Rebels and reformers | David Rosenberg

In his new book, Rebel Footprints, author David Rosenberg takes us on a tour of radical London.Here he explains how Clerkenwell Green gained its reputation for dissent, following the Fast Day protest march in 1832…

A few suspected cholera cases in January 1832, the first reported in Limehouse, east London, heralded a major outbreak of the killer disease. It swept across the city’s more overcrowded and insanitary areas, where the poorest workers eked out their living. The government declared that this was ‘proof of the judgement of God among us’, though the symptoms resembled severe food poisoning. It announced a National Fast Day on 21 March to halt the spread of the disease.

The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) declared that the cholera outbreak had nothing to do with God, but was caused by ‘want, wretchedness and insanitary conditions’. It dubbed the Fast Day a ‘Farce Day’, and encouraged its supporters to enjoy a ‘Feast Day’, which, it argued, would benefit the poor far more. It asked its supporters to assemble on the ‘Farce Day’ at Finsbury Square, on the edge of the City’s financial district, ‘for the purpose of walking round the Metropolis in procession and enjoying the fresh air’.

Its leaders devised a scenic route through fashionable areas – the City, Fleet Street, the Strand, Piccadilly and Hyde Park – before returning through Oxford Street and Holborn, for the feast in the East End. The organisers wanted to show their disdain for the government’s feeble ‘explanation’ in a militant but disciplined manner. Respecting legal advice, they asked their supporters not to bring banners, flags or anything that might be construed as a weapon. By 12 o’clock on the day of the march, around 40,000 men and women had assembled at Finsbury Square.

The newly formed Metropolitan Police placed no such restrictions on its own accoutrements. It had little experience in policing demonstrations but knew how to present a show of force. At Temple, thick ranks of police armed with staves and cutlasses blocked the protesters’ path. A cat-and-mouse game followed: marchers turned off route into Chancery Lane, but were blocked again. They headed for Gray’s Inn Road. The organisers sent scouts ahead to alert the marchers where police were waiting. A major altercation took place on Tottenham Court Road, near Howland Street, where large numbers of police had hidden themselves in a side alley. A phalanx of police suddenly threw themselves into the march, swinging staves indiscriminately as they tried to split the front ranks from those following. Some protesters threw missiles using whatever materials they could gather. Until then they had been entirely peaceful. The marchers rallied at North Crescent opposite Goodge Street where their leaders, fearing further disorder, advised them to return home and eat.

Three protest leaders – William Lovett and James Watson, both in their early thirties, and William Benbow, in his mid-forties – were arrested in the aftermath and committed for trial at Middlesex Sessions House in Clerkenwell. Prosecutors labelled them ‘disaffected and ill-disposed persons’, who, ‘with force of arms… made a great riot, tumult and disturbance’, causing ‘terror and alarm’ to the King’s subjects for five hours.

Watson, Benbow and Lovett represented themselves during their trial eight weeks after the ‘riot’. Witnesses testified that the procession was peaceful and orderly. One told the court that he heard police receive an order at Tottenham Court Road: ‘Out with your truncheons… fall on them… show them no quarter.’ The jury acquitted the defendants, to wild cheering both inside and outside the court, scenes that prefigured the response to PC Culley’s inquest judgement after the NUWC’s 1833 protest on Coldbath Fields, half a mile from the Sessions House.

The Sessions House itself was located on Clerkenwell Green. Devoid of grass for centuries, this space became one of the three most prominent free speech venues in London – the others being Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park, and Trafalgar Square. Gissing captured its atmosphere: ‘[T]he voices of orators, swarmed with listeners, with disputants, with mockers … the roar of an enthusiastic total-abstainer blended with the shriek of a Radical politician.’

Branch 1 of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first socialist party, was formed in Clerkenwell. The party’s leader, a wealthy Cambridge-educated businessman called Henry Mayers Hyndman, who read Marx then saw the world anew, claimed that he first divested himself of inherited class prejudices when he ‘addressed a gathering… of rather debauched looking persons round the old pump at Clerkenwell Green’.

Clerkenwell Green gained a reputation as the ‘home of community, commonality and solidarity’ among reformers and rebels seeking change, and ‘the headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra non-conformity’ among those defending the status quo. The pardoned Tolpuddle Martyrs, exiled to Australia in 1834, were welcomed back at a rally in Clerkenwell Green. The Green was a venue for rallies and an assembly point for marches of the Chartist movement, established that same decade.


This is an edited extract from “Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History” by David Rosenberg (Pluto Press). The author also conducts in-depth tours of the
capital’s radical past.

Above: William Lovett, who owned a coffee house in Greville Street, was arrested for his part in the 1832 protest