insurrection and monster meetings

Trafalgar Square riots 1848

The Trafalgar Square riots of March 1848 were the first signs of a wave of radical unrest that swept London that year. This page tells that story.

GWM Reynolds
GWM Reynolds. Journalist, Chartist and chair of the Trafalgar Square meeting.

The first serious disturbance of 1848 took place at Trafalgar Square – then still under construction, with newly laid roads and hoardings around Nelson’s Column.

A planned protest against the then relatively novel idea of income tax had been called by Charles Cochrane for Monday 6 March. Under pressure from the police, however, he reluctantly withdrew and made efforts to cancel the open air meeting. London ‘s workers were having none of it, and a crowd estimated at 10,000 strong gathered anyway; the journalist and relative newcomer to Chartism GWM Reynolds took the chair. Though observers later commented that barely a man in the crowd would have been liable to pay income tax, the meeting duly condemned it, congratulated the French people on their efforts to overthrow their government, and made clear their support for the People Charter.

At first all went peacefully. But according to the admittedly partisan Northern Star, just as the crowd began to dissolve “some sleek well-fed man asserted that the people assembled were lazy and would not work”. In the uproar which followed, the police moved in with truncheons flying and a riot ensued.

By 4pm that afternoon, the police were in control of the square. But as they withdrew two hours later, the crowd flocked back in, pulling down the wooden hoardings around Nelson’s Column and arming themselves with granite blocks from the new roads. The fighting continued until late into the evening, with parts of the crowd heading off to smash the windows of the gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall , breaking into bread shops to seize loaves and – shortly after midnight – moving into Grosvenor Square .

It was 1am before peace was restored, and by 9am the following morning the crowd was back, erecting a barricade in Charing Cross next to the statue of Charles I.

All that day and into Wednesday 8 March the fighting continued. David Goodway, in his book London Chartism 1838-1848, notes that the authorities built up their forces over these days. On the Monday, there had been just 1,189 police on duty or reserve in London ; two days later, there were 2,460.

Despite the continuing excitement, the police regained control during the course of the Wednesday and the rioting began to subside. This, however, did little to prevent 700 rioters heading for the City by way of Temple Bar and Fleet Street. After a Chartist meeting on Stepney Green that evening, the crowd once again broke windows in the City and along Regent Street . This, however, was to be the end of the tumult for now.

By Friday, The Times was able to report that “scarcely any traces” of the week’s excitement now remained. In all, 127 rioters were arrested between Monday to Wednesday. As Goodway notes, the striking feature of those arrested is their youth – nearly half being under 21 years old.

The names of those arrested, taken from police records now in the National Archives (Ref: MEPO 2 64) are set out in the table below. Goodway names the leaders of the riot as John White (“an eighteen-yearold wearing epaulettes, smashing windows.. and shattering and extinguishing the gas lamps…”), and Charles Tothill (“a clerk, aged twenty”).

Strictly speaking, these were not “Chartist” riots – the only Chartist connected with them being Reynolds, whose initial meeting being entirely peaceful, and the Charter being just one of a number of causes favoured by the crowd. But unlike the strikes of 1842, the Chartist leadership this time did not hesitate to place itself at the head of popular feeling, and as the “year of revolutions” went on, some Chartists at least would turn to more radical solutions. Events in Trafalgar Square would also help to cement the political reputation of Reynolds, whose Reynolds’s News would later become the principal and longest-lived of the radical newspapers to emerge from Chartism.

NameAgeResult of examination
John Jones20Committee for trial (felony)
Morris Paton18Committee for trial (felony)
James Marchant23Fined 20s or 8 days
John Melvill27Committed 14 days
James Durkin17Fined 20s or 8 days
William Westwood18Fined 20s or 9 days
Thomas Leggett24Fined 20s or 9 days
Edward Andrews42Fined 20s or 9 days
Benjamin Pemberton24Fined 20s or 9 days
John Rees21Fined 30s or 14 days
Alexander Reeves20Committed 21 days
Frederick Cox21Fined 30s or 14 days
Jim Meehan21Committed 21 days
Charles Tothill20To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John White18To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Read36To find bail to answer the charge at Clerkenwell sessions
John Feigle26Committed for 21 days
William Hack21Committed for 10 days
William Harrison35To find bail himself in £40 and two sureties in £20 each to keep the peace 2 months
John Varley48Committed for 14 days
William Sudbury19Fined 10s or 10 days
Michael Foy28Fined 10s or 10 days
Francis Holroyd26Discharged
Charles Haskin22Fined 10s or 7 days
George Robertson17Discharged
Charles Allen17Fined 10s or 7 days
Frederick Hinde16Discharged
Henry Calcutt19To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 1 month
John Head12Committed 3 days and once whipped
Thomas Condon16Committed 6 weeks
Arthur Fanley16Discharged
Charles Carey21Discharged
William Bute29To find bail himself £50 and 2 sureties each £25 to keep the peace 2 months
William Riddle16Discharged
William Mullins24To find surety in £10 to keep the peace 2 months
William Davis17Discharged
Thomas Read40Discharged
George Phillips59Fined 10s or 7 days
James E Duncan26To find sureties in £10 to keepthe peace 2 months
Charles Godwin36Fined 10s or 10 days
Robert Davis17Committed 10 days
Nathan Parry26Fined 20s or 14 days
William Sims18Discharged
Frederick Evans21Committed 10 days
Thomas Jones191 month
William Carter171 month
Richard Nicholls22Committed 14 days
John Gunthorp25Fined 20s or 14 days
Henry Hunt18Discharged
Charles Banks23Discharged
Robert Holmes18Discharged
James Simbilcock??42Discharged
Charles Davis19Fined 10s or 10 days
George Peck21Fined 10s or 10 days
William Lucas22Fined 10s or 10 days
John Sage19Fined 20s or 21 days
Thomas Bedford17Fined 10s or 10 days
Abraham Ruff30Discharged
William Bayden18Discharged
Robert Rudland23Committed 21 days
James Haggar18Discharged
Morris Reasding24Fined 10s or 10 days
William Scarborough17Discharged
John Harbridge19Fined 10s or 10 days
George Allsop20Father recognisance £10 for 3 months
William Gifford22Committed 14 days
Alfred Wilson23Discharged
Stephen Callaghan21Discharged
Edward Macfarline18Discharged
William Dodd16Discharged
Michael Sullivan15Discharged
Eugene Sullivan1810s or 10 days
John Milton25Discharged
Thomas Wallis2410s or 10 days
Henry Oxbury2614 days
Michael Fitzgerald17To find surety in £40 to keep the peace 3 months
Peter Fitzstephen2221 days
Henry Stamper19Fined 20s or 14 days
John David1610s or 10 days
William Merry19Discharged
Charles Foster23Discharged
William Thompson21Discharged
John Moloney201 month
Robert Frisby17Fined 10s or 10 days
William Woollams1510s or 7 days
James Kew16Discharged
William Salter12Discharged
James Turner1930s or 14 days
William Alias1830s or 14 days
James Abbott30£3 or 1 month
John St Leger2030s or 3 weeks
Mitchell Moore2520s or 14 days
George Ryan2130s or 3 weeks
Frederick Dorrell20£3 or 1 month
William Smith341 month
Charles Keen1620s or 14 days
Miles Phillips18Discharged
John Hopkins1930s or 3 weeks
Henry Roach18Fined 20s or 14 days
John Johnston25Discharged
Henry Davy1730s or 3 weeks
Walter Ford1840s or 1 month
John Lewis28£3 or 21 days
National Archives MEPO 2 64