Bloody Sunday November 1887

An event that often gets cited to account for the unpopularity of the Metropolitan Police in general, and Sir Charles Warren in particular, around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders is Bloody Sunday, which occurred on the 13th of November 1887.

But, what actually happened on that day, and what were the circumstances that behind a day of rioting that would still be fresh in the minds of many Eastenders in the autumn of 1888?


Throughout the 1880’s, Trafalgar Square had become the place where the unemployed, the dispossessed, and those who felt they had a grievance against the Victorian authorities, would gather to protest at and to air their grievances.

During the summer of 1887, large numbers of London’s unemployed had been camping out and meeting in Trafalgar Square; and Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, fearing that the unrest and agitation that was taking place, unchecked, in the square might place London in danger from an unruly mob, requested that the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, ban all protests and meetings from being held in Trafalgar Square.

An image of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren.
Sir Charles Warren


Mathews, however, prevaricated on so-doing, and Warren was forced to allocate 2,000 policemen each weekend to be on hand to keep order in the Square.

Matthews finally made the decision to grant Warren’s request in early November 1887; and Warren set about enforcing it forthwith.

The Metropolitan Radical Federation decided to challenge the ban, and they duly called a public meeting in Trafalgar Square, ostensibly to demand the release of several Irish politicians, which was to take place at 2.30pm on Sunday 13th of November 1887.

The stage was set for a showdown; and, when it came, it was a bloody and violent one.

The riots in Trafalgar Square now known as Bloody Sunday.
From The Illustrated Police News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In its edition of the 19th of November, 1887, the Illustrated London News, treated its readers to a breathless, blow by blow, account of the events that had occurred in Trafalgar Square on the previous Sunday:-

“Sunday, Nov. 13, 1887, will be a day memorable in London history for a set conflict, in which, happily, no lives were lost or any permanently serious injuries, so far as we know, inflicted on body or limbs, though hard knocks were exchanged by the combatants on both sides; but in which the metropolitan police, supported by the presence of the Life Guards and Grenadier Guards, successfully defended Trafalgar-square against a riotous assemblage of probably twenty thousand men and youths, who defied the legal prohibition to come in various processions, with their bands and flags to hold a popular meeting.

This was forbidden by the notice which was issued a week before by Sir Charles Warren, with the approval of the Home Secretary and her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works and Public Buildings.

The projected meeting was convened by the Metropolitan Radical Federation, ostensibly to demand the release of Mr. W. O’Brien, M.P., and other Irish patriots.

Sir Charles Warren caused the following police regulation to be conspicuously posted on Saturday in all parts of the metropolis:-

“In exercise of the powers vested in me. under the Act 2 and 3 Vivt., cap. 47, I hereby make the following regulation:- ‘No organised procession shall be allowed to approach Trafalgar-square on Sunday, Nov. 13.’ – CHARLES WARREN, the Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis.”


In accordance with this notice, Sir Charles Warren, on Sunday, occupied the square with a picket of police at nine in the morning, surrounded it with police at eleven, and at one had 1300 police in position.

There were 100 men in single file along the parapet on each side of the square outside, and inside 120 in double file; at the head of each of the steps leading into the square stood 100 constables in fours, while fifty more covered the corners at each end, standing two deep.

In front the face of the square was held by fully 750 men standing four deep.

The mounted police patrolled all sides of the square in couples.

The police line up to prevent the mob entering the south side of Trafalgar Square.
The Police Hold The South Side of the Square. From The Illustrated London News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Altogether there were 1500 policemen in the square; 2500 were employed in breaking up processions and in reserve; 300 of the Grenadiers were behind the National Gallery until four, when they were brought out with fixed bayonets to line the parapet in front of the National Gallery.

The 1st Life Guards were called out at four.

Altogether, Sir Charles Warren kept the square clear by employing 4000 constables, 300 mounted constables, 300 Grenadiers, and 300 Life Guards, who were on duty till past six in the evening.


It was in the streets by which the several processions from Clerkenwell, from Notting-hill, from the east of London along the Strand, and from South London over Westminster Bridge, sought to approach Trafalgar-square, that the fighting actually began.

A meeting had been held, as on the former occasion, in Clerkenwell-green, where resolutions were proposed and speeches made by Mr. Poole. Mrs. Besant, Dr. Aveling, Mr. W. Fuller, and Mr. W. Morris, the poet.

It was a combined affair of the London Patriotic Club, the Irish Home Rule Union, and the Socialist Democratic Federation.

A procession was formed, headed by the bands of the East Finsbury Radical Club and St. Peter’s, Clerkenwell, with red banners.

They passed through Clerkenwell-road, Theobald’s-road, and Hart-street, to Broad-street, Bloomsbury; but, as the procession turned down to St. Martin’s-lane, a detachment of mounted constables rode into their midst and scattered them, being seconded by a strong force of police on foot.

Mounted police charge at the crowd.
Mounted Police Charge The Crowd. From The Illustrated London News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The crowd offered a strong resistance, striking at the horses, and throwing missiles at their riders.

Several of the police, who were compelled to draw their staves, received ugly wounds.

In the Strand, at the corner of Wellington-street, a collision occurred between the police and a body of Socialists headed by a man carrying a red flag, and after a short fierce battle the police were victorious, and compelled the mob to turn up Wellington-street, and through Tavistock-street into Covent-garden.

The procession from Peckham, Bermondsey, Deptford, and Battersea met at Westminster Bridge.

By word of command the crowd, some eight thousand strong, linked arms and entered Parliament-square.

Superintendent Dunlop, of the A Division, gave orders to his men to disperse the meeting.

There were in the crowd about fifteen banners with devices; for these the police aimed, and they seemed to be the rallying points for the crowd.


The police batons were drawn, and headed by the mounted constables, they broke up the procession, using their weapons where any stand was made against them; while the mob, who were armed with iron bars, pokers, gas-pipes, and short sticks, and even knives, attacked the police with fury.

Ten flags with large pole-staves were taken from the mob.

The police disarmed many of the rioters, and the weapons they captured were thrown down the gratings in the shop fronts.


In the Haymarket, thirty or forty police encountered a large procession from Notting-hill and Paddington, combined with the Sarsfield Branch of the Irish National League, mostly armed with formidable sticks, and accompanied by their bands and banners.

The constables were rather taken by surprise, having expected the procession to pass down Lower Regent-street and Waterloo-place; but they quickly formed a double line across the road, opposite the Haymarket Theatre.

When the band had got within twenty yards it was intimated that the people could not be allowed to approach the square in an organised procession.

The leaders persisting, the police forced their way through the crowd, scattering them in all directions.

The Police fight with protesters.
The Police Struggle With Protesters On The Haymarket. From The Illustrated London News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


After a struggle of a couple of minutes, the banners were captured and the procession entirely broken up.

The captured trophies were then destroyed, the poles being broken and the banners ignominiously rolled up into a bundle and carried to Scotland-yard.

The police carrying the captured banners.
The Police Take Captured Banners To Scotland Yard.


In the meantime, the police at the south-east corner of Trafalgar-square, in front of the Grand Hotel, at the Charing-cross Post-office, and in Northumberland-avenue had enough to do with a constantly increasing multitude of antagonists, coming in small parties from the mobs of processionists that had been broken up as described.

The roadway from Charing-cross along the south side of the square was kept clear for the passage of omnibuses and cabs, which were as numerous, though it was on Sunday, as on the busiest days of the week, during the whole afternoon, many vehicles being occupied by spectators of the unwonted sight.

An inrush of the mob from the Strand would soon have filled the roadways south and east of Trafalgar-square, but this was repressed by the mounted police, half-a-dozen at a time, repeatedly charging the crowds in the road, and dispersing them, also clearing away those who stood on the side pavements.

They were often resisted and attacked with stones, and the shop-windows below the front of the Grand Hotel were broken; while one mounted constable, in backing his horse on the pavement, smashed the plate-glass window of the electrician’s shop on the ground-floor of the block of high buildings opposite, at the corner of Northumberland-avenue and Charing-cross, lately occupied by the National Liberal Club.

A summary of the events on Bloody Sunday.
Events In The Square. From The Illustrated Police News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Just before four o’clock, an excited movement was visible among the crowd at the Strand entrance to the square; and a column of about four hundred men advanced, led by a gentleman without his hat and by another person.

These turned out to be Mr. Cuninghame Graham, M.P., and Mr. Burns, the well-known Socialist, who had come with the avowed intention of testing the legality of Sir Charles Warren’s proclamation.

Mr. Graham is alleged to have made a determined rush at the police at the corner of the square, and to have assaulted some of the constables in an attempt to get through the files. He had no stick in his hand, but is said to have used his fists freely. In the struggle, the police used their batons, and Mr. Graham received a blow on the head, inflicting a wound which bled freely.

Mr. Burns’ arrest was effected without interchange of blows.

The two prisoners were taken within the cordon of police to the centre of the square, where Mr. Graham’s wound was attended to by the surgeon.

Later, the two gentlemen were taken to Bow-street, charged with riot and assault on the police.

A photograph of John Burns.
John Burns, The Man With The Red Flag


At a quarter-past four o’clock loud cheers were given by the crowd nearest Whitehall, and the word flew round that the military were approaching.

After a brief interval the bright cuirasses and helmets of the 1st Life Guards came in sight, and a detachment of 200 troopers entered the square, under the command of Colonel Talbot, by whose side at the head of the regiment rode Mr. Marsham, one of the Metropolitan Police Magistrates.

Mr Marsham arrives surrounded by soldiers.
Mr Marsham Arrives In The Square. From The Illustrated London News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The troops proceeded to the top of the square in wide formation, and then having formed eight abreast, trotted slowly round the cordon of police, amid cheers and cries, groans and hisses.

Meantime, a detachment of the 2nd Life Guards, 150 strong, under the command of Colonel Dundonald, arrived in Whitehall, but did not enter the square.

After patrolling the square three or four times. the 1st Life Guards divided their forces and proceeded to ride round in opposite directions, the two sections crossing each other at the northern and southern extremities of the square.

Although the troopers did not make any active endeavour to move on the mob, their presence seemed to have a wholesome effect.

At ten minutes to five the Grenadier Guards, under Major Crichton, wheeled down into the square from St. George’s Barracks, with their rifles on their shoulders, their bayonets fixed, and twenty rounds of ball cartridge in their pouches.

When the troops got in front of the National Gallery they halted, opened up into lines, and drove the crowd back from the roadway on to the pavement, where they came into contact with the police. A few showed a disposition to maintain their ground against the military; but two or three of the soldiers brought their bayonets to the charge, and this ended all thoughts of resistance.

The Life Guards patrol the square.
The Life Guards Keep The Square. From The Illustrated London News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The officers and sergeants of the Grenadiers rushed in front of their men, and ordered them to put up their arms.

The mob now hooted and cursed the soldiers, who dropped their rifles on the toes of all who ventured near them, and struck with their fists.

This treatment was too severe for the demonstrators, and the north of the square was soon pretty well cleared.

Shortly after, the mounted police began to make a determined effort to clear the southern end of the square.

Fresh bodies of constables assisted, and by six o’clock all danger of further disturbance was at an end.


More than 150 persons were conducted to the neighbouring hospitals for surgical treatment, seventy-five at the Charing-cross Hospital.

Nearly 300 rioters were taken prisoners; and, on Monday, above forty were charged at Bow-street Police-Court.

Some were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, for one, two, three, or six months.

The case of Mr. Cuninghame Graham and Mr. Burns was adjourned to Nov. 22, with bail for the prisoners.”