Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child's Play
Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play

Mike Wood - December 8, 2017

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The red flag raised above Merthyr. BBC.

10 – Merthyr Rising, 1831

Once the idea of revolution is out in the open, it is a notoriously difficult one to control. Certainly, one of the least successful ways of controlling revolution is to smash it head on, as that tends to turn the people among whom the idea is fermenting against the government even more. Britain, perhaps more than any country, as averted and avoid revolutions over the centuries through a combination of coercion and co-option: the English Revolution, a revolution against the King’s right to absolute rule, was eventually defeated and replaced by more absolute rule, before the idea of constitutional monarchy was adopted anyway, while the various uprisings against the Corn Laws, the unrepresentative nature of Parliament and the centralisation of power were all crushed, only for large swaths of their demands to be taken into the mainstream. Thus, England has maintained the idea of not having a revolution while actually having several.

That isn’t to say that the tactics for dealing with dissent have become much more subtle over time. The tendency of the British state to pile into its own people has always been there, and few times was it so starkly displayed as in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil in 1831.

Merthyr, like much of South Wales, made its money from coal mining. The market for coal was always there – people always needed to keep warm and factories always needed fuel – but the work was simple and casualisation of labour was always a problem. Unemployment – or at least, underemployment – was common and many families suffered with usury, buying food on credit when times were hard in the hope that they could pay their debts when work was available. In 1831, the owner of the local ironworks, William Crawshay, presided over workers who were increasingly angered by a lack of work and commensurate falling wages – the logic of supply and demand dictating that, when men were unemployed, those with jobs could be paid less in the knowledge that they had nowhere else to sell their labour.

This hardly endeared Crawshay to the local population on in May, 1831, the workers began to revolt. They demonstrated for reform in the streets, roping in other colleagues from nearby towns and villages to join their protests. By the end of the month, the whole area was in revolt against the government and the factory bosses. The mob invaded the debtor’s court and destroyed all the records of usury, freeing themselves from what they owed. They shouted slogans against the King and raised the red flag over Merthyr – reportedly the first time that that symbol had ever been used.


At the start of June they moved to bring other workers out on strike and into revolt, while the government in London decided to call in the army to restore order. The soldiers, faced with over seven thousand workers, fired and killed more than 20 protesters. Still, however, they were forced back. The workers took control of the town, formed paramilitary defence units and commandeered arms from the Highland Regiment that had been sent to pacify the town. Eventually, after over a week of mob rule, 450 soldiers managed to retake Merthyr. The retribution was swift: rioters were imprisoned, others were sentenced to be sent to Australia and two were hanged.

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The Preston Strike Riot. Spartacus Educational.

11 – Preston Strike, 1842

The great cleft in British society was now clear to see. As the industrial advances in the cities drew in migrants from the countryside and created a huge, concentrated underclass, the rich grew richer on the profits. A society that had been largely rural – estimates are that 80% of the population lived off the land before Industrial Revolution – had become the first in history to be made up of predominantly city-dwellers. This caused huge, unheard of problems that the ruling classes struggle to deal with. How could they organise food and sanitation for such a concentration of people? How did they maintain order when faced with numbers like they had never seen before?

In the North, the conditions were particularly harsh and particularly stark. The city of Manchester had doubled every ten years for five decades running and the most of those newcomers had been rural, illiterate and unskilled. The damp climate that had made the city so perfect for cotton weaving – Manchester was (and is) so rainy that cotton never dried out and therefore was less of a fire risk – was also perfect for spreading diseases, which caused periodic epidemics among the population. Yet, despite the hardships of the city, the merchants and mill owners made untold riches from the profits of the labour. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Manchester in 1835:

“From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilization works its miracles and civilized man is turned almost into a savage.”

Understandably, the workers were not too keen on their hard work fattening the already rich, while they remained in poverty. The average working class person had no vote, little economic or social mobility and a short life expectancy. They organised the so-called “People’s Charter”, a list of demands handed to the government, in 1838, asking for universal suffrage and political reform. It was rejected out of hand. The workers regrouped and created a second charter in 1842, this one signed by three million people, which was again rejected by Parliament. The Northern Star, a radical newspaper, published this withering commentary on Parliament’s decision:

“Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the ‘House’ has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.”

Many had tired of asking nicely. A huge wave of strikes broke out all over industrial areas, combining the goals of the Chartists with economic demands such as wage rises, a ten hour working day and lower rents. On Friday, August 12, 1842, three thousand people met in the northern city of Preston and began to go from factory to factory, pulling the workers out to join their protest. By Saturday, almost the whole town had ground to a halt and the major mill owner – who was also the town mayor – Samuel Horrocks called in the 72nd Highlanders, an army regiment stationed in the town.

Horrocks addressed the crowd and read the Riot Act, proclaiming the demonstration illegal. When the crowd did not disperse, the soldiers opened fire and shot 8 protestors. The mayor was thought to have given the order to fire, with the Northern Star writing:

“People could scarcely believe their senses. Riots had happened before in Preston but never before had the military been ordered to fire. Another attachment of the 7th Rifle Brigade, about 150 in number were marched into town, and the 72nd were marched out, no doubt to stem popular fury, it being the almost unanimous opinion that the Mayor ought to be tried for wilful murder.”

Of course, nobody was ever found guilty of the shootings and, indeed, many demonstrators found themselves imprisoned for their actions.

Worse Than the Red Wedding: 12 Real British Massacres that Make Game of Thrones Look Like Child’s Play
The march that turned into Bloody Sunday. BBC.

12 – Bloody Sunday, 1972

The most recent massacre on our list takes us back over the Irish Sea. The general attitude of the British state towards the Irish people might have changed since the Siege of Drogheda, but extreme brutality has rarely been far away. In the Troubles, the civil war that engulfed the North of Ireland for the latter third of the 20th Century, there was one incident that stands out among all others as the worst excess of the British Army against people who were – theoretically at least – British citizens.

The people of the City of Derry were no strangers to protest: they had successfully ejected the British Army from several areas of the city in 1968. The principle concern of the Catholic majority of the city was the continued domination of the Unionist, Protestant minority over vital issues like housing and infrastructure. Elections in the Northern Irish statelet were gerrymandered so that Protestant votes always carried the day and, inspired by the civil rights struggles in the United States, the people organised their own campaigns for equal voting rights and better housing provisions. It is worth mentioning that, when these campaigns started in 1968, there was little tinge of Irish nationalism or republicanism about the protests: the people of Derry wanted to be treated like everyone else in Britain first and foremost, before any discussion on Irish nationalist politics.

When the civil rights movement had been repelled violently by the police, a military struggle began that escalated and escalated to the point at which the British Army was called into the streets. The Catholic civilians actually welcomed the soldiers, as they were seen as neutral and fair, compared to the Protestant-dominated Police. That did not last. In 1971, internment was introduced for anyone suspected of being a member of a paramilitary organisation, which in practice saw hundreds of Catholic men imprisoned without trial. This swelled the ranks of the paramilitaries further, as well as sparking social struggles such as demonstrations and strikes. It was on one of these protests that our final massacre would occur.
On January 30, 1972, a protest against internment set off from the Creggan, a Catholic district of Derry. It was over ten thousand strong and headed for the city centre, but was stopped by Army barricades. The march redirected towards the Bogside, another Catholic area, but a group peeled off and began pelting the soldiers with stones. The Parachute Regiment, the soldiers in question, responded with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. This was a relatively normal scene in protests in Ireland. What was to follow was not normal.

A group of soldiers in a nearby building opened fire on unarmed civilians, hitting two. The Paras then attempt to arrest several protesters by forcing their way into the Bogside, knocking several over with their armoured cars and assaulting anyone they caught. They later shot and killed people near a barricade that had been erected, including shooting people in the back who were fleeing from the scene. Within ten minutes, 26 people had been shot and 13 lay dead. Most were teenagers.

Don Mullan, who was a young boy at the time, remembered:

“The riot that ensued by Bogside standards, particularly when you compare it to the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, was quite minor. One feels if it had been allowed to peter out as the evening came on then the atrocity that followed would never have been…I reached the barricade and I remember one paratrooper, probably only about 20 or 30 yards away from me standing in the middle of Rossville Street. He had a rubber bullet gun and he fired that towards barricade. And then I remember another paratrooper diagonally across the road from me, in a kneeling position, his rifle aimed.

“At that stage I had a sense this was more than a snatch squad. And then the unmistakable crack of high velocity SLR rifles began to pierce the air. Literally two and a half feet from me I heard one young man cry out and he was Michael Kelly and he fell to the ground. At that point things become quite confused in my mind. There was a lot of panic and a lot of fear. I can recall a bullet hitting the wall above my head, quite high above my head. At that stage I came to my senses and began to run.”

The events of Bloody Sunday were initially covered up by the British state, with all present telling an inquiry that those that they shot were armed. It took until 2010 for the United Kingdom government to apologise for the massacre and to accept that their soldiers had been in the wrong.

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