Trafalgar Square Riots May 4th 1913

Throughout the 20th century scenes of protest and violence have taken place at one of London’s most iconic landmarks, Trafalgar Square. Over looked by Admiral Nelson the square has accommodated countless protests and rallies ranging from political issues to Trade Unionist demonstrations. On the 5th May 1913 was no exception. Between 1911 and 1913 Britain saw a high intensity of militant action by the WSPU. In early April 1913 the acts of arson, the firing of postal boxes and the cutting of telegraph wires was at its highest rate since the beginning of the suffragist campaign. Due to this fact, public meetings were met with hostility and angering crowds. 5 arrests were made on the afternoon of the 6th April 1913 in Wimbledon Common after one man had assaulted the suffragettes whilst the remaining four men had protested his arrest[1].  In rapid response the following day a prohibition was in acted against the public meetings of suffragettes as police commissioner Sir Edward Henry could not ensure the safety of the women, or so it was claimed.

True to fashion, in an act of defiance the WSPU organised a public meeting on the 23rd April 1913 in Trafalgar Square which was attended by an estimated 2000-3000 people. This was to protest the oppression of the Suffragette. In conjunction with the WSPU the Women’s Freedom League stood in steady defiance resulting with three of its members being arrested for obstruction rather than breaching of the peace.

Although the ‘Trafalgar Riots’ of May 4th 1913 was not solely a demonstration on behalf the suffrage movement, many advocates for the cause integrated their objectives within the overall theme of the event. The demonstration was organised by the Free Speech Defence Committee with chief speakers who included Keir Hardie, Graham and Cunningham. British newspaper coverage of the event characterised the twenty to thirty thousand as “members of the trade unions with somewhat revolutionary ideas”[2]

The demonstration was not only covered by the British press. Articles found from New Zealand paint a graphic detail of the day’s events. The 5th May 1913 edition of The Poverty Bay Herald focused on the mounted police clearing of the square with reports of people being trampled and sustained minor injuries[3].

When conveying a wide range of newspaper articles from Britain and the Empire, it is interesting to discover how one event can be portrayed in various different fashions. An article that was produced for The Argus Newspaper in Australia on the 6th May 1913, depicts a similar story to the article from New Zealand, however, there is much more speculative emphasis on who was to blame for the commencement of the riots.

Good order prevailed until the arrival of a May Day trades procession, in which was a group of suffragettes bearing a banner inscribed “Votes for Women.” The boldest of these women attempted to mount the plinth of the Nelson Column, but their way was barred by the police.”

The demonstration was also a turning point for modern technology. The Trafalgar Square Riots were the first scenes of public demonstration caught on film. The newly acclaimed Pathe News Company had caught a snapshot window into the day’s events. The link below will enable you to transport yourself back in time for one minute and ten seconds to take a glimpse into 1913 London.

Courtesy of British Film Institution National Archive [5]




Header Picture- Keir Hardie addressing the Suffragettes’ Free Speech meeting in Trafalgar Square in 1913 –

[1]Nym Mayhall, L. “The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1”30″ Oxford University Press, 2003 p114

[2]Ibid p115

[3]Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXX, Issue 1806, 5 May 1913, Page 3- – Last accessed 13.04.2016

[4] National Library of Australia- – Last accessed 13.04.2016 

[5] Trafalgar Square Riots 1913 – British Film Institute National Archive - – Last accessed 13.04.2016








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