Copyright © 2005 the Brewery History Society

Journal Homepage

Journal Home > Archive > Issue Contents > Brew. Hist., 118, pp. 26-40

Demanding the Right to Drink: The two great Hyde Park demonstrations

by Tim Holt

Hyde Park, covering 340 acres, is the largest of London’s royal parks. Originally a monastic property it was appropriated by Henry VIII in 1536 and transformed into his own private hunting ground. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Hyde Park was opened to the public and soon became the venue for numerous popular festivals. Yet one type of event was not allowed; political meetings and demonstrations were outlawed within its boundaries until 1872 (Weinreb and Hibbert 1993: 414). Yet, despite this ban, Hyde Park was the scene of a mass protest in 1855. Another rally occurred here in 1906, some thirty years after the measure had been repealed. Both of these incidents were related to the consumption of beer, although, as we shall see, in markedly different ways.

The origins of the 1855 demonstration can be traced back some twelve months to the passing of the 1854 Wilson-Patten or Sale of Beer Act. Rushed through Parliament, being presented on the 13th July and receiving royal assent on the 7th August, this piece of legislation was the outcome of pressure from strict Sunday observationists and prohibited English drinking places from opening on Sundays between 2.30 pm and 6 pm and after 10 pm. In fact its passage was so rapid that the first many people knew of its existence was when they discovered their local’s front door locked. Discontent with the measure grew progressively over the following months and petitions containing nearly half a million signatures were collected (Longmate 1968: 164). However, it is unlikely that the Wilson-Patten Act by itself would have provoked the subsequent protest. What tipped the scales was another proposed law, the Sunday Trading Bill.

The Bill, sponsored by Lord Robert Grosvenor (MP for Middlesex) aimed, with minor exceptions, to prevent Sunday trading in London. Feelings in the capital were very much divided over the measure (Harrison 1965: 220). Primarily aimed to benefit the owners of small shops, it was also supported by the larger retailers, shop workers and Evangelicals. Those against the Bill included free-traders, political radicals and, most numerous of all, shop customers. The vast majority of shoppers had little choice but to buy their goods on Sundays, especially food. As we noted earlier, wages were often paid late on a Saturday night so Sunday was the first opportunity many workers had to spend their earnings. Furthermore, with no way of preserving food, much of it had to be bought on the day it was to be eaten, especially in the hot summer months.

Thus a law already in place and another close to enactment created a profound sense of discontent among a large section of London’s population. It appears that, although the Sunday Trading Bill made no mention of restricting Sunday drinking and would have had no effect on licensing hours, it was conflated in the minds of many people with the Sale of Beer Act. This confusion was further fuelled by an editorial in The Times, a newspaper vehemently opposed the Bill. An editorial argued that the ‘the rich, whose larders and whose cellars are well filled, can, of course, afford to turn up their eyes in pious horror at the enormities of the poor man’s baked shoulder of mutton, and his pint of beer ...‘ (The Times 15 June 1855). It ended by stating that ‘we have already cut down the poor man’s Sunday at one end by our Publichouse Bill, and now we are attacking it from the other quarter. There will surely be a revulsion of feeling against all this’ (The Times 15th June 1855). And revulsion there was. A few days after the article was published posters began to appear in the capital advertising a meeting in Hyde Park to take place on Sunday 24th June. It read:

New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all other kinds of recreation and nourishment both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and 'the lower orders' generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o'clock on the right bank of the Serpentine, on the side towards Kensington Gardens. Come and bring your wives and children in order that they may profit by the example their 'betters' set them! (Marx 1953: 416).

Society One eye-witness to the events of that Sunday was Karl Marx, a resident of London for the past six years. He estimated that by mid-afternoon at least 200,000 people had gathered in the park, described by The Times as consisting ‘chiefly of the lower classes’ (The Times 25th June 1855). James Bligh, a Chartist, was called on to preside and he began by hoping that the proceedings would be peaceful and nothing would be done to oppose the constitution of the country. They were there, he stated, to show their abhorrence of a bill. At this point he was interrupted by Inspector Banks, backed up by ’40 truncheon-swinging constables’, who politely informed him that, under the auspices of the Commissioner of Police, he was authorised to prevent any meeting being held in the park as it was not public property. After a brief interchange Bligh called on his audience to reconvene in Oxford Market, an area free from such restrictions. But before they were able to move London’s gentry began to enter the park for their weekly promenade along the banks of the Serpentine. Marx described them as a

procession of elegant ladies and gentlemen; “commoners and Lords”, in their high coaches-and-four with liveried lackeys in front and behind, joined, to be sure, by a few mounted venerables slightly under the weather from the effects of wine … . A babel of jeering, taunting, discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English, soon bore down on them from both sides (Marx 1953: 418).

The crowd’s hostility continued to increase, shouts of ‘go to church’ were continually heard and eventually the ‘noble lords and ladies … were forced to alight and use their own legs’ (Marx 1953: 418). One lady stood up in her carriage and waved her prayer book to exhibit her religious credentials. However, this only provoked the demonstrators who called out ‘walk, walk, and let your horse rest, and your coachman go to church’ (The Glode 25th June 1855). The police were quick to prevent anyone else addressing the gathering, although one man, in an attempt to go unnoticed, tried to give a speech while lying down in the middle of a large group. Despite all the commotion no serious violence occurred and by 6 o’clock the meeting began to peter out. Marx was so impressed by what he had seen that he declared, somewhat optimistically as it turned out, that ‘the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park’ (Marx 1953: 416).

Over the next few days two fresh notices appeared in town, one publicising a meeting for the following Sunday and the other, issued by the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, prohibiting any further gatherings in the park. The ban was ignored and by the early afternoon of the 1st of July 150,000 members of the ‘respectable class’ had assembled (The Times 2nd July 1855). They were accompanied by the police who began the day in relaxed mood, lying in the shade of the trees, reading and eating cold meat and bread (Daily Telegraph and Courier 2nd July 1855). One spokesman who addressed the crowd claimed that a worried Lord Grosvenor had quit London the previous day in a hired carriage, so as not to be recognised, leaving 200 police officers guarding his home. A similar number were also alleged to be protecting his brother, the Marquis of Westminster, and his residence. However, mid-way through his speech 30 – 40 constables attempted to arrest him, but he managed to escape. The police’s intervention upset the crowd and some began to cry out ‘Down with the crushers’. The officers were then further provoked by the following bizarre act:

Some of the mob managed to get an enormous eel out of the Serpentine and they commenced throwing it over the heads of the people, and, at last, at the police; two of the constables of the A division at length secured the eel, and carried it to headquarters … (Daily Telegraph and Courier 2nd July 1855).

Sadly nothing is known of the subsequent fate of the detained eel. However, its presence goaded the police into using their truncheons with ‘considerable force’ (The Times 2nd July 1855) and a number of arrests were made. More people were taken into custody when they again began to greet the arriving gentry with shouts of ‘go to church’ and by 4 o’clock seven police cabriolets had been needed to transfer the arrested to Vine Street station. The officers eventually cleared the carriage way, but some of the crowd climbed into neighbouring trees and continued to jeer. One man, who had been throwing stones at the police, jumped into the Serpentine to avoid detention. Unfortunately, he was a poor swimmer and half way across the lake he began to drown. He was rescued and immediately arrested. Later, at around 5 o’clock, the atmosphere had become even more unruly and police reinforcements were called for. By the time the crowd began to disperse 104 arrests had been made and about eight people had been severely injured.

The contrast between the day’s events and those of the previous Sunday was not lost on Marx – this was indeed class war.

Instead of elegant coaches-and-four, dirty cabs, which drove back and forth between the police station at Vine Street and the improvised jails in Hyde Park. Instead of lackeys on the boxes of carriages, constables sitting next to drunken cab drivers. Inside the vehicles, instead of elegant gentlemen and ladies, prisoners with bloody heads, dishevelled hair, half undressed and with torn clothes, guarded by dubious conscripts from the Irish lumpenproletariat who had been pressed into the London police. Instead of the wafting of fans, a hail of truncheons. Last Sunday the ruling classes had shown their fashionable face; this time the face they displayed was that of the state. In the background - behind the affably grinning old gentlemen, the fashionable dandies, the elegantly infirm widows and the perfumed beauties in their cashmeres, ostrich feathers, and garlands of flowers and diamonds - stood the constable with his waterproof coat, greasy oilskin hat and truncheon - the reverse side of the coin. Last Sunday the ruling classes had confronted the masses as individuals. This time they assumed the form of state power, law and truncheon (Marx 1953: 423).

The following day 72 of those arrested appeared at Marlborough Street Court. A large crowd gathered outside, stones were thrown and the police resorted to a truncheon charge to break up the crowd. The furore created by the Bill became too much for Lord Grosvenor who stopped its passage through parliament. In fact, so affected was he by the whole episode that he all but retired from parliamentary life.

With the death of the Bill there was now no reason for the demonstrations to continue, yet a crowd did congregate for the third Sunday running on the 8th July. It was much smaller in size, numbering only around 4,000, and ‘the aggregate of the assemblage was less respectable in point of dress than on the previous occasion’ (Daily Telegraph and Courier 9th July 1855). A few moderate speeches were made before cries of ‘Hyde park butchers’ were heard, referring to the police action of the previous Sunday. The authorities were better prepared this time, 800 police were on duty and the military was also at hand in case the situation deteriorated. Yet, they did not prevent a number of youths splitting off from the crowd and venturing into Belgrave Square where the ‘fine large windows of the mansions … were too great a temptation for the urchins to resist smashing them’ (Times 9th July 1855). Mansions in Upper Belgrave Street, Wilkin Street and Haton Street were also attacked, Lord Grosvenor’s among them, to the shouts of ‘No Beer Bill’, ‘No Bishops’ and ‘Down with the Sabbatarians’ (Daily Telegraph and Courier 9th July 1855). In a fifteen minute spree 749 pains of glass were broken and the damage was estimated at between £300 and £400. One accidental participant in the day’s events was the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. Out for a Sunday ride he passed through a section of the crowd and at first believed they were cheering him. He raised his hat in acknowledgement, but soon realised that the shouts were far from complimentary and he quickly made his escape. A final gathering occurred the following Sunday and this was easily contained by the police.

Shortly after the demonstrations had fizzled out questions began to be asked as to who had provided the finance to organise them. Although never proven, it was suspected that drinksellers were the main backers. As Harrison explains:

Many drinksellers had an interest in using the riots to discredit all sabbatarian measures. Temp-erance reformers, emphasizing that the Sunday Trading Bill did not propose to interfere with the sale of drink, always denied that the Hyde Park riots had been directed against temperance legislation. But Sunday trading and Sunday closing were, as the Globe on 27 June pointed out, ‘parts of one subject’. Both were denounced in the Park, and were so identified in the public mind that members of Parliament and the public often confused them with each other (Harrison 1965: 226-7).

It was certainly the case that the drinksellers were the main beneficiaries of the Hyde Park protests. Only two days after the first demonstration Henry Berkeley, the only MP to take a concerted stand against the Wilson-Patten Act, was successful in forming a parliamentary committee on the Sunday closing of drinking establishments, with himself as chairman. It sat for just five days, interviewed only twenty-six witnesses and was loaded with members hostile to the Wilson-Patten Act. Its final report, published on the 26th July, was a mere seventeen lines long and recommended the closure of drinking places between 3 pm and 5 pm and after 11 pm on Sundays. Therefore, licensing hours were extended by two and a half hours. Berkeley introduced his Bill the next day in a speech four sentences long and it became law on 14th August.

If sections of the drinks industry were rather shady figures behind the first Hyde Park disturbances they were very much to the fore in the demonstration of 1908. The catalyst for this second mass protest was again the introduction of new legislation, although this time the proposed law dealt specifically with public houses. The origins of the 1908 Licensing Bill are complex, involving the temperance movement, the drinks trade and bitter party politics. At the beginning of the twentieth century brewers were becoming increasingly worried by the activities of a number of local magistrates who had begun to prevent the renewal of public house licenses. After the landmark case of Sharp v. Wakefield in 1891 a license could be denied without compensation on the grounds that it was surplus to requirements; previously refusals were dependent on misconduct charges being proven against the licensee. This case coincided with a period of massive expansion of the tied house system and a subsequent dramatic rise in the value of pubs. Consequently, brewers were concerned for the future of their investments as they were now dependent on the whims of the licensing boards, many of which contained temperance campaigners (brewers who were Justices of the Peace were prohibited from attending licensing sessions).

In an attempt to ameliorate the situation leaders of the drinks trade sent a delegation on the 18th March 1903 to see the Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, and his Home Secretary, CT Ritchie. It protested against the over-zealous actions of some JPs and found Balfour sympathetic to its cause. However, he was slow to act and as a gentle reminder to the Prime Minister the Trade supported opposition candidates in two by-elections later that month. The Government took the hint, worried by the electoral damage that brewers and, more significantly, their shareholders could cause. The result was the 1904 Licensing Act, popularly known as the Balfour Act. In essence it introduced a compensation scheme which was funded by a levy on all licensed property, from £1 on the lowliest beerhouse to £150 on the grandest of hotels. Consequently, pubs could still be closed for reasons other than misconduct, but in such cases a sum equal to the difference in value of the premises with and without the license would be paid (Greenaway 2003: 80).

The Government’s hope was that both Trade and temperance campaigners would support the measure; brewers because arbitrary closure of their premises would now attract financial recompense and reformers because it was estimated that between 2,000 and 2,500 redundant licenses per year would be withdrawn. In fact, in the first few months after its introduction, neither side was happy. This is evident from the epithets given to it; ‘The Brewers Endowment Fund’ by the antidrink activists and ‘The Mutual Burial Fund’ by the brewers. The opposition Liberal party was also deeply dismissive, accusing the Tories of caving into Trade pressure, and vowed to take retaliatory action as soon as they were returned to power.

They did not have to wait long, the general election of 1906 resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberal party. On the 5th May, in an echo from the previous administration, the new Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and his Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, were called on by a delegation demanding charges in drinks legislation. However, in contrast to the lobby of 1903, this group of 100 MPs were calling for the introduction of temperance measures. Despite the enthusiasm for such action among Liberal backbenchers it was not until the 27th February 1908 that the Government finally revealed its hand. In a speech to the Commons the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Asquith, argued for acceleration in the suppression of licenses with the aim of closing a third of all public houses in England and Wales. The Licensing Bill also contained other measures including a reduction in Sunday opening hours and a ban on the employment of women in pubs. Not surprisingly the Trade was horrified by the proposals, especially those pertaining to the removal of licenses with reduced compensation, and they immediately began a series of actions designed to defeat the Bill.

Fortunately for the drinks industry they were given an ideal opportunity to mobilize opinion against the Government and its Bill when the Liberal seat of Peckham came up for contention in March. So vigorous was their campaign that a Tory newspaper, The Morning Post, thought their actions were ‘doing more harm than good. Van loads of hoarse-voiced men shout up and down the streets about their beer; whisky distillers’ wagons ostentatiously parade the borough … and paid orators make wild statements’ (quoted in Longmate 1968: 251). Despite this over exuberance, Gooch, the Tory candidate won the by-election, the Trade believing it had played an important part in his victory. Over the following few months the Liberals went on to loose a further eight by-elections. At around this time posters and leaflets began to appear in pubs denouncing the Bill and warning of its consequences. They argued, among other things, that it was would only affect the poor, it was un-English, it would advance Socialism and would result in the cost of a pint of beer increasing from 2½d. to 4d.. Furthermore, barmaids were said to be heard appealing to their customers ‘save my job’ and a petition of 600,000 signatures was presented to the House of Commons. Mass meetings were also held at the Queen’s Hall and the Albert Hall, the latter attended by Balfour, now leader of the opposition. All these events, however, were but a foretaste of the Trades greatest act of protest, the Hyde Park demonstration the 27th September 1908.

On an overcast day up to 750,000 people converged on London for an event organised by the National Trade Defence Association, a protectionist body established in 1888 by the brewing and distilling elites. The Association provided 166 special trains to bring supporters from all over England and Wales and between 11am and 2pm they steamed into London’s major terminals. On arrival each contingent was marshalled behind a banner displaying their town or region of origin, thus ‘to read the names of the places … was a liberal education in the geography of the country’ (The Times 28th September 1908). None of the 500 banners bore the names of political organisations, despite the background of the protest; by far the most common slogan to be seen was ‘We Oppose the Bill’, although ‘Are we to be children again?’, ‘Beer, beer, are we to part like this?’ and the badly rhyming ‘It’s easy to be goody on other people’s money’ were also seen (Daily Graphic 28th September 1908). Many people wore a special badge issued for the day which read ‘Honesty and Liberty’ and some had sprigs of hops, both real and artificial, pinned to their chests. The marchers were eventually formed into fourteen separate processions, nine from the provinces and five from London. One of the latter consisted entirely of licensed victuallers, many of whom where women - despite the fact that a broad cross section of society was represented, it was noted that very few women attended the event. Not surprisingly The Times, which came out against the Bill, portrayed the marchers as respectable men and reported no singing, rowdy behaviour, shouting or drunkenness. Yet the Liberal Westminster Gazette described some of the protesters as ‘bent on demonstrating to the spectator the extreme unwisdom of the indulgence which they acclaimed. Others, again, and not a few, seemed as if specially chosen to illustrate the ravaging results of drink on the human frame’ (Westminster Gazette 28th September 1908).

The processions headed to the north of Hyde Park, accompanied by around 100 brass bands, where they were then channelled through the gates and directed to 20 platforms forming a semi-circle around Reformers’ Tree, again based on geographical regions. At 4.30 speeches against the Bill began from each of the stages. One orator described it not as a temperance measure, but as ‘a means of revenge against an important trade which had consistently held Conservative views’ (The Times 28th September 1908) and whenever the Tory dominated House of Lords was referred to it was greeted with great enthusiasm. There were a few supporters of the Bill in the crowd and they laughed when the wholesome nature of beer was mentioned. This was countered by one speaker with the words ‘If you prefer cold water take it, but leave us the right to choose for ourselves’ (The Times 28th September 1908). At 5.15 bugles were sounded throughout the park to signal the end of the speeches. Then the following resolution was read out from every platform:

That this national demonstration protests against the provisions of the Licensing Bill on the grounds that it will fail to promote the cause of temperance, will violate those rights of property which have hitherto been encouraged and recognised by the State, will tend largely to the increase of unemployment, and will interfere with the reasonable liberty of the community (The Times 28th September 1908).

It was carried with a ‘roar of cheering’. The massive crowd then gradually began to disperse; there was ‘nothing more to do now but to go home, and go to the country, and beat the Bill’ (The Times 28th September 1908). According to the Westminster Gazette many were not that keen to return immediately and, come evening,

thousands of wearers, of all ages, of the ‘honesty and liberty’ button gave themselves up to liberty and license. They streamed through the West End and as far east as Fleet Street, storming the public houses on their way and frequently bursting into cheers and snatches of comic songs (Westminster Gazette 28th September 1908).

Some weeks later the Home Secretary was asked how many arrests there had been for drunkenness on the day of the demonstration as compared to seven days previously - they were 165 to 144 respectively (Brewing Trade Review 1st November 1908).

Despite the scale of the demonstration it is difficult to assess its impact on the Bill; it seems likely that it would have been defeated anyway (Gutzke 1989: 171). Throughout the summer and autumn of 1908 the Bill had been making fitful progress through parliament, hampered by nearly 1,000 amendments and pushed along by use of the guillotine. On the 20th November it passed its third reading in the Commons by 350 votes to 113 and was sent to the Lords. Pressure was brought to bear on the leader of the Tory peers, Lord Lansdowne, by Edward VII not to reject the Bill, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Lansdowne himself argued that

The country looks to us to protect it from legislation which we believe to be iniquitous … We shall better deserve both the respect of our fellow countrymen and our own selfrespect if we straightforwardly and with the courage of our opinions we reject the Bill (quoted in Longmate 1968: 256).

On the 27th November it was defeated in the Lords by 272 votes to 96, many of the peers attending purely to give it a ‘first class funeral’.

However, the taste of victory did not linger for long in the mouths of the Trade or the Lords, both were soon to suffer at the hands of the Liberal Government. In 1909 Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ included increased duties on public houses and breweries which it was reckoned would cost the drinks industry an extra £4,000,000 per annum. The Lords threw the budget out thus precipitating a constitutional crisis which found its final resolution in the 1911 Parliamentary Act. The Act severely curtailed the power of the Lords; they could no longer halt public legislation, budgets or ‘money bills’ (those dealing with taxation) which had been passed by the Commons, neither could they delay legislation indefinitely. The Liberals also introduced the 1910 Licensing (Consolidation) Act which repealed nearly all the laws relating to drink passed in the previous 80 years and codified them in a simplified form. Fortunately for the Trade it did not incorporate many of the more draconian elements of the defeated 1908 Bill. Therefore, within two years of their triumph the power and influence of the victors had undergone remarkable reverses. Importantly, the Trade could no longer depend on the aid of the now emasculated Lords. Neither were they able to mobilize popular support on such a grand scale to defend their cause - the demonstration of 1908 was the last great popular protest in support of the drinks industry.


The Brewing Trade Review

The Daily Graphic

The Daily Telegraph and Courier

The Glode

Greenaway, J. (2003) Drink and British Politics since 1830: A Study in Policy- Making, Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Harrison, B. (1965) ‘The Sunday Trading Riots of 1855’, Historical Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2.

Longmate, N. (1968) The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance, Hamish Hamilton: London.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1953) Marx & Engels on Britain, Moscow.

The Times

The Westminster Gazette

The following illustrations appeared in two issues of the Brewing Trade Review published on the 1st April and 1st June, 1908. The first set was introduced by the following paragraphs:

The Issue of Literature Dealing with Dealing with the Provisions of the Licensing Bill

The various Trade organisations have actively distributed Posters, Picture Placards, Leaflets, &c., illustrating the injustice contemplated in the Licensing Bill and some of its effects upon the Public and Traders should it become law. These have been widely displayed generally, though in some place, to a much less extent than in others. There is probably no means so effective to reach very large masses of the public as the display of Posters and Pictures and the distribution of Leaflets.

The Brewers’ Society have placed at our disposal specimens of a considerable number of Posters, Cartoons, and Pictures, as well as Leaflets, which have during the last few weeks been issued by them and the National Trade Defence Association, Central Office, and on the following pages we reproduce a selection of them for the information of our readers.

It must he understood that these reproductions, except in one instance, are exclusive of many very effective Posters, Pictures, and Leaflets issued by some of the District Offices of the National Trade Defence Association, by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society of London, by the Licensed Victuallers’ Defence League of England and Wales, and other organisations at work during the present campaign.


Copyright © 2005 the Brewery History Society