When was the First "Bloody Sunday?"

WORLD HISTORY | April 21, 2019

13th November 1887: Policemen fighting a contingent from Clerkenwell Green during a riot in Trafalgar Square. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

U-2’s song, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is well-known to children of the 1980s. But curiously, there is no singular Bloody Sunday. There are, in fact, at least nineteen different Bloody Sundays right up to 1991. But the very first one was well over a century ago.

The Life Guards guarding Trafalgar Square. Source: (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

In 1887, economic depression and unemployment were wracking the city of London. There was a strong class system which divided Britain and exacerbated economic woes. Protesters organized by the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, and other radical groups were filling up the famous Trafalgar Square daily. To the horror of the upper classes, these working-class protestors even used the fountains to bathe themselves.

These dissenters were joined by Irish nationalists who called for home rule in Ireland and to protest “Coercion” laws which suspended civil rights in Ireland. Trafalgar Square had become in effect a magnet for dissent since it opened in 1844. 

Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927) -(By Herbert Rose Barraud of London - myeasypics. www.commons.wikimedia.org)

The matter became a public threat to the upper classes, and the press berated the recently elected Tory government to do something. Now London’s Chief of Police was Sir Charles Warren. He had been at the job since 1886 and had made a distinguished military career of “putting down rebellion” in Africa. He was much admired for instilling military discipline in the police which brought about a very successful golden jubilee for Queen Victoria in 1887.

Starting in October 1887, the police under Warren started to disperse the protestors, none too gently.

However, dissenters still came and occupied the square. On November 8 Warren banned all meetings in Trafalgar Square. His position, which showed the divisions in British society, was plain. He wrote, “We have in the last month been in greater danger from the disorganized attacks on property by the rough and criminal elements that we have been in London for many years past. The language used by speakers at the various meetings has been more frank and open in recommending the poorer classes to help themselves from the wealth of the affluent."

This was an affront by those who considered it their right to protest, especially by the Labour and Progressive Movements. They immediately planned to defy the ban with a free speech and assembly protest on Sunday, November 13. In addition, Irish nationalists joined in and planned a protest against the jailing of Irish Member of Parliament William O’Brien for allegedly fomenting a rent strike and riot in County Cork. He had been arrested under one of the Coercion laws. 

The Grenadier Guards and the police surround the protesters in Trafalgar Square during the Bloody Sunday riots in London on Sunday, November 13th, 1887. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the other side, many volunteered to help keep order in London. One volunteer stated, “When the unemployed dockers marched on Trafalgar Square, where meetings were then forbidden, I enrolled myself as a special constable to defend the classes against the masses. The dockers striking for their sixpence an hour were for me the great unwashed of music-hall and pantomime songs. Wearing an armlet and wielding a baton, I paraded and patrolled and felt proud of myself."

Meanwhile, Chief Warren was ready. 2,500 police closed thirty streets within a mile of the square. 1,500 police were within the square itself. In addition, military units were called including grenadier guards.

Police and protesters clash at the bottom of Parliament Street during the Bloody Sunday riots in London on Sunday, November 13th, 1887. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 That morning, protestors gathered at various points across the city – there may have been up to 20,000 dissidents. But even as they headed to the square, they found themselves beset by the police. With batons blazing, they pushed and attacked, seemingly without discrimination. One protester stated, “I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life - only the attack was all on one side.”

Reports show that the protestors did fight back, and at least two policemen were stabbed.

Meanwhile, police supporters watched the proceedings from the rooftops, cheering as truncheons fell on marchers. The protesters were simply out armed, and they had not been expecting such an aggressive response. Those who pressed through to the square were met by soldiers with fixed bayonets. When the mayhem concluded, up to three were dead and 200 persons hospitalized. The police arrested 75 people.

Public meeting in Trafalgar Square, London in 1892 commemorating the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1887. Source: ((Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The social division at the time was evident when the eminent Times of London commented on the event, “It was simple love of disorder, hope of plunder it may be hoped that the magistrates will not fail to pass exemplary sentences upon those now in custody who have laboured to the best of their ability to convert an English Sunday into a carnival of blood.”

The next Sunday, there were more protests and violence that led to the death of one bystander. The riots coupled with the later inability of authorities to capture Jack the Ripper led to charges of police incompetence and the resignation of Sir Charles Warren in 1888.

Bloody Sunday helped to galvanize future protest movements with a common refrain and the term would be used over and over again.

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.