First published in 1894 in Justice, Walter Crane’s The Workers’ Maypole declares ‘the cause of labour is the hope of the world’. Born in Liverpool in 1845, Walter Crane was a prolific illustrator associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and his creations are some of the most enduring visual imaginings of the British socialist movement. The Workers’ Maypole calls for ‘solidarity’ and ‘humanity’, ‘employers’ liability’, ‘eight hours’ and ‘no starving children’. In the centre of the scene Crane’s beflowered May queen welcomes the toilers of the world and carries their banners high. Powerful yet whimsical, The Workers Maypole brings together English folk tradition and the demands of the international labour movement.
In Britain today May Day generally evokes scenes of maypoles and Morris dancers, accompanied by varying degrees of old-fashioned-village-charm, drink, and debauchery, depending on where you celebrate it. An ancient festival of spring, traditional May Day borrows from Pagan, Christian, Gaelic, and Roman symbolism, and is celebrated in various guises across much of Europe and North America. But 1st May is also International Workers Day: an official public holiday held across the world – in Bangladesh, Iraq, Ethiopia, Norway, Honduras, France, Albania, and dozens more – in celebration and in solidarity with workers everywhere. In the UK, May Day is not an official celebration of labour, and the May Day Bank Holiday rarely falls on 1st May.
For militant socialists in the late nineteenth century, however, May Day was a defiant and deliberate stoppage of labour by workers with ‘a message of strife and of hope’. The early origins of workers’ May Day are contested. Rosa Luxembourg maintained that it was begun in Australia in 1856 by workers striking in favour of an 8-hour day. Alexander Trachtenberg claimed the demands which led to the instigation of Mayday were first propagated in 1806 by striking cordwainers in Philadelphia. Long lineages of workers’ resistance have provided an array of available origin myths for a demonstration that both celebrates and commemorates the international struggle of labour. What is certain is that workers’ May Day was born out of the demand for a shorter working day, and that May Day officially became an annual international celebration following the Haymarket Affair of 1886.
On 4th May 1886 seven police officers and four civilians were killed when a bomb was thrown at an otherwise peaceful demonstration in Haymarket Square, Chicago. The demonstration had been organised in support of the 8-hour working day as part of a general strike begun on 1st May, and to protest the killing of seven unarmed strikers the day before. The bomb-thrower was never discovered but in the legal proceedings that followed eight anarchists (only one of whom had actually been present at the demo) were convicted of conspiracy. Seven were sentenced to death and one to 15 years in prison. Two of the seven later had their sentences commuted to terms of life in prison; another committed suicide in jail rather than face execution. The other four were hanged on 11th November 1887. The sentencing provoked outrage from workers’ movements and labour organisations around the world, resulting in widespread protests, rallies, and demonstrations. In 1890 – following the decision passed by the 1889 Paris Congress of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs – May Day was inaugurated as an international celebration of labour, and a protest in solidarity with workers’ struggles around the world.
Today marks its 130th year.
In The Workers’ Maypole, Crane combines the symbolism of the traditional May Day maypole with the symbols of the international workers movement: the central tenets of international socialism are literally wrapped around a rural English maypole. In the accompanying poem Crane calls on workers to unite – ‘Be ye birds of the spring, of one feather… Together pull strong and united’. Crane’s spring festival celebrates the renewal and reawakening of labour, and the strength of workers, united in their cause and unwavering in their demand for dignity. The title of the illustration describes the piece as an ‘offering’ – alluding to the early Pagan traditions of May Day – and what Crane offers is an endorsement of international socialism.
Walter Crane is often thought of as a purveyor of Englishness, particularly one associated with medieval, rural, and religious allegorical tropes. He is often taken as a symbol of English socialism – a socialism distinct from its fiery continental contemporaries, and one that looked instead to a distinctly English, pre-industrial past, of Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England brand, for inspiration. Indeed, in The Workers’ Maypole the workers dance merrily in an idyllic countryside, dressed in classicized tunics, while the brandisher of the garland in A Garland for the Workers frolics bare foot in the grass. Crane’s political artworks often incorporated a female figure, draped and surrounded by heroic labourers and the bounty of nature. Paul Ward attributes these recurring draped women and nostalgic rural scenes to Crane’s love of England. He emphasises Crane’s ‘idealised interpretation of socialism’, and his attachment to ‘the symbolism of St George’.
This was certainly the case. However, these draped women were also very much in the likeness of the French revolutionary Goddess of Liberty or the figure of Marianne, and in The Workers’ Maypole the May queen wears the Phrygian cap of liberty, as well as the traditional floral crown. Crane made reference to labour struggles around the world, notably in Labours’ May Day, and produced various commemorative pieces for their anniversaries. Certainly, Crane romanticised an English past, but he also adopted the symbolism of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the Chicago martyrs in his work. And for May Day he brought all these characters and symbols together to relay the demands of the day, and to advocate for workers rights now. The visible internationalism in his brand of socialist utopianism show that his ‘idealised view of English history’ did not preclude him from seeking inspiration, both artistic and political, from beyond the nation, and from both past and present.
Crane’s May Day etchings and illustrations provide striking visual representation of the ways in which internationalist symbols and slogans were woven into existing British radical traditions, and the comfortable co-habitation of British and foreign symbols and traditions within British socialism in this period. Crane shows that despite its oft-emphasised exceptionalism, British socialism was made through the incorporation and appropriation of both native and foreign ideas, symbols, and traditions.
The English past was hugely important to English socialists, but so too was their identification with foreign pasts and traditions. Acknowledging one does not exclude the other: British socialists’ search for a universal set of symbols to connect them to each other and to comrades in other parts of the world was always pursued in tandem with the articulation of specific regional and national socialist identities. As part of their search for inspiration and legitimisation, and in self-styling their foundation myths as individuals and as part of political communities, British socialists appropriated rituals, ideas and mythologies from within and beyond Britain. These were articulated as part of an oft-fluid set of references to historic and deliberately vague examples of the workers (or the people, or the folk) rising up against their common foe – and the folklores grew all the more powerful with each retelling. All of these allusions – old and new, foreign and native, national and international – could be brought together once a year and, by the hands of workers relieved of their hard labour for a day of celebration and defiance, jubilantly woven around the May Day maypole.
Laura C. Forster is an editorial fellow at HWO and a post-doc at Birkbeck, working on progressive ideas and internationalism in early twentieth-century Britain. She is writing a book on the political exiles of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the longer intellectual and cultural afterlives of the Commune in Britain, provisionally titled The Paris Commune in Britain: Radicals, Refugees, and Revolutionaries since 1871. Laura is interested in histories of transnational radicalism, informal cultures of political and intellectual exchange, the social history of ideas, political exile, and queer spaces past and present. She tweets @lauracforster