At the beginning of May, I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Historical Association Conference in the luxurious surroundings of the Mercure Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester.  It was an excellent weekend with a wide range of lectures and continuing professional development opportunities.  I came away with lots of great ideas to work on, but for now, I thought I’d write a series of blog posts about the various lectures and workshops I attended.

The weekend opened with the Presidential Lecture, given this year by Association Past President Professor Chris Wrigley:

Inventing Tradition – British and European May Days 1890s-Present

Professor Wrigley commented that May Days had been left out of mainstream text books for many years.  For example, the Thatcher-era poll tax riots were described as the biggest demo in London since 1890 but didn’t say that what actually happened in 1890 was the May Day parade.


There were, though, plenty of contemporary accounts in the press. It took place on 4 May, the closest Sunday to 1 May.  According to these reports, it “seemed as though the whole population of London poured parkwards in a huge mass”.   The parade was so long that it arrived in Hyde park after the speakers had finished – Engels was one of them. Estimates put the crowd at at least quarter of million, but most thought there were half a million people there. In fact, there had been a huge turn out for about 5 years.

Eric Hobsbawm described it as an invented tradition, arguing that it started only in 1890 even though it was portrayed as if it went black hundreds of years.  But Wrigley argues it rested on tradition rather than being newly invented, because it followed routes of the saints days. There had been parades for the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Chartists too.

Walter Crane‘s colourful images of May Days were reused all over the world with different languages.  They were very powerful in France in particular.  Trade unions also began to look internationally in the late 19C.  The biggest unions, such as the Durham miners, had their own parades with union banners.  The most prominent trade unions were the new ones –  the less skilled ones – such as match girls and dockers.  Much of it was therefore to do with the upsurge in trade unionism.  Trade unions like these were always at their strongest when there was an economic upturn because they had more bargaining power.  The parades drew on the traditions of French radicalism, with many bands at the marches playing La Marseillaise, while people wore liberty caps.  The May Day parades were therefore associated with the labour movement.

Prof. Wrigley compared the British experience with that in France, Germany and Austria.  In Austria the workers were told that there would be severe consequences if they came out ‘on strike’ on May Day 1890.  The middle classes were scared.  They fled Vienna on April 30th and didn’t come back for a couple of days.  Factory owners prepared to defend their factories.  Despite the threats, the workers failed to attend work and marched round Vienna anyway.  Troops, including lancers and cannon, were in the park and ready for the demonstrators.  When the families arrived, the troops did not fire; the people sang and walked through the cannon.  Revolution and bloodshed were avoided.

He suggested that in London, the 1890 parade was very effectively organised by Eleanor Marx and her partner Aveling.  So they were partly ‘red’, but not entirely so – the crowds returning from Hyde Park cheered Gladstone as he went past.  They also highlighted divisions between elements in British socialism.