The Battles of Trafalgar

(“Christmas Card By Artist E.G – ‘The Charge Opposite The National Gallery'” (Manchester), People’s History Museum , ‘Glad Tidings of Struggle and Strife – A History of Protest Christmas Cards’.)

There are a lot of discussions regarding the politics of space and its relation to working class protest, and I don’t think there is a space which embodies this feeling better than Trafalgar Square.

While we probably associate the area now as being the central tourist hot-spot of the city, it was initially envisioned as a public space, and cultural centre, that would ‘beautify’ the surrounding area. (Carmona, de Magalhães,Hammond,2008,30) However it has historically been the gathering point for protesters,notoriously, Bloody Sunday on 13th November 1887 , which I will examine below.

As Lisa Keller points out, the space represented more than just aesthetic , it was a gathering space with the potential to be a physically and psychologically oppressive space when both filled with angry protesters and surrounded by armed police or cavalry – although I am sure that is not what John Nash envisioned when he proposed his ideas. ( Keller,2009,127)

She also mentions the fact that ,following the riots of 1887, there was an upsurge of demonstrative action in Trafalgar square when the contentious nature of its status as a public space was routinely challenged – the government trying to curb protest (which, she says, the public believed was their inalienable and unwavering right) , leaving the police caught up in the middle. (ibid,137)

The police, having been given the right to arrest protesters, had to decipher whether the protests were orderly (legal) or disorderly (illegal) – however the government never clarified their position on defining a protest so their discretion would need to be used in identifying and tackling a protest with the potential to turn violent.(ibid,p.137)

So, Trafalgar Square, using the examples above is a great example of a space which embodies all the topics we have discussed over the course of this module, it being a place with contentious status as a public space (depending on who wants to use it), where protests regularly happen without much definition as to whether they are legal or not, and where the police are at their own discretion as to whether they police activity there or not.

By looking at one of the more notorious incidents to occur in the square, I think we can begin to understand the nature of policing and contentious protests in the contested space.

Bloody Sunday took place in Trafalgar Square on 13th November 1887. It was the violent culmination of a growing  sense of anger and disillusionment towards the government because of the rising tide of unemployment and the poor living conditions that London workers faced on a daily basis, People were being forced to live on the streets, many choosing to take up residence in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding areas, much to the consternation of the middle class residents nearby. (Mace,2005,171)

The area became a contentious and politicised space,between the residents who complained about the number of people sleeping in the square,and the people camping out who had nowhere else to live. The square does, after all, technically belong to the public.

The police,on the other hand, had been moderate in their approach to those camped out on the square, mainly out of sympathy for their situation (even though they had the power to arrest them under the Vagrancy Act), and because the ‘vagrants’ did not appear to actually be causing any trouble. (Ibid,pp.171-172)

The problems began after Sir Charles Warren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, ordered that the square be cleared and that any mass meetings were dissolved as soon as possible, culminating in a blanket ban on all public gatherings in the square (ibid 176-179)

(Charles Warren, “Printed Proclamation Issued By The Metropolitan Police Ordering A Ban On Public Meetings In Trafalgar Square.” (London, 1887), Museum of London Collections Online, Museum of London: People’s City: Politics and Protest.

Had it not been for this, then maybe the events of Bloody Sunday would never have happened, but so outraged by this curtailing of free speech and freedom of expression were the radical groups of the city that they drew up plans to protest, and by joining forces with a protest against the imprisonment of William O’Brien (an irish nationalist MP) in Ireland, Bloody Sunday was set into motion. (Mace,2005,p.179)

It was a huge event seeing approximately 10,000 protesters descend upon Trafalgar square. (Morris,Arata,2003,p.40)  Differences between radical leagues, some stemming decades, were put aside in a display of unity from working class groups from all corners of the city ( a very tidy example of W.U.N.C unity in action). (White,2008,p.378)

The organiser’s had insisted on non-violence, this was simply to be a show of solidarity and peaceful protest, but the Police had a different idea, and as a show of the physical intimidation that Keller talked about, the square was surrounded by 1500 officers,four rows deep in some places. (ibid, p.378) (Mace, p.187) Though the crowds kept on marching they were ambushed along Shaftesbury Avenue, and on arrival at the square were ‘savagely cut about the head and arrested’ (White, p.378)

While E.P Thompson points out that police violence was nowhere as near as extreme as had been witnessed at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819, (Thompson,1963,710), it did still lead to the hospitalization of 200 people and the death of 3 others.(Mace,189) Which is a hefty price to pay for the opportunity to protest against injustice. However it is testament to the radical movement’s goals that they did not let this dark day curtail them, instead they carried on protesting because, as Morris put it :

“The radicals have been taught that slaves have no rights,The lesson is a painful one, but surely useful to us boastful Englishmen: nay, in the long run it is necessary.” (Morris,London in a State of Siege, 1887)








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