Bloody Sunday takes place in London on November 13, 1887, when a march against unemployment and coercion in Ireland, as well as demanding the release of Member of Parliament (MP) William O’Brien, is attacked by the Metropolitan Police Service and the British Army. The demonstration is organised by the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Irish National League. Violent clashes take place between the police and demonstrators, many “armed with iron bars, knives, pokers and gas pipes.” A contemporary report notes that 400 are arrested and 75 persons are badly injured, including many police, two policemen being stabbed and one protester bayonetted.
William Ewart Gladstone‘s espousal of the cause of Irish home rule has split the Liberal Party and makes it easy for the Conservatives to gain a majority in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The period from 1885 to 1906 is one of Tory dominance, with short intermissions. Coercion Acts are the answer of British governments perturbed by rural unrest in Ireland, and they involve various degrees of suspension of civil rights. Although one purpose of the November 13 demonstration is to protest about the handling of the Irish situation by the Conservative government of Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, it has a much wider context.
The Long Depression, starting in 1873 and lasting almost to the end of the century, creates difficult social conditions in Britain, similar to the economic problems that drive rural agitation in Ireland. Falling food prices create rural unemployment, which results in both emigration and internal migration. Workers move to the towns and cities in thousands, eroding employment, wages and working conditions. By November 1887, unemployed workers’ demonstrations from the East End of London have been building up for more than two years. There have already been clashes with the police and with the members of upper class clubs. Trafalgar Square is seen symbolically as the point at which the working-class East End meets the upper-class West End of London, a focus of class conflict and an obvious flashpoint.
This attracts the attention of the small but growing socialist movement – the Marxists of both the Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League, and the reformist socialists of the Fabian Society. Police and government attempts to suppress or divert the demonstrations also bring in the radical wing of the Liberal Party and free speech activists from the National Secular Society.
Some 30,000 persons encircle Trafalgar Square as at least 10,000 protesters march in from several different directions, led by Elizabeth Reynolds, John Burns, William Morris, Annie Besant and Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, who are primarily leaders of the Social Democratic Federation. Also marching are the Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Wilson. Two thousand police and 400 troops are deployed to halt the demonstration. Burns and Cunninghame Graham are arrested and imprisoned for six weeks. Annie Besant, who is a Marxist, Fabian and secularist, speaks at the rally and offers herself for arrest, but the police decline to do so. Of the 400 arrested, 50 are detained in custody.
In the fighting, many rioters are injured by police truncheons and under the hooves of police horses. There are both infantry and cavalry present. Although the infantry are marched into position with bayonets fixed, they are not ordered to open fire and the cavalry are not ordered to draw their swords.
The following Sunday, November 20, sees another demonstration and more casualties. According to a report in the partisan Socialist Review, among them is a young clerk named Alfred Linnell, who is run down by a police horse, dying in hospital a fortnight later from complications of a shattered thigh.
The funeral of Linnell on December 18 provides another focus for the unemployed and Irish movements. William Morris, leader of the Socialist League, gives the main speech and advocates a holy war to prevent London from being turned into a huge prison. A smaller but similar event marks the burial of another of those killed, W. B. Curner, which takes place in January. The release of those imprisoned is celebrated on February 20, 1888, with a large public meeting. Henry Hyndman, leader of the SDF, violently denounces the Liberal Party and the Radicals who are present.
(Pictured: Bloody Sunday, 1887. This engraving from The Illustrated London News depicts a policeman being clubbed by a demonstrator as he wrests a banner from a female protester.)