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Trades Unions v The Police in the Battle of Trafalgar Square in 1887

Posted in Famous battles, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London, Politics on Tuesday, 24 January 2012

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This edited article about trades unions originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 614 published on 20 October 1973.

Battle of Trafalgar Square, picture, image, illustration

In November 1887 the police had to prevent anyone from entering Trafalgar Square by C L Doughty

If you go to Trafalgar Square on a Sunday morning in November, you will find it quiet, except, perhaps, for a few tourists or some early churchgoers. But when ten struck on the morning of 13th November, 1887 the scene was very different. Squads of police were marching into the square, muffled in their greatcoats, truncheons sheathed at their sides, helmets strapped tightly under their chins. Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had refused to allow a meeting to be held in the square that day and his men were there to see that his order was obeyed.

The 1880s were the decade which saw the development of organised Socialism and the first effective action by trades unions. This was also the decade in which Irish agitation for Home Rule reached a peak. Politicians and administrators had to tread warily between the two – and they were not all renowned for their light step. In 1886, for example, they mishandled a demonstration by unemployed men in Hyde Park and arrested their leader John Burns, only to see him acquitted at his trial and hailed as a martyr by his supporters.

This did not please Sir Charles Warren. He was responsible for the maintenance of law and order in London and he was determined that a similar incident should not recur. In November 1887, however, another confrontation seemed inevitable. An organisation called the Metropolitan Radical Federation consisting of unionists, socialists and other radicals, proposed to hold a meeting in Trafalgar Square on the 13th to demand the release of an Irish politician. Socialism, unionism and Irish agitation – it was an explosive mixture. Sir Charles immediately took precautions.

On 6th November, with the agreement of the Home Secretary, he issued an order forbidding any person to approach Trafalgar Square on the 13th. Copies were distributed throughout London. Far from warning off the demonstrators, however, nothing could have been better calculated to urge them on; and they left the Commissioner in no doubt of their intentions to proceed. Thus, on 13th November Sir Charles’ policemen were not merely enforcing his order; they were trying to save his face.

A squad of police occupied the square at nine o’clock in the morning. By ten it was cordoned off by men from several divisions. By one o’clock 1,500 policemen were on duty there.

Around the parapet of the square was a single file of 100 men. Inside the square, a double file stood, truncheons drawn. At the head of the steps leading down to the square 100 constables were ranged in fours and 50 more stood at each corner, forming a dense, bristling hedge. In the centre of the square, around Nelson’s Column, 750 policemen stood four deep and mounted police patrols trotted over the remaining stretches of open ground.

But Sir Charles did not do things by halves. He had also called in the Army. Behind the National Gallery 300 Grenadier Guards were standing at ease and in Whitehall Barracks a troop of Lifeguards was awaiting the order to mount.

Meanwhile the demonstrators were on their way. They came, ragged and footsore, from west, east and south London – from Notting Hill, Whitechapel and Battersea. Their first encounter with Sir Charles’ forces came at the approaches to the West End and on the bridges of the Thames. Road blocks had been set up and at the sight of them the marchers hung back. Then, confident in the weight of their numbers, they linked arms, flung themselves at the police and broke through the barricades. The roads to Trafalgar Square were open.

On Clerkenwell Green the main part of the demonstration had assembled. Led by John Burns and the radical Scottish politician Cunningham Graham they set off down the Clerkenwell Road, along Theobald’s Road to Bloomsbury. Then, red banners unfurled, they turned into St. Martin’s Lane. There they encountered a barricade reinforced by a troop of mounted police. The struggle was brief but vicious. Wounded horses reared and screamed horribly; riders were clubbed from their saddles; truncheons rose and fell, smashing into the gaunt, upturned faces of the mob. Then suddenly the police fell back. The marchers surged forwards with a roar. They were at the entrance to the square.

Trafalgar Square was now surrounded. Columns of marchers stood poised at St. Martin’s Lane, Northumberland Street and at the end of the Haymarket. It was three o’clock.

The policemen in and around the square closed up. They settled their helmets firmly on their heads, and eased their truncheons. As the mob charged, the police took its full weight and held it. Then, powered from the massed ranks in the centre of the square, they began to push it back. They noticed that resistance was greatest around the marchers’ banners; the toughest constables forced their way towards the flags, snapped their poles and made off with the trophies. The psychological effect was immense; deprived of their rallying-points the demonstrators retreated.

At four o’clock Burns and Cunningham Graham made a determined attempt to save the day and led a charge into the square from the Strand. But it was to no avail. Graham was wounded and they were both beaten down and arrested.

Then, just before five, Warren unleashed his final weapon. The guards came marching briskly from behind the Gallery, their bayonets fixed. Along Whitehall the cavalry came trotting. The square had seemed safe. Now Warren knew it was impregnable. The cavalry did not charge; they simply rode menacingly around the square. The soldiers did not use their bayonets; they simply brought down their rifle-butts on the feet of those who did not retreat quickly enough. By six o’clock the square was clear. Sir Charles had won.

Or had he? The casualties were comparatively slight; in nearby hospitals 150 men were given treatment. The arrests were numerous; nearly 300 marchers were taken into custody and subsequently imprisoned for periods of one to six months; while Burns and Graham were each jailed for six weeks. Nevertheless the day is remembered as ‘Bloody Sunday’ – one of the many ‘bloody’ days that have marked turning-points in history. For as a result of Sir Charles Warren’s heavy-handed reaction, his use not just of police but of soldiers to prevent a free assembly, the radical movements gained fresh support. The strength of the unionists in particular, was reinforced and culminated in the Great London Dock Strike of 1889 which marked the coming to power of the Trades Unions.

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