Mobs and Riots in Victorian London

Dreadful Riot in London

During Victorian times, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square were frequently disturbed by mobs and rioters, until they became the recognised place in which to air popular discontent or grievance.

Sunday Trading Riots
In 1855, 150,000 people assembled in Hyde Park, and riots broke out in protest over the Sunday Trading Bill, which forbade buying and selling on a Sunday, the only day working people had off.

Hyde Park Demonstration
The Reform League, a movement campaigning for voting rights for men, organized a giant meeting at Hyde Park on 23 July 1866. The Tory Home Secretary, Spencer Horatio Walpole declared it to be illegal, and issued a Police Notice, but the Reform League were determined it should go ahead.

On the day of the meeting, the Reform League organized a procession from their headquarters to Hyde Park. When the procession reached Marble Arch opposite Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park they were confronted by 3,200 police officers, both on foot and mounted, under the command of Commissioner Richard Mayne. The park's gates were chained and barricades of omnibuses were on every side. The Reform League demanded to be let through but were refused, so they signified their intention to break through the line.

Somebody noticed the park's railings were weak and began to sway them backwards and forwards. He was soon helped by the masses and the railings fell. At the same time, two other parts of the demonstration also broke into the park. In addition to the members of the procession, large numbers of bystanders, who were sympathetic to the cause, joined in the storming of Hyde Park and the police were overwhelmed.

Hyde Park Demonstration 1866
Hyde Park Demonstration 1866

Around 200,000 people invaded the park leading the police to call for military support. The soldiers held back and merely manoeuvred at a distance, despite the police commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, and others being stoned by the mob. The meeting proceeded as planned under the Reformer's Tree.

28 police were permanently disabled, and Commissioner Mayne was hit by a stone which cut his head open.

Trafalgar Square Riot (Black Monday)
Two rival leftist organisations, the London United Workmen's Committee and the Social Democratic Federation, gave notice of their intention to hold demonstrations for London's unemployed in Trafalgar Square on the same day, Monday 8 February 1886. Although it was recognised that they might clash violently, no serious precautions were taken.

The meetings were approved with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, and a reserve of 563 men standing by. District Superintendent Robert Walker was appointed to maintain public order, but he was 74 years old and quite unsuitable for such active service. He went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and disappeared into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

Trafalgar Square Riot 1886
Trafalgar Square Riot 1886

The meetings passed off without incident, but when the speakers had left the square a crowd of 5,000 streamed west along Pall Mall and resumed a more fiery meeting in Hyde Park. A garbled message came to the reserve that there was trouble brewing in The Mall instead of Pall Mall, so they marched away to protect Marlborough House and Buckingham Palace, while a few hundred metres north the mob rushed unhindered along Pall Mall, St James's, and Piccadilly throwing stones, smashing club windows, looting shops, robbing occupants of carriages, and terrorizing people.

The meeting in Hyde Park inspired more mayhem, and in the early evening they raged back down Oxford Street breaking shop windows and looting.

Trafalgar Square Riot (Bloody Sunday)
Between 1886 and 1887 Trafalgar Square became a rallying point for protests against economic hardship by the poor of London. In the summer of 1887, large numbers of the destitute unemployed began camping in Trafalgar Square. Their presence made the square a centre for political agitation, and by September the Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, fearing London would again be at the mercy of the mob, asked the Home Secretary to ban all meetings in the square.

Home Secretary Matthews procrastinated throughout October, during which time Warren had to post up to 2,000 policemen around the square on weekends to ensure public order. In November Matthews suddenly gave way and allowed Warren to prohibit meetings in and around the square.

The left-wing press, who had previously perceived Warren as a desirable intellectual progressive, perceived this as having been done on his sole authority, and felt it to be unlawful and provocative. The Social Democratic Federation and Irish National League called a meeting to challenge his order. They wanted to demonstrate 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. This meeting was called for 2.30pm on Sunday 13 November 1887, and Warren responded by expressly prohibiting any procession from entering the square on that day.

Warren stationed his 2,000 men and took up a position to oversee events in the square himself. The three leading members of the SDF agreed to march up arm-in-arm and force their way if possible into Trafalgar Square. Somehow one of them was lost in the crowd, but the other two pushed their way through, challenged the police, came to blows, and were duly mauled, arrested, and locked up. The crowd was a most good-humoured, easy going crowd; but presently it was transformed. A regiment of mounted police came charging into the crowed, scattering, frightening and batoning the people. By mid afternoon Warren called in 400 foot soldiers and the Life Guards to relieve the police.

Bloody Sunday 1887
Bloody Sunday 1887
Most of the injuries were inflicted by the police, using fists and truncheons. By the end of the day Charing Cross Hospital was filled with casualties and three persons subsequently died of their injuries. The protesters held regular weekly demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, and skirmishes continued until December, including a huge brawl in Westminster Abbey.

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