A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]

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