on the eve of the Iraqi war, end of February, 2003)

and

“Education, Stupefication, Commodification”

[Dialectical Delinquents text on education from 1998…]

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Past tense postscript:

As the into to the above list does mention – the Iraq War was not stopped, and the kids revolt did seem to stop as soon as it started, and did not appear to launch a social movement that questioned education and the whole integrated horror of capitalism… However, to nitpick a little – to call it a failure for this is not entirely reasonable: how do you judge failure? What proportion of people involved in the strikes, actions and walkouts went on to think, struggle, attempt to change things around them, in the years following, and to what effect? Difficult to know and to tell what long term effect being involved in such events can have. The memory of one bright explosion  – a moment of true liberation, for however long – can sustain you through all sorts of less glamorous projects. We would love to hear from anyone who was involved in he school walkouts as to what activity, thoughts, ‘political’ or social struggles they think their involvement led to, or didn’t, and why… All our failures are learning processes, and while it’s depressing to see things fizzle out, burn out, go down in flames, the spirit of human relations vs commodity relations flickers on.

Rebellion in schools is old as schools, though usually it focusses around immediate conditions, and often it is more individual than collective. There have been explosions of collective resistance, school strikes, movements of school pupils… An intro and links here

There’s a brief piece on 1985 schools strikes here, though it is not complete – it doesn’t mention Sheffield, where your past tense correspondent took part in a 500-600 or so strong demo/riot of kids from a number of the city’s schools on the same day (29 April), along with several classmates. From our perspective we were simply bunking off and causing trouble because it was fun and better than lessons, rather than having a political demand re YTS schemes of whatever… Though some of us had organised subversion in our school, as well as distributing the School Stoppers Handbook, which advocated sabotage and disruption of school on anarchist principles…

Linking to sites above does not imply full support for all their actions, words or opinions, (we have disagreements with everyone!)

Today in radical herstory, 1971: London’s first modern International Women’s Day

If these days it seems like there’s no limits to how far feminism can be re-packaged and sold as a glossy commodity, profiting all sorts of scumbags who give not a toss about women’s liberation… We should always remember that International Women’s Day, 8th March, has its origins in the struggle of women workers. 15,000 women garment workers, including many migrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side on 5th March 1908,  to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.

The first US National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. Over the next few years the international socialist movement adopted Internationals Women’s Day, fixing it on 8th March in 1913. The following year, on 8 March 1914, the East London Federation of Suffragettes organised a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage.

International Women’s Day was revived in the early 1970s as the second wave of feminism grew in strength…

The first modern Women’s Liberation march in London took place on 6 March 1971, (the nearest Saturday to the 8th) a “cold and snowy day”.  The march, organised by the Women’s National Coordinating Committee, was the largest International Women’s Day event since the Suffragette era, and made a big media splash.

4000-5000 people, including lots of children and some men, marched from Speakers Corner through the West End, calling at 10 Downing Street to hand a petition in to Prime Minister Edward Heath, calling for the government to meet the four demands agreed at the first two Womens Liberation Conferences held in Oxford (1970) and Skegness (1971): Equal Pay, Equal Educational and Job Opportunities, Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand, and Free 24 hour Nurseries.

The demo highlighted contemporary feminists’ major concerns: contraception and abortion; women’s treatment as sex objects; their invisible oppression as housewives.

The demo was planned playfully and creatively: there was co-ordinated dancing and music, and carried along with the many banners were a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a woman in a cage wearing a tiara, washing lines holding bras, bodices and corsets, while the Women’s Street Theatre Group acted out The First Period, featuring a massive sanitary towel. A cosmetics and slimming routine troupe who brought up the end of the march, directed by the late Buzz Goodbody of the Royal Shakespeare Company, danced along a wind up gramophone playing the 1950s hit “Keep Young and Beautiful/ It’s Your Duty to be Beautiful … If you Want to be Loved.”

You can watch videos and film reports of the march

here

and here

A film report:

 

Jill Tweedie reported on the march at the time for the Guardian:

“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes.

And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.

Because sex is all we really had in common. Odd to think, in the middle of Oxford Circus, that inside our over-coats, under our mufflers, coiled within our sweaters and vests is the same intricate reproductive system – fallopian tubes, uterii, vaginas, and breasts – and that that is why we’re here, on March 6, 1971, in the snow. When, since the beginning of time, have men ever marched because they shared a particular sexual apparatus? Ludicrous, shameful, ridiculous, perish the thought.

Goodness knows our outsides were various enough. Long and short and thin and fat, quiet, middle-aged ladies in careful make-up, bare-faced girls with voices loud as crows, Maoists, liberals, socialists, lesbians, students, professionals, manual workers, spinsters, wives, widows, mothers. One two three four we want a bloody damn sight more. Biology isn’t destiny. Equal pay now. Bed or wed, are you free to choose? I’m not just a delectable screwing machine. Capitalism breeds sexploitation. Freedom. There were even women so politically committed that the very sight of Downing Street submerged “24-hour Nurseries” with “Tories Out” and “Kill the Bill.”

And when we arrived at Trafalgar Square the demo arranged itself into a symbol so apt as to seem planned. One girl at the mike, four girl photographers, and a solid phalanx of great, grey, brawny men blocking the view of the women. Get out, shrieked the women, get away, get back, and the men, genuinely startled, got back.

Communicators themselves, they communicated the women’s case – men, men, men, grouped at the foot of a soaring phallus with Nelson, a man, at the top. “Look at you all,” said a girl to a male photographer. “if that doesn’t tell you something about equal job opportunities, I don’t know what will.” The photographer looked as superior as a man can in a howling blizzard. “I’d like to see you going into a shower room full of naked men after a Cup Final,” he said. “I’d like to see you going into a changing room full of naked models,” she said. ” Try and stop me.” he said. “Try and stop me,” she said.

In the crowd a tiny “Gay is Good” placard vied gamely with a huge Women’s Lib banner. “Here, it’s our demonstration,” said Women’s Lib testily. “It’s against oppression, isn’t ?” snapped Gay Lib. “I was chucked out of my job last week because I’m gay. We’re more oppressed than what you are, any day.” Women’s Lib raised her eyebrows in ladylike fashion and turned back to the platform.

A middle-aged woman in fur has been lured from a bus stop to join the march. “I’m a graphic designer and what do I read in a trade magazine last week? Some man complaining about how difficult it is to get a job at 45. Huh. I’ve had difficulties getting jobs all my life – the moment they hear your voice on the telephone they don’t want to know.”

Another woman, skin flushed with Panstik, had a hand-scrawled notice pinned to the front of her tweed coat. “I’ve come all the way from Sheffield, I can’t afford the fare but I must do something for the single woman. We don’t get paid nearly as much as men but still we’ve got to find rooms, pay the electricity, feed ourselves. It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.” Behind the pebble lenses, her huge eyes watered. Then the speeches were over, vast congratulatory relief filled the square. The demonstration had happened (miracle) and it had happened well (greater miracle). Girls stood in groups, stamping and chatting:

“There was only one thing. The weather. The trade unions had such a marvellous day and we had to go and get this.”

“Well, love, what did you expect? God is a man.”
(Jill Tweedie)

May Hobbs, who was organising women nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s  Liberation activists, also marched and spoke from the platform.

Some pictures of the march:

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Support International Women’s Day events in London 2019:

Global Women’s Strike

Million Women Rise

 

Today in London radical history, 1795: a monster rally for political reform, Islington

The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was an important political movement that fought for political reform in the 1790s, that increasingly became more radical, and involved more and more working class men, and faced vicious repression by a government that felt threatened by its ideas.

The Society had been founded in January 1792, by nine ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious men’ called together by shoemaker Thomas Hardy, who became its first secretary. Its early membership consisted of working men, was politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the movements for reform of the electoral system in Britain, as well by the American & French Revolutions. The LCS was not new as a political debating club: what was new was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. The emphasis on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns was crucial: “It was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley) The LCS was in contact with similar groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle & Norwich, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.

Their basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But they also developed ideas well ahead of their time: eg MPs to be paid & recallable by their electorate…

But beyond that the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”

The LCS expected that an ‘honest parliament’ elected under the system they proposed would enact popular legislation: notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.

The LCS was split into divisions throughout London, sending two delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly. The divisions contained between 16 and 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. In September 1792 the Society was said to have 5000 members.

The Society, together with other reform-minded groups, sent messages of fraternity & support to the Convention in France, which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though they drew back from some of the ‘excesses’ like the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they supported the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.

The LCS & the Constitutional Society co-operated in rallies against the threat of harsh repressive laws. However the government’s legion of spies & informers were at work, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state…

In 1794, Government spies reported LCS members making speeches at meetings presented as seditious & republican: and the government acted. Parliament backed repression against LCS meetings, and three Society notables, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were all arrested and charged with treason. Hardy’s house was also attacked by an officially-backed ‘loyalist’ mob – his wife died in childbirth as a result.

Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined out of solidarity, Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried in November 1794, but the evidence was weak & they were acquitted: of treason: charges were dropped against several other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of activity after this however.

But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions in March to 70 or 80 in October. In 1795, a failed harvest led to rising food prices and massive hunger throughout the country, which resulted in growing anger against the class of landlords which working people perceived as caring little whether they lived or died and denying them any voice in how society was run. (bearing in mind that massive enclosure of common fields, woods and marginal land, running at a record pace, was depriving thousands of bare subsistence and impoverishing the rural poor,,, driving many into the cities to look for work). This merged with an increased resentment against Britain’s war against revolutionary France, which had not only pulled in thousands of men to fight as soldiers and sailors, but also led to steep rises in taxes which were seen to impact heavier on the poorest folk. The Corresponding Society’s stand against the war and the power of the landlords chimed in with the general resentment – they pointed out that the people benefitting from both high food prices were the same people sitting in Parliament, the same people in whose interests the war was being fought…

One of the LCS’ main organising tactics was holding monster rallies, mass meetings to show the strength of the movement for reform, inspire others, and undoubtedly to demand the attention of the government and persuade it that it needed to make concessions. In 1795 they held several massive rallies in London, centring their demands to the government ministers, that the war be stopped, that a program of parliamentary reform be put in place, and that attention be paid to the hunger in the country.

The king and the government ignored their petitions.

On 21st October the LCS issued an advertisement for a general meeting on 26th October, to be held on Copenhagen Fields, the grounds of Copenhagen House, which stood on the hill to the west of Islington; a well-known place for political meetings to be held.

They listed the business of the meeting – to vote on an address to the nation on the state of public affairs, a remonstrance to the king on the disregard shown toward the address of 29 June… Admission was free; members were urged to ‘exert their usual efforts with strangers to preserve that order and decorum’ which had placed the LCS above the intrigues of their enemies…

This was a very large meeting, possibly the largest of the era, with somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 or more attending. This meeting, addressed by LCS leaders John Gale Jones, Richard Hodgson, radical lecturer John Thelwall and John Ashley, a shoemaker, was possibly the one caricatured by Gillray in cartoon (see above), though alternatively this could represent the monster rally held in the same fields a few weeks later in November that year.

The government had been alarmed by the plans for the June monster meeting, but the 26th October rally seems to have appeared less threatening to them. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, directed John King to issue orders to Lt. Col Herries of the Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, to the Lord mayor and to Col Brownrigg to have their military forces in readiness: and to the police magistrates to retain extra constable and to send an observer to the meeting.

The LCS published two accounts of speeches made at the rally shortly afterwards, the following is taken from both these accounts.

Proceedings of a General Meeting of the London Corresponding Society,
Held on Monday October the 26th, 1795, in a field adjacent to Copenhagen-House, in the County of Middlesex

The Indifference with which the late Address from this Society to the King was treated; the rapid approximation of National destruction, thro’ the continuation of the present detestable War;- the horrors of an approaching Famine;- and above all, the increased Corruption, and Inquisitorial measures pursued and pursuing, by those who hold the Country in bondage – obliged this Society to appeal once more to their fellow Countrymen… [Accordingly a meeting was advertised.]

Previous to this meeting, the London Corresponding Society, had taken into consideration numerous Communications from different parts of the Country, suggesting the utility that would result from more active and direct communications between the people in those several places, and this Society, by the appointment of Members on deputation to open and regulate Societies for Parliamentary Reform; which was likewise a measure submitted to the public Meeting.

About half an hour after twelve o’clock, the People assembled on the Ground, according to the concurring calculations of several persons, amounted to more than one hundred and fifty thousand persons, at the same time that the Roads in all directions were still covered with people thronging to the meeting.

John Gale Jones opened the meeting by announcing that Citizen John Binns, ‘a well known and long tried Patriot, and an Honest Man’, had been nominated as chairman. After being unanimously approved, Binns took the chair and addressed the meeting, stating that he hoped the contempt shown to their last address would not provoke them,

“… but that you will now coolly and deliberately determine upon a further notice of proceeding, which shall enforce those Ministers, that when the voice of a United People goes forth, it is their duty to attend to it: and if they do not they will be guilty of HIGH TREASON against the PEOPLE…

Three points will be brought forth for rejection, amendment or unanimous approbation: an address to the nation, a remonstrance to the king on the contempt shown to the LCS address presented to his ministers, and resolutions applicable to the present crisis.

Address to the nation

Once more, dear friends and fellow citizens, in defiance of threats and insults – of base suggestions  and unmanly fears – are we met in the open face of day, and call the heavens and earth to witness the purity of our proceedings. Amidst the dreadful storms and hurricanes which at present assail the political hemisphere of our country, with firm and unabated vigour we pursue our avowed and real purpose – the grand and glorious cause of PARLIAMENTARY REFORM!

The rude gales of opposition, and the howling blasts of persecution have served only to assist our career; and where we might have lingered, from choice or indulgence, we now steadily from the heavy pressure of inevitable necessity!

With anxious minds and agitated hearts, we are again compelled to address you, and to solicit your patient attention. There was a time, when we might, perhaps, have been startled at the idea of rendering ourselves so conspicuous, and have fought for refuge under the veil of obscurity. When the timid apprehensions of our friends, the loss of our most valuable interests and connections, the threats of guilty Ministers, and the hostile preparations of armed associations, might have forcibly urged us to remain in silence, and to retreat from the eye of observation. But, alas, it is now too late! When the welfare of society is at stake, what private consideration ought to avail? We have been severely persecuted, it is true, but is our cause became lss clear? We have been cruelly and unjustly treated, but has the majesty of Truth suffered in the shameful contest? No. Away then with the lifeless apathy and pale-faced fear; let every friend of liberty must boldly deliver his real sentiments; and while he professes the virtuous principles of a patriot, assert his independence like a man!

Four months ago we peaceably assembled to deliberate upon the best and most probable of recovering our rights, and redressing our numerous grievances: we addressed you, and we petitioned the king. We believe, if we may judge from the rapid increase in our numbers from the last public meeting, that our sentiments and conduct experienced almost general approbration. From one particular quarter, however, we have not received that attention and regard which as Britons and Freemen, we might not have expected. The late Address to the king has either been artfully and prematurely suppressed, or passed over with contempt. If the former, we hesitate not to say, that HIS MINISTERS have proved themselves GUILTY OF HIGH TREASON against the Lives and Liberties of the Nation! If the latter, his Majesty should consider the sacred obligations he is bound to fulfil, and the duties he ought to discharge; he should recollect, that when he ceases to consult the interests and happiness of the people, he will cease to be respected, and that justice is a debt which the nation hath a right to demand from the Throne!

IN vain do we boast of a Constitution, if its genuine principles be not actively alive in our bosoms; in vain do we talk of rights, if we want courage and firmness to assert them. The true Constitution of a country is the undaunted spirit of its people! The principles of liberty must be established on the solid basis of rational conviction, and the virtues of patriotism cherished and supported by continual exertion! When once the citizens of Britain are become careless and indifferent about the preservation of their rights, or the choice of their representatives, from that moment arbitrary power is essentially introduced, and the utter extinction of individual liberty, and the establishment of general despotism, are inevitable and certain.

To delineate a faithful portrait of the awful situation of our poor distracted country, would only be to exhibit a scene of misery and desolation; a frightful picture of horror that would sicken the imagination, and appal the stoutest heart. The history of the last few months presents indeed to our view, a rapid succession of ill-fated mismanagement, unexampled calamities, and unparalleled disgrace! Baffled and defeated in every miserable project, they have either designed or undertaken, Ministers seem determined to display their pre-eminent power of doing mischief, and as they cannot compass the ruin of France, to contrive at the least, the destruction of England. Emigrant armies and foreign expeditions have been hastily planned and equipped, to ensure only to the one, an horrible and undistinguished carnage; and to the other, a premature and untimely grave! The manufacturer has been seduced from his loom – the militia man swindled from his domestic employment – and the humble cottager kidnapped from the plough. The bread that should support the industrious poor has been exported, either to be abandoned on a foreign shore, or consigned to the bottom of a fathomless ocean – while the helpless widow and orphan are consoled for their irreparable loss, by the scanty allowance of an insolent donation, or a charitable bribe!

The comfortable and pleasing prospects resulting from an abundant harvest have turned out to be vain and fallacious – and were probably held up only to lull the public mind into a delusive and fatal security! The approach of famine seems to be inevitable, and we have almost the melancholy and indubitable assurance of being soon in want of bread.

What is the cruel and insatiate that thus piecemeal tears and devours us? – Wherefore in the midst of apparent plenty are we thus compelled to starve? – Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want? – What is this subtle and insinuating poison which thus vitiates our domestic comforts and destroys our public prosperity? – It is Parliamentary Corruption, which like a foaming whirlpool swallows the fruit of all our labours, and leaves us only the dregs of bitterness and sorrow.

Those whose duty it is to watch over the interests of the Nation, have either proved themselves indifferent to its welfare, or unable to remove the pressure of these intolerable grievances. Let them however be aware in time – Let them look to the fatal consequences – We are sincere friends of Peace – we want only Reform: Because we are firmly and fully convinced, that a thorough Reform would effectually remedy those formidable evils: but we cannot answer for the strong and all-powerful impulse of necessity, nor always restrain the aggravated feelings of insulted human nature! – IF EVER THE BRITISH NATION SHOULD LOUDLY DEMAND STRONG AND DECISIVE MEASURES, WE BOLDLY ANSWER – “WE HAVE LIVES!” AND ARE READY TO DEVOTE THEM, EITHER SEPARATELY OR COLLECTIVELY, FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR COUNTRY.

We trust, however, that Reason and Remonstrance are alone sufficient to produce the desired effects. We have laboured long, and we hope not unsuccessfully. Our Numbers have increased beyond all human expectation: and many who once professed themselves our most inveterate Enemies are now converted into sincere and faithful Friends. A little more Patience, and a little Perseverance, Fellow Citizens, the business will be accomplished, and out Triumph complete. The LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY SHALL BE THE POWERFUL ORGAN TO USHER IN THE JOYFUL TIDINGS OF PEACE AND REFORM; AND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE AND ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS SHALL CROWN OUR SUCCESSFUL EXERTIONS!

JOHN BINNS, Chairman.
JOHN ASHLEY, Secretary.”

LCS member and longtime moderate radical activist/government informer, Francis Place, in hindsight labelled this address ‘an absurd declaration… filled with commonplace topics’. In terms of its language he though the speakers ‘did little more… than copy from their betters’ meaning Parliament.

“The Reading of this Address was, from time to time, interrupted by such loud applauses as are but seldom heard, even in public places – and being ended amidst the warmest and most unanimous acclamations of approbation, the Chairman proceeded next to read

THE REMONSTRANCE TO THE KING.

To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.

The humble and earnest Remonstrance  of Two Hundred Thousand, and upwards , faithful, though greatly aggrieved, Subjects, associated ad assembled  with the CORRESPONDING SOCIETY of London, in a constitutional manner, in behalf of themselves and others.

Sire!

When the treacherous duplicity, and intolerable tyranny of the House of STUART had roused the long-enduring patience of the British People, the expulsion of one restored into their hands into their hands the primitive right of chusing another, as their Chief of many Magistrates.

[At that period the privilege of remonstrating with the Chief Magistrate was established. When Queen Anne died without heirs, the pubic called to kingly office the head of the house from which you are descended. The preservation of the rights, reconfirmed at the Revolution, then became part of the obligations of George I. In spite of the smallness of the majority which established the Hanoverian succession, the nation has supported the decision of their representatives on that occasion. The people of this country hoped that an eternal gratitude would bind your house (transplanted from poverty and obscurity to dignity and opulence) to support the freedom and happiness of this country.

Our present object is to renew a complaint delivered in an address to you, which we put into the hands of the Duke of Portland on 15 July. In that address we expressed our belief that your ministers have plunged the nation into its present calamities and should be dismissed; and that only a reform in representation can restore this country to vigour and happiness.

Our address was not attended to by your majesty’s servants as it should have been. Are we to suffer and not complain? What have we not to fear if there is an impenetrable barrier between the oppressed and the magistrate? Alas, we hoped to find the third sovereign of the Brunswick line an example of royal virtue. We wished you to consider whether your duty to your royal progeny and to your people, whose industry provides the funds for their princely support, will be accomplished by pursuing the measures of odious ministers or by giving the people liberty, peace and reform.

“Listen then, Sire! To the voices of a wearied and afflicted people, whose grievances are so various that they distract, to enormous that they terrify. Think of the abyss between supplication and despair! – The means of national salvation are in your own hands – it is our right to advise as well as supplicate: and we declare it to be our opinion, that a Reform in the Representation of the people, the removal of your present Ministers, and a speedy PEACE, are the only means by which this country can be saved, or the attachment of the People secured.”

Signed by Order of the Meeting,

  1. BINNS, Chairman
  2. ASHLEY, Secretary.

 This being received with an equally unanimous approbation, the Chairman then read the following RESOLUTIONS.

RESOLVED.

1st. That the present awful and alarming state of the British Empire, demands the serious attention of our fellow countrymen.

2nd. That its unexampled distresses call for immediate and effectual redress.

3rd. That we are fully persuaded the present exorbitant price of the necessaries of life, (notwithstanding the late abundant harvest) is occasioned partly by the present ruinous war; but chiefly by that pernicious system of monopoly, which derives protection from the mutilated and corrupt state of the Parliamentary Representation.

4th. That the enormous load of axes, under which this almost ruined country groans, together with its unparalleled National Debt, (which has been and will be greatly encreased by the present war) threatens the British Nation with total ruin.

5th. That the inflexible obstinacy of Ministers, in continuing the present cruel, unjust, and disgraceful war – a war which was has stained the earth and seas with so much human blood – calls aloud for the execration of every friend of humanity.

6th. That the present Government of France, is capable of maintaining the accustomed relations or peace and amity with the King of Great Britain, as with the Elector of Hanover.

7th. That we remain fully convinced that the permanent peace, welfare and happiness of this Country, can be established only by restoring to our fellow Countrymen their natural and undoubted right; Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments.

8th. That we are determined at the next general Election, to support such candidates only as will pledge themselves to a radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament.

9th. That the evasive conduct of His majesty’s Ministers, respecting our late Address, convinces us that our fellow countrymen have little to hope from the Executive part of our Government.

10th. That the only hope of the people is on themselves.

11th. That the period is not far distant, when Britons must no longer depend upon any party of men for the recovery of their liberties.

12th. That the publicity of our conduct evinces the purity of our intentions, and is a testimony of our love of peace, and of the sacrifices we would make to spare the blood of our fellow countrymen.

13th. That the events of every day are clearly proving, that we have gained the good opinion of our fellow countrymen, notwithstanding the opposition of our persecutors and calumniators.

14th. That, in order the more effectually to obtain the co-operation and assistance of the whole country, deputies shall be sent from the Society to the principal towns in the kingdom, for the purpose of explaining to our fellow countrymen the necessity of associating, as the only means of procuring a parliamentary reform.

15th. That strong in the purity of our intentions and the goodness of our cause – regardless of the calumny and threats of our enemies – we again solemnly pledge ourselves to the British nation, never to desert the scared cause in which we are engaged, until we have obtained the grand object of our pursuit.

The chairman having left the chair, a motion was made and seconded, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to the Chairman, which was accordingly put and carried into motion.

A motion was also moved and passed, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to Citizen Jones, Thelwall, Hodgson &c for their exertions this day.

Both these Motions were unanimously passed, amidst the greatest acclamations. A little after Five o’clock the Meeting broke up, when the immense Company that was present separated, and proceeded to their respective homes: the utmost harmony, regularity and good order prevailed during the whole time, each and every individual seeming to be impressed with the Idea, that it was a Day SACRED TO LIBERTY.”

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However peaceful and amicable the account above makes the end of the meeting sound, the language used certainly contains veiled threats. The address to the king, for instance, informs George III that his kingship is subject to the approval of the whole people of the nation, and this is a compact than can be revoked unless he wins the people’s approval; also that all the ‘inherited’ wealth of the king and the luxurious living he and his family enjoy is based on the labour of the lower orders… Despite the protestations of loyalty, and appeals to the old trope that the king is being betrayed in his duty to his subjects by the evil ministers that surround him (a well-versed theme going back to the Peasants Revolt), there is a passive-aggressive threat contained in almost every line. And the authorities cannot have missed the use of the title ‘Citizen’ – the term the French Revolutionaries had used, a title that in its very nature implied a people NOT subject to kingly authority, that threatened the guillotine without even mentioning it.

The speakers also threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster on the 29th, when the king would go to the houses of parliament, to protest the king and government ignoring their petitions. This suggestion would directly lead to a riot and an attack on the king.

We will cover more on the Corresponding Society In October 1795, on October 29th

Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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Today in London radical history, 1649: executed mutineer Robert Lockyer’s funeral becomes a Leveller demonstation

“I am ready and willing to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.” (Robert Lockyer, 1649)

Robert Lockyer (also spelt Lockier) was born in London in about 1626. He received adult baptism in 1642, when he was 16, together with his mother, Mary, into a sect of the particular Baptists in Bishopsgate, then a suburb on London’s northeastern edge. This seems to have been where Robert grew up and had several relatives – it would also be the scene of the mutiny that would result in his execution.

Although this area had some ‘fair houses for merchant and artificers’, it had experienced a rapid building boom in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and along with Spitalfields and Shoreditch the Bishopsgate area had long also been associated with migrants, often denied entry to live or work in London, with various forms of criminal subcultures, and those looking to evade control or close scrutiny by the City authorities… Since 1500 the area’s population had increased, and refugees from the increasing enclosure of common lands, dislocation in the countryside, and the desperate seeking work, had swelled the streets around Bishopsgate. It’s unclear what Lockyer’s background was, whether his family had been resident for generations, or were relatively newly arrived… but the mix of classes, wealth and poverty side by side, the inevitable mix of ideas and resentments that arise in such ‘barrios’ may be relevant to his story.

His background in, or choice to enter, a separatist sect, the particular Baptists, is typical of many of the radicals of the English Civil War. The religious ferment, the spreading of ideas, creeds, the multiplying of branches of the protestant faith and offshoots from it, forms a vital backdrop to the English Revolution. It wasn’t just that freedom to worship as they chose, in small and self-directed congregations, without interference from the Anglican Church authorities with their secular backing from the king, was a huge demand that bubbled up for decades before the 1640s. Many of the sects were also developing radical critiques, both is purely religious terms, and when applied to the social order around them. This was harshly repressed for a century after the Reformation, but with the struggle between parliament and king out in the open, would erupt in a multi-shock volcano of ideas, proposals, and programs, and manifest in word, print and action. They saw themselves as the Saints, God’s own, though their views often diverged at to what God approved of and what kind of world He would want them to build, and as to what role the Saints themselves had in doing God’s will on Earth…

The Baptists in particular produced many political radicals in the English civil war period, as they had in the 16th century, when, known as ‘anabaptists, usually by their enemies, many had held extreme political views, and been involved in insurrections, revolutionary plotting and spreading of subversive social theories. But while the general suspicion of the Anglican church and state authorities, was that Baptists were basically dangerous extremists likely to do a ‘John of Leyden’ and introduce communism and bloodshed against the wealthy at the drop of a hat, many baptists were in reality quiet-living and law-abiding, so long as they could worship as they chose.

The range of ideas among the puritan and other sects was wide – many who sought independence from the established church for their own sect deplored tolerance for others (and catholics could basically whistle), but also feared and denounced the social rebelliousness that seemed to follow religious questioning. Many on the parliamentary side in the war were happy to enlist religious radicals to fight the king’s army, but had little intention of allowing this to imply the radicals had any right to either determine their own congregational path, or worse, start offering opinions on how wider society might be reshaped to the benefit of a wider swathe… A clarion call for freedom of conscience as a battle standard was a dangerous strategy, and it was to backfire on the cautious reformers and even many of the more devout leaders, as they saw subversive ideas spreading among the lower orders…

On the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Robert Lockyer joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and served as a private trooper. It is telling that he joined the regiment commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley, having first served in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’: this regiment was filled with hardcore puritans and sectaries, who saw the struggle against the king as doing God’s work, but also debated and discussed among themselves, around campfires and on the march, the kind of society the Godly should help create. And by the mid-1640s they were coming to radical conclusions. Richard Baxter, a leading puritan preacher and theologian, chaplain to Whalley’s regiment in 1645-46, observed this, to his horror: “Many honest men of weak judgments and little acquaintance with such matters… [were]… seduced into a disputing vein… sometimes for state democracy, sometimes for church democracy.” Baxter would spent much time denouncing this kind of uppityness among the common sort, who ought to listen to the learned and stop thinking they had the right to question or offer up opinions of their own.

Some regiments in the victorious New Model Army elected Agitators or agents, who, in alliance with the London Levellers, drew up the Agreement of the People, a program for a widening of the electorate and some measure of social justice. Its four main proposals were to dissolve the current Parliament (suspected of lukewarm sentiment for change and many of whose members had been intriguing with the defeated king Charles to work against the power of the army), radically redraw constituencies to better represent the country, more regular elections, freedom of religious conscience, and equality for all before the law. (To this was added, in later editions, the vote to be extended to all adult male householders, and the exclusion of catholics from freedom of conscience. There are limits, after all.)

It’s not known when Robert Lockyer became a Leveller sympathiser, or whether he was heavily involved in the New Model Army agitators campaign for democracy of 1647, though it is assumed he was involved, as Whalley’s regiment was at the heart of this ferment. It was later said of Lockyer, after his death, that he had supported the Leveller Agreement of the People, and had been present at the abortive mutiny at Ware in November 1647, which had broken out as the more radical elements in the army began to realise that the leadership were outmanoeuvring them and had no plans to implement anything like as ground-breaking a program as the Agreement. The mutiny had followed on from two weeks of argument among the army leadership and agitators at the Putney Debates. Here the Army leadership made it very clear that they very opposed the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes. As Oliver Cromwell said: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”

Lockyer’s regiment was in fact stationed at Hampton Court, (guarding the imprisoned king, though Charles escaped on the 11th November), which was near enough for Lockyer to have ridden to Ware, (though he would have been AWOL at best, risking serious punishment if caught, up to the death sentence for desertion), if he was involved in the plans for a mutiny to impose the Agreement; but this may also be backward-myth making. We will never know. In any case the mutiny was quashed, as the majority of the troops present were persuaded to remain loyal to the Army Grandees, and Leveller/Agitator leaders Thomas Rainborough and John Lilburne realised that active support for a democratic army coup was weaker than they had thought. If Lockyer was present, it was not be the last mutiny he saw.

The Army leadership, represented most vocally by Oliver Cromwell, had ensured that the possibility of the army taking up arms against parliament on the basis of the Agreement could not happen, and in fact a Second Civil War followed as royalists rebelled in Kent and elsewhere. The threat in fact drove Grandees and radicals into temporary alliance against resurgent royalism and its sympathisers in a Parliament determined to put the army back in its place. But the rapprochement lasted only as long as the Second Civil War and the resulting purge of Parliament. When the king and his supporters were again beaten, Leveller demands for some quid pro quo for falling in behind Cromwell and co during this crisis, and rapidly led to the arrest of leading Leveller spokesmen.

This took place in early 1649. But the Grandees continued to pursue radicals in the army who attempted to push for the ideals set out in the Agreement of the People. In March 1649 eight soldiers from various regiments were court-martialled for petitioning the army’s nominal top brass General Fairfax to restore the more electoral structure the army agitators had briefly achieved two years before. The humiliating punishment five of them received – being paraded held up on a wooden pole, their swords broken, and then cashiered – made it clear that protest for democracy – in the army, or society in general – were not to be tolerated.

This formed the immediate background to the confrontation that cost Robert Lockyer his life. Future attempts by grassroots soldiers at independent action, on any issue, would be squashed.

A few weeks later, Captain Savage’s troop of Whalley’s Regiment, then quartered in the City of London, was ordered to quit these quarters and join the regimental rendezvous at Mile End, in preparation to march into Essex. On hearing this, 30 troopers seized the troop’s colours from the Four Swans Inn at Bishopsgate Street where it was stashed, and carried it to the nearby Bull Inn, a noted haunt of radicals at that time. Captain Savage demanded they bring out the colour, mount their horses and proceed to Mile End but they refused, fighting off his subsequent attempt to wrestle the flag off them. Lockyer told Savage that they were ‘not his colour carriers’ and that they had all fought under it, and for all that it symbolised (which could be interpreted in a number of ways, given the widespread debate about what the civil war had been for and how what many soldiers had felt were its aims had been closed down). Lockyer’s companions echoed his words, shouting ‘All, all!’

That a stance by just 30 men worried the army hierarchy can be seen in the quick reaction of Colonel Whalley and Generals Cromwell and Fairfax both hurried to the Bull. Whalley, arriving first with other regimental officers, and a large force of loyal troopers, negotiated with the 30 men. The ‘mutineers’ complained that they had not been paid enough to pay for the quarters they had been occupying in the city. This was a major grouse among civilians who housed soldiers in their homes – whether voluntarily, or in many cases, by force. The army was notoriously slow to cough up pay to its troops, sometimes arrears would run to months or even years, and the cost and inconvenience of quartering soldiers was a severe economic burden for householders. Seeing themselves as they did, as a kind of citizen army, the armed wing of righteous public opinion, some of the democratically-minded among the army were angry that they often could not pay their way, and this issue was a huge one at this time (not to mention the expenses mounted troopers like Lockyer’s company had for themselves – ie gear, horses, which often came to half their daily pay by themselves) . However, there is little doubt that both the 30 men and their superiors both saw this as the tip of a large iceberg, with all the repressed demands of the agitators and levellers looming threateningly below the surface. It was not what Lockyer and his comrades DID that required rapidly putting to an end – it was the potential for an insurrection that could spread to the city, and the wider army.

Although Whalley offered a sum of money to pay these arrears for quartering, the troopers pushed for stronger guarantees that he would offer, and Whalley lost patience, ordering Lockyer to mount, and when he refused, arresting him and fifteen of the other men. A crowd of civilians sympathetic to Lockyer and the rebels had gathered, but were scattered by men who obeyed Whalley’s order to disperse them. At this point Fairfax and Cromwell turned up, and ordered all fifteen to be taken to Whitehall to be court-martialled.

At the court-martial, one man was acquitted, three left to the discretion of the Colonel, five sentenced to ‘ride the wooden horse’ (the same punishment the five soldiers in March had suffered) – and six, including Lockyer, condemned to death. The six petitioned General Fairfax for mercy, promising to be obedient in future, and he pardoned five, but upheld the sentence on Lockyer. This was, Fairfax said, because at the court martial he had attempted to defend himself using the argument that their was no legal justification for the imposition of martial law (in reality, military control of the state) that the army grandees were operating under, in a time of peace – a clear challenge not just to daily gripes about pay but about policy and about whose interests the army were now representing. This defence enraged the court, and his death sentence was upheld not just to punish him, but to give an example to the alliance of army radicals and civilian activists that the Grandees feared was still active and brewing. A group of women supporters of the Levellers who had been visiting Parliament to petition for the release of the civilian Leveller leaders (ignoring the advice of MPs and Grandees to go home and mind their wifely duties and not meddle with the affairs of men!) had gathered outside the court-martial at Whitehall; they greeted the soldiers as they came out of the court, saying that there would be more such men as the accused in other places soon, and that Lockyer was a godly man and a Saint, who the authorities were going to murder.

The brief mutiny had aroused support among the discontented in London, and the possibility of a mutiny becoming an uprising had to be cut off. Whether Lockyer was in fact the ringleader of the protest or not, he was picked out to be a dreadful example for any potential rebels.

On April 27th, Robert Lockyer was marched to St Paul’s Churchyard by soldiers of Colonel Hewson’s regiment, to be shot. Speaking before execution, Lockyer is said to have announced

“I am ready and willin to dye for my Country and liberty and I blesse God I am not afraid to look death in the face in this particular cause God hath called me to.”

He added that he was happy to die if his fellows could be spared, but was troubled that he had been condemned for something so small as a dispute over pay, after fighting for seven years ‘for the liberties of the nation’. Refusing a blindfold, he spoke directly to the soldiers assigned to shoot him, “fellow-soldiers… brought here by your officers to murder me.. I did not think you had such heathenish and barbarous principles in you as to obey your officers in [this]” Major Carter, commanding the firing squad, being visibly shaken by this, Colonel Okey, who had been on the bench at Lockyer’s court-martial, angrily accused him of attempting to incite the firing squad to mutiny, and seizing his coat belt and jacket, distributed them to the firing squad, who then announced themselves ready to obey their orders. The sentence was carried out.

Lockyer’s funeral, two days later on Sunday 29th April, took the form of a political demonstration, a reminder of the strength of the Leveller organisation in London. Lockyer’s coffin was carried in silent procession from Smithfield in the afternoon, slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the internment in the New Churchyard (underneath modern Liverpool Street Station – recently excavations here for the Crossrail train line has disturbed the bones buried here, presumably including Lockyer, and his fellow civil war radical, John Lilburne). The coffin bore blood-stained rosemary and a naked sword (a threat aimed at the Grandees of the potential for armed rebellion?)

Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons – black for mourning and sea-green to show their allegiance to the Levellers whose colour this was. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainborough the previous autumn, or king Charles a few months before. As the Leveller newspaper, The Moderate said, a remarkable tribute to a person of ‘no higher quality that a private trooper’ (quality meaning ‘class position’ here).

But while Lockyer’s funeral procession showed the strength of the support for the Levellers and sympathy with army radicals, Lockyer’s execution in fact showed that the Grandees were firmly in control of most of the army, enough at least to put down discontent and isolate troublemakers. Radicals in Whalley’s regiment were scared into submission, many signing a declaration of loyalty in May, and they did not join the subsequent army mutiny at Burford at the end of May, whose (again rapid) defeat marked in reality the end of any threat of an concerted army rebellion in favour of democratic ideals or Leveller principles. Three soldiers were shot 24 hours after the Burford mutiny, after another drumhead court-martial.

Written protest from Leveller spokesmen John Lilburne and Richard Overton, and a petition from Leveller women activists, at Lockyer’s execution fell on deaf ears – the Grandees were secure in the saddle, and knew it. They no longer needed the support of the radicals against the king or the moderate parliamentarians, and knew they could cow much opposition by executions, and ignore objections that martial law was no longer legal. They had also perceptively realised that their preparation to use terror and force was not matched by a similar determination on the radical side – as Colonel Hewson observed: “we can hang twenty before they will hang one.”

As with the other ‘radical’ army mutinies of the late 1640s, the way that Lockyer and many of his fellow soldiers saw themselves – as representing both the righteous of the nation, but also doing God’s work – gave them the justification for asserting their voice against their commanders; many of their commanders shared their background among the Saints, and so they also felt that this argument would be understood, at least. But diverging views as to what the interests of the nation and God’s work consisted of had been opening up since the beginning of the civil war – based on class interests, as much as interpretations of scripture. The actions of Cromwell, in particular, enraged the godly radicals, as they had seen him as one of them, a betrayer of the ‘good old cause’: but his class background meant his practical cleaving to the defence of the ‘men of property’ was always likely.

In the end, the program of the New Model Army agitators and the Levellers was forward thinking, and garnered wide support, but at a time of weariness of war, divisions and violence, not enough backing to push through into actual social change. The army mutinies all failed because, whatever widespread sympathy radical views inspired, only a minority were prepared to defy orders, whether for immediate grievances, or for larger social aims. Many of the reforms that the Levellers fought for, and Robert Lockyer and his comrades argued over in the army in the later 1640s, were later won, and are now widely help up as our democratic rights. Whether Lockyers of today would accept that, or push forward for more radical interpretations, for a wider redistribution of the wealth, power and responsibility in society… we can only speculate.

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Today in London radical history, 1870: a Land & labour League unemployed demonstration.

On 15th April 1870, a Land and Labour League unemployed demonstration took place in London. The winter of 1869-70 had seen a large rise in unemployment, and on Good Friday the League organised a demonstration of the jobless, which aroused considerable comment. League members wore “broad scarlet sashes…around the waist, in the exact pattern current among the sans culottes of the first French Revolution, and, in a further imitation of that class, poles were born aloft with the emblematical caps of liberty”. (The Times, 16 April 1870)

The Land and Labour League had been formed in October 1869, by a group of radical trade unionists affiliated to the International Working Men’s Association. The meetings had been proposed by the O’Brienite National Reform League and were attended by a variety of working class radicals, as evidenced by the somewhat eclectic programme. Its formation had been sparked by a discussion of the land question at the Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the ‘First International’) earlier in the year.

The League advocated the full nationalisation of land, in the interests of the people that worked it; its membership was associated with many of the working class activists and trade unionists who formed the backbone of the political reform movements of the 1860s-70s, (it has been described as the successor to the Reform League) the secularists and the shortlived working class republican network in London.

Although originally concerned mainly with land nationalisation the League became the leading left republican organisation in Britain.

Patrick Hennessey, an Irish trade unionist, was the Land League’s President. The secretaries were Martin J. Boon (who had been strongly influenced by the group that grew up around the former Chartist socialist James Bronterre O’Brien, based at the Eclectic Hall in Soho) and John Weston, and the treasurer was Johann Eccarius, well known figure in the English section of the First International.

Boon’s involvement in the formation of the League is illustrated in the presence in the original principles of the L&LL many of the demands of the ‘O’Brienite’ wing of Chartism – nationalisation of the land; home colonization; equal electoral rights and payment of MPs, along with more more generally radical aims – free compulsory state education; abolition of standing army; state limitation of working hours. To this was added a plethora of concessions to the rising tide of currency reformism (single tax; nationalisation of the banks; abolition of national debt).

Members of the IMWA’s General Council were noticeably active in the League. These included JG Eccarius, then a disciple of Marx, George Odger, John Weston, Martin J Boon and Tom Mottershead. Marx was a member of the League, joining on 30 November 1869, but did not play a prominent part. Charles Bradlaugh, the secularist, was also a leading figure.

‘The Republican’ (1 September 1870 to 1 February 1872) was the de facto publication of the League. Daniel Chatterton, former Chartist, secularist speaker, fiery communist orator, later of ‘Chatterton’s Commune’ fame, was the proprietor.

The Land & League reached its organisational height due to wide spread public sympathy with the new French republic declared in 1870 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. At a League rally on the issue of the war and the French Republic in January 1871, “a dense sea of human faces…men- workers primarily and a few women ‘daughters of Labour’ – understanding the speeches and keen about them; and on the platform a small knot of men, the Irreconcilables of English policy”. The latter included Beesly, his friend Harrison, Bradlaugh, Odger and Applegarth. (Eastern Post, 14 January 1871).

Originally neutral, the League later helped organise an Anglo-French Intervention Committee to press for military action against the Prussians – at this meeting a motion for war if Alsace Lorraine was annexed was passed. This latter action and the outbreak of the Paris Commune brought dissensions. More moderate (Odger, Bradlaugh) and more radical (Weston, Boon) elements broke off. Competition from the middle class Land Tenure Association stole many of the surviving adherents. A rump of currency cranks lingered on until the end of the 1870s.

Despite effectively petering out by 1873 the League had some radicalising impact on the Land Tenure Reform Association established by John Stuart Mill, which adopted a policy of taxing the unearned increment on land value under pressure from the League.

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Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland

Drawn up: by JG Eccarius on about November 14, 1869;
Published: as a pamphlet Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1869.

This address is in fact the programme of the Land and Labour League; drawn up by Eccarius who was on the commission preparing it, and edited by Marx, and this found expression in the League’s programme.

Fellow-Workers,

The fond hopes held out to the toiling and suffering millions of this country thirty years ago have not been realised. They were told that the removal of fiscal restrictions would make the lot of the labouring poor easy; if it could not render them happy and contented it would at least banish starvation for ever from their midst.

They rose a terrible commotion for the big loaf, the landlords became rampant, the money lords confounded, the factory lords rejoiced — their will was done — Protection received the coup de grâce. A period of the most marvellous prosperity followed. At first the Tories threatened to reverse the policy, but on mounting the ministerial benches, in 1852, instead of carrying out their threat, they joined the chorus in praise of unlimited competition. Prepared for a pecuniary loss they discovered to their utter astonishment that the rent-roll was swelling at the rate of more than £2,000,000 a year. Never in the history of the human race was there so much wealth — means to satisfy the wants of man — produced by so few hands, and in so short a time as since the abolition of the Corn Laws. During the lapse of twenty years the declared value of the animal exports of British and Irish produce and manufactures — the fruits of your own labour — rose from £60,000,000 to £188,900,000. In twenty years the taxable income of the lords and ladies of the British soil increased, upon their own confession, from £98,000,000 to £140,000,000 a year; that of the chiefs of trades and professions from £60,000,000 to 10,000,000 a year. Could human efforts accomplish more?

Alas! there are stepchildren in Britania’s family. No Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet divulged the secret how the £140,000,000 are distributed amongst the territorial magnates, but we know all about the trades-folk. The special favourites increased from sixteen, in 1846, to one hundred and thirty-three, in 1866. Their average annual income rose from £74,300 to £100,600 each. They appropriated one-fourth of the twenty years’ increase. The next of kin increased from three hundred and nineteen to nine hundred and fifty-nine Individuals: their average annual income rose from £17,700 to £19,300 each: they appropriated another fourth. The remaining half was distributed amongst three hundred and forty-six thousand and forty-eight respectables, whose annual income ranged between £100 and £10,000 sterling. The toiling millions, the producers of that wealth — Britania’s cinderellas — got cuffs and kicks instead of halfpence.

In the year 1864 the taxable income under schedule D increased by £9,200,000. Of that increase the metropolis, with less than an eighth of the population, absorbed £4,266,000, nearly a half, £3,123,000 of that, more than a third of the increase of Great Britain, was absorbed by the City of London, by the favourites of the one hundred and seventy-ninth part of the British population: Mile End and the Tower, with a working population four times as numerous, got £175,000. The citizens of London are smothered with gold; the householders of the Tower Hamlets are overwhelmed by poor-rates. The citizens, of course, object to centralisation of poor-rates purely on the principle of local self-government.

During the ten years ending 1861 the operatives employed in the cotton trade increased 12 per cent; their produce 103 per cent. The iron miners increased 6 per cent; the produce of the mines 37 per-cent. Twenty thousand iron miners worked for ten mine owners. During the same ten years the agricultural labourers of England and Wales diminished by eighty-eight thousand one hundred and forty-seven, and yet, during that period, several hundred thousand acres of common land were enclosed and transformed into private property to enlarge the estates of the nobility and the same process is still going on.

In twelve years the rental liable to be rated to the poor in England and Wales rose from £86,700,000 to £118,300,000: the number of adult able-bodied paupers increased from one hundred and forty-four thousand five hundred to one hundred and eighty-five thousand six hundred.

These are no fancy pictures, originating in the wild speculations of hot brained incorrigibles; they are the confessions of landlords and money lords, Recorded in their own blue books. One of their experts told the House of Lords the other day that the propertied classes, after faring sumptuously laid by £150,000,000 a year out of the produce of your labour. A few weeks later the president of the Royal College of Surgeons related to a jury assembled to inquire into the causes of eight untimely deaths, what lie saw in the foul ward of St. Pancras.

Hibernia’s favourites too have multiplied, and their income has risen, while a sixth of her toiling sons and daughters perished by famine, and its consequent diseases, and a third of the remainder were evicted, ejected and expatriated by tormenting felonious usurpers.

This period of unparalleled Industrial prosperity has landed thousands of our fellow-toilers — honest, unsophisticated, hardworking men and women — in the stone yard and the oakum room; the roast beef of their dreams has turned into skilly. Hundreds of thousands, men, women and children, are wandering about — homeless, degraded outcasts — in the land that gave them birth, crowding the cities and towns, and swarming the highroads in the, country in search of work to obtain food and shelter, without being able to find any. Other thousands, more spirited than honest, are walking the treadmill to expiate little thefts, preferring prison discipline to workhouse fare, while the wholesale swindlers are at large, and felonious landlords preside at quarter sessions to administer the laws. Thousands of the young and strong cross the seas, flying from their native firesides, like from an exterminating plague; the old and feeble perish on the roadside of hunger and cold. The hospitals and infirmaries are overcrowded with fever and famine-stricken: death from starvation has become an ordinary every-day occurrence.

All parties are agreed that the sufferings of the labouring poor were never more intense, and misery so widespread, nor the means of satisfying the wants of man ever so abundant as at present. This proves above all that the moral foundation of all civil government, “that the welfare of the entire community is the highest law, and ought to be the aim and end of all civil legislation”, has been utterly disregarded. Those who preside over the destinies of the nation have either wantonly neglected their primary duty while attending to the special interests of the rich to make them richer, or their social position, their education, their class prejudices have incapacitated them from doing their duty to the community at large or applying the proper remedies; in either case they have betrayed their trust.

Class government is only possible on the condition that those who are held in subjection are secured against positive want. The ruling classes have failed to secure the industrious wages-labourer in the prime of his life against hunger and death from starvation. Their remedies have signally failed, their promises have not been fulfilled. They promised retrenchment, they have enormously increased the public expenditure instead. They promised to lift the burden of taxation from your shoulders, the rich pay but a fractional part of the increased expenses; the rest is levied upon your necessaries — even your pawn tickets are taxed — to keep up a standing army drawn from your own ranks, to shoot you down if you show signs of disaffection. They promised to minimise pauperism: they have made indigence and destitution your average condition — the big loaf has dwindled into no loaf. Every remedy they have applied has but aggravated the evil, and they have no other to suggest, — their rule is doomed. To continue is to involve all in a common ruin. There is but one, — and only one, — remedy. Help Yourselves! Determine that you will not endure this abominable state of things any longer; act up to your determination, and it will vanish.

A few weeks ago a score of London working men talked the matter over. They came to the conclusion that the present economical basis of society was the foundation of all the existing evils, — that nothing short of a transformation of the existing social and political arrangements could avail, and that such a transformation could only be effected by the tolling millions themselves. They embodied their conclusions in a series of resolutions, and called a conference of representative working men, to whom they were submitted for consideration. In three consecutive meetings those resolutions were discussed and unanimously adopted. To carry them out a new working men’s organisation, under the title of the “Land and Labour League”, was established. An executive council of upwards of forty well-known representative working men was appointed to draw up a platform of principles arising out of the preliminary resolutions adopted by the conference, to serve as the programme of agitation by means of which a radical change call be effected.

After mature consideration the Council agreed to the following:

  1. Nationalisation of the Land.
  2. Home Colonisation.
  3. National, Secular, Gratuitous and Compulsory Education.
  4. Suppression of Private Banks of Issue. The State Only to Issue Paper Money
  5. A Direct and Progressive Property Tax, in Lieu of All Other Taxes.
  6. Liquidation of the National Debt.
  7. Liquidation of the Standing Army.
  8. Reduction of the Number of the Hours of Labour.
  9. Equal Electoral Rights, with Payment of Members.

The success of our efforts will depend upon the pressure that can be brought to bear upon the powers that be, and this requires numbers, union organisation and combination. We therefore call upon you to unite, organise and combine and raise the cry throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, “The Land for the People” — the rightful inheritors of nature’s gifts. No rational state of society can leave the land, which is the source of life, under the control of, and subject to the whims and caprices of, a few private individuals. A government elected by, and as trustee for, the whole people is the only power that can manage it for the benefit of the entire community.

Insist upon the State reclaiming the unoccupied lands as a beginning of its nationalisation, and placing the unemployed upon it. Let not another acre of common land be enclosed for the private purposes of non-producers. Compel the Government to employ the army until its final dissolution, as a pioneer force to weed, drain and level the wastes for cultivation, instead of forming encampments to prepare for the destruction of life. If green fields and kitchen gardens are incompatible with the noble sport of hunting let the hunters emigrate.

Make the Nine points of the League the Labour programme the touchstone by which you test the quality of candidates for parliamentary honours, and if you find them spurious reject them like a counterfeit coin, for he who is not for them is against you.

You are swindled out of the fruits of your toil by land laws, money laws, and all sorts of laws. Out of the paltry pittance that is left you, you have to pay the interest of a debt that was incurred to keep you in subjection. You have to maintain a standing army that serves no other purpose in your generation, and you are systematically overworked when employed, and underfed at all times. Nothing but a series of such reforms as indicated on our programme will ever lift soil out of the slough of despond in which you are at present sunk. The difficulty can be overcome by unity of purpose and action. We are our opponents are few. Then, working men and women of all creeds and occupations, claim your rights as with one voice, and rally round, and unite your forces under, the banner of the “Land and Labour League” to conquer your own emancipation!

John Weston, Treasurer
Martin J. Boon, J. George Eccarius Secretaries

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Thanks to Keith Scholey for some of this post… Readers interest in the secularist, republican scene in London between the 1850s and 1880s, especially the followers of Bronterre O’Brien, could do worse than read Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, by Stan Shipley. EP Thompson’s biog of William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, and The Slow Burning Fuse, by John Quail, pick up the threads of this, describing how many of these elements went on to form the early English socialist and anarchist movements.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in radical history, 1848: the last great Chartist rally on Kennington Common.

Sometimes called “the first great British working class political movement”, the Chartist movement, which spanned the late 1830s to the early 1850s, was in many ways the culmination of a diverse collection of radical and reform movements that had been developing in Britain for the past 70 years. Pressure for political reform, a wider franchise, and a greater say in how society was run for the ‘lower orders’ (almost everyone except the aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie) that had been slowly gathering pace since the early 1760s. This movement had been re-galvanised by the ideas of the first French Revolution of 1789, and spiced with the coagulation of resistance to rapid and traumatic economic change and the imposition of capitalism, by the people most impacted, the industrial working classes – still wet behind the ears from recognising its own existence.

The movement combined the traditions of political liberty with the struggle for economic power in a bewilderingly altering society, adding in a powerful influence from the scene of blasphemous writers, seditious preachers and agitational journalists that had articulated rebellion against religious and social restrictions and raged against enclosure, the dispossession of people from the land, and in some cases, slavery… The movement that had built the mass opposition to the stamp tax on newspapers…

Chartism inherited and amplified the demands and the language of these traditions, but was also heir to the deep divisions over tactics, methods and – ultimately – the true goal. Like groups as far-ranging as the London Corresponding Society and the National Union of the Working Classes before them, the movement argued about whether ‘moral’ (campaigning) pressure could win the vote for working men, or whether the aristocracy and the increasingly dominant capitalists would ever allow this. Could middle class and working class reformers really work together, given the obviously divergent interests? Was representation in parliament enough, or was total working class power needed to ensure their aims? And if radical means were required, how was it to be done – underground plots, mass strikes, grasping control of the land en masse?

These questions had been fought over within and around Chartism since its birth, and had already produced one abortive general strike, and a wave of desperate plans for uprisings of which only one had really got going (in Newport in 1839). The defeats of 1839-40 did help send the movement into something of a decline nationally, but it this masks a different reality locally – the ideas of the movement were spreading into the daily life of millions of people, adding to and enriching a working class political and social culture, in self-education, history lessons, songs, alternative ceremonies and the creation of meeting places and social spaces. We don’t have space to go into this here, but in many ways the historical concentration on the big petitions, the monster rallies, the secret plots, highlights the less significant aspects, at the expense of how Chartism helped change a way of thinking in millions of people… (Something this blog with its concentration on ‘events’ and anniversaries also tends to fall into, we admit…) However, the big events served as a focus for the grassroots level, a coming together, building from the bottom up, so the two are not really separate.

“Not a small active party with a large passive membership but a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people’s lives. It was an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers. West Indian and Asian people were prominent and in fact the organiser of 10th April was William Cuffay, a black Londoner, who was subsequently deported for his efforts. The Irish, in the midst of the great potato famine at home had good reason to take part and did. There were also women’s groups in spite of the charter only demanding male suffrage. Chartist meetings sometimes had a carnival like atmosphere, and at other times were preceded by hymn singing and processions. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christenings and funerals and its own songs. It was a counter-cultural experience that changed people’s perception of themselves… through this process they became conscious of a profound and unifying new urban class identity.

The main political strategies of Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition also grew to be a monster and assumed the status of an unofficial referendum. The great rallies were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense of community.

… it was such a collective network of groups that it is difficult to reduce to conventional narrative history, partly because the fieldwork is still being done and partly due to the class bias of historians and their publishers who have done their best to undermine its importance.” (Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy, Stefan Szczelkun)

In April 1848 the Chartists’ national profile had been in eclipse for some years, but was visibly reviving. The third great Chartist petition codifying the 6 demands of the People’s Charter was gathering pace. The revived Chartist movement was growing stronger: a many thousand strong Third Petition to Parliament.

The petition for The Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million signatures depending on which side you choose to believe. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time, after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th April 1848.

The Chartist Convention, meeting in Fitzrovia, had seen some intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or the army was anticipated.

This moment in the struggle for democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early portrait photographer, took two daguerrotype plates of the Kennington Common rally from a vantage point in The Horns, (the famous pub on the edge of the Common, long a venue for radical debate itself) – the oldest surviving photo of a crowd.

But mirrored to the enthusiasm from a mass of working people, for the upper and respectable middle classes, the increasing agitation induced probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots. Revolutions and uprisings which were breaking out all across Europe gave the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders a slightly more threatening edge, to the ears of the authorities and the middle classes, and the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops and police were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up (reminiscent of the Volunteers of the French Revolutionary wars, and foreshadowing the specials of the General Strike eighty years later).

“In the morning (a very fine day) everybody was on the alert; the parks were closed; our office was fortified, a barricade of Council Registers was erected in the accessible room on the ground-floor, and all our guns were taken down to be used in defence of the building.” (Charles Greville, Diary)

Bundles of old copies of the Times were also used to barricade buildings on the river adjacent to the bridges, in case of armed attack by insurgents.

The royal family were even moved out of the capital. The bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded:

“The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”

“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”  (Illustrated London News)

The Chartists’ national leadership was divided as to how to proceed. Some were for all out pressing ahead while the movement was on the up; others were scared by the clear willingness of the government to arm itself. On the one hand this was recognition that where force was concerned the stare had the upper hand; but the more radical elements also accused some of the more vocal mouthpieces of the movement of being happy to shout and bluster but not being really up for real confrontation. The fiery orator Feargus O’Connor, always more mouth than trousers, came in for much criticism. The Chartist Convention, meeting in London, was riven with argument.

William Cuffay, the black tailor delegated from the London Chartists to represent them at the Convention, was notable in calling for radical action and denouncing the vacillators. Cuffay’s actions around this time illuminate some of the division, suspicions and rows the Chartist leadership was falling prone to.

For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in western Europe, 1848 was ‘the year of decision’. He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists’ national Convention that met in April. From the start of the proceedings he made his left-wing position plain. Derby had sent as delegate a sensational journalist and novelist called George Reynolds (he gave his name to the radical magazine that eventually became Reynolds News) and Cuffay challenged the middle-class newcomer, demanding to know if he really was a Chartist. Cuffay also at first opposed the granting of credentials to Charles MacCarthy of the Irish Democratic Federation, but the dispute was settled, and MacCarthy admitted, by a sub-committee of which Cuffay was a member. The convention’s main task was to prepare a mass meeting on Kennington Common and a procession that was to accompany the Chartist petition, bearing almost two million signatures, to the Commons. When Reynolds, moved an amendment declaring ‘That in the event of the rejection of the Petition, the Convention should declare its sitting permanent, and should declare the Charter the law of the land’, Cuffay said he was opposed to a body declaring itself permanent that represented only a fraction of the people: he was elected by only 2,000 out of the two million inhabitants of London, He moved that the convention should confine itself to presenting the petition, and that a national assembly be called – “then come what might, it should declare its sittings permanent and go on, come weal or come woe.” At length the idea of a national assembly was accepted. In a later debate Cuffay told his fellow delegates that “the men of London were up to the mark, and were eager for the fray”. 

When a moderate speech was made, Cuffay burst out: “This clapping of hands is all very fine, but will you fight for it?” There were cries of ‘Yes, yes’ and cheers. Appointed chairman of the committee for managing the procession, Cuffay was responsible for making sure that “everything… necessary for conducting an immense procession with order and regularity had been adopted”, and suggested that stewards wear tricolour sashes and rosettes. Things had now come to a crisis, he said, and they must he prepared to act with coolness and determination. It was clear that the executive had shrunk from their responsibility. They did not show the spirit they ought. He no longer had any confidence in them, and he hoped the convention would be prepared to take the responsibility out of their hands and lead the people themselves. At the final meeting, on the morning of the demonstration, Cuffay opposed endless debate.

“The time is now come for work,” he insisted. An observer recorded that, as the convention broke up and delegates took their places on the vehicles, carrying the petition, Cuffay ‘appeared perfectly happy and elated’ for the first time since the proceedings opened.

In contrast, Feargus O’Connor, facing the reality of the forces arrayed against the march, was getting cold feet:

“Presently Mr. Mayne [Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) appeared on the ground, and sent one of his inspectors to say he wanted to speak to Feargus O’Connor. Feargus thought he was going to be arrested and was in a terrible fright; but he went to Mayne ‘ who merely said he was desired to inform him that the meeting would not be interfered with, but the procession would not be allowed. Feargus insisted on shaking hands with Mayne, swore he was his best of friends, and instantly harangued his rabble, advising them not to provoke a collision, and to go away quietly-advice they instantly obeyed, and with great alacrity and good-humour. Thus all evaporated in smoke. Feargus himself then repaired to the Home Office, saw Sir George Grey, and told him it was all over, and thanked the Government for their leniency, assuring him the Convention would not have been so lenient if they had got the upper hand. Grey asked him if he was going back to the meeting. He said No; that he had had his toes trodden on till he was lame, and his pocket picked, and he would have no more to do with it.”

O’Connor and other leaders abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition.

When the crowd at Kennington Common heard this, many of them were very angry. There were shouts that the petition should have been carried forward until actively opposed by the troops then withdrawn altogether on the ground that such opposition was unlawful. One of the protesters was Cuffay, who spoke in strong language against the dispersal of the meeting, and contended that it would be time enough to evince their fear of the military when they met them face to face! He believed the whole Convention were a set of cowardly humbugs, and he would have nothing more to do with them, He then left the van, and got among the crowd, where he said that O’Connor must have known all this before, and that he ought to have informed them of it, so that they might have conveyed the petition at once to the House of Commons, without crossing the bridges. They had been completely caught in a trap.

However thousands of demonstrators did attempt to march across the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –

“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)

Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… Although there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London and wider afield all summer, usually after Chartist rallies were attacked by emboldened police, given their head to disperse any challenge.

This forced the still determined radical elements of the movement back into the old pattern of insurrectionary plotting for an armed seizure of power, which while it did have some support, was by necessity more fractured and hard to pull off.

Small numbers of physical force Chartists met throughout the summer of 1848, planning a revolt, but their organisation was heavily penetrated by police spies, one of whom was actually a member of the seven-strong ‘Ulterior Committee’ that was planning an uprising in London. William Cuffay was one of those on the Committee. But the plans were not to bear fruit.

On 16 August 1848, 11 ‘luminaries’, allegedly plotting to fire certain buildings as a signal for the rising, were arrested at a Bloomsbury tavern, the Orange Tree, near Red Lion Square. Cuffay was arrested later at his lodgings. At the Orange Tree, a regular Chartist meeting point, a meeting was raided; cops found “a number of loaded pistols, pikes, daggers, spearheads, and swords, and some of the prisoners wore iron breast plates, while others had gun powder, shot and tow-balls.” Cuffay, Fay, W. Dowling, W. Lacey, William Ritchie were convicted of ‘levying war on the Queen’, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life; 15 others were jailed for 18 months to 2 years.

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1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly split and fell into factions, which withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.

But it had sown many seeds in the among working people, which were to continue to influence future movements. Many Chartist activists continued to fight for social change for decades, taking part in the more obviously ‘successful’ reform movements in 1866-7, which did win an extension of the franchise, in the secularist and republican agitations, in trade unions and the co-operative movements, and can be seen in the early british socialist and anarchist groupings. Chartism should certainly by seen as partly a product and itself an influence on a didactic working class culture that evolved, often through local clubs and discussions/debates, and which was to continue changing and producing bursts of political energy into the 20th century.

It’s difficult to analyse the events of 10th April, especially if you view it through the prism of ‘revolutionary moment missed’ as it is tempting to do. Was it really an opportunity for radical upheaval? In many ways the chance to overthrow the state in one great push was an outdated ideal, especially in Britain. Across Europe, where more autocratic regimes had not yet experienced anything like the UK’s experience of industrialisation and the bourgeoisie forcing the aristos to share power with them, the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 etc were always more widely supported by the middle class, eager to get their share of influence. Here, the traditions of the 1689 ‘glorious’ settlement, social change in the 18th century, and the 1832 reform act had already broadened the spread of power to the newer wealthy capitalist classes. Chartism was in reality never going to win cross-class support (leaving aside the many working people who loyally stood by their ‘betters’ or who religion persuaded to abide in their ‘place’). Can insurrections by themselves, without a base in a mass agitation already prepared to take power, succeed? Chartism had a mass base but the preparedness to build any kind of dual power was not there. In many ways the earlier Plug Riots of 1842 had been more threatening, although too localised; and there too the authorities had been able to repress and arrest many activists. Possibly it was not a ‘revolutionary moment missed’ because revolution would have needed to be more organic, growing from below towards the centre, only succeeding because it was already inevitable by the time of a mass confrontation like April l0th. It’s worth reflecting on the Chartist idea of a ‘sacred month’ or general strike, compared to Rosa Luxemburg’s later conception of how such a movement might win working class power.)

But perhaps looking at April 10th this way is to take too narrow a view of events. As Stefan Szczelkun has observed:

“The fact that the events of the 10th April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting reforms has been held up by official historians as the ‘failure’ of Chartism. But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms but rather in the effects it had on the consciousness of the millions who took part. This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was a real democratic culture and powerful desire for social justice behind The Charter which remains unrealised to this day.”

Check out a really good site on Chartist history

And a local group working to commemorate April 1848 and the Chartists

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Today in London’s festive history, 1832: National Union of the Working Classes mock government-sponsored day of fasting and prayer

Cholera first arrived in England at a time of significant political change that affected the way it was understood by various groups within Britain.  The poor, the ill-defined middle-classes (comprising diverse groups of people from small business owners and clerks to owners of large factories and many professionals like lawyers and doctors), and the traditional land-owning elite were all in the process of redefining their access to political power through the gradual extension of the right to vote.  The cholera epidemics, poorly understood by medical experts of the time, were understood by these groups in different ways as government and the medical profession experimented with responses.  Cholera provides a useful lens to see how an externally generated stressor like an epidemic intersects with other cultural and historical forces, giving insight not only into medical but also political and cultural history.

Between 1832 and 1866, four cholera epidemics struck Great Britain, as part of pandemic outbreaks that affected the entire globe. In 1817, before the first British epidemic, there had been a smaller epidemic that spread in Europe but did not cross the channel. The 1832 epidemic was the first one to enter Britain—and also spread to the Americas and Australia—and wreaked panic as well as high death rates where it struck.  The 1848 second epidemic was global and caused high death rates in Britain.  By the mid-1850s, Britain was more ready when cholera again entered the islands but still suffered considerable mortality.  The last and least, but still murderous, British epidemic was in 1866.  After that, in the 1870s and 90s, cholera did sweep across the European continent again but did not cross the channel in epidemic force.” (Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England”)

In the spring of 1832, London was experiencing a serious outbreak of cholera, the waterborne disease that at that time killed 1000s. The second great cholera pandemic of 1827-35 was raging across Europe.

“In the 1830s, the disease was still unfamiliar in most of the world beyond parts of the Indian subcontinent.  Terrified patients had never seen such symptoms before, and doctors were helpless to do anything but try remedies that they thought had worked for other diseases.  These remedies, from the relatively merciful giving of opiates to more aggressive approaches such as bleeding or burning the skin, were largely worthless, as were most theories of how the disease was transmitted (including, but not limited to, bad weather, foul smells, electro-magnetism and divine vengeance). We now believe cholera to be a waterborne disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus called vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted between humans via the fecal-oral route. It usually enters the body through contaminated water or food and then multiplies in the intestines.  Although easily treatable today in developed areas with abundant clean water and medical care, cholera remains an important epidemic disease in parts of Africa, India, and Latin America and it has recently taken thousands of lives in Haiti. Untreated, it can kill within a few days through rapid dehydration, caused by copious, uncontrollable diarrhoea.  As the disease progressed, the diarrhoea becomes a clear, straw colored fluid, described in the period as resembling “rice water.”  It is hard to see and can quickly soak bedding and floor coverings.  As people in the 1830s did not understand what caused the disease nor, indeed, know about germs (which were not understood until much later in the late-nineteenth century), caregivers did not even know to wash their hands after tending the sick.  In an era without running water in most homes, and with many people living in small spaces, it was easy for contamination to spread.  And in industrial early nineteenth-century cities with rapidly growing populations and no sewer systems, most people disposed of their waste in cesspits or in the streets. From there, it eventually ended up in rivers that provided drinking water, spreading it far beyond its origin.  Because dehydration was so rapid, apparently healthy people became weak very quickly.  Their appearance was frightening: skin shrivelled, eye sockets collapsed, and complexion blue from oxygen deficiency.  Patients first screamed and thrashed as their muscles spasmed, then lay exhausted and unresponsive, and soon died—sometimes within the first 24 hours.  Mortality for cases who reached the stage of weakness and “collapse” was around fifty percent.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)
Scientific investigation into the causes of cholera was still in its infancy; it would be another 17 years before John Snow suggested that cholera had a microbial origin, and that drinking contaminated water caused the spread of the disease.

But in 1832, the church of England and the government had a solution. “Seeking to conciliate knaves and fanatics on the one hand as well as to feed the gullibility of the ignorant on the other”, they solemnly called for a mass fast, a day of refraining from eating, to show God (from whom all plagues come) that the population were worthy of being spared. They set 21st of March for the National day of prayer and fasting, as  “the disease … was proof of the judgement of God among us”.

The Fast was announced in Parliament after the Strangers’ Gallery had been cleared; a speech deplored the sins and state of the nation, the ‘houses of the nobles and gentry entered and robbed’.

“When cholera was first discussed by the British public, as it marched across the continent in 1831 and 32, Britons were already preoccupied with a big political topic: Parliamentary and voting Reform.  Reform had been a perennial focus over the last several years, but in the form that finally became law it had been hotly debated from June 1830, when dissolute King George IV died.  After long discussion, it was passed in Commons and then defeated in the House of Lords in 1831. Rioting ensued, and a revised Bill was brought forward subsequently that year.  Through the spring of 1832, the Lords dithered and the mood of the country grew increasingly tense.  When it finally passed, on 7 June 1832, it gave more representation to large cities that had gained population as a result of the Industrial Revolution and eliminated representation for areas where the population had diminished to the point that a Member of Parliament was often elected by only a handful of landowners.  Most importantly, although it didn’t increase the size of the electorate that much—it is estimated to have raised it from about 400,000 to 650,000, allowing one out of six adult males to vote—it began to redistribute some power from landowners to the mercantile and manufacturing class, as it allowed those who did not own, but merely rented valuable property (as was common in towns, for example), to vote.  The full title of the Reform Bill was An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. (Separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland).

As authorities argued over cholera’s causes, treatment, and prevention, various publics formed their own opinions of what was going on.  Middle-class and working people who hoped that Reform would bring them representation in Parliament suspected that the talk of cholera was being used to distract the populace from Reform in the interests of the elite retaining control of political power.  Many people were not sure the cholera was even real; perhaps it was a bugbear invented to let the powerful take control of the poor’s few belongings, or even their bodies. After all, scandal was rife about medical schools paying grave robbers for bodies to use for dissection.  In Scotland, William Burke and William Hare had been convicted in Edinburgh in 1829, not only of grave robbing to sell to anatomists, but of providing themselves with merchandise through several actual murders in 1827 and 1828.  Outrage against graverobbing spurred Parliament to deliberate on a “Dead Body Bill” or Anatomy Act, passed in 1832 (See Richardson).  The Act, which provided that bodies of paupers not claimed within 48 hours by family members able to pay for interment would be available for dissection, was designed to prevent grave robbing by providing a steady source of bodies, but it also had the effect of making the poor particularly vulnerable to the seizure of their bodies after death.  People diagnosed with cholera were often forcibly removed in the name of public safety to specially designated “cholera hospitals,” where, of course, many died, outraging the feelings of families and fueling suspicions that they were actually being killed. In response, many families hid their sick from inspectors or resisted their removal.  In the minutes of a meeting of the St. Olave’s District Board of Works, it is recorded that, “The bodies of those who have died have been removed as speedily as possible, but in the case of the young woman who died in Vine Street, about 200 and [sic] 300 persons collected to prevent the removal of the body.  It was, therefore, not persisted in” (“St. Olave’s District Board of Works” 4).  Although violence against doctors and government officials was not as prevalent as it was on the continent, there was still some rioting and vandalism of cholera hospitals.  Meanwhile, property owners compelled to spend money to clean up “nuisances” or merchants whose businesses were hurt by cholera panic were also suspicious of the motives of government.

So the first epidemic was immediately understood in a context of class struggle.  The clergy was the traditional source of local authority at times like these, but the Church of England was also under considerable stress from a religious reform movement, which had in the late 1820s sought to grant other Protestant denominations and even Catholics more political representation (historically, Catholics, for example, could not be Members of Parliament, whereas Bishops of the Church of England sat ex officio in the House of Lords). These religious disputes had a class component: although not always true, in general, Church of England members tended to be wealthier, upper class, and from Southern England, where power was historically seated.  Lower middle-class industrial and manufacturing districts to the North and West tended to include more dissenters, and Catholicism was associated with the Irish, both those in Ireland and the many poor Irish in England.  So, the same class hostility that was linked to political Reform was closely connected to religious conflict, and this undermined the authority of the established Church to speak for the larger community in this crisis.  When the Church of England, backed by Parliament, declared a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the cholera, which they attributed to divine punishment, labor organizations satirically declared a feast day for their readers, arguing that the poor had already fasted enough. Meanwhile, political Reformers observed, sometimes mockingly and sometimes in earnest, that if God was angry, it was probably because Reform was being stalled.  Radical press and labor organizations emphasized the absurdity of the solutions proposed by the upper classes for an audience in very different circumstances.  Henry Hetherington of The Poor Man’s Guardian—who himself died of cholera in 1849 (Durey 195)—ridiculed the notion of the general fast-day through several issues, beginning on 11 Feb. 1832: “a general fast is all very fair; for God knows that as yet the fasting has been partial enough . . . . if not merely fasting but if the most abject want be any propitiation for the evil, never would CHOLERA MORBUS have made its appearance among us!” (Hetherington 1).

Such gestures dramatised the opposing physical circumstances in which rich and poor lived.  Ballads that were printed on single sheets, and given away or sold for pennies on the street, promoted the views of Reformers: one example warns: “They tell such tales our hearts to fear/ Of Cholera raging here and there,/ But bread, pudding, and good cheer,/Will drive the Cholera Morbus . . . //But Reformers will not be deceived,/ For by them it is all agreed/ That one and all we shall be freed,/ In spite of the Cholera Morbus” (“A New Song”).  Meanwhile, by both the poor and merchants, the doctors and clergy might be seen as allies of the elite.  In one small town, for example, notices saying “No cholera at Ely/ The Parsons Liars/And Doctors Pickpockets” were pasted over cholera warning handbills distributed by the Board of Health (Holmes 32-33).  Thus, the middle-classes were often agnostic or actively skeptical on the issue of cholera’s threat and were inclined to be more concerned with gaining political representation and avoiding disruptions to trade.

Although most popular responses to the cholera were political and religious, public policy focused on two initial responses: quarantine to keep the cholera out of Britain and, subsequently, cleaning up “nuisances”: that is, things that were perceived as smelly and dirty.  Since disease was largely believed to be caused by atmospheric problems, and by bad smells, cleaning up open cesspits, garbage piles and so forth was thought to be a way to avoid the spread of disease.  This was viewed as more of an engineering problem (how do you get rid of this stuff?) and a legal problem (how do you make property owners clean up their property?) than a medical problem, per se.  After all, one didn’t need a trained professional to tell if something smelled bad.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)

The organised working class of London, many of who knew what it was like to refrain from eating (for economic reasons), felt that ‘causes that matured and extended the disease were greatly within the power of the government to remove’. The Poor Man’s Guardian replied ‘No, no; to tell the poor to fast would indeed be superfluous’, as they were lucky to eat meat once a week, let alone be able to forgo it’; they labelled the fast day a ‘farce’ day.

No sooner did the members of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) “hear of this farce, than they were actively engaged in asertaining [sic] how they could best show their contempt for this knavery or hypocrisy. They first thought of a public meeting on the occasion, but after consulting several eminent lawyers on the subject, they found that no exhibition of numbers could so effectually evade the laws, as by their walking peacibly through the streets of this Metropolis. They therefore resolved that a procession of the union should be held on this occasion after which they should adjourn to their classes or places of meeting and that the most able to afford it should help their poorer bretheren [sic] to feast and not fast on that day.” (See P. M. Guardian March 24 1832.)

Over 100,000 people were said to have joined the NUWC procession, from Finsbury Square, up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, (the police barred the way up the Strand), to Holborn and Tottenham Court Road, where according to William Lovett “the police, coming down Howland Street, threw themselves across our procession.”

In a sly act of political theatre, the NUWC organised a number of feasts across the city, and the demonstration broke into parties that determinedly ate drank and feasted, to express their contempt of the government’s attempt to “father their own iniquitous neglect upon the Almighty”.

The same day, a crowd reported to be about 500 threatened to demolish the Bethnal Green Workhouse, but desisted, although only 25 police were present.
Soon after the procession, NUWC leaders, William Benbow, William Lovett and James Watson were arrested as the leaders of the procession and being bailed out, their trial took place at the sessions house Clerkenwell Green on Wednesday the 16th of May 1832.

Read some interesting accounts of the 1832 cholera epidemic as it hit in East London