Works of Frederick Engels 1872

Letters from London

Source: Marx and Engels on Ireland, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971;
First Published: in Italian in La Plebe, November 17, 1872;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Engels’s Letters from London appeared in La Plebe, the newspaper of the International’s sections in Italy, early in April 1872, and continued throughout the year. Early in 1873, Engels’s co-operation with La Plebe was temporarily interrupted due to government reprisals against the paper’s editors. La Plebe was published under the editorship of E. Bignami in Lodi between 1868 and 1875, and in Milan between 1875 and 1883. Up to the early seventies the newspaper followed a bourgeois-democratic line, later it became socialist. In 1872-73 La Plebe played an important role in the struggle against the anarchist influence in the Italian working-class movement. Engels’s contributions greatly promoted the paper’s success. In 1882, the first independent party of the Italian proletariat the Workers’ Party — formed around La Plebe.

Meeting in Hyde Park

London, November 14, 1872

The Liberal English Government has at the moment no less than 42 Irish political prisoners in its prisons and treats them with quite exceptional cruelty, far worse than thieves and murderers. In the good old days of King Bomba, the head of the present Liberal cabinet, Mr. Gladstone, travelled to Italy and visited political prisoners in Naples; on his return to England he published a pamphlet which disgraced the Neapolitan Government before Europe for its unworthy treatment of political prisoners.

This does not prevent this selfsame Mr. Gladstone from treating in the very same way the Irish political prisoners, whom he continues to keep under lock and key.

The Irish members of the International in London decided to organise a giant demonstration in Hyde Park (the largest public park in London, where all the big popular meetings take place during political campaigns) to demand a general amnesty. They contacted all London’s democratic organisations and formed a committee which included MacDonnell (an Irishman), Murray (an Englishman) and Lessner (a German) — all members of the last General Council of the International.

A difficulty arose: at the last session of Parliament the government passed a law which gave it the right to regulate public meetings in London’s parks. It made use of this and had the regulation posted up to warn those who wanted to hold such a public meeting that they must give a written notification to the police two days prior to calling it, indicating the names of the speakers. This regulation carefully kept hidden from the London press destroyed with one stroke of the pen one of the most precious rights of London’s working people — the right to hold meetings in parks when and how they please. To submit to this regulation would be to sacrifice one of the people’s rights.

The Irish, who represent the most revolutionary element of the population, were not men to display such weakness. The committee unanimously decided to act as if it did not know of the existence of this regulation and to hold their meeting in defiance of the government’s decree.

Last Sunday at about three o'clock in the afternoon two enormous processions with bands and banners marched towards Hyde Park. The bands played Irish songs and the Marseillaise; almost all the banners were Irish (green with a gold harp in the middle) or red. There were only a few police agents at the entrances to the park and the columns of demonstrators marched in without meeting with any resistance. They assembled at the appointed place and the speeches began.

The spectators numbered at least thirty thousand and at least half had a green ribbon or a green leaf in their buttonhole to show they were Irish; the rest were English, German and French. The crowd was too large for all to be able to hear the speeches, and so a second meeting was organised nearby with other orators speaking on the same theme. Forceful resolutions were adopted demanding a general amnesty and the repeal of the coercion laws which keep Ireland under a permanent state of siege. At about five o'clock the demonstrators formed up into files again and left the park, thus having flouted the regulation of Gladstone’s Government.

This is the first time an Irish demonstration has been held in Hyde Park; it was very successful and even the London bourgeois press cannot deny this. It is also the first time the English and Irish sections of our population have united in friendship. These two elements of the working class, whose enmity towards each other was so much in the interests of the government and wealthy classes, are now offering one another the hand of friendship; this gratifying fact is due principally to the influence of the last General Council of the International,[307] which has always directed all its efforts to unite the workers of both peoples on a basis of complete equality. This meeting, of the 3rd November, will usher in a new era in the history of London’s working-class movement.

You might ask: “What is the government doing? Can it be that it is willing to reconcile itself to this slight? Will it allow its regulation to be flouted with impunity?”

Well, this is what it has done: it placed two police inspectors and two agents by the platforms in Hyde Park and they took down the names of the speakers. On the following day, these two inspectors brought a suit against the speakers before the Justice of the Peace. The justice sent them a summons and they have to appear before him next Saturday. This course of action makes it quite clear that they don’t intend to undertake extensive proceedings against them. The government seems to have admitted that the Irish or, as they say here, the Fenians have beaten it and will be satisfied with a small fine. The debate in court will certainly be interesting and I shall inform you of it in my next letter.[308]

Of one thing there can be no doubt: the Irish, thanks to their energetic efforts, have saved the right of the people of London to hold meetings in parks when and how they please.


307 By the “last” General Council Engels means the London Council that existed before the Hague Congress of the International at which a decision was adopted to transfer the scat of the General Council to New York.

308 In the fourth article of the Letters from London series: “Meeting in Hyde Park. — The Position in Spain,” written on December 11, 1872, Engels reported that the Justice of the Peace could do no more than impose the smallest possible fine, and since his decision anyway ran contrary to the rules governing behaviour in Hyde Park the accused demanded that the case be brought before a court of appeal.