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Clerkenwell Green: Why this small patch of land is venue for massive May Day rallies

PUBLISHED: 15:33 02 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:33 02 May 2017

Yesterday's May Day rally in Clerkenwell Green. Picture: Catherine Davison

Yesterday's May Day rally in Clerkenwell Green. Picture: Catherine Davison

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On Monday, protesters and campaigners gathered at Clerkenwell Green for the May Day rally - as they have done since every year since 1890.

The 1974 May Day rally from Clerkenwell Green. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe 1974 May Day rally from Clerkenwell Green. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Islington as a borough has a history of left-wing politics. But Clerkenwell Green in particular has a huge tradition of radicalism.

It’s the location of the Marx Memorial Library, after all. It was a meeting point for the Communist Party in the early 20th century.

The Green’s lefty heritage goes way back to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. It was where the London Corresponding Society spoke out against the impending Napoleonic Wars. And in 1887, it was the starting point for a huge protest demanding freedom for Ireland.

So there was only one destination for the first May Day rally – organised by the Social Democratic Foundation to demand an eight-hour working day – in 1890.

The 1974 May Day rally from Clerkenwell Green. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe 1974 May Day rally from Clerkenwell Green. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

As Rob Smith, of the Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding Association, says: “It was always going to be Clerkenwell Green. It has a really long tradition of protest, going back to the Middle Ages, so it was the logical place to start the worker’s rally.

“The thing about Clerkenwell Green is that it was only a little patch of land in between Priory Church of the Order of St John and St Mary’s Nunnery. That meant it wasn’t big enough to develop or build houses on, but it was big enough for people to gather for demonstrations.

“It’s also within walking distance of central London, making it an ideal place to start a march. All these factors remain relevant to today’s May Day rallies.”

Other notable May Day rallies include 1919, when campaigners called for British troops to return from Russia after being sent to destablise the socialist Bolshevik government, and 1969 when women from Ford’s Dagenham plant marched for equal pay.

The theme continued on Monday, with main speaker John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn’s key ally as Labour leader, using the rally to call for a new charter for workers’ rights.

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