Monday, November 30, 2009

A radical funeral in Brockley Cemetery, 1888

In November 1887, the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League organised a demonstration against 'coercion in Ireland' in Trafalgar Square. The day became known as 'Bloody Sunday' after a clashes with police left hundreds injured and at least three dead.

Among those who died was a Deptford radical, William Bate Curner. In circumstances similar to the death of Ian Tomlinson earlier this year on the G20 demonstration, there was a dispute about the cause of his death. The inquest, held at the Lord Clyde pub in Deptford on 16 January 1888 heard that 'he was stated to have received injuries to the head, inflicted by a policeman' described as 'barbarous and cruel'. However a verdict of 'death from natural courses' was returned, after medical evidence that he also suffered from heart problems. (Times January 17 1888). As with Tomlinson it is surely hard to believe that the injuries sustained at the hands of the police didn't contribute to the death, even if there was an underlying health problem.

Curner's funeral in Brockley Cemetery was a major event, reported in The Times on the 9th January 1888:

'The remains of William Bate Curwin, stonemason, of 58, Henry-street, Deptford, who had died suddenly after undergoing a sentence of 14 days' hard labour for taking part in riotous proceedings in Trafalgar Square, in the course of which he received certain injuries, were interred in Brockley Cemetery on Saturday. The circumstances of the death are forming the subject of an inquiry by coroner's jury, the case standing adjourned.

The funeral procession reached the cemetery about 4 o'clock. It consisted of a hearse and two coaches and a walking party numbering about 1,000, and was made up of representatives of the Deptford and Greenwich branches of the National League, the Deptford branch of the Social Democratic Federation, the East Greenwich, Deptford, and Woolwich Radical Clubs, the West Deptford Reform Club, the Home Rule Union, &c.

The bands of the local branch of the National League and the East Greenwich Radical Club played the 'Dead March'. The hearse bore the inscription 'Killed in Trafalgar Aquare'. On banners draped in mourning were such inscriptions as 'Honour to the Dead' and 'Assist the Widow. There was a very large gathering at the grave and a number of torches were used while the burial ceremonial adopted by the Secularists was performed by Mr Robert Forder. Addresses were then delivered by Mr W T Stead, Mrs Besant, and Mr J J Larkin, and a 'Death Song' having been sung by a Socialist choir, the proceedings terminated' (Times Jan 9 1888).

As can be seen from these two reports there is some confusion about the name of the dead man. The Times report of the inquest has the surname Curner and the funeral report Curwin. I am fairly sure that the former name is correct; genealogy sites have a William Bate Curner in Deptford, but not Curwin. Also the name Curner is used elsewhere - in E.P Thompson's biography of William Morris for instance, which mentions the funeral of 'William B Curner, a prominent Deptford Radical and Secularist'.

Morris wasn't at the funeral but he did write the Death Song which closed it - it was first used at the funeral of another of those who died at the time, Alfred Linnell. The line up at Curner's funeral was quite impressive though. Annie Besant was already well known as a socialist and secularist, and later in 1888 was to play a key role in the famous Match Girls Strike. W T Stead was a prominent campaigner and journalist - he was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette at the time. Robert Forder was secretary of the National Secular Society.

I believe that Henry Street, Deptford, is now part of Childers Street.

I had a look in Brockley Cemetery for the grave recently, but had no luck. If anybody else knows its whereabouts please comment.

Updated September 2013:

Report from Commonweal (paper of the Socialist League), January 14 1888:

'Last Saturday afternoon William B. Curner, who died from injuries received from the conflict with the police on Sunday 13th November, was buried in Brockley Cemetery. The deceased was a Secularist and Radical, and as such occupied a somewhat prominent position in the borough of Deptford, where he resided. The occasion of his burial was marked by a public funeral, and the whole line of route from his residence in Henry Street, Deptford, to the cemetery was lined with sympathetic spectators. Blinds were drawn and mourning borders were displayed from houses, one of the chief. tradesmen displaying over his shop black flags, two with mottoes, " Honour the Dead,"  and "Let all assist the Widow." The. funeral hearse bore Radical, Irish, and Socialist flags, and also a shield with the inscription "Killed for Trafalgar Square'. A band playing the "Dead March" preceded the hearse, the whole procession to the cemetery being most imposing.

At the grave R. Forder, surrounded by a dense throng of people, among them being representatives of Secular, Radical, and Socialist bodies, read the secular burial service. After which Mrs. Besant made a most impressive speech, in which she urged her hearers not to shrink back from the struggle for freedom in which their brother in the grave had fallen, for in their efforts to make life worth the living some must fall. Let them go from the grave the more determined than ever to carry on the fight for which, he had given his life. Mr. Stead followed with a most fervid speech, and speaking as a Christian at the grave of an Atheist dwelt on the necessity for the sinking of mere minor differences of opinion: the cause of the people was the cause
of humanity, and all its lovers would unite for the overthrow of its enemies.

Mr. Larkin then made a brief speech, and the choir of the Socialist League brougt the proceedings to a close by singing William Morris's " Death Song," written to commemorate the death and burial of Linnell.

This is the second public funeral that has taken place within a month, the dead in each case being martyrs to the cause of freedom of speech. How many more are to be sacrificed ere "liberty the parent of truth" shall

(I have just added to a previous post on Margaret and Rachel McMillan that they too are buried in Brockley Cemetery)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quelsh of the Social Democratic Federation is also buried close by as you have posted