The opening few lines of the ‘Red Flag’ are well known; perhaps less well known is that it is an anthem that had It has its origins in south east London; its author was Jim Connell who lived in Lewisham.
The people’s flag is deepest red
It shrouded of our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts’ blood dyed to every fold
Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath its folds we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here!
Jim Connell was from County Meath and was born on 27 March 1852, the eldest of thirteen children born to Thomas Connell, a farm labourer, and his wife, Ann Shaw. In his youth, he worked as a docker in Dublin until he was sacked for his Trade Union activities.
He followed in the footsteps of millions of other Irish men and women and moved to London in 1875. Connell was politically active from soon after his arrival in London; he claimed to be an original member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) which was founded in 1881. Although, like many he seems to have had unease with the fairly authoritarian approach that Hyndman took to running the organisation – suggesting that he ‘never cared for the management’. Later he became a member of the Independent Labour Party.
It was on his way home from a SDF meeting supporting the 1889 Dock Strike that that Connell (pictured – source) 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.
His relationships are a little confused – he married Catherine Angier in Poplar 1882; they had one child, Norah, and separated when she was thirteen. However, the 1891 census has him married to Cathe Sarah in 1891 and they had had a daughter, Kathleen, earlier that year. There are no mentions of either of them in future censuses – where he is always listed as ‘married.’
Jim Connell seem to have changed jobs and locations several times after that – in the 1901 census he was an insurance agent ‘visiting’ 165 Battersea Rise. By the 1911 census he was living at Hamilton, Edgar Road, Sanderstead, where he was twice fined for poaching – he had published ‘Confessions of a Poacher’ in 1901 – so it is perhaps not surprising that he continued this on the edge of London. He was working as 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.
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, to 22a Stondon Park in Honor Oak – he lived there from around 1915 until his death in 1929 at Lewisham Hospital. He was cremated at Golder’s Green Crematorium in a celebration conducted by Tom Mann.
Those present included the Communist MP for Battersea, Shapurji Saklatvala, the Trades Unionist George Hicks who was to become Labour MP for Woolwich. The coffin was draped with a red banner, and of course, the Red Flag was sung (1).
He is commemorated at his final home by one of Lewisham’s maroon plaques, which was ‘unveiled’, by Gordon Brown in 1989 on the 60th anniversary of his death.
The Daily Herald wrote this appreciation of the song and Connell at the time of his death (2).
- Hendon & Finchley Times 15 February 1929
- Daily Herald 11 February 1929
Census and related data comes via Find My Past