Monday, May 06, 2013

The origins of the May Day bank holiday

Enjoying the May Day bank holiday?  A resolution calling for two new public holidays a year, on May Day and New Year's Day, was passed by the Trades Union Congress in 1970 and in 1975 the Labour Government declared that from 1978, May Day (or the Monday after it) would be a bank holiday. So this is the 35th May Day bank holiday. But the significance of May Day for the workers movement goes back to the 1880s. Here's another extract fom my pamphlet 'May Day in South London: a history', which you can now download for free here:

'For the early workers movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action... the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated. In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city.

Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death. There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant (who had lived in Colby Road, Upper Norwood), George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin (then living at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley), Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit (then living in Lewisham), Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling (who later lived in Sydenham). A meeting on the case was held at the Peckham Reform Club (Freedom, November 1897). Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write 'The Red Flag' anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross - he was living at 408 New Cross Road at the time (he later lived at 22a Stondon Park SE23).

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris. So it was that from 1890 May Day became an annual international festival of working class solidarity.

The 1890s

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come. May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday, and saw London anarchists holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green. The main demonstration took place on the following Sunday - May 4th - and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. A description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute' provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:

‘A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club's excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, 'The Proletariat Unite', and on the reverse side the legend, 'Eight hours' work, eight hours' pay; Eight hours' rest, eight bob a day'. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians - one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant's stirring speech from the Socialists' platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout’ (South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The next few years saw this route being repeated. In 1891, the North Camberwell Radical Club was again said to have been busy in preparing for the 8 hours demonstration in Hyde Park (SLP 25 April1891). The Club was based in Albany Road.

In 1892 a crowd estimated between 300 and 500,000 marched from Westminster Bridge to Hyde Park, with 350 banners and 110 bands. An observer reported that 'The great staple industries of London, the dockers, the stevedores, the coal-porters, the gas-workers... railway workers, and so on, came first: and then a whole host of miscellaneous trades, led by little Jew cigar and cigarette-makers from the East End... The Workgirls… were in great force. The chocolate-makers had a smart little wagonettte all to themselves, from which they dispensed 'Union Chocolate' in penny packets' matchgirls’. Those present included Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann and Louise Michel (all of whom spoke), Eleanor Marx and the elderly Frederick Engels.
The crowd was so large that 'the South London contingent, led by John Burns, never got in at all, and it turned sadly back without a chance of attending the meeting. In a word, London has never seen such a gigantic turn-out of the forces which create her wealth' (Penny Illustrated Paper, 7 May 1892)

Crystal Palace and Walter Crane

The turn of the new century saw the main May Day event moving to South London at the Crystal Palace. The Palace had been hosting May Day celebrations for many years. In the 1850s, William Husk of the Sacred Harmonic Society had helped recreate a Tudor-style May game there. On May Day 1866 'a great concert of five thousand voices was given by children and others connected with the metropolitan schools... Ethardo [a circus performer] also reappeared, his lofty pole being converted into a gigantic maypole. On the following day Mr Charles Dickens kindly undertook to give a reading of Little Dombey' (PIP 5 May 1866). In 1898 a 'Crystal Palace May Day Festival' had included 'May-Day Sports and Maypole dance' with a programme featuring 'the Clan Johnson, Scottish Dancers and Champion Pipers and an Old English Maypole Dance' as well as a 'Grand May-Day Concert' featuring 'madrigals by the Crystal Palace Choir' (advert in the Times, 1 May 1899).

May Day 1900 was different in tone. The Times reported that 12,000 took part, including 'about 150 associations connected with the Social Democratic Federation and London Trades Council'. Six platforms were set up and the resolutions carried included one asserting 'their determination to overthrow wagedom and capitalism, and to establish by united efforts that international co-operative commonwealth in which all the instruments of industry will be owned and controlled by the organized communities and equal opportunity be given to all to lead healthy, happy human lives' (Times, 2 May 1900).

The event did though include more traditional May Day elements alongside the socialist speeches: ‘There was a procession at half past two, and meetings at 3 o'clock. There were also cycling and athletic sports, a Maypole dance and other attractions. The programme concluded with a display of fireworks by C.T. Brock & Co., including a special set Labour piece by Walter Crane' (South London Press, 5 May 1900). Other attractions of the 'International Labour Festival' included a variety show and a performance of Bernard Shaw's 'Widowers' Houses' (advert in Times, 1 May 1900).

The artist Walter Crane recalled: ‘Labour's May Day, which has become an international festival in the Socialist movement, was this year celebrated at the Crystal Palace, which certainly afforded plenty of space for the gathering, as well as entertainment and refreshment in the intervals of the functions. A vast meeting was held under the dome, and this was addressed by many of the leaders, such as Mr. H. M. Hyndman, Mr. G. N. Barnes, Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineers (and now in Parliament), Mr. Pete Curran, Mr. Ben Tillet, and many others. I made a design for a set piece for the firework display which was carried out on a gigantic scale and with remarkable success by Messrs. Brock. It was a group of four figures, typifying the workers of the world, joining hands, a winged central figure with the cap of Liberty, encircled by the globe, uniting them, and a scroll with the words ‘The Unity of Labour is the Hope of the World’. It was the first time a design of mine had been associated with pyrotechnics. I was rewarded by the hearty cheers of a vast multitude'.


'Labour's May Day' by Walter Crane


The eight hour day was achieved for many workers through strikes in that period, such as the 1889 gas workers strike. So as you enjoy your Monday off work spare a thought for the people who through their efforts brought us shorter working days, weekends and many bank holidays.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting because their was a Crystal Palace Clarion (socialist) Club rooms circa 1900 -

Transpontine said...

There was also a Catford Clarion Club: http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/history-corner-syndicalism-in-catford.html