John Burns, Clapham (London)

Blue plaque erected in 1950 by London County Council at 110 Clapham Common North Side, Clapham, London SW4 9SJ, London Borough of Wandsworth

At an early age, Londoner John Burns predicted that he would one day become an MP. Despite losing his father young and growing up in great poverty, John overcame these disadvantages to realise most of his ambitions.

Having left school at ten he was arrested in 1877 for breaking the law on public speaking on Clapham Common. His court-room defence impressed a young woman, Martha Gale, who later married him. He became a well-known orator and notorious as the ‘man with the red flag’ which he carried to distinguish himself.

He was sent to prison for six weeks after the riot in Trafalgar Square in 1887 (known as Bloody Sunday). As such he was easily the best-known socialist in the UK in 1889 and the man that Tillett understood would be needed if the dock strike was to be victorious.

“He had a voice like a megaphone,” said Tillett. “He used this voice to good effect in the early days of the strike, when he marched with the other demonstrators round the docks, and, standing on the backs of those who accompanied him, peered over the walls of the gates which barred his entry to the Company’s premises, to summon the men who remained at work to join the strike.”

At one point, Burns made 36 speeches in three days during the strike. He became known to the dockers as ‘The Man in the Straw Hat.’ This was another example of his self-publicity that came in especially useful when he was trying to keep the peace between the strikers and the police. The hat was thrown into the River Thames after a party on board a launch celebrating the end of the strike.

Burns became MP for Battersea in 1892, and was one of the first Independent Labour Members. His strong independent streak saw him go his own way and in December 1905 he became President of the Local Government Board in the new Liberal Government. This made him the first working-class man to gain Cabinet rank.

In 1914 he became President of the Board of Trade, but his opposition to the First World War led to him resigning from public life and spending the rest of his life collecting books on London and the River Thames, which he called ‘liquid history.’

He died in the same year as Ben Tillett (1943), but whereas Ben was popular with many of his colleagues the same was not true of John Burns.

Yet as the historian G.D.H. Cole said of him “with all his faults Burns did big things in his day. The Great Dock Strike of 1889 would almost certainly have been lost had he not been there to lead it.”

Taken from The Great Dock Strike of 1889