London Road’s fight for compensation is déjà vu for political historians


By - Thursday 11th July, 2013

Sean Creighton provides historical and political context for the dispute over compensation for London Road’s riot victims – and finds that much can be learned from Croydon’s early press


Steve Reed, Labour MP for Croydon North, has rightly been objecting to the failure of the Metropolitan Police to ensure that all the victims of damage in the 2011 riots have received their compensation. The legislation that governs compensation was originally approved by parliament as a direct consequence of the events on and around ‘Bloody Sunday’ on 13th February 1887 – an armed attack by police and soldiers on demonstrators exercising their rights to free speech and assembly in Trafalgar Square.

The previous day, the Liberal Club in Park Street discussed the events of the week. The main topic was the demonstration held in Trafalgar Square on the previous Sunday and the ban by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner on future demonstrations there. Members considered that the ban would lead to a disturbance at the planned demonstration organised for the following day. That prediction was correct.

The demonstration was the culmination of more than a year of dispute about the use of Trafalgar Square to protest about unemployment and the way in which popular unrest was being handled in Ireland. These disputes escalated into a ‘battle’ over free speech and the right to demonstrate in the square.

The Croydon Times editor said that ‘Bloody Sunday’ ‘formed the principal topic of conversation amongst the Croydon public this week.’

John Burns of Battersea, a leading socialist firebrand, was arrested, charged, and imprisoned for his role that day. It did him no harm. He was elected to the new formed London County Council at the end of 1888, was a leader in the successful Dock Strike of 1889 and of the New Unionist wave that the Strike was part of, and was elected Battersea’s MP in 1892.

Seven days after ‘Bloody Sunday’, there was a further demonstration which again flared into battles between police and demonstrators. As a result Albert Linnell, who was one of the curious who went to the square to watch, died of his injuries.

Public opinion was split on the issues involved. The Croydon Times editor said that ‘Bloody Sunday’ ‘formed the principal topic of conversation amongst the Croydon public this week.’ He stressed that the meeting had been ‘called by a properly constituted political society, for a political purpose’ and therefore could not be unlawful. He would have preferred that following the ban the organisers had switched to Hyde Park. He assumed that ‘the conduct of the police will be made the subject of a full and careful investigation…’

‘But let the sober-minded citizen consider this. That Englishmen have no liberties except those which are allowed them by their laws.’

The South London Press, which was owned by J Henderson, a Liberal, was critical of the government and the police. The Croydon Advertiser ran a weekly column allegedly ‘By a County Member’ from the ‘National Liberal Club’. The writer blamed the Pall Mall Gazette for ‘Bloody Sunday’. ‘This widely read paper, in a series of absolutely wicked leaders, urged on the Socialists, the Anarchists and the vagrants of the Metropolis to defy the authorities, and succeeded in gulling the more ignorant members of Workmen’s Clubs into taking part in the encounter.’ The writer said he was there ‘and can testify to the splendid manner in which the police did their work.’

While supporting the commissioner’s action, the Advertiser’s editor did not ‘think the soldiers ought to have been brought out. It does not look well in a free country, and with the thousands of police already in the Square, the forces of law and order were overwhelming.’ After a discussion, he reminded his readers, ‘but let the sober-minded citizen consider this. That Englishmen have no liberties except those which are allowed them by their laws.’

The editor of the The Croydon Guardian also took a pro-Warren and an anti-Pall Mall Gazette line, while The Croydon Times editor commented to similar effect.

The fight for free speech and assembly in Trafalgar Square and the support of Irish nationalism were factors in changing the attitude of a wide range of radical, liberal, and socialist activists and their supporters towards what was achieveable through protest and direct action. Annie Besant, who took part and ran the legal defence fund set up to support those arrested, went on to provide crucial support to the Matchwomen of the East End in their successful strike in 1888, which in turn stimulated the men to action. Released in early 1888, Burns also supported the Matchwomen.

In 1892, Burns became MP for Battersea. At the end of 1905, he was invited by the Liberals to join the Government. While his role as Local Government minister has been assessed as unimaginative and bureaucratic, one of his lasting legacies was the first Town and Country Planning Act.

On 19th September 1891, 4,000 marched  from South Norwood to Duppas Hill to raise money to help  carpenters and joiners on strike

The massive movement for better wages and working conditions, expansion of membership of existing unions, and the formation of new unions, especially among semi- and un-skilled and low paid workers, had their effects in Croydon.

In March 1890 the members of the Gas Workers & General Labourers Union processed from South Norwood to a meeting on waste land in Handcroft Rd, W. Croydon. About September 1890 the Croydon Federation of Trades and Labour Council  was established. In May 1891 local branches of the Stonemasons, Tailors and Boot Rivetters & Finishers unions were in the procession with their banners for the opening of Wandle Park.  In August 1891 the Brickayers demonstrated at Duppas Hill. On 19th September 1891, 4,000 marched  from South Norwood to Duppas Hill to raise money to help  carpenters and joiners on strike and locked out in London. Crowds lined the streets.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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