From Manchester to Tolpuddle the martyrs of our movement have been humble people. They neither sought the limelight nor found it. They were unknown except to a close circle of friends and family. They became famous not because of their ambitions nor their vanity, but because of their deaths.
Such was a man called Alfred Linnell. No one knows very much about him. He earned a pittance by copying out legal documents. On 21 November 1887 he went down to Trafalgar Square to join the fighters for free speech in the week after Bloody Sunday, when a great demonstration had been broken up by police truncheons.
While he was standing, unarmed, and unsuspecting, by the side of the crowd, a posse of police, who had orders to keep Trafalgar Square free of demonstrators “by whatever force was necessary”, charged straight into him, breaking his neck with the horses’ hooves.
The police openly despised the people they were charging. They saw them, as the Times leader put it on the day after Bloody Sunday, as “all that is weakest, most worthless and most vicious in the slums of a great city”. These were the “sweepings”, which deserved only to be swept.
But the poor of London flocked to commemorate Alfred Linnell. Tens of thousands of socialists, Irish republicans, radicals, feminists and working people of no party and no persuasion joined in what Edward Thompson described as “the greatest united demonstration which London had seen”. The streets were lined all the way to Bow cemetery with crowds of sympathetic onlookers. The few rather shamefaced policeman who dared to appear were greeted with cries of: “That’s your work”. Very, very few of that crowd knew Alfred Linnell. Yet they hailed him, in the words of William Morris at Linnell’s funeral, as “our brother and our friend”.
He was a representative of the tens of thousands who had nothing, and when they took to the streets to demand something were ridden down and battered by the forces of law and order.Paul Foot, 1979