Kennington Common, the area in London where Kennington Park and the Imperial War Museum now stand, was the scene of one of Britain’s most famous working class demonstrations on Monday 10 April 1848.
“Saint” Monday, was generally not a working day in the mid-19th century. It was an unofficial extension of Sunday, the one official day off in the week.
The demonstration was organised by the Chartists, the world’s first working class party, and it was part of a campaign for the right to vote. Protesters came from a number of assembly points across London to Kennington, from where they planned to take the last Chartist petition to the House of Commons. The petition got there, but the protesters did not.
There had already been a revolution in France in 1848 and there were fears that the same might happen in England.
Thousands of troops and special constables – a mixture of middle class elements and workers from large companies – were mobilised to stop the Chartists marching on parliament.
In this respect using Kennington Common as the assembly point was a considerable tactical mistake. Although only a short distance from parliament, the only route there was across one of the bridges on the Thames which were easily blocked.
The ruling class made light of 10 April after the protest had taken place and some effort was made to ridicule the Chartist challenge, or simply to write it out of the history books altogether. But the ruling class’s concern that revolutionary events might be underway was real enough.
On 9 April the Duke of Newcastle wrote in his diary, “I have come to the conclusion that tomorrow may decide the future fate of England and be indicative of God’s will towards us.”
Lord Campbell, a government minister, wrote to his brother that “many people believe that by Monday evening we shall have a provisional government”, while the Duke of Wellington warned, “If these mobs are to be permitted, we cannot go on as we are.”
The amount of ruling class force displayed on the 10 April was considerable. Just over 8,000 regular troops were mobilised, but largely held in reserve.
Around 4,000 police were responsible for maintaining order, backed up by around 85,000 special constables.
Most guarded particular buildings or locations and it is estimated that only 3,000 were available for general duties in London a number of the specials were workers forced by employers to enrol on pain of losing their jobs.
The Chartist leadership wavered. Whether this avoided a bloodbath or blocked a decisive advance by the Chartists is open to speculation.
What is known is that Fergus O’Connor, the great Chartist leader and MP for Nottingham, agreed with senior police officers at Kennington Common that while the Chartist petition for the vote – which had millions of signatures – could proceed to parliament, the protest must disperse.
The demonstration arrived at Kennington at 11.30am. There it was met by thousands of trade unionists and Irish nationalists.
The protest was led off by a number of horse drawn carriages, the first of which was inscribed with the slogan, “The Charter. No surrender. Liberty is worth living for and worth dying for.” By 2pm the common was clear of protesters.
The 10 April 1848 was the first demonstration in history where a public dispute about numbers broke out. The lowest estimates put the crowd at around 10,000, with the largest arguing for 150,000 plus. Historical investigation suggests it was at or somewhat above the latter figure.
This begs the question of where the protesters went after the Chartist petition had departed for parliament. The answer appears to be that thousands fought with police and troops to get across Blackfriars Bridge and to parliament. Most were repulsed.
Kennington Common’s fame as a radical meeting place rests on a combination of the 10 April 1848 protest and the fact that the event was the subject of the world’s first photograph of such an event taken by WE Kilburn.
The common itself did not last long beyond 10 April. A bill passed by parliament in 1852 “enclosed” the common and made it a Royal Park.
By 1854 the common was both fenced and guarded. However echoes of the venue’s history did eventually appear. It was at this location that the great poll tax demonstration met in 1990.
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