Edward Aveling Time, June 1890

The Eight Hours Working Day

Source: Time, June 1890, p.632-638;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

On Sunday, May 4th, 1890, a demonstration was held in Hyde Park, the like of which had never been seen. It was a demonstration in favour of the Eight Hours’ Working-Day, and by far the larger part of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were and are in favour of obtaining the Eight Hours’ Working-Day by legislation.

In this article will be given a brief account of the events on the Continent and in England that led up to the May 1st demonstrations in other countries, and to the demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May. The immediate history of the whole affair dates from the International Working Men’s Socialist Congress held at Paris, July 14th to 21st, 1889. At that Congress some 400 delegates, representing 22 different countries, were present. Almost all of them were notable men and women, and the names of many of them are already historical. From Germany alone 81 delegates were present. Eighteen of these have since been elected to the Reichstag, among the 35 Socialist Members returned last February.

Perhaps the most interesting thing throughout the Congress was the extraordinary fraternity between the German representatives and those of France. The 81 Germans and the over 200 Frenchmen almost went of their way to show in every possible manner that there was no race enmity between them. The bourgeois German and Frenchman may possibly hate one another as cordially as their natures allow. But between the workers of the two countries there is no quarrel. It was, as someone said, a second German invasion; only, the invaders were received with open arms by the invaded.

The chief questions discussed at the Paris Congress were International Labour Legislation, the legal limitation of the working day, day-work, night-work, work of adults, women and children, supervision of all workshops, as well as of all places where domestic industries are carried on. The Congress declared that all such measures as these of social hygiene, must be carried out by law and by International treaties. Such laws and treaties the proletariat in all countries should press upon their governments. Further it declared for equal wage for men, without distinction of nationality, and for men and women, doing the same work.

In considering the ways and means for bringing about the ends above named the Congress urged upon all working-class organisations and upon the Socialist Party in all countries to request their Governments – (1) to send Representatives to the Conference, at that time proposed to be held at Berne; (2) to support at that Conference the resolutions of the International Congress. As is well-known, the Berne Conference fell through, as the wind was taken out of its sails by the young German swashbuckler’s game of bluff at Berlin.

In every country, and at all kinds of elections the resolutions of the Congress were to figure in the programme of all Socialist and Labour Candidates. This instruction was carried out to the letter in the German elections, the Socialist successes at which were the talk of astonished Europe. In France also at their last elections thousands of votes were given and five deputies were returned, on the programme of the Congress.

As the question of the reduction of the working-day by legal enactment was the one upon which the working-class as a whole was most distinctly agreed, it was further decided to bring out a publication, “The Eight Hours’ Day” in English, French and German. This journal is published in Switzerland. The editorial office of it is at Bāle. Lastly, and from our present point of view, most important of all, a resolution was carried in favour of an International demonstration on behalf of a legal eight hour working-day on May 1st, 1890. This resolution and the outcome of it are so important that I quote it in full: “Resolved, that a great International Demonstration shall take place on a certain day, in such a manner that in all countries and in all towns simultaneously on the day agreed, the workers shall call upon the authorities to reduce by law the working-day to eight hours, And to carry out the other resolutions of the International Congress of Paris.

“As a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1st, 1890 by the American Federation of Labour in its Congress held at St. Louis in December 1888, that date, May 1st, is adopted for the International demonstration.

“The workers of the different nations will carry out the demonstration in accordance with the special conditions obtaining in their individual countries.”

How the May 1st Demonstrations were carried out on the Continent is well known to every reader of the newspapers. A brief account of what was done in England towards the same end follows.

The inception of the whole movement that culminated in the tremendous Demonstration of Sunday, May 4 was the work of the Bloomsbury Socialist Society. This body, which was represented at the Paris Congress, is a small organisation that contains, however, some very hard workers. As far back as the beginning of this year, they decided to hold meetings, and get up entertainments, with the object of starting a fund for the carrying out of the May 1st Demonstration in England. They very early put themselves into communication with the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union. An account of the starting of this Union was given in the January number of “Time.” It is the largest of all the Unions, includes women as well as men, represents over 50 different trades, and is of especial significance as being made up of what are called “unskilled” workers. By July 27th of last year, just about the time the Congress was sitting, the G.W. and G.L. Union had obtained for a large number of its members, the reduction of the working-day to eight hours without any reduction of wage. Further, in January of this year, at a delegate meeting; of the Union, a resolution was passed declaring for the May 1st Demonstration.

From the moment that the Bloomsbury Socialist Society communicated with the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union, the work of organisation was carried out by a joint committee of the two Societies. The first detail of that work was to test the feeling of the Working Class in general. To this end, invitations were sent out to all the Labour Organisations, Trades Unions, and Radical Clubs, asking them to send delegates to a meeting held on Sunday, March 16th, at the Borough of Marylebone Radical Club. At that meeting 75 delegates were present and the feeling was unanimous in favour of demonstrating, and in favour of demonstrating for the legal reduction of hours. The question, however, was, whether May 1st, a Thursday, was a practical day for the English workers. Some of the various organisations would hear of nothing but Sunday, May 4th. But after considerable discussion the International date, May 1st, was carried. Many of those present had not received definite instructions from their organisations upon the important point of the exact date, so another resolution was carried, instructing the joint committee to invite the Unions and Clubs for April 6th, and to give their representatives precise instructions as to voting for May 1st or any other date.

On Sunday, April 6th, at the Workman’s Club, Gye Street, Vauxhall, 94 Organisations were represented, and it was decided that, for this year 1890, the first Sunday in May would be the most suitable date. Then and there the Central Committee, whose name has figured so largely in the newspapers these last few weeks, was nominated by the delegates present, and from that date until May 4th, the work of organisation was in its hands.

With the infinite and troublesome details of that work the general reader need not be troubled. The first part of it, of general interest, was the drawing up and issuing by the 100,000 of a manifesto. From this, omitting all the mere matters of fact which it contains, we quote the two paragraphs in which the heart of the matter lies:-

“All intelligent working people are convinced of the necessity of limiting the working-day to eight hours. And they know this can only be done effectually by legislation, as the masters always take back at the earliest opportunity any concessions they may have been forced to give by the mere combination of workers.”

Why do we want the Eight-Hour Working Day? Because Eight Hours are long enough for any human being to work. Because there are thousands of unemployed and thousands who are working overtime. Because there need be no reduction of wage for the shorter working day. Because we want time and some freshness of body and spirit for our own mental and physical recreation, for our home life, for enjoying the society of husbands, wives, and children.”

The Central Committee did its best to induce all the older Trades Unions to take part in the Demonstration. Unfortunately, without any striking success. The Trades Council was early communicated with, but made no response. Very shortly, however, after this communication, it was announced that the Trades Council themselves intended to hold a Demonstration. The Central Committee made every effort to bring about an amalgamation of the two bodies, but the phrase, “by legal enactment,” which the Committee, like the Paris Congress, considered essential, was not accepted by the Trades Council.

Hence it came about that there were practically two Demonstrations. The one under the auspices of the Trades Council was to declare only in favour of the abstract shortening of the hours of labour; the other, that of the Central Committee, which had been earlier in the field by several weeks, was for the obtaining of the Eight Hour Working Day by the concrete method of legislation.

The last of the delegate meetings was held on Sunday, April 27th, immediately preceding the day of demonstration. At this over 130 delegates were present, and amongst them the one ewe-lamb of a member of Parliament that the advanced flock possess, Cuninghame Graham. At the same meeting it was announced that John Burns and Michael Davitt would go with the legalists. Certain members of Parliament were written to, but only one, Mr. Sidney Buxton, answered in any sense favourably. This last meeting of delegates was memorable for its numbers, its enthusiasm, its unanimity, and for its striking illustration of the immense power of organisation that lies in the working-class. The people who laugh or sneer at the idea of working-men managing their own affairs should serve on Committee with them, and learn lessons.

The events of May 4th are too recent and too familiar to require any notice. I need only quote the resolution passed at the seven platforms of the Central Committee by a mass of human beings that stretched in one unbroken phalanx from the Marble Arch to the Achilles Statue, and reached from the young trees on the east side of the Park more than halfway across to Reformers’ Tree. Of course, I am not including in this the fringe of people who were on the Trades’ Council side of the Park.

“That this mass meeting recognises that the establishment of an International Working Day of Eight Hours for all workers is the most immediate step towards the ultimate emancipation of the workers, and urges upon the Governments of all countries the necessity of fixing a working-day of eight hours by legislative enactment.”

As a matter of history, it must be recorded that of the fifteen platforms in Hyde Park on May 4th, nine were for the legal day. That is because two of the eight platforms on the Trades’ Council side were occupied by the Social Democratic Federation.

The Central Committee distributed amongst the hundreds of thousands of people in the Park a second Manifesto. As this marks off clearly the distinction between the two sets of organisations, both working for the eight hours’ day, I quote a portion of it:-

“Working Men and Women of London, – You are present in Hyde Park to-day in your thousands and tens of thousands. You are demonstrating in favour of an Eight Hours’ Working-Day. But how is it to be got? By individualistic anarchist methods? Or by the combined action of the workers, forcing Parliament to make the maximum day of eight hours legal? Now is the time to choose sides. The issues are clear and distinct. Are you demonstrating merely for the idle purpose of declaring that you are in favour of an eight hour working-day? Or are you demonstrating in favour of getting for the workers of this country an eight hour day by Act of Parliament?

“Why must the Eight Hours’ Working-Day be fixed by law? Because eight hours are long enough for any human being to work: Because there need be no fall in wages with the reduction of the hours of labour. The history of the Labour World has shown that every lessening of the hours of labour is followed more or less immediately by a rise of wage. Because there would be no lessening of production. Here, again, the history of the working class movement shows incontrovertibly that a shortening of the hours of labour invariably means increased production. Because the workers of other nations are asking for the same thing; so, that the bugbear of “Foreign Competition” need not alarm even the present Trades’ Council. Because the masters, whenever they grant anything as the result of the mere combination of the men, invariably take it back at the first opportunity.


“When the gas companies agreed to the demands of the men Mr. Livesey stated distinctly that he agreed to them; but under protest, and that he would take them back at the first opportunity. And in this case he kept his word.

“The history of the fifty years struggle for the Factory Acts is at once a condemnation of the policy of the Traded Council, and the justification of those who are fighting for the Eight Hours’ Legal Working Day. The same arguments, the same shrieking about individual freedom and interference with the liberty of the subject, the same sinister prophecies as to the ruin of trade, and the disruption of the empire. The end of the present struggle will be the same as that which ended in the Factory Act of 1864. We must, we will have a maximum working day of eight hours fixed by Act of Parliament. And that law, when it is passed must not only be passed, but carried out.

“Do we believe that the gaining of an Eight Hour Working Day will settle the tremendous question of the relations between Capital and Labour? By no means. But we believe that to be the most immediate step to be taken. We know, and the masters know, that men and women working not more than eight hours will have more time, leisure and freshness of spirit to think and reason out the meaning of the position of employer and employed. We know, and the masters know, that with the reduction of the hours of labour the workers will have time to ask themselves the question and to answer it. Why should we work eight hours or even one hour for the benefit of the drones of the hive?”

Since the extraordinary meeting of May 4th, the men and women who worked to bring it about have decided that the time has come for the founding an organisation whose chief and immediate aim shall be the obtaining the Eight Hour Working Day by legislation. Such an organisation will consist of the various Labour Societies and Radical Clubs; will make the Eight Hours question its most especial point at present, but will aim at working for any other principle upon which the working classes are agreed; will send out lecturers and speakers into the country districts to awaken attention and arouse enthusiasm there; will, wherever it is possible, run candidates for Parliamentary and other elections who are pledged to the ideas of the organisations; and will, in any case, make the Eight Hours Legal Working Day at least a test question at all elections.

This new organisation will almost certainly arrange for another Demonstration early in May, 1891, and there seems a probability that, next year, May 1st may be the date in England. In any case, the Labour Movement in this country has received a distinct impetus from the Demonstration in Hyde Park on May 4th. It remains to be seen how serious the mass of the people present on that day really were.