Importance of Victorian funeral revealed

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14 Feb 2014

Newly discovered details of the funeral of a protester trampled to death by a police horse in 1887, have turned the event into one of Victorian time’s most significant moments, according to a University of Manchester historian.

Bloody Sunday 1887

Dr Peter Yeandle says over 100,000 people paid tribute to Alfred Linnell – one of three killed in London’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ protests against new laws which curtailed freedom of speech and the right to assembly.

But the significance of the funeral, he says, has been consciously written out of history because of its uncomfortable reading for Left and Right-wing commentators.

Linnell, a law clerk, apparently fell close to the famous writer and radical George Bernard Shaw, though it’s not known if the 41-year-old was a bystander or a protester.

The controversy was heightened when the body was misplaced – or at worst swapped – by pathologists conducting an autopsy for an inquest whose inconclusive verdict split the press.

But the barely remembered funeral – which was attended by an eclectic mix of Socialists, Irish nationalists, unemployed, Christians and radicals – should rank alongside other landmark radical events, says Dr Yeandle.

The funeral’s organisers planned the event to emulate the funeral of the Duke of Wellington, which had been another hugely significant moment in 1852.

Famed artist and writer William Morris, women’s campaigner and socialist Annie Besant and two Liberal MPs were among the pall bearers.

Morris also published a song book illustrated by the celebrated cartoonist Walter Crane.

And the service, which took place after a procession from the Strand to Bow Cemetery  -was presided over by a vicar famously sacked by the Church of England for being too radical.

Dr Yeandle came across the funeral while conducting research into a variety of newspaper archives from  the 1880s, including the Manchester Guardian, the Graphic and Saturday Review.

The historian, who studies the interrelated histories of protest and Christianity, said: “It’s quite remarkable that even though there were many references to this funeral in the press at the time and Linnell was widely known as the "socialist martyr"; so little has been written about it since.

“This is likely to be because it makes uncomfortable reading for both Left and Right wingers.

“Christian Socialists were very prominent in the organisation of the funeral and left-wing historians tend to view Christianity as softening protest, rather than giving it its edge which happened here.

“And because the funeral was entirely peaceful – probably down to a softly softly approach from the police whose conduct was being closely scrutinised - the Right haven’t been able to criticise the protest movement.”

He added: “Unlike Wellington’s funeral, this was not funded or organised by the state, so it’s remarkable that it captured the public’s imagination in the way it did.

“It’s a shame that its significance has been written out of history and I hope this research will help to correct that.”

Notes for editors

Images are available

Dr Yeandle is available for comment

William Morris’s Death song:
We asked them for a life of toilsome earning.
They bade us bide their leisure for our bread, We craved to speak to tell our woeful learning We come back speechless, bearing back our dead

Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay, But one and all if they would dusk the day.


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