July 2016 – ‘In Memory of the Hyde Park Railings’ print, 1866

In Memory of the Hyde Park Railings, 1866July marks the 150th anniversary since the Hyde Park Railings Affair when an estimated 200,000 people tore down the gates and invaded Hyde Park. Organised by the Reform League, what turned into a fracas was originally meant to be a nonviolent meeting held in Hyde Park aiming to demonstrate against the failure of Gladstone’s Reform Bill in March of the same year.

The Reform League were established a year earlier in 1865 and campaigned for manhood suffrage as well as political reform. Support for the League quickly grew across London and the UK and meetings were often held in pubs, providing a base of support for left-wing reorganisation. The failed Bill in March 1866 angered those who supported reform and agitation flared even more when controversy over the Bill brought down the Liberal government in June. Increasing momentum for their cause, the Reform League organised a number of demonstrations throughout June and July, two in Trafalgar Square were carried out peaceably.

The 23rd July meeting however was fated to be more divisive when the Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, forbade the planned meeting in Hyde Park and issued police to not allow Hyde Park Riotprotestors into the Park.  At Marble Arch, the procession was confronted by chained gates and a line of policemen blocking their entry. Three days of skirmishes ensued before one noticed that the railings would stand no pressure and started to sway them back and forth. When he was joined by the masses the railings fell and people flooded in to Hyde Park.

July’s Object of the Month is the woodcut broadside above which presents a satirical take on the event. The railings are commemorated at a ‘funeral’, complete with a hearse and mourning policemen. The reference to Mayne is a nod to Sir Richard Mayne, the first Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, famous for his hard line morality and deference to the upper classes. Mayne took personal charge of suppressing the Hyde Park demonstration and called for military support from the Horse Guards Blues. However, when they arrived the crowds cried ‘Three cheers for the Guards- the people’s Guards!’ and the soldiers merely manoeuvred at a distance, despite Mayne and others being stoned by the mob.

Subsequently, Mayne had little choice but to let the meeting go ahead as planned. The protest was widely reported and made the Reform League and their aims a hotly debated topic at meetings and demonstrations around the country, allowing the League to increase its membership dramatically. The campaigning of the Reform League cumulated in the Reform Act of 1867 which extended the franchise to more (but not all) working class men. It disbanded in 1869.

We don’t know who the original artist was; ‘Pasquin’is a frequently used pseudonym by caricaturists and literary satirists. It is a term that derives from the Italian, and was in widespread nineteenth century use as a general term for lampoons, and thus adopted by a number of artists unwilling to give away their true identity.

This print was bought by the museum using money from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme and will be going on display in Main Gallery One over the summer.