130 years ago, the unions were starting their long ascent into what would become the militant highs of the Great Unrest. The British anarchists were coming into their own with Freedom Newspaper established just a year before and the rise of the libertarian-leaning Socialist League in opposition to the reformist Social Democrat Federation (SDF). In this extract from Slow Burning Fuse, soon to be relaunched for the London Anarchist Bookfair, John Quail talks about the political climate of 1887.
by 1887 working-class discontent was growing. In the trades unions a sharper, more militant note was being struck. At the T.U.C. conference, a young Keir Hardie clashed with the Liberals’ lap-dog, Broadhurst. A determined attempt to get an Eight Hour Day campaign underway in the Engineering Union and the T.U.C. was made. John Burns and Tom Mann were active in this latter campaign. New organisations in the provinces, the Labour Federation on Tyneside and the Knights of Labour in the Midlands, proved surprisingly effective and grew rapidly. New organisational attempts also met with some success among the seamen. This new militancy was both spread by socialists and proved responsive to them.
It was a period of high unemployment and the mood of the unemployed was restive. The lesson of the West End Riot were clear enough — trouble meant attention and attention meant aid. But the authorities had been alarmed and were taking steps to make sure nothing like it happened again. Sir Charles Warren was appointed to reorganise the police in London and was being encouraged to keep the streets clear of ‘loafers’ and other members of the dangerous classes by the Tory government and press. As if to underline the fears of the authorities and the respectable classes, on Friday 14th January the unemployed rioted at Norwich in the Battle of Ham Run.
The riot broke out after the unemployed had marched from a meeting addressed by Charles Mowbray and Fred Henderson of the local Socialist League branch to the Guildhall to demand help. Here “the insulting tone of the Mayor, the unconcealed contempt for their fellows on the part of the councillors and aldermen … angered the crowd and they broke away.” The mansions of the wealthy had their windows smashed and shops in the centre of Norwich were looted. Mowbray and Henderson were arrested and sentenced to nine and four months respectively for their part in the affair. The riot, if anything, made the League more popular and there were large demonstrations to welcome the men on their release. The situation improved somewhat over the summer but as winter approached unemployment rose again. A placard posted in Norwich in October ‘by unknown hands’ was threatening: “Notice to all concerned: The unemployed do not intend to starve any longer. If employment is not found for them, they will soon make some.” As a result 200 special constables were sworn in. More sensibly the local authorities tempered their show of force by providing public works. Commonweal later quoted two councillors:
‘How much extra did it cost …?’
‘Well … none of us will grudge that. It’s a damned cheap price to have kept them quiet for.’
The correspondent commented: “it seems after all that fear of a repetition of rioting was their motive. Let the unemployed learn the lesson this teaches.”
In London, however, the authorities seemed determined to solve the ‘problem’ of the unemployed by force alone. In the earlier part of 1887 the S.D.F. had organised many parades by the unemployed — to Westminster Abbey during services among other places. While individual members of the League had participated in them the League as a whole rather saw them as intended to be advertisements for the S.D.F. There were sporadic outbreaks of looting — for example after a meeting in February on Clerkenwell Green. Due, apparently, to some internal difficulties in the S.D.F. that organisation discontinued its parades some time in the summer. As unemployment increased during the autumn mounting numbers of the unemployed began to meet daily in Trafalgar Square and between 400 and 600 homeless people were sleeping there at night. Socialists began to hold meetings in the Square on a freelance basis and increasingly violent threats were being uttered by them. While it would seem that one of them at least was a police paid agent provocateur, the violence being urged was a violence the unemployed felt. Prominent in the agitation in the Square was an anarchist-inclined Socialist Leaguer called James Allman, who had already served a month’s imprisonment earlier in the year for ‘obstruction’ while addressing a meeting.
Processions were organised. One to the Bow Street magistrate on 12th October was met with a blank refusal of aid and a suggestion that the unemployed enter the workhouse. “Asked if he would give them food and shelter in prison if they sacked bakers shops he replied that they were ‘exceedingly impertinent’ and ‘deserved no compassion’.” Freedom Newspaper noted that “unfortunately this did no more than cause a march through the City.” The police had already begun to attack processions of the unemployed though these attacks met with stiff resistance. On 15th October the police attacked a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square itself with both foot and horse “hustling, charging, striking and trampling the people.” Attacks on meetings in the Square continued daily with ever increasing numbers of police involved until the unemployed were finally driven out on 19th October. The centre of the agitation then moved to Hyde Park. “For days the conflict was carried on in and around the Park. On one occasion the gates were closed on the people and the mounted police charged the crowd thus hemmed in and helpless.” Many stragglers were arrested, beaten and sentenced to vicious sentences on often perjured evidence. “But in spite of police court terrorism and sentences of hard labour by the dozen, the people defended themselves with sticks and stones and their fists and held their meetings just the same. And on Sunday, 23rd October they returned to the Square in a solid mass, filling the huge Square to overflowing and afterwards marching to Westminster Abbey.”
The escalating conflict had brought protests against police violence from the Liberal press and screeches from shopkeepers in the area of Trafalgar Square, who claimed their takings were being hit by the demonstrations. It was quite clear whose views Warren took to heart. The police continued to attack the daily meetings until, on 8th November, Warren banned all further meetings in the Square on the grounds that it was the private property of the Crown. This brought a storm of protest from the Radicals, who had taken no part in the unemployed agitation but were very strong on the right of free speech. As a reply to the ban the Radicals announced that they would hold a mass demonstration in the Square on 13th November to protest at Coercion in Ireland. The demonstration was to converge in a number of processions from different parts of London. It could be readily assumed that the police would have no intention of allowing the processions to reach the Square and that violence was to be expected; yet the morale of the various large contingents was good. Lane said that Morris “quite thought the revolution had come”. The marchers were to be brutally disabused of any such opinion.
Knowing the time of the demonstration, the direction from which the contingents were to come and their approximate size allowed Warren every advantage, a fact that he used to the full:
The ‘Square’, i.e. the sunken space, was guarded by foot-policemen four deep, whose business was simply to guard it and who had orders not to stir from their posts, outside these were strong bodies of horse police who took careful note of any incipient gathering and at once scattered it.
This defence was ample against anything except an organised attack from determined persons acting in concert, and able to depend on one another. In order that no such body should be formed and no such attack be possible, the careful general had posted strong bodies of police, with due supports to fall back on if necessary, about a radius of about a quarter of a mile of the Square, so that nothing could escape falling into the meshes of this net.
Into this net we then marched.
The contingent which included most of the League marchers was attacked at Seven Dials and taken on the flank. Though they fought back as best they could they were confused and taken by surprise. Morris wrote: “I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organisation got its victory.” The police behaved with utter savagery. One witness said, “As I was being led out of the crowd a poor woman asked a police inspector … if he had seen a child she had lost. His answer was to tell her she was a damned whore and knock her down.” The story was the same with the other contingents and only unorganised and confused stragglers reached the Square itself where they were quickly dispersed. Three people died as a result of injuries received from the police on 13th November and another man was killed the following week when police horses were again clearing the Square. Many arrests were made and jail sentences were liberally handed out. The day is properly remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Pic: St. Martin’s Lane on Bloody Sunday, where the police attempted to head off a contingent of unemployed men from the Clerkenwell Green