The size of the London crowd: from the Chartists in 1848 to Trump in 2018

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2018 by kmflett

The size of the London crowd: from the Chartists in 1848 to Trump in 2018

There was been speculation on the size of the crowd that marched in London recently for a People’s Vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, or possibly a 2nd Referendum.

While much reporting (and there was a lot, bad news for Remainiac conspiracy theorists who think the media is ignoring them) noted the protest was a sizeable 100,000 people some have claimed 500,000. I think perhaps not.

The Guardian published a piece in the summer of 2016 suggesting that there is a sociological formula for working out the size of crowds. Unfortunately crowds are comprised not of statistics but real people who come and go and do all manner of things to frustrate an understanding of numbers attending

It is often taken that the police underplay numbers on protests [which just occasionally has caused the left to slightly overplay them in response] unless they were seeking to justify a particularly high overtime bill in which case they exaggerated how many were there.

That said the police did have an official way of estimating numbers which they used for example on the Stop the War demonstration in London on 15th February 2003. This involved counting the number of people passing a certain point in a set amount of time and then extrapolating the size of the protest from that.

Government austerity cuts in expenditure on the police seem to have ended the practice.

It was one way of judging numbers but a moment’s thought suggests issues with it. How is it known if the count is taken when the demonstration is at peak numbers for example? How is account taken for the fact that people join and leave demonstrations throughout their duration?

The argument about the size of demonstrations goes right the way back to the start of the modern movement.

On Monday 10th April 1848 the Chartists gathered on Kennington Common to protest for the vote. It was the first protest ever to be photographed and the photo survives.

The problem is, what does it show in terms of size? It is taken from outside the Common and it is thought that it was taken well before the numbers at the protest peaked. Further in those pre-amplification days there was not one platform but several so people could hear speakers around the Common making estimates of numbers even more difficult.

The press the following day played down numbers at the demonstration with the exception of the Chartist Northern Star, which was the largest circulation paper of the day.

Subsequent analysis of how many demonstrators could be in Kennington Common for each square foot of grass has suggested 100,000 attended- a huge protest for 1848. It may well have been larger but not the 600,000 Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor claimed.

That is one way of working out the size at a particular moment of a demonstration. If for example Trafalgar Square is filled with a protest as it arrives a rough idea of numbers can be gained because it is a fixed space. Except of course that entirely sensible modern safety requirements mean a lot less people can pack into the Square than might have been the case 100 years ago.


Hyde Park is much more complicated because while it is a fixed space it is very much bigger.

Recent decades have seen some very large demonstrations, primarily in central London because there are so many people already in the area who can attend with little travel needed. CND and Stop the War have held huge protests as have the TUC and health service campaigners

All these one suspects will be dwarfed by the anti-Trump protest on 13th July in central London. Let’s hope many of those who marched on Europe are also there to experience a genuinely huge protest


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