The Grand Demonstration

There are of course no photographs of the ‘Grand Demonstration‘ organised by the Metropolitan trades unions to campaign for the release of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, although I was rather surprised that a Google search appeared to turn one up – actually a photograph of a contemporary engraving.

Trade unions had been legal for ten years at the time and the men from Tolpuddle were propelled to fame (and a very uncomfortable trip to Australia and back) only because a local landowner spotted a chance to attack trade union activites using the then current equivalent of our anti-terrorist laws, the Unlawful Oaths Act, passed in 1797 to prevent  naval mutiny.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.
Children from an Islington school tell the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Over 100,000 marched from Copenhagen Fields (now rather reduced in size as Caledonian Park) in Islington down to Parliament carrying a petition with over 200,000 signatures, and, at least according to that engraving, wearing top hats.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.
Frances O’Grady, TUC Deputy General Secretary unveils a plaque about the 1834 march

Saturday’s event, backed by the TUC, was on a rather smaller scale and unfortunately had not a single top hat, though there were a number of colourful trade union banners and it was led by the fine Cuba Solidarity Salsa Band. And rather than going to Parliament and then on to Kennington Park as in those hardier times, it stopped a short way down the road at Edward Square for a festival. But although small it was still quite a grand demonstration, and the sun came out for it.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

But perhaps the biggest difference between marches then and now is that the 1834 demonstration and the rest of the campaign was actually successful in getting the men released and brought back to England. The considerably larger march in 2003 (and the many other large marches and protests in London and elsewhere) against the invasion of Iraq failed to  have any effect on the Blair government.

More of the story and more pictures on My London Diary.

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