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Why May Day is not just about maypoles   Leave a comment

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May Day has traditionally been a time of protests, marches and demonstrations.

You can go right back to 1517 and the time of the Tudors, when a mob of young apprentices rampaged through London targeting the businesses of foreign merchants.

But the origin of our present May Day holiday lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, which began across the Atlantic when the American Federation of Labor took industrial action on 1 May 1886. A bomb was thrown in Chicago killing a policeman and there was a huge international outcry when eight anarchists were falsely accused of the crime and seven were sentenced to death. The police who had earlier shot dead two strikers were accused of fabricating evidence and socialists all over the world, including local groups like the Peckham Reform Club, spoke out against the trial and sentences.

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. The American Federation of Labor called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, which was echoed by the International Socialist Conference in Paris.  As a result, demonstrations went ahead all over the United States and Europe, which is why May Day became an international festival of working class solidarity.

In London, there was a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, with many local workers setting off from Camberwell Green. The procession was headed by the North Camberwell Radical Club’s band who called for ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay, eight hours’ rest for eight bob a day’.

Initially, May Day was intended to be a one-off protest. But it continued largely because of the flourishing trade union movement at the time and as a result the size of the London marches grew larger every year. In 1892 a huge crowd estimated at half a million walked from Westminster Bridge to Hyde Park, led by the dock workers of Bermondsey.

It was during this time that elements from traditional May Day celebrations began to be incorporated into socialist demonstrations. Artists and writers like Walter Crane, whose work can be found in the South London Gallery in Peckham, and William Morris started combining socialist values with the familiar ‘Merrie England’ imagery of May queens, garlands and angels. Morris used images of mediaeval pageantry and a lost rural idyll to criticise the squalor of industrial capitalism, while the artist Walter Crane drew a workers’ maypole, with socialist slogans like ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Leisure for All’ written on the ribbons.

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This tribute to the workers of the world, called on labourers and factory workers to come forth on May Day and “be glad in the sun” But for most workers relaxing in the green fields on a working day was not an option, it was only the reduction of working hours and the extension of the weekend and holidays that could make that possible, so the marchers sang songs that contrasted the mirth of May Day festivities with the tough and weary world of work.

In 1926, May Day marked the start of the General Strike, and there were many clashes here at the Elephant and Castle. The strikers would stop buses, lorries and vans that didn’t have a TUC permit, but this didn’t deter many blackleggers from trying to force their way through, which led to violence and two buses being set on fire. As a result, the police constantly patrolled the Elephant, many on horseback, and kept chasing people away by riding at them and swinging their truncheons.

There were more local clashes with police in the 1949 when the government tried unsuccessfully to ban May Day marches, but by the sixties these events were beginning to dwindle and when it became a Bank holiday in 1978, it’s radical past seemed to be fast disappearing.  So a number of activists launched their own alternative events to take May Day back to its roots, including John Lawrence, who lived in Camberwell, and began organising marches in the 70s that ended in a park with free music, dancing and sport.

By the year 2000 May Day had returned as a more militant protest, due to a broad coalition of activists under the anti-capitalist banner. Green issues had also become more prominent and protestors made the headlines by raising a Maypole next to Parliament, planting flowers in Parliament Square and giving the statue of Winston Churchill a turf Mohican.

The following year a large crowd met at Elephant and Castle for an anti-privatisation picnic before marching on to the West End, where militant anarchists ruined the party atmosphere by breaking away from peaceful demonstrators and smashing shop windows in Tottenham Court Road.

Since then there have been a number of small peaceful radical May Day events that have been a big success, without hitting the headlines. In 2007, a procession made its way from Camberwell to Kennington Park, where the Chartists, a working class movement for political reform, demonstrated in 1848. After reaching the park, the marchers gathered for a picnic and danced around a workers’ maypole, with an imitation surveillance camera on top. Protests like this prove that May Day is not simply backward looking, but remains an ever-changing event that still offers workers a unique opportunity to join together, march for their rights and demonstrate against injustice.

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