Anti church movement demonstration in Hyde Park - Karl Marx

Contemporary illustration of a riot in Hyde Park, 1866
Contemporary illustration of a riot in Hyde Park, 1866

An account by Karl Marx of a demonstration in Hyde Park, London, against a proposed ban on Sunday trading on June 24, 1855.

Submitted by libcom on January 19, 2006

It is an old and historically established maxim that obsolete social forces, nominally still in possession of all the attributes of power and continuing to vegetate long after the basis of their existence has rotted away, inasmuch as the heirs are quarrelling among themselves over the inheritance even before the obituary notice has been printed and the testament read -- that these forces once more summon all their strength before their agony of death, pass from the defensive to the offensive, challenge instead of giving way, and seek to draw the most extreme conclusions from premises which have not only been put in question but already condemned.

Such is today the English oligarchy. Such is the Church, its twin sister. Countless attempts at reorganization have been made within the Established Church, both the High and the Low, attempts to come to an understanding with the Dissenters and thus to set up a compact force to oppose the profane mass of the nation. There has been a rapid succession of measures of religious coercion. The pious Earl of Shaftesbury, formerly known as Lord Ashley, bewailed the fact in the House of Lords that in England alone five millions had become wholly alienated not only from the Church but from Christianity altogether. "Compelle intrare," replies the Established Church. It leaves it to Lord Ashley and similar dissenting, sectarian and hysterical pietists to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for it.

The first measure of Religious coercion was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 p. m. This bill was smuggled through the House at the end of a sparsely attended sitting, after the pietists had bought the support of the big public-house owners of London by guaranteeing them that the license system would continue, that is, that big capital would retain its monopoly. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill, which has now passed its third reading in the Commons and separate clauses of which have just been discussed by commissions in both Houses. This new coercive measure top was ensured the vote of big capital, because only small shopkeepers keep open on Sunday and the proprietors of the big shops are quite willing to do away with the Sunday competition of the small fry by parliamentary means. In both cases there is a conspiracy of the Church with monopoly capital, but in both cases there are religious penal laws against the lower classes to set the consciences of the privileged classes at rest. The Beer Bill was as far from hitting the aristocratic clubs as the Sunday Trading Bill is from hitting the Sunday occupations of genteel society. The workers get their wages late on Saturday; they are the only ones for whom shops open on Sundays. They are the only ones compelled to make their purchases, small as they are, on Sundays. The new bill is therefore directed against them alone. In the eighteenth century the French aristocracy said: For us, Voltaire; for the people, the mass and the tithes. In the nineteenth century the English aristocracy says: For us, pious phrases; for the people, Christian practice. The classical saint of Christianity mortified his body for the salvation of the souls of the masses; the modern, educated saint mortifies the bodies of the masses for the salvation of his own soul.

This alliance of a dissipated, degenerating and pleasure-seeking aristocracy with a church propped up by the filthy profits calculated upon by the big brewers and monopolizing wholesalers was the occasion yesterday of a mass demonstration in Hyde Park, the like of which London has not seen since the death of George IV, "the first gentleman of Europe." We were spectators from beginning to end and do not think we are exaggerating in saying that the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park. The latest news from the Crimea acted as an effective ferment upon this "unparliamentary," "extra-parliamentary" and "anti-parliamentary" demonstration.

Lord Robert Grosvenor, who fathered the Sunday Trading Bill, when reproached on the score of this measure being directed solely against the poor and not against the rich classes, retorted that "the aristocracy was largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays." The last few days of the past week the following poster, put out by the Chartists and affixed to all the walls of London, announced in huge letters:

"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" (a small river in Hyde Park), "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!"

It should be borne in mind, of course, that what Longchamps [Ed. -- A hippodrome in the outskirts of Paris] means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine in Hyde Park means to English high society -- the place where of an afternoon, particularly on Sunday, they parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings, followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be realized from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there -- the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the "lower orders" against their "betters."

At three o'clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered at the spot announced on the right bank of the Serpentine in Hyde Park's immense meadows. Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000 due to additions from the other bank. Milling groups of people could be seen shoved about from place to place. The police, who were present in force, were obviously endeavouring to deprive the organizers 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 begun 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. So let's move to Oxford Market."

With the ironical cry: "God save the Queen!" the throng broke up to journey to Oxford Market. But meanwhile, Finlen, a member of the Chartist executive, rushed to a tree some distance away followed by a crowd who in a twinkle formed so close and compact a circle around him that the police abandoned their attempt to get at him.

"Six days a week," he said, "we are treated like slaves and now Parliament wants to rob us of the bit of freedom we still have on the seventh. These oligarchs and capitalists allied with sanctimonious parsons wish to do penance by mortifying us instead of themselves for the unconscionable murder in the Crimea of the sons of the people."

We left this group to approach another where a speaker stretched out on the ground addressed his audience from this horizontal position. 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 constables, who constantly received reinforcements from the city, drove the promenading pedestrians off the carriage road. They thus helped to bring it about that either side of it was tined deep with people, from Apsley House up Rotten-Row along the Serpentine as far as Kensington Gardens -- a distance of more than a quarter of an hour. The spectators consisted of about two-thirds workers and one-third members of the middle class, all with women and children. 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 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 upon them from both sides. As it was an improvised concert, instruments were lacking. The chorus therefore had only its own organs at its disposal and was compelled to confine itself to vocal music. And what a devil's concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squeaking, snarling, growling, croaking, shrieking, groaning, rattling, howling, gnashing sounds! A music that could drive one mad and move a stone. 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. When the horses started to shy, rear, buck and finally run away, jeopardizing the lives of their genteel burdens, the contemptuous din grew louder, more menacing, more ruthless. Noble lords and ladies, among them Lady Granville, the wife of a minister and President of the Privy Council, were forced to alight and use their own legs. When elderly gentlemen rode past wearing broad-brimmed hats and otherwise so apparelled as to betray their special claim to perfectitude in matters of belief, the strident outbursts of fury were extinguished, as if in obedience, to a command, by inextinguishable laughter. One of these gentlemen lost his patience. Like Mephistopheles he made an impolite gesture, sticking out his tongue at the enemy. "He is a windbag, a parliamentary man! He fights with his own weapons!" someone shouted on one side of the road. "He is a psalm-singing saint!" was the antistrophe from the opposite side. Meanwhile the metropolitan electric telegraph had informed all police stations that a riot was about to break out in Hyde Park and the police were ordered to the theatre of military operations. Soon one detachment of them after another marched at short intervals through the double file of people, from Apsley House to Kensington Gardens, each received with the popular ditty:

Where are the geese? Ask the police!

This was a hint at a notorious theft of geese recently committed by a constable in Clerkenwell.

The spectacle lasted three hours. Only English lungs could perform such a feat. During the performance opinions such as, "This is only the beginning!" "That is the first step!" "We hate them!" and the like were voiced by the various groups. While rage was inscribed on the faces of the workers, such smiles of blissful self-satisfaction covered the physiognomies of the middle classes as we had never seen there before. Shortly before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Canes were raised in menace of the carriages and through the welter of discordant noises could be heard the cry of "you rascals!" During the three hours zealous Chartists, men and women, ploughed their way through the throng distributing leaflets which stated in big type:

"Reorganization of Chartism! "A big public meeting will take place next Tuesday, June 26th, in the Literary and Scientific Institute in Friar Street, Doctors' Commons, to elect delegates to a conference for the reorganization of Chartism in the capital. Admission free."

Most of the London papers carry today only a brief account of the events in Hyde Park. No leading articles as yet, except in Lord Palmerston's Morning Post.

It claims that "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." It urges that "this scene must not be allowed to be repeated the following Sunday, as was threatened."

At the same time, however, it declares that the "fanatical" Lord Grosvenor is solely "responsible" for this mischief, being the man who provoked the "just indignation of the people." As if Parliament had not adopted Lord Grosvenor's bill in three readings! Or perhaps he too brought his influence to bear "by physical force on the free action of the Legislature"?

written: June 25, 1855