Issue 224 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Red letter days

London, 13 November 1887

'Both Engels and William Morris saw the events of Bloody Sunday and its aftermath as a clarifying moment, for the police clubs taught a sharp lesson about state power'

On 13 November 1887 the Metropolitan Police conducted a savage attack on an unemployment demonstration in London. Marchers moving in columns from different parts of London were separately assaulted on the approaches to Trafalgar Square. They were beaten with truncheons and staves and driven into side streets. Their banners were seized, the poles smashed, and their flags torn up by policemen. Those who ran towards the square were charged down by police horses. Those few reaching it faced Life Guards with fixed bayonets. There were many arrests. Two men died later from their injuries. The episode was immediately dubbed 'Bloody Sunday'.

It was seen as a turning point for the new socialist movement for it introduced a harsher and more brutal dimension to their activities. The movement was young. The Democratic Federation had only been founded in 1884. It had soon become the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and in 1885 had suffered its first split when a group including William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Tom Mann had founded the Socialist League (SL). Members of both organisations also belonged to the Fabian Society, also formed in 1884. Non-socialist Radicals, Irish Nationalists and even some members of the Liberal Party were also involved. A new movement was defining itself. In short, the situation was fluid.

Only a few older people remembered the militant days of Chartism. Those battles had been followed by the years of Victorian prosperity. There had been plenty of sectional industrial struggle, especially by skilled workers, yet no socialist group had managed to establish organisation rooted in the day to day concerns of workers.

By the 1880s, however, the arrogant confidence of the British ruling class was shaken. The world was a whole decade into depression with periodic slumps hitting profits. Agriculture was severely hit, nowhere more harshly than in Ireland. Famine again struck, followed by evictions. Urban workers suffered serious unemployment.

And there was resistance. Irish nationalists carried out guerilla campaigns in Ireland and in mainland Britain. Workers struck in the cotton mills of Lancashire and coalmines of Northumberland, Scotland and Yorkshire and in several other industries and regions. Demonstrations against unemployment became common.

This was the milieu in which the new socialist movement was founded and took root. Many of the leading light were middle class intellectuals like Morris, Eleanor Marx, the SDF leader HM Hyndman, George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant and Beatrice Webb. But they also attracted a crop of outstanding young working class agitators such as the engineers Tom Mann and John Burns and the gas stoker Will Thorne. From the start they were out on the streets speaking from soapboxes by the dock gates of east London, selling their papers on Irish demonstrations and marching with strikers from Northumberland and Scotland.

They suffered police harassment. In 1885 the International Club in central London was broken into by police and ransacked, and members were arrested. Street meetings in the East End were broken up. But they had some great successes. In February 1886 tens of thousands turned up in Trafalgar Square to protest at coercion in Ireland. Afterwards John Bums, carrying the red flag, led a march through Pall Mall. Stoned by gentlemen from their club windows, the workers took out their class hatred by smashing club windows and looting Oxford Street stores. On Easter Sunday 1887 the socialists participated in what Engels called 'without exception the largest meeting we've ever had here'. Some 150,000 converged on Hyde Park to hear speeches from 15 platforms. The issue was the renewal of the Crimes Bill which would remove all civil rights from the Irish.

The signs of the rapid growth of militancy on the streets was too much for the rulers. In the late summer they stepped up their attacks. A new Tory government was determined to establish its authority on the streets.

The new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the former colonial governor Sir Charles Warren, started by banning all meetings in Trafalgar Square. His officers carried out weeks of harassment and summary arrest throughout the capital. The Radicals and the Irish called a demonstration in Trafalgar Square for 13 November. Socialists threw themselves into this activity with gusto, forming contingents in various parts of the East End. Warren prepared very carefully. Thousands of police armed with long truncheons, cutlasses and firearms were massed in the square. There were also squads in the streets round it. The Life Guards were there for back up and further intimidation. A neutral observer watched the assault in the square. He reported the arrest of the Radical-socialist MP for Lanark, Cunningharn Grahame:
'After Mr Grahame'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 which were shocking to behold. Even after this, and when some 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 many yards.'

This episode did not intimidate the movement. It seemed inspired to retaliate. Demonstrators were out in force the next Sunday and subjected to further wild police attacks. During such an attack a young Radical clerk, Alfred Linnell, was run down by a police horse, dying later in hospital. His funeral in December became a major political event organised by the socialists. It was attended by most of the leading figures on the left, but more importantly by tens of thousands of east Londoners on a procession which was lined by many thousands more.

Both Engels and William Morris saw the events of Bloody Sunday and its aftermath as a clarifying moment, for the police clubs taught a sharp lesson about state power. Most participants had been wise to run away to avoid injury and arrest. Some would keep on running in the belief that the only way to reform the system was by working 'peaceably' from the inside. The revolutionary socialist conclusion was to continue confrontation but to win larger numbers and develop better methods to defeat the system. In Morris's words at Alfred Linnell's graveside, 'It is our business to begin to organise for the purpose of seeing that such things shall not happen; to try and make this earth a beautiful and happy place.'
John Charlton

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