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Hyde Park Riot 1866

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Reform
This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Reformers and Radicals
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There is nothing new in Governments facing opposition to the passage of bills over which there has been much heated debate. During the 1860’s and following on the heals of the Chartists, there emerged in 1864, a Reform League. The Reform League wanted fundamental changes to the voting rights of ordinary working class men and many of its followers comprised former Chartists, emerging trade unionists and left wing socialists and others who felt disenfranchised. They were campaigning for universal male suffrage and for a secret ballot.
On the 12th March 1866, the then Prime Minister Earl Russell and his chancellor William Gladstone, introduced the government’s new reform bill. This was met by opposition in the House of Commons and elsewhere. Some thought the bill did not go far enough to ensure Reform, others believed it had gone too far and the House of Commons was split with no show of compromise on either side of the argument. Within a few months, the Russell government resigned as it could not pass the Bill through the House.

The Reform League took its frustrations out onto the streets.

The failure of Lord Russell’s Reform Bill infuriated the people on the street who had believed there time had come only to have the opportunity snatched away. With the Government in disarray the Reform League organised a number of demonstrations and marches including some in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. In June the League gathered in Trafalgar Square and speeches were made which refused support for any future Reform Bill which was not based on the League’s programme.  That meeting passed with little violence but the mood of the League grew darker and more demonstrations were organised around the country.

To Hyde Park

Such was the level of support for the League they decided to call a rally in Hyde Park. Sensing that the crowds would be enormous and difficult to deal with should things become violent, the Home Secretary Spencer Walpole declared it to be illegal. The Reform League were going to try and so set off from their headquarters in London. More and more people joined the procession. The length of the line of protesters went from Bond St back to Holborn. They reached Hyde Park only to find in excess of 1500 police men and the gates to the park firmly closed. Carriages of the wealthy added to the barricade. The crowd did not back away and for three days the people and the police fought small skirmishes around the park. As some groups made it through to the railings they began to lean on them and found they could sway them back and forth, soon the crowd broke through and up to 200,000 people entered Hyde Park. Troops were called but did little to intervene despite being told to do so. In this way serious injury was averted.

Power to the people.

The League did not want to pursue a violent action and they reassembled to calm the voice of the people. They did not want to alienate the middle working classes but to bring them alongside. They set up Leagues all over the country and through the freezing winter of 1866 – 1867 more rallies were held and so it continued until the Reform Act of 1867 was passed which gave the vote to representatives of working class men for the first time.

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