The Man With The Red Flag

“London is a City to look up in,” is my mantra.

I say it time and time again on my walking tours. Walk around London with your eyes pinned to the ground – or at least fixed on the street ahead – and you’re going to miss many of the glorious treasures that the City – and, for the matter, the wider Metropolis – has to offer.

You see, many of those treasures are up there on the upper storeys of the buildings.


Take Parliament Street, for example. How many times have you walked along it? If you have never actually walked along it then please take that as a rhetorical question.

Yet, even if you’ve traversed its length a thousand times, day in and day out, I’ll warrant that you’ve never noticed the firebrand British politician who is supping with the classical gods in plain view of anybody – man, woman or child – who strolls aimlessly along Parliament Street.

Go on, be honest, have you ever noticed him?

Could you actually say where this classical shindig has been going on for over a hundred years?


The Politician in question is, or was, John Burns (1858 to 1943), a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a prominent trade unionist and who went on to climb the greasy pole of British politics, beginning as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Battersea and ending up as the President of the Board of Trade, a position he resigned from in 1914 in protest at the British Government’s declaration of war on Germany.

In his youth he had been a decidedly fiery figure, so much so that he found himself in the heat of the battle during some of the 19th century’s most notorious political disputes, including the protest on the 13th November 1887, when Government forces put down a Socialist protest in Trafalgar Square with such extreme ferocity that the day is still remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

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

Indeed, it was this event which caused the radical press to turn against the man who had orchestrated the Government’s response, Sir Charles Warren, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and resulted in them taking revenge against him during the Jack the Ripper murders of the following year, by portraying him as an incompetent despot, who was totally out of his depth against the cunning and ruthless perpetrator of the Whitechapel Murders.

In the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” the authorities decided to make examples of those who had been most vociferous in their opposition to being whacked over the head  with a policeman’s truncheon, and retribution was meted out to many of the leaders of the demonstration, amongst them John Burns, who served  a 6 week prison sentence as punishment for his involvement.


Of course, such a sentence only served to stiffen his resolve and he went on to play a prominent role in the London Dock Strike of August 1889 – by which time his reputation as a socialist firebrand was so firmly established that he had been dubbed “The Man With The Red Flag.”

In 1892, he he was elected Member of Parliament for Battersea, as the candidate of the Battersea Liberal Association, and thus he began his ascent through the political ranks, albeit he never forgot his humble origins and was immensely proud of his working class roots. “I am not ashamed to say,” he declared in a speech to the Commons in 1901, “that I am the son of a washerwoman.”

His fellow Members of Parliament came to admire him for his honesty and integrity and, in 1905, he was invited to join the Cabinet as Minister For Local Government, making him the second working class man to serve as a government minister – Henry Broadhurst was the first, lest you be wondering.


His offices were located in King Charles Street, the road that runs from Parliament Street to the Cabinet War Rooms.

And, it is to the Parliament Street end of King Charles Street that you must go if you wish to witness him mingling with the classical gods.

In fact, you  might want to make a party of it yourself by popping into the Red Lion Pub, on the opposite side of Parliament Street, getting a pint, and then standing outside to look across at the arch across the road.


The arch was erected in 1907 and it was decided that it would me a nice idea to adorn it with the figures of the classical gods, whose existences consisted, largely, of an eternal round of eating, drinking and falling out with one another – in which respect they held an awful lot in common with modern day British politicians!

Look above the arch and you will see them, the classical gods, not the politicians.

The carvings of the Classical Gods.
The Classical Gods On The King Charles Street Arch


Only one of the gods worked with his hands, and that was Vulcan, the smith-god.

So, it was decided, that it would be a nice tribute to John Burns, the minister who had risen from solid Working Class stock,  if Vulcan was carved in his likeness.

How’s that for a nice tribute?

And there he stands to this day.

So, the next time you happen to stroll along Parliament Street, pause for a moment alongside King Charles Street. Look up at the frieze above the arches. Look to the right side of the frieze and, there in the corner, just before the two seated figures, you will see Vulcan, the smith-god, bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Burns – “the man with the red flag.”


Just so that you can see for yourself how faithful a likeness it is, here are the two of them side by side.

The photo of John Burns, side by side with Vulcan.
John Burns (left) and Vulcan, the smith-god (right)