May Days And After

From joyous spring rite to politicised holiday – Chris Wrigley traces the annexation of May Day through the efforts of the increasingly active labour movement in the early 1890s.

Crowd gathered in Union Square, New York City during the May Day parade, May 1, 1913In May 1892 the editor of a Liberal provincial newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, observed:

May Day has been wrested from the rapidly decaying possession of the petty sentiments. The May pole has been dragged down to make room for the political platform and the little bands of gaily dressed lads and lasses with their displays of flowers have given place to processions of grimly practical men and women.

May Day has a long international tradition of holiday and festivity associated with the arrival of spring. But from 1890 May Day became the international labour movement's special day. Red May Days were days that aroused fear among many in authority in Europe and in other continents. In the United States the well-to-do saw its observance to be un-American and subversive, and instead, albeit reluctantly, often supported Labor Day as an acceptable home-grown alternative. In France May Day was to be the workers' own July 4th.

Eric Hobsbawm has argued that the workers' May Day was an 'invented tradition', something much needed in a period of rapid change, when old institutions and beliefs were being discarded and new ones were needed by emerging social movements to give them group identity and social legitimacy. It was very much in this spirit that in 1895 James Leatham, an Aberdeen printer and journalist, urged support for May Day:

As the Churches celebrate Christmas and Easter so should the workers celebrate May Day... with enthusiastic demonstrations and exhortations... No party can afford to neglect its festivals. Festivals furnish a ceremonial and mechanical aid in retrospection and introspection... They give outward and visible sign to the inward and spiritual significance of the great principles which at ordinary times are mere words.

With May Day, the labour movements of different countries were both 'inventing' it as their tradition and also acquiring for themselves a very old tradition with deep roots going back into pre-Christian times. It was a tradition resonant with imagery, and one that in the past has appealed to a range of political and cultural outlooks. Hence there was an ambiguity in the situation. The workers' May Days were part of a counter-culture to that of established society, yet this alternative culture derived much from the traditions and practices of the old order that the labour movement sought to supercede. Thus in many European Catholic areas May Day processions, festivals and imagery frequently drew on saints days' festivals.

In Britain the old May Day had mixed connotations, some popular – and unruly in the eyes of the 'respectable', but many conservative or sentimental. Maypoles had been banned in the mid-seventeenth century. With the return of the monarchy in 1660 the Maypoles and the May festivities were restored as part of the attempt to create a nationalistic 'Merrie England'. The boisterous and genuinely popular May Day festivities had mostly faded away by the start of Queen Victoria's reign. But there were nostalgic revivals later, inspired by the enthusiasm of poets such as Charles Tennyson and William Barnes, writers and artists such as John Ruskin, or by Conservatives influenced by 'Young England' notions. In the 1890s quaint May Day processions, more in the nature of pageants than living folk festivals, took place at the same time as the mass workers' demonstrations. The Illustrated London News in May 1891 printed sketches of both the huge labour demonstration in Hyde Park and also a medieval and Tudor periods costumed May Day procession that took place at St. Mary Cray, Kent.

May Day offered peaceful symbols for rustic folk festivals and mass labour demonstrations alike. William Howitt wrote in 1838, when lamenting the near disappearance of the old May Day Festivals in his The Rural Life of England, 'The time of the year was itself so inspiring – with all its newness of feeling, its buds and blossoms, and smiling skies. It seemed just the chosen period for heaven and earth and youth to mingle their gladness together'. The new energy and hope of spring were very appropriate images for the rapidly growing labour movements of the 1890s and were ones which featured on their banners and in their literature.

From the time of the first Labour May Days of the 1890s the demonstrations and social events were accompanied by a profusion of colourful posters, newssheets, postcards, banners and souvenirs depicting the growing power of the workers. Their imagery drew not only on the traditional ones of spring, such as young women garlanded with flowers, but also on other traditions, including artisan, guild, Masonic, Christian and classical. Perhaps most used of all images in the artwork of the early May Days was the sun, as a symbol of social awakening and of a socialist future. Sometimes it featured in a radiant sunrise, other times as a splendid sunset. It was often linked to other symbols – such as a ruined castle, representing the remnants of the earlier feudal age.

The impact of the iconography of the early May Days was enhanced by major advances in printing techniques occurring at much the same time. These resulted in considerable improvements in the quality in reproductions of engravings and line drawings and enabled these to be printed very satisfactorily with several colours. As a result many of European labour's May Day newssheets were memorable because of their striking illustrations, which often got over more effectively the message of a great social awakening than did the accompanying text. Walter Crane (1845-1915) was one of the most influential artists whose work was used in celebrating May Day, His designs set the tone and style of much labour movement iconography in Britain and abroad in the period up to the First World War. In Italy, Germany, Denmark and elsewhere Crane's work was often reproduced for May Days with just the English words in the design replaced. His designs also provided the initial inspiration for May Day illustrations by other artists, such as the Italian Gabriele Galantara (1865-1937).

The background to this flowering of socialist art for May Day was a decision taken in Paris in July 1889. At a Marxist congress, one of two socialist congresses held in the city on the centenary of the storming of the Bastille, it had been agreed that:

... simultaneously in all countries and in all towns, on the same agreed day, the workers will call upon the public authorities to reduce the working day by law to eight hours and to put the other resolutions of the Congress of Paris into effect.

That May Day was selected for such international action was determined by the fact that the American Federation of Labour had chosen May 1st, 1890, as the date to re-open its struggle for the eight-hour day. In so doing, it appropriated a day associated with the memory of the Haymarket martyrs of 1886, a group of anarchists who were hanged or given long prison sentences, after a remarkably unjust trial following the throwing of a bomb at police during a strike meeting in Chicago. Thus in selecting May Day, the international labour movement was also drawing on its own heritage, the Haymarket martyrs being commemorated internationally, just as were the dead of the Paris Commune of 1871.

The actual form and timing of the May Day 1890 demonstrations was left vague at the Marxist Congress (which with hindsight was seen to be the start of the Second International). This had been a necessity to ensure agreement. For widespread strikes as gestures of international solidarity were not seen to be practical in some countries. This was very much the case with the Russian delegates, faced with the tsarist autocracy. It was also true of the Germans, as the Social Democratic Party was anxious not to take actions which would put at risk the expected early repeal of Bismarck's anti-socialist laws. As a result in some countries demonstrations took place on May Day itself, as in Austria and France, and in others they took place on the following Sunday, as in Germany. In Britain the predominantly moderate and Lib-Lab nature of the trade union movement ensured that the mass demonstrations took place on Sunday, May 4th, 1890.

In London there was a much smaller demonstration on May 1st supported by those purists who preferred to meet the hopes of the most radical at the Paris Congress for action on the day itself, rather than to recognise the realities of British trade unionism. It was led by Jack Williams, a working man from the East End of London, who was a stalwart of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), in his capacity as a leader of the National Federation of all Trades, a shortlived general union centred on south-west London. However, its main support came from the Socialist League, a breakaway group from the SDF which, by this time, was increasingly being dominated by anarchists. Jack Williams' demonstration mustered between 1,000 and 1,500 people who flocked from the Embankment to Hyde Park. This procession was marked by bands playing the Marseillaise, including one wearing French redcaps, and by companies of young men carrying red flags topped with caps of liberty. On the evening of May Day the Socialist League held a demonstration at Clerkenwell Green, attended by several thousand people, which was addressed by William Morris and other leading League figures. However, as E.P. Thompson wrote in his biography of Morris, 'For the sake of this principle [demonstrating on May Day itself, which they held to honestly in the belief that they were acting in true international fraternity, they rejected the chance of sharing in the leadership of one of the greatest demonstrations since the last days of Chartism.'

The main demonstration in London, held on Sunday, was one of the largest, quite possibly the largest, in British history. A delighted Engels, who was present on one of the platforms, wrote afterwards:

The demonstration here on 4th May was nothing short of overwhelming and even the entire bourgeois press had to admit it... 250 to 500,000 people, of whom over three-quarters were workers demonstrating...All in all, the most gigantic meeting that has ever been held here.

To Karl Marx's daughter Laura, Engels wrote:

I can assure you that I looked a couple of inches taller when I got down from that old lumbering wagon that served as a platform – after having heard again, for the first time since 40 years, the unmistakeable voice of the English Proletariat.

For all its vast size the main London May Day demonstration was notable for divisions among its sponsors. The Times, which testified to the scale of the event, also noted:

The whole affair, long though it had been in planning, was on the whole, not well organised, probably because there was a lack of unanimity among the leaders. The simple truth of the matter appears to be that orders came from three different sources, that three sets of minds were at work, and that the result was confusion.

The three groups were the Central Committee for the Eight Hours Legal Working Day Demonstration, the London Trades Council and H.M. Hyndman and the SDF.

The Central Committee for the Eight Hours Legal Working Day Demonstration had been formed on April 6th, 1890. It represented ninety-four trade union, socialist and radical groups, most of which had been campaigning for the eight-hour day. One of the most important of these bodies was the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers which had won an eight-hour day through strike action in 1889. When its secretary, Will Thorne, was asked to organise a May Day demonstration he turned to Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling (the socialist with whom she lived). As well as being a major influence on Thorne's development as a socialist, Eleanor Marx had been very active in the struggle to set up the gasworkers' union. She and Aveling were leading figures in the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, which itself had started to make preparation for May Day. Along with the gasworkers and the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, the other major body involved in the formation of the Central Committee was the Labour Electoral Association which had been set up by the TUC in 1886. The Central Committee was committed to the statutory enactment of the eight-hour day.

In contrast, the London Trades Council in 1890 would go no further than to declare itself in 'favour of the principle of reducing hours of labour, leaving the precise method to the future'. It was dominated by an older generation of trade unionists who were nervous about supporting even the Sunday demonstration. However, as one of the old guard of trade unionists, 6eorge Howell, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green, put it, 'Goaded by the attacks of the Socialists and New Trade Unionists, the London Trades Council found itself obliged to participate in May Day celebrations in favour of "solidarity of labour", Eight Hours and other idealist proposals' Tom Mann, a leading socialist and New Unionist, succeeded in getting round the majority's opposition to a legal, eight-hour day by proposing that the London Trades Council hold a separate demonstration on May 4th. Hence the Trades Council made its own separate arrangements, including marching to Hyde Park by a different route from the Central Committee's procession and having seven separate platforms for its speakers in the Park.

To add to organisational disarray. H.M. Hyndman and the SDF were a third element in the great demonstration of May 4th, 1890. Hyndman had long fallen out with Engels and with the Central Committee's leading figures. He arranged with the London Trades Council to have two of its seven platforms in Hyde Park.

By all accounts the London Trades Council's attempt at separate organisation was a disaster. The Leicester Daily Mercury's correspondent gave the following assessment:

The fact is that the Trades Council were beaten by their very numbers. They marched into the park in straggling detachment, and all interest in the demonstration had died away and the crowd had gone before the last detachment arrived, weary and forlorn, at ten minutes to six. Thus the Eight Hours Bill party gained a triumphant victory. They showed their full strength, and their opponents, the numerically stronger, never even looked imposing. They occupied the ground first and engaged the interest of the crowd. They had excellent and well-known speakers, whereas their opponents confined themselves to working men orators. Last, but not least, they had a clear and definite proposition to make.

The only Trades Council platform which drew a large crowd was the main one, at which Tom Mann and Ben Tillett of the Dockers' Union spoke. This was surrounded by dockers, barge-builders, ropemakers and railwaymen. Mann, though he was a well-known advocate of the legal eight-hour day, loyally spoke to the Trades Council motion.

The Central Committee's organisation coped better with the huge number of demonstrators. At 4.00 p.m. a bugle sounded, and their speakers, standing on the seven wagons serving as platforms, began. However as The Times correspondent noted 'Procession after procession came streaming into the park, bands played through speeches and it was a medley of sounds.'

The biggest crowd gathered around platform five, the Gas Workers' Union's platform, to hear John Burns. Burns, then thirty-one, was at the height of his radical reputation; he gave his audience a fiery speech, which included very blunt criticism of the older generation of trade union leaders on the TUC and London Trades Council. He said that he and the men on that platform 'had done more for unionism in the last twelve months and had formed more trade unions in that time than all the Broadhursts and Shiptons put together'. Burns said that although the gas workers 'had got an eight hours day by voluntary effort and by combination', they knew that 'directly trade declined and the boom was passed' the employers would take such gains away unless they were protected by an act of parliament.

While the main theme on the Central Committee's platforms was the eight- hour day, it was not the sole one. On their second platform Thomas Sutherest, then Radical prospective parliamentary candidate for Doncaster, gave a vigorous speech against sweated labour. Michael Davitt, the great Irish Nationalist advocate of land nationalisation, also spoke from that platform, urging not only that 'the land should belong to the people' but also that, 'It rested with the people themselves to send to Parliament men from their own ranks who were really representatives of labour, and the working classes would never achieve any satisfactory reform until they realised and acted upon this fact'. The Central Committee's other platforms had other famous socialist and trade union figures on them. As well as Engels, these included Fabians George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas, Edward Bernstein, Eleanor Marx, George Lansbury, R B. Cunningham Graham MP, and Pete Curran.

While the massive London demonstration of May 4th, 1890, received international attention, there were others elsewhere in Britain. These were held in places with marked SDF, Socialist League or New Union activity or a blend of these. Within England, the largest May Day demonstrations appear to have been in Northampton and Leeds. In Northampton, in spite of pouring rain, there was a large procession headed by a temperance hand. The Times reported that:

Nearly 10,000 working men assembled in the market square, representing almost every branch of labour in the town and district, including about 2,000 agricultural labourers from adjacent villages.

In Leeds some 6,000 workers marched in procession, with a band playing the Marseillaise. At their head was a banner of the Leeds Jewish Tailors, Pressers and Machinists, and those in the march included 1,100 Jewish tailors, 900 slipper makers and 800 gas workers, followed by contingents of dyers, maltsters, teamsters and general labourers. There were also sizeable demonstrations in Bristol and Plymouth.

In Scotland the largest demonstration was in Aberdeen on Saturday, May 17th. Some 6,000 trade unionists took part in the procession and between 10,000 and 20,000 heard H.H. Champion speak at the open-air meeting. In Edinburgh, in spite of the opposition of the trades council to a demonstration, between 400 and 600 people turned out to hear Keir Hardie and other speakers on Sunday, May 4th.

The success of May Day in 1890 ensured that many more demonstrations were organised in 1891. In London some 250,000 people attended the main one on the Sunday. Several thousand people took part in those in Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Norwich. There were also demonstrations in smaller towns such as Jarrow, Sittingbourne and Chatham. In 1891, as in 1890, the new unions were very prominent. The Times noted of Liverpool that the 'processionists were mostly of the unskilled labour class'. As in 1890 the Gasworkers' Union was a major force behind many demonstrations. In the Northeast, at Newcastle and Jarrow, the Tyneside and National Labour Union was prominent. In major ports such as Liverpool and Newcastle the Sailors and Firemen's Union and the Dockers' Union were especially important. In Leeds in 1891, as in 1890, Jewish workers provided a large contingent. In Norwich, Liverpool, Newcastle and elsewhere, the railwaymen, who were pressing for a ten-hour day (eight for shunters in busy yards and for signalmen in busy boxes), were major supporters of the demonstrations. At Newcastle a General Railway Workers' Union speaker spoke bitterly of the parliamentary committee's evidence of men working 'thirty-five hours at a stretch' on the railways.

Many accounts of the May Day demonstrations report the numbers of working men present. However there were many working women present and not just as spectators. Women were among the main speakers at the 1890 and 1891 Sunday demonstrations in London. Eleanor Marx was, of course, a major speaker at both. In her 1891 speech, as her biographer records, 'noting many women who had flocked to her platform, her "great object" was to see women's unions as strong as the men's whose support and help were essential to this end.' At the first Sunday May Day demonstration two other women trade unionists who spoke were Miss Robertson and Mrs Taylor. According to the Leicester Daily Mercury's account of the second, 'The only women's union represented was that of the confectioners'. Elsewhere, as at Norwich, the presence of young women in the processions received a passing mention. In 1892 that paper noted:

The Women's Trades Unions took part in yesterday's demonstration, but curiously enough the women speakers had an audience composed almost entirely of males. If those males are induced to give the women's union a helping hand the ladies' addresses will have had a good effect. The resolution at platform number nine declared it to be the duty of women to become members of trades unions, and the duty of the unions to combine to reduce the hours of female labour.

As elsewhere in Europe and beyond, the May Day demonstrations were notable as celebrations of trade unionism, socialism and internationalism. The spirit of carnival was present in many places, as banners, bands and crowds dominated the streets for several hours. Thus in Norwich in 1891 two waggonettes were at the head of the procession followed by bands, contingents of marchers and banners. There the first bands were those of the Riveters and Finishers, the Norfolk and Norwich Unity of Oddfellows and the Co-op Society. The first Sunday May Bay demonstration in London was the occasion for displaying scores of new union banners. Ahead of it The Star commented on the Gasworkers' Union having 'no less than thirteen brand new banners, most of which have been unfurled within the last week or so'. The Gas Workers' fine banners also attracted much attention at provincial rallies. At a large Sittingbourne rally in 1891 a handsome silken banner of the Gas Workers was the backdrop to the speakers. In Leeds the Jewish workers made their presence very apparent by their banners of the Leeds Jewish Tailors or Jewish Slipper Makers' Trade Unions. The banners also expressed the aspirations of exiles. Thus in London in 1891, on a banner representing 'The Polish Socialists and Martyrs', were the words 'Down with Political and Economic Oppression. Long live the Polish Socialist Revolutionary Movement. Down with the Czar and Other Despots. Peace between Nations. War between Classes'. At that demonstration Stanislas Mendelson gave his speech in Polish.

Yet whilst they were celebrations, they also offered those in industrial struggles an opportunity to look to the wider labour movement for support. At the small London demonstration on May 1st, 1890, 200 women who were on strike at the Clerkenwell envelope makers were part of the procession to Hyde Park and collected donations for their strike fund.

At the park one of their number, Edith Lupton, seconded a resolution. At other May Day demonstrations those on strike often swelled the numbers and took the opportunity to put their case at the open-air meetings. But more generally the May Day demonstrations were a focus for those involved in the struggle to establish the 'New Unions' for the unskilled workers. Their enthusiasm was vital. On the upturn of the trade cycle in 1890 they knew they would need state support to hold what trade union action had achieved in good times. With the employers' counter-offensive and the downturn in the economy they needed to assert such strength as they had and to appeal to working-class solidarity.

The May Day demonstrations combined the explosive fervour of the newly organised unskilled unions, the unifying issue on the eight-hour day with a spirit of international working-class consciousness. In London the demonstration drew on and helped to sustain the political interest in the new electoral politics of London local government. There a combination of socialists, radicals and trade unionists had come together to fight the elections for the London County Council. The Star in its editorial of May 5th, 1890, reflected on the previous day's demonstration:

Just think... that the vast multitude properly organised, properly led, and besides, armed by law with all the power of voting to which they are entitled – just think that they have in their hands the settlement of the entire representation of London.

No wonder the call for May Day demonstrations attracted such attention among the ruling class.

The British press was forced to admit the impact of May Day. The Times on May 1st, 1890, observed of the organisers:

They have brought forcibly to the notice of the civilised world the existence of working class grievances or demands, and have concurrently given proof of a novel and unexpected capacity for concerted action on the most extended scale. Throughout the Christian world the universal topic this morning is the demonstration of labour.

The editorial observed that the demand for the eight-hour day 'must be interpreted more or less symbolically; it means, in reality, a general express- ion of dissatisfaction with the actual distribution of the world's wealth, and of desire to effect some improvement in working class conditions'.

The Edinburgh News on May 4th, 1891, observed that 'the spectre of revolutionary thought has passed from France to Germany. Karl Marx is the Rousseau of the industrial revolution... Continental writers like Marx are the inspirers of the British socialistic movement'.

For Further Reading:

Andrea Panaccione (ed.), The Memory of May Day and May Day Celebration (Marsilio Editori, 1989 and 1988), E. Hobsbawn and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983); Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, 2 vols (Lawrence and Wishart, 1972 and 1976); E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Lawrence and Wishart, 1955; 2nd. Edition, Merlin Pres, 1977); P.S. Finer, May day (International Publishers, 1986).

About the Author:

  • Chris Wrigley is Reader in Economic History at Nottingham University, and the author of the forthcoming Arthur Henderson for University of Wales Press.

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