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Six Days Shalt Thou Labour, and on the Seventh …

Workers in the retail industry will be relieved that George Osborne’s recent budget plan allowing shops to increase Sunday trading hours is being hampered by the fact that there are only 24 hours in a Sunday in which it is possible to make them work.

Ever since the 1950 Shops Act, which gave retail workers specified meal breaks, a half-day holiday each week and time off in lieu of Sunday work, there have, of course, been numerous attacks on their working hours and conditions, including Thatcher’s 1986 Shops Bill, though this was defeated when rebel Tory and Labour MPs joined forces and were backed by the Church of England and a religious campaign group.

But governments have not always taken the same view of Sunday trading. In 1855, after complaints in the House of Lords that five million people had become estranged not only from the Church but from Christianity, Lord Robert Grosvenor’s ‘Sunday Trading Bill’ was introduced in an attempt to herd them back into church.

It failed, and it kicked off a series of protests which led, eventually, to the establishment of Speakers’ Corner in London as a place of Sunday working class discussion and debate.

The Bill was designed to prevent small traders on whom the poor were totally dependent from doing business on Sundays. Large shops remained closed anyway, and since the normal working week was six days with wages being paid late on Saturday, the Bill would be irrelevant to the rich but cause real hardship to the poor. When this was pointed out Grosvenor’s response was that ‘the aristocracy are largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays’.

The timing of his Bill was not good. ‘Bread riots’ protesting at widespread poverty had recently taken place in Liverpool and London, and the ‘Beer Bill’ restricting Sunday trading hours in the places where workers met to socialise had just been passed.

Notices drawn up by the Chartists soon appeared around London announcing that a public meeting was to be held in Hyde Park on the following Sunday:

‘New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all kinds of recreation and nourishment, both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time.  An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and ‘the lower orders’ generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath, and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o’clock on the right bank of the Serpentine on the side towards Kensington Gardens. Come and bring your wives and children in order that they may profit by the example their ‘betters’ set them!’

Hyde Park, on a Sunday afternoon in June, would have been swarming with London’s high society parading their horses, carriages and uniformed flunkeys. But on this occasion, as witnessed by Karl Marx who was in attendance:

‘At three o’clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered… Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000… The police who were present in force were obviously endeavouring to deprive the organisers of the meeting of what Archimedes had asked for to move the earth, namely, a place to stand upon. Finally a rather large crowd made a firm stand and Bligh, the Chartist, constituted himself chairman on a small eminence in the midst of the throng.

No sooner had he began his harangue than Police Inspector Banks at the head of 40 truncheon-swinging constables explained to him that the Park was the private property of the Crown and that no meeting might be held in it. After some pourparlers in which Bligh sought to demonstrate to him that parks were public property and in which Banks rejoined he had strict orders to arrest him if he should insist on carrying out his intention, Bligh shouted amidst the bellowing of the masses surrounding him, ‘Her Majesty’s police declare that Hyde Park is private property of the Crown and that her Majesty is unwilling to let her land be used by the people for their meetings’.

…Suddenly shouts could be heard on all sides: ‘Let‘s go to the road, to the carriages!’. The heaping of insults upon horse riders and occupants of carriages had meanwhile already begun…The procession of elegant ladies and gentlemen; ‘commoners and Lords’, in their high coaches-and-four with liveried lackeys in front and behind, joined, to be sure, by a few mounted venerables slightly under the weather from the effects of wine, did not this time pass by in review but played the role of Oder-Zeitung involuntary actors who were made to run the gauntlet. A babel of jeering, taunting, discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English, soon bore down on them from both sides… To this must be added outbursts of genuine old-English humour peculiarly mixed with long-contained seething wrath. ‘Go to church!’ were the only articulate sounds that could be distinguished. One lady soothingly offered a prayer-book in Orthodox binding from her carriage in her outstretched hand. ‘Give it to your horses to read!’ came the thundering reply, echoing a thousand voices…The spectacle lasted three hours’ (‘Anti-Church Movement’, Neue Oder-Zeitung. 28 June 1855).

The following day’s Morning Post reported the events: ‘A spectacle both disgraceful and dangerous in the extreme has taken place in Hyde Park, an open violation of law and decency… an illegal interference by physical force in the free action of the Legislature… This scene must not be allowed to be repeated’. It added however, that the ‘fanatical’ Lord Grosvenor was solely responsible for provoking the ‘just indignation of the people’.

Lord Grosvenor, however, not only refused to withdraw the Bill but re-stated his determination to press it through. The chartists responded with a handbill for another meeting the following Sunday.

‘Lord Robert Grosvenor wishes to drive us all to church! Let us go to church with Lord Grosvenor next Sunday morning! We can attend on his Lordship at Park Lane at half-past ten: ‘go to church’ with him, then go home to dinner, and be back in time to see ‘our friends’ in Hyde Park. Come in your best clothes, as his lordship is very particular’.

On Sunday a notice banning the meeting, signed by Sir Richard Mayne, the Commissioner of Police, was attached to The Park gates. The crowds, however, poured in. According to the following morning’s Times ‘By half-past two o’clock there must have been nearly 150,000 men, women and children present.…The proceedings began by the usual stump oratory, which continued for some time, until a cry of ‘the Police’ being raised put an abrupt termination to it’.

‘The police’ had arrived in the form of Sir Richard Mayne on horseback, plus approximately 800 truncheon-wielding officers determined to enforce the ban. With the meeting abandoned, the assembly again turned their attention to the spectacle of the wealthy parading up and down in their carriages. This time the police charged the crowd. Over 100 arrests were made and dozens were injured, one fatally.

The following day Lord Grosvenor withdrew the Bill and confessed to being in ‘rather an awkward predicament’. The intention of his Bill, he said, had been merely to increase the amount of holidays to the ‘overtaxed thousands of the Metropolis’

For several weeks things were fairly calm with a few sporadic meetings held at which the police kept a low profile. After a while, however, police renewed their intervention. Eventually a notice was issued, signed by the Commissioner of Police banning public meeting from all London Parks. It warned, ‘All necessary measures will be adopted to prevent any such meeting, or assemblage’.

No more meetings were held for several years. In 1866, however, the Reform League announced that a meeting was to be held in Hyde Park on 2 July.

Mayne at first announced that the ban would be enforced, but at the last minute relented and the meeting, attended by about 50,000, went ahead. A further, evening meeting was announced. This time Mayne was determined to prevent it. The ban was reissued and promptly declared invalid by Edmond Beales, a barrister and President of the Reform League claiming the Park was the ‘property of the nation’.

On the evening of the meeting the arriving crowd was met by about 1,700 police officers mounted and on foot, and the gates locked. A large crowd had already assembled inside and were unable to leave. When Beales and other leaders of the Reform League arrived the crowd attempted to force open the gates and enter, and the police, according to the Times ‘used their staves freely to defeat this attempt’.

It was suggested that the meeting be transferred to Trafalgar Square, and Beales and the leadership set off in their cabs. The vast majority of the crowd however, some who had walked miles to be there, were in no mood for this and determined to hold a meeting, proceeded to pull down the railings and enter the Park.

The first breach was made in Bayswater Road, followed by several more along Park Lane. And, according to the Times, ‘The police brought their truncheons into active use, and a number of the roughs were somewhat severely handled’. The Morning Star reported that the police had used their truncheons ‘like savages who, having been under temporary control, were now at full liberty to break heads and cut open faces to their hearts content’. But despite numerous and severe injuries, and dozens of arrests, the crowd flooded in.

The Grenadier Guards and the Life Guards were rushed in to back up the police, but were ineffective. The meetings and speeches were in full swing and could not be prevented.

The Reform League then called a meeting for 6 May 1867. Walpole, the Home Secretary, immediately announced a ban, to be backed up with the appointment of 12,000 special constables, together with whatever regular police and military force necessary. It was obvious though, and Walpole realised it, that the ban would be ignored. At the last moment it was lifted.

Over 150,000 people marched into Hyde Park on 6 May. The police and troops stood by and watched as the massive rally took place - peacefully and calmly. The following morning Walpole resigned.

Finally, in 1872, in an attempt to dress up their defeat as an act of benevolence, the ‘Royal Parks and Gardens Act’ was announced, which they claimed,  and still claim to this day, gave the right to hold meetings in the public parks.

In fact, this right was never given. The government used everything in its power (including the use of the army) to prevent the public meeting to discuss their concerns. The right to free speech in the public parks had to be taken. And paid for with working class blood.

NICK WHITE