There are several events which are remembered with the name ‘Bloody Sunday,’ perhaps most famously Sunday the 30th of January 1972 when members of the British Army opened fire on protesters in Derry, Ireland, killing 13. London has its own Bloody Sunday however, which took place on Sunday the 13th of November 1887, in Trafalgar Square. It was the culmination of months of increasing tension between police and Londoners over the right to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square.
Demonstrations by the unemployed had been taking place in the square daily since the summer. Many unemployed men and women also slept in the square, washing in the fountains. Under pressure from the press to deal with a situation seen as embarrassing to the great metropolis, the police started to disperse meetings in the square from the 17th of October, often resorting to violence. The tension continued, now with frequent clashes between police and protesters, and Irish Home Rulers also began to use the square to protest.
Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of Police, banned all meetings in Trafalgar Square on the 8th of November. This challenge to the freedom of speech and the right to protest ouraged radicals across London, and a meeting scheduled for the following Sunday suddenly became much more significant. Called initially to demand the release of the Irish MP William O’Brien from prison, the demonstration was a clear and deliberate defiance of the ban, and the police could not allow it to go ahead without suffering severe humiliation.
A copy of the ban on all protests in Trafalgar Square (Source: The Museum of London).
On the day of the demonstration, London was turned into “an armed camp” (Bloom, 2010; 223). 1,500 police lined the square up to 4 deep, and there were also mounted police, Life Guards and Grenadier Guards. Hundreds of Special Constables, volunteers who wanted peace maintained in their city, were also present. Marchers approached Trafalgar Square from all directions, but were ambushed by police baton charges about half a mile before they reached their destination.
A dramatic depiction of events (Source: ‘The Graphic,’ November 19, 1887)
Some protesters did manage to reach the square, where vicious street fighting continued all day. The day was a resounding victory for the police. Using no weapons but their truncheons, they injured at least 200 demonstrators, and killed 2 or 3. The organisers of the march had called for the demonstrators not to use violence, and injuries on the police side were therefore minimal, although 2 police officers were reportedly stabbed.
The official inquest into the day suggested that the police should order stronger truncheons, because so many had broken; clearly the authorities felt no qualms about the level of force used. For activists, Bloody Sunday would be remembered as one of heavy-handed, violent repression, and those protesters who died became martyrs for the labour movement.
Sources and further reading
Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
German, Lindsey and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.
Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. London: Penguin, 1984.
White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century. London: Vintage, 2008.