Why we have marched from Clerkenwell Green

Clerkenwell Green has been a traditional meeting place for the labour movement since the 19th century. It has strong radical roots - for example, in 1381 Wat Tyler and sections of the Peasants Revolt who had marched on and taken over London, camped here before the meeting with Richard II at Smithfield, where Tyler was murdered.

Clerkenwell was a strong radical area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Support for John Wilkes was strong and meetings of workers took place around the area. In 1826 William Cobbett addressed a big anti-Corn Laws meeting. The local sessions house. later Magistrates Court, had many local radicals before it, including the English Jacobins.

The Green was also the venue for protests in 1832 over the bloody repression in Jamaica following eviction of squatters from unused land. 439 were hanged and 600 flogged under Governor Eyre's vicious regime. Protestors on the Green burnt Eyre in effigy leading to denouncements of the protestors in the Saturday Review. When Eyre returned to Britain in August 1866 he was welcomed at Southampton by his well to do admirers who held a public banquet in his honour. This was picketed by a large working class crowd who jeered and jostled those attending the 'feast of blood'. At a protest meeting that same evening, one of the largest working class meetings ever held in the city, Eyre was condemned as a murderer, and his conduct was compared with the government's banning of the Reform League demonstration in Hyde Park that same year. Both the Jamaican rebels and working class radicals faced the same enemy. Twice Eyre was to be charged with murder, but the cases were never proceeded with.(1)

1838 saw the first of Tolpuddle Martyrs, returned from transportation to Australia, welcomed at a mass meeting on the Green. In 1838 a meeting of 7000 Chartist supporters heard Scottish, Lancashire and Leicester delegates to the Chartist Convention.

In 1848 a number of major Chartist meetings took place addressed by leader like Fergus O'Connor and Ernest Jones. One was a mobilising meeting for the famous mass rally held in May at Kennington Common. Many meetings led to furious street clashes with the police, on one occasion leading to the Horse Guards with 5000 police in support occupying the Green, followed by Robert Peel banning further meetings.

Clerkenwell Green was the place where many meetings in favour of the Irish struggle took place, often addressed by Fenian speakers. The Green was just down the road from Clerkenwell Prison which the Fenians attacked to free Irish prisoners in 1867. The explosion killed 12 and injured about 120. However, recent study has shown that this was a very murky period with the finger of British intelligence agencies heavily involved making it difficult to know what was really done by whom - see book "Fenian Fire: the British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria" - Christy Campbell, Harper Collins, 2002

The Reform League led off its contingent to join the march on Hyde Park which swelled to 150,000. In 1871 meetings supported the Paris Commune. 1884 saw the Social Democratic Federation meet there (it later moved its printing press to 37 Clerkenwell Green - now the Marx Memorial Library- presses later used by Iskra the Russian revolutionary journal, edited in 1902-3 by Lenin). The City Press called the Green the "headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra-nonconformity".

In 1890 London's first full May Day March(following 2 years of various activities across the capital) started on the Green, organised by the London Trades Council in conjunction with 28 Radical Clubs and many trade unionists. Since that date many trade union marches have begun from the Green, including those by postal workers from Mount Pleasant Sorting Office just up the road or by print workers from Fleet Street. Many May Days have either begun from or ended at the Green.

So May Day 2002 continues the tradition.

(acknowledgements to a number of labour movement organisations, particularly
Marx Memorial Library)

(1) from John Newsinger Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review