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Last updated:02 June 2015

May Day

An international day of celebration and protest, solidarity and struggle

May Day: International workers' day

May 1886 - Chicago, USA - "The Haymarket Affair"

May 1st 1886 had been set by the American Federation of Labour as the date by which they wanted the eight hour day to be introduced. Demonstrations and strikes in support of the campaign reached a peak on that day. Two days later a meeting of strikers in Chicago  was fired on by the local police, killing several and wounding many more. The following day a peaceful rally was held. When the police moved to break it up a bomb was thrown, killing a policeman and the gunfire that followed killed and wounded both police and workers. It was admitted later that most of the police injuries and fatalities were caused by 'friendly fire'.

Eight anarchist leaders were arrested for the bomb throwing, although there was no evidence that they were in any way responsible. They were all found guilty and four were executed, and a fifth committed suicide in prison. These became known as the "Chicago Martyrs".

The American Federation of Labour (AFL) decided to have a mass demonstration on May 1st 1889. AFL president Samuel Gompers wrote to the Congress of the Second International proposing an international agitation for an eight hour working day. The Congress agreed a resolution calling for  "a great international demonstration" in support of the eight-hour day.  It was agreed that the following May 1st would be that day.

May 1st 1890 was the First International Labour Day and demonstrations were held in U.S. the as well as Australia and countries all over Europe, including Britain.

Fraternity : Walter Crane`s drawing for May Day 1899

Fraternity : Walter Crane's illustration for May Day 1899

Each subsequent year more and more cities and countries held rallies and demonstrations.

For example,

1892 - Brazil
1893 - Greece
1896 - Russia
1907 - Chile
1918 - Indonesia
1920 - Egypt
1924 - India
1922 - China
1923 - Japan.

However people have not always been allowed to celebrate May Day freely. In 1929 in Germany, May Day demonstrations were forbidden, and police fired on demonstrations that did take place, killing and injuring many.

In Britain in 1949 and 1950, May Day demonstrations were banned in London, although they still took place.

Some of what are thought of as the older May Day traditions continued, for example dancing around the Maypole and Morris dancing.

Walter Crane was an artist who did much to further the celebration of May Day.  He created beautiful drawings which were used on leaflets to publicise May Day and published as the covers of May Day editions of different newspapers.

Most were in Justice, the paper of the Social-Democratic Federation, but others appeared in the Clarion and Labour Leader, the paper of the Independent Labour Party. These drawings incorporated the earlier concepts of May Day and "Merrie England" with the ideas of international socialism. Some of his well known designs are :

  • The Solidarity of Labour (1888)
  • The Workers' Maypole (1894)
  • A Garland for May Day (1895),
  • Flowers for Labour's May Day (1898).
May day 1947 : Cover of Souvenir programme for Manchester May Day demonstration

May day 1947 : Cover of Souvenir programme for Manchester May Day demonstration

In Britain there was disagreement over whether May the First or the first Sunday in May should be the day of celebration, and there were marches in London on both these days. This was before May Day became a public holiday in 1978, although the holiday is the first Monday in May, not 1st May necessarily.

And there is still variation in the day when the celebrations and demonstrations take place; sometimes it is the Monday, but sometimes the previous Saturday or Sunday.

In the United Kingdom support for May Day demonstrations has varied over the years.  In 1926, on the eve of the General Strike, there were much larger demonstrations than in previous years. 

In 1933 there were marches against fascism and war, and in 1937 against fascism and for support for Spain. Again, in 1938, there were huge demonstrations in London, with the theme of support for the Spanish Republic.

In 1945 the May Day rallies celebrated the overthrow of fascism in Germany and Italy.

Types of resouces held at the Library

There are programmes of May Day events dating from 1926, although not all years are represented, for Burnley, Chesterfield, London, Salford and many other places. From these we can see what are the themes are for that particular year, eg 'The 8 hour day', 'Peace', 'Defeat of Fascism', 'Support for Spain', or 'Public Services'.

We have many flyers advertising these events.  There are also leaflets to be handed out at the events, on various aspects of May Day, or on what is relevant on that particular May Day.

We hold books, pamphlets and newspaper articles about the history and meaning of May Day, throughout the world.  We also have copies of the 1897 and 1907 editions of Walter Crane's Cartoons for the Cause which are compilations of his May Day drawings.


Related Object of the Month

May 2014: May Day leaflet, 1900

May Day 1900 leafletThe ‘May Day International Labour Festival' combined tradition with solidarity of labour. An estimated 12,000 people and 150 associations connected with the Social Democratic Federation and London Trades Council gathered to enjoy maypole dancing, cycling, athletic sports and tug of war, alongside a banner competition, socialist choirs, six platforms featuring ‘all principal speakers of the movement', and ‘The Great International Labour Meeting'.

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