The Whitewashing Of Warren

As 1888 got underway, the big story in the newspapers was the prosecution of John Burns and Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham for involvement in the events of what had been dubbed Bloody Sunday, 13th November, 1887.

When the two men were found guilty by the jury, Justice, the weekly newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was quick to express outrage at the unjust sentences and, on Saturday 21st January, 1888, published the following article which laid into their foe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren:-


The conviction of our comrade Burns and Mr. Cunninghame Graham furnishes another illustration of the growing bitterness of the class struggle, and strikes another blow at the right of public meeting.

The jury had a splendid opportunity of once more vindicating the right of popular assembly, and of defeating the attempt of an upstart autocrat like Warren to impose a military despotism on the Metropolis. This opportunity they have rejected.

They have thrown aside all the glorious traditions of those British juries, who, in the past, have defied courts and governments in defence of the rights of citizens; and have sent two innocent men to gaol in order to absolve Sir Charles Warren from the consequences of his illegal and arbitrary abuse of power.

For this is all that the sentence means; Burns and Graham are to go to prison for six weeks in order to whitewash Warren.

They did not assault the police, they were not guilty of riot, but the jury declared them to be guilty of unlawful assembly, because Sir Charles Warren had issued his ukase to the effect that no one should assemble in Trafalgar Square.


If the jury had but done their duty; if they had acquitted the two innocent men who stood in the dock – the gallant Graham, the only member of Parliament who went to the Square on November 13, and our brave comrade Burns, who pleaded so eloquently in the dock on behalf of the downtrodden of his class, whose cause he had advocated time and again in the open – Colonel Sir Charles Warren, K.C.B., would have been covered with eternal disgrace for the action he had taken in closing the Square.

A portrait of Sir Charles Warren.
Sir Charles Warren, The Metropolitan Police Commissioner. From The Illustrated London News, 1st May 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


As it is, this miserable hypocrite must appear most contemptible to those who have read the report of the sorry figure he cut in the witness-box, under the cross-examination to which he was subjected by Mr. Asquith and Burns.

He did not even recollect having prohibited the meeting that was held in Trafalgar Square on November 9th, 1886.

What a – Christian!


The intolerant bitterness and contempt with which he and his class regard working men were exemplified by the manner in which he spoke of the men who had met in the square, and his assertions as to their riotous and seditious intentions, which evidently no one believed but himself.


Burns, as our contemporary the “Star” observes, “distinctly falsified the old proverb that the man has a fool for his client, who is his own lawyer.'”

He conducted his own defence in a most able manner, frequently eliciting a burst of applause, while the case for the prosecution was literally shattered by the evidence given for the defence, and the charge of rioting was shown to be ridiculous.

John Burns.
From The Illustrated London News, 13th February, 1886, Copyright, The British Library Board.


But all to no purpose.

Sir Charles and the Government had to be acquitted, and so the two champions of free speech and public right are to go to gaol for six weeks.

In the meantime let all comrades remember that Mrs. Burns will suffer as well as her brave and innocent husband, unless we rally round.

On her behalf we solicit subscriptions which will be gladly received at our offices.”