Today is May Day and along with other socialist anthems like the ‘Internationale’, the ‘Red Flag’ will be sung in numerous gatherings around the globe.
Look ’round, the Frenchman loves its blaze, The sturdy German chants its praise, In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung Chicago swells the surging throng.
It has its origins in south east London; its author was Jim Connell who lived in Lewisham. Connell was from County Meath, but after having become ‘blacklisted’ for attempting to unionise dockers in Dublin, he followed in the footsteps of millions of other Irish men and women and moved to London in 1875. He joined Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and it was on his way home from a SDF meeting supporting the 1889 Dock Strike that he wrote the words. The inspiration was a guard’s red flag that he saw from the carriage window on his train journey home from Charing Cross to New Cross. Connell linked the words to the music of an old Scottish Jacobite song, “The White Cockade”, but the tune of the German-language carol “O Tannenbaum”, which has the same metre, was used from 1895 and quickly became the accepted version. At the time of writing the ‘Red Flag’, he was living at 408 New Cross Road, the 1895 Kelly’s Directory has him as a travelling draper. He had a brush with the law whilst there, as the Transpontine blog cleverly deduced, he was briefly a suspect for the Jack the Ripper murders. He changed jobs and locations several times after that – in the 1901 census he was an insurance agent living at 165 Battersea Rise. By the 1911 census he was living at Hamilton, Edgar Road, Sanderstead, where he was twice fined for poaching and Secretary to the Workingmen’s Legal Aid Society. Most biographies have him working for that organisation until the end of his life. However, his bankruptcy proceedings in 1913 describe it as being ‘lately’ his business. Probably as a result of his bankruptcy, he moved back to Lewisham where he is commemorated at his final home by one of Lewisham’s maroon plaques at 22a Stondon Park in Honor Oak – he lived there from around 1915 until his death in 1929 at Lewisham Hospital.
Then raise the scarlet standard high. Within its shade we’ll live and die, Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the red flag flying here.
Not bad for a 17 minute trip ……