William Morris. Commonweal 1887

London in a State of Siege

Source: “London in a State of Siege” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 97, 19 November 1887, p. 369-70;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Sir Charles Warren has kept his promise and prevented the meeting organized by the Radical Clubs. From the military point of view he has been eminently successful, and deserved to be so, and it is now proper that we should make him a peer of the realm and Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, if he will kindly consent to waive the title of Emperor or three-tailed Bashaw or whatever else is the proper nick-name of a supreme and irresponsible ruler. Sir Charles, I repeat, made his military dispositions admirably, and revolutionists should study them, since they have had a little piece of real war suddenly brought to their notice. The ‘Square’, re., the sunken space, was guarded by foot-policemen four deep, whose business was simply to guard it and who had orders not to stir from their posts; outside these were strong bodies of horse-police who took careful note of any incipient gathering and at once scattered it.

This defence was ample against anything except an organized attack from determined persons acting in concert and able to depend on one another. In order that no such body should be formed and no such attack be possible, the careful general had posted strong bodies of police, with due supports to fall back on if necessary, about a radius of about a quarter of a mile of the Square, so that nothing could escape falling into the meshes of this net.

Into this net then we marched. The column in which the comrades of the League were, started from Clerkenwell Green in company with the Patriotic Club and some of the East-end clubs, including a Branch of the SDF. I see the correspondent of the Daily News estimates this column at 6000, but I think that is an exaggeration. Anyhow, we marched in good order through Theobalds’ Road, and up Hart Street, crossing Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue without attack from the police, but we had no sooner crossed the latter street and were about to enter the Seven Dials streets to make our way to St Martin’s Lane, than the attack came, and it was clearly the best possible place for it. The divergence of the streets would confuse any procession which had lost its rallying point; the side streets and the width of the thoroughfare at the spot gave a good opportunity for a flank charge, and at our rear was the open space of Shaftesbury Avenue to allow a charge in that quarter to finish us up after the attack on front and flank. It was all over in a few minutes: our comrades fought valiantly, but they had not learned how to stand and turn their column into a line, or to march on to the front. Those in front turned and faced their rear, not to run away, but to join in the fray if opportunity served. The police struck right and left like what they were, soldiers attacking an enemy, amidst wild shrieks of hatred from the women who came from the slums on our left. The band instruments were captured, the banners and flags destroyed, there was no rallying point and no possibility of rallying, and all that the people composing our once strong column could do was to straggle into the Square as helpless units. I confess I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organization got its victory. I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in concert and each knowing his own part.

What happened to us happened, as I hear, to the other processions with more or less fighting. An eye-witness who marched up with the western column told me that they were suddenly attacked as they came opposite the Haymarket Theatre, by the police rushing out on them from the side streets and immediately batoning everybody they could reach, whether they resisted or not. The column, he said was destroyed in two minutes, though certainly not quite without fighting; one brave man wrapping his banner torn from the pole round his arm and facing the police till he was hammered down with repeated blows.

Once in the Square we especially as I said good helpless units, especially as there were undoubtedly a good many mere spectators, many of them club gentlemen and other members of the class which employs Warren. Undoubtedly if two or three hundred men could have been got to make a rush on the cordon of the police, especially at the south east corner the crowd could have swarmed into the Square, and if the weakest of the columns could have reached the Square in order this could easily have been done but the result would probably have been a far bloodier massacre than Peterloo; for the people, once in the Square, would have found themselves in a mere penfold at the mercy of the police and soldiers. It is true that as matters went, there seemed very little need for the appearance of the latter, so completely were the police, horse and foot, masters of the situation; and the great mass of the people also round the Square was composed of Radicals, very angry it is true at the horrible brutality with which they had been treated by Warren’s men, but by no means strung up to fighting pitch. So that I was fairly surprised, the crowd being then quite quiet, to see the Life Guards form at the south of the Square and march up towards St Martin’s Church with the magistrate at their head (a sort of country-gentleman-looking imbecile) to read the Riot Act. The soldiers were cheered as well as hooted by the crowd, I think under the impression that they would not act as brutally against the people as the police: a mistaken impression, I think, as these gorgeous gentry are just the helmetted flunkies of the rich and would act on their Orders just as their butlers or footmen would. A little after this a regiment of the footguards made their appearance with fixed bayonets, and completed the triumph of law and order.

Sir Charles Warren has thus given us a lesson in street fighting, the first point of which is that mere numbers without organization or drill are useless; the second, which ought also to be noted, is the proper way to defend a position in a large town by a due system of scouts, outposts, and supports.

We Socialists should thank our master for his lesson, and so pass on from considering the military aspect of the case to its civil aspect. Warren has won a victory, but on what terms! It is clear from what is above printed that he would not have been thoroughly successful if he had not had a free hand given him: if he had not attacked citizens marching peaceably, through the streets in just such a way as banditti might do, destroying and stealing their property, they would have been able to claim their right of meeting in Trafalgar Square to such a way that nothing but sharp shot and cold steel could have dealt with them. London has been put under martial law, nominally for behoof of a party, but really on behoof of a class, and war (for it is no less, whatever the consequences may be) has been forced upon us. The mask is off now, and the real meaning of all the petty persecution of our open-air meetings is as clear as may be. No more humbug need be talked about obstruction and the convenience of the public: it is obvious that those meetings were attacked because we displeased the dominant class and were weak. Last Sunday explains all, and the bourgeois now goes about boasting that he is the master and will do what he likes with his slaves. Again, the humbug is exposed of the political condemnation of coercion by Act of Parliament in Ireland, when here in London we have coercion without Act of Parliament; and the feeble twitterings of the Daily News will be received with jeers by the triumphant Tories.

And the greatest humbug which Sunday’s events have laid bare is ‘the protection afforded by law to the humblest citizen’. Some simple people will be thinking that Warren can be attacked legally for his murderous and cowardly assaults of Sunday. I say Warren, because ‘tis no use beating the stick that beats you. Some perhaps will think that there may be a chance of his getting a few years penal servitude for inciting to riot and murder. But these persons forget that he has been ordered to act as he did just as he ordered his brigands, and that Salisbury and Co., who ordered him have done so at the orders of the class which they represent. They have made the laws, but have never intended to keep them when inconvenient. It has now become inconvenient to keep them — and in consequence we must think ourselves lucky to be only beaten by the policeman’s baton if the bourgeois don’t like us — lucky to get off the six months’ or twelve months’ imprisonment which is likely to accompany such an accident. In short, the very Radicals have now 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.