In 1886, clashes between police and strikers during a May Day strike in Chicago left dead on both sides. Despite an international campaign protesting their innocence, four anarchists were hanged for their part in the events. What's that got to do with South East London? Well the Chicago events were an inspiration for the composition of the famous socialist anthem 'The Red Flag', and it was written on the train to New Cross. Arguably no other song written locally has been sung by more people - including of course at the end of Labour Party conferences. It is a song that has soundtracked moments of heroism and of betrayal, glorious deeds and terrible crimes - but praise or blame the singers not the song!
The author, Jim Connell (1852-1929),had worked as a casual docker in Dublin before being blacklisted for his trade union activities. On moving to London he became active in the Irish Land League and the socialist movement, including the Deptford Radical Association. As secretary of the latter, Connell wrote to the playwright George Bernard Shaw inviting him to stand for Parliament in Deptford (he declined, but his journals mention that he met Connell)
Connell wrote the song while heading home from a Social Democratic Federation meeting to 408 New Cross Road, where he lived at the time (he lived there from at least 1888 to 1891, when he was recorded there on the census). Later he lived in Crofton Park/Honor Oak, where a plaque now commemorates himat 22a
Connell wrote books including "Confessions of a Poacher" and "The truth about the Game Laws". He learnt his poaching skills in County Meath, but continued to use them while living in London - he was fined for poaching at Woolwich and Croydon - thanks to Hayes Peoples History for this information).
'Connell, an Irishman, born in 1852, went for a walk in Hyde Park with Martha Spencer, and alarmed her when he began to talk about Jack the Ripper and lunatic asylums. Connell said that when the Ripper was caught he would turn out to be a lunatic. Spencer, of 30 Sherborne Street, Blandford Square, and described as married, went to the police with her suspicions about Connell, and he was brought to Hyde Park police station at 9.40 p.m, 22 November 1888 and questioned. However, when able to prove the correctness of his address and respectability, was allowed to leave. Connell lived at 408 New Cross Road, and was a draper and clothier. He was described as 36 years old, 5ft 9"tall, with a fresh complexion and a long dark brown moustache, he was wearing a soft felt hat, a brown check suit, an ulster with cape, red socks and Oxford shoes' (Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide - Christopher J. Morley, 2005).
Connell died in
|The plaque at 22a Stondon Park Road, SE23|
(photo from Plaques of London)
|Future Prime Minister Gordon Brown unveils the plaque in February 1989|
(photo from Lewisham Heritage)
The Red Flag in New Cross and Deptford
The Red Flag was taken up as a socialist hymn more or less immediately, including in the area where it was written. During the General Strike, the Deptford Labour Choir led the singing of the Red Flag at a strike meeting attended by thousands on
Of course it is part of the repertoire of local socialist choir The Strawberry Thieves, and indeed they sang it in New Cross Road in 2002 during a Radical New Cross and Deptford history walk/talk I gave as part of that year's May Day Festival of Alternatives. I have also sung a version of it to the original tune (see below) at a May Day event at Brockley Social Club, and one drunken night a few years ago sung it with a couple of other people outside the house on Stondon Park Road on the way back from a Lewisham bloggers drink at the Honor Oak Tavern (apologies to the neighbours).
I gather that that at St Paul's Church in Deptford this weekend, the congregation sang Fred Kaan's hymn 'Sing we a Song of High Revolt', written to the tune of The Red Flag (Maryland/Tannebaum) and combining Connell's sentiments with the Magnificat:
'By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat'
My favourite version of The Red Flag is Robert Wyatt's recording from 1982:
Billy Bragg and Dick Gaughan have recorded a version with the original tune:
How I wrote the Red Flag by Jim Connell
Here's Connell's own account of the song's composition, as published in the socialist newspaper The Call in summer 1920. I have reproduced it from South London Record (South London History Workshop, no.2 1987)
The Editor asks me to answer a few questions about “The Red Flag”, and I will do so. The song was first published in the Christmas number of "Justice," 1889, which paper was then edited by Harry Quelch, and it immediately became popular. "Justice" then, was published on Thursday, and the following Sunday the song was sung in both Liverpool and Glasgow.
The Editor wants to know my “source of inspiration” This reminds me that Bruce Glasier wrote to me shortly after it first appeared that the song was a "real inspiration." I cannot, like some of the old Jews, say that I was inspired by the Powers above. Nobody would believe me if I said so. I may, however, try to explain how the song came to be written.
One thousand eight hundred and eighty-nine was the year of the London dock strike. It was the biggest thing of its kind that occurred up to that date, and its leaders, H. H. Champion, Tom Mann and John Burns - aroused the whole of England by the work they did and the victory they won. Much occurred, however, before that to elevate me.
Not many years previously the Irish Land League aroused the democracy of all countries. I am proud to be able to say that I founded the first branch of the Land League which was established in England. This was the Poplar branch and I remained its secretary until the League was suppressed, and was a member of the executive during the whole of the time. Those who played a prominent part in the business never knew when they were going to be arrested and indicted for murder.
About the same time, the Russian Nihilists, the parents of the Bolshevists, won the applause of all lovers of liberty and admirers of heroism. Under the rule of the Czar, which many Englishmen would now re-establish if they could, the best men and women of Russia were deported to Siberia at the rate of twenty thousand a year. Young lady students were taken from their class-rooms, and sent to work in the horrible mines, where their teeth fell out, and the hair fell off their heads in a few mouths. Nobody could possibly fight this hellish rule with more undaunted courage than did the Nihilists, women as well as men.
It was my privilege to know Stepniak, himself one of the greatest of the Terrorists. I was in his company the night he was accidentally killed at a level crossing on a railway. His book, 'Underground Russia’ produced a greater effect on me than any ‘revelation’ ever produced on a devotee. I was indeed "raised above myself" by the dauntless courage of Vera Sassulitch and the "endless abnegation" of Sophie Perovskaya.
There happened also, in 1887, the hanging of the Chicago anarchists. Their innocence was afterwards admitted by the Governor of the State of Illinois. The widow of one of them, Mrs. Parsons, herself more than half a Red Indian, made a, lecturing tour in this country soon afterwards. On one occasion I heard her tell a large audience that when she contemplated the service rendered to humanity, she was glad her husband had died as he did. Yes, I heard Mrs. Parsons say that. The reader may now understand how the souls of all true Socialists were elevated, and how I got into the mood which enabled men to write "The Red Flag."
The editor wants to know how and where it was written. In a train between Charing Cross and New Cross, during a fifteen minutes' journey, the first two stanzas, including the chorus, were completed, and I think I may say the whole of the song mapped out. After I got home, I wrote more, and little remained to be done after that. Next day I made some slight additions and alterations, and the day following I sent it on to Quelch.
As far as I can remember, I never wrote a song in such a short time before or since. Tom Moore confessed that every one of his "Irish Melodies" cost him a "month's hard labour." My experience of writing amorous verses is somewhat similar. I may inform the reader (in strict confidence) that, although I left Dublin at an early age, I had already written a loves song to nearly every barmaid in the city. All those cost me much time and trouble, and were hardly ever appreciated. I suspect I could never rise to the level of the girl's estimate of herself. Woman, lovely woman, "with all thy faults, I love thee still."
There is only one air which suits the words of "The Red Flag," and that is the one I hummed as I wrote it. I mean "The White Cockade." I mean, moreover, the original version known to everybody in Ireland 50 years ago. Since then some fool has altered it by introducing minor notes into it, until it is now nearly a jig. This later version is the one on sale in music shops to-day, and it does not, of course, suit my words.
I suppose this explains why Adolphe Smith Headingley induced people to sing "The Red Flag" to the air of “Maryland." "Maryland" acquired that name during the American War of Secession. It is really an old German Roman Catholic hymn. It is church music, and was, no doubt, composed, and is certainly calculated to remind people of their sins, and frighten them into repentance.
I dare say it is very good music for the purpose for which it was composed, but that purpose was widely different from mine when I wrote "The Red Flag." Every time the song is sung to "Maryland" the words are murdered. The very slightest knowledge of elocution will show that the words are robbed of their proper emphasis and tone value and meaning when sung to that air. The meaning of the music is different from the meaning of the words. Headingley might as well have set the song to "The Dead March in Saul".
Did I, when I wrote it, think that my song would live? Yes. The last line shows I did." "This song shall be our parting hymn." I hesitated a considerable time over this last line. I asked myself whether I was not assuming too much. I reflected, however, that in writing the song I gave expression to not only my own best thoughts and feelings, but the best thoughts and feelings of every genuine Socialist I knew. Anarchists, of course, included. I decided that the last line should stand.
The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.
Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow's vaults its hymns were sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.
It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.
It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.
It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.
With head uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.