Bloody Sunday took place in London on 13 November 1887, when marchers protesting about unemployment and coercion in Ireland, as well as demanding the release of MP William O’Brien, clashed with the Metropolitan Police and the British Army. The demonstration was organised by the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League. Violent clashes took place between the police and demonstrators, many “armed with iron bars, knives, pokers and gas pipes”. A contemporary report noted that 400 were arrested and 75 persons were badly injured, including many police, two policemen being stabbed and one protester bayonetted.
Gladstone’s espousal of the cause of Irish home rule had split the Liberal Party and made it easy for the Conservatives to gain a majority in the House of Commons. The period from 1885 to 1906 was one of Tory dominance, with short intermissions. Coercion Acts were the answer of British governments perturbed by rural unrest in Ireland, and they involved various degrees of suspension of civil rights. Although one purpose of the 13 November demonstration was to protest about the handling of the Irish situation by the Conservative government of Lord Salisbury, it had a much wider context.
The Long Depression, starting in 1873 and lasting almost to the end of the century, created difficult social conditions in Britain—similar to the economic problems that drove rural agitation in Ireland. Falling food prices created rural unemployment, which resulted in both emigration and internal migration. Workers moved to the towns and cities in thousands, eroding employment, wages and working conditions. By November 1887, unemployed workers’ demonstrations from the East End of London had been building up for more than two years. There had already been clashes with the police and with the members of upper class clubs. Trafalgar Square was seen symbolically as the point at which the working-class East End met the upper-class West End of London, a focus of class struggle and an obvious flashpoint.
This attracted the attention of the small but growing socialist movement – the Marxists of both the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and Socialist League, and the reformist socialists of the Fabian Society. Police and government attempts to suppress or divert the demonstrations also brought in the radical wing of the Liberal Party and free speech activists from the National Secular Society.
The working class in British cities contained many people of Irish birth or origin. London, like industrial areas of northern England and western Scotland, had a large Irish working class, concentrated in the East End, where it rubbed shoulders with a diverse population, including increasing numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe.