Bloody Sunday London 13 November 1887, was the name given to a demonstration against coercion in Ireland and to demand the release from prison of MP William O'Brien, who was imprisoned for incitement as a result of an incident in the Irish Land War. The demonstration was organized by the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League. Violent clashes between police and demonstrators resulted in the killing of three protesters and the beating of hundreds more.
Gladstone's espousal of the cause of Irish Home Rule had split the Liberal Party and made it easy for the Conservatives to gain a majority in the House of Commons. The period from 1885 to 1906 was one of Tory dominance, with short intermissions. Coercion Acts were the answer of British governments perturbed by rural unrest in Ireland, and they involved various degrees of suspension of civil rights. Although the immediate object of the 13 November demonstration was to protest about the handling of the Irish situation by the Conservative government of Lord Salisbury, it had a much wider context.
The Long Depression, starting in 1873 and lasting almost to the end of the century, created difficult social conditions in Britain - similar to the economic problems that drove rural agitation in Ireland. Falling food prices created rural unemployment, which resulted in both emigration and internal migration. Workers moved 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 had been building up for more than two years. There had already been clashes with the police and with the members of upper class clubs. Trafalgar Square was seen symbolically as the point at which the working class East End met upper class West End of London, a focus of class struggle and an obvious flash point.
This attracted the attention of the small but growing Socialist movement - both the Marxists of the SDF (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 brought in the radical wing of the Liberal party and free speech activists from the National Secular Society and the Law and Liberty League, who saw the Square as a public space that had to kept free for public, political use. As so often in British politics, the Irish issue provided a focus for a wide range of political and social concerns. The Left felt that the Irish situation had direct parallels within Britain and that coercion in Ireland propelled repression in Britain.
Some historians believe that an important factor was the fact that the working class in British cities contained a very large element that was Irish in birth or origin. London, like industrial areas of Northern England and the West of Scotland, had a large Irish working class, concentrated in the East End, where it rubbed shoulders with a very diverse population, including increasing numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe. There was also a strong international dimension to the situation. Irish and British workers were strongly concerned about the fate of the anarchists arrested after the Haymarket Riot in Chicago the previous year.
Demonstration of 13 November:
As fears grew that the demonstration would be very large and that police might attack it, Charles Bradlaugh of the National Secular Society advised his members to stay away. However, the Socialist and Radical groups largely maintained their support and their leaders took part. Some 10,000 marchers approached Trafalgar Square from several different directions, led by (among others) Elizabeth Reynolds, John Burns, Annie Besant and Robert Cunninghame-Graham, who were primarily leaders of the Social Democratic Federation. Also marching was the Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw, who spoke during the demonstrations.
Two thousand police and 400 troops were deployed to halt the demonstration. In the ensuing clashes many demonstrators, including women and children, were badly beaten. Some demonstrators were injured and at least three died of the injuries they received. 200 were treated in hospital. Burns and Cunninghame-Graham were arrested and imprisoned for six weeks. Annie Besant, who was a Marxist, Fabian and secularist, spoke at the rally and offered herself for arrest, but was unable to get the police to respond.
Most of the injuries were inflicted by the police, using fists and truncheons. There were both infantry and cavalry present. Although the infantry were marched into position with bayonets fixed, they were not ordered to open fire and the cavalry were not ordered to draw their swords.
Bloody Sunday was certainly a major demonstration, but casualties were relatively light - much lower than in some clashes of the Reform agitation or Chartism, earlier in the century. Besant and William Thomas Stead (of the Law and Liberty League) were particularly active in organizing legal defence for the arrested and in raising funds for the families affected by arrest or injury of a wage-earner. Both were superb self-publicists and their skilled manipulation of press and public opinion created an impression of a much more serious massacre than actually took place. They stage-managed court appearances and other public events to gain maximum effect. The verse and oratory of William Morris, largely focused on the funerals, were important in fixing the memory of the events of 13 November.
The Liberal Party, nationally and in parliament, on the other hand, did not organize major protests. Gladstone continued to attack government policy in Ireland without condemning police treatment of Irish people living in Britain. The following Sunday, November 20, saw another demonstration and more casualties inflicted by the police. Among them was a young clerk named Alfred Linnell, a friend of William Morris who was marching next to the then-unknown George Bernard Shaw.
The funeral of Linnell in December provided another focus for the unemployed and Irish movements, with more attending than on Bloody Sunday itself. William Morris, leader of the Socialist League, gave the main speech and the crowd sang his "Death Song". A smaller but similar event marked the burial of another of those killed, W. B. Curner, which took place in January. The release of those imprisoned was celebrated on 20 February 1888, with large public meeting. Henry Hyndman, leader of the SDF, violently denounced the Liberal Party and then went on to attack the Radical M.P.s who were present. This bitterly divisive speech marked the end of the movement that had culminated in Bloody Sunday and the funeral of Linnell.
Bloody Sunday and its aftermath were significant events in the history and the mythology of the British and Irish Left but they were also crucial media events. They formed a high point for the interest of the media and middle-class commentators in the "social question", largely embodied in the condition of the East End of London. The spectres of the mob or of poverty could be conjured, according to taste, to generate interest in social conditions. The spate of murders attributed to Jack the Ripper, which began shortly afterwards, diverted this attention and allowed concern with the East End to take a very different focus, around crime and policing.
Socialist activism, on the other hand, tended to flow away from direct political confrontation into the industrial struggles of the New Unionism, like the London matchgirls strike of 1888 and the London Dock Strike of 1889. The rift between the middle-class liberals and secularists, on the one hand, and the Socialists, on the other, proved to be an important step in the evolution of an independent working class movement. The new unionism produced a new working class leadership, which was itself to mould the Labour Party in the next century.