The Battle of Ham Run

The unusually named Battle of Ham Run occured in 1887 following a speech by anarchist communist agitators James Fred Henderson and Charles Mowbray. Its exact date is stated as either 14th or 17th January, depending on the source, but is most commonly refered to as occuring on the 14th. Unfortunately there are not many details about exactly what happened but what we can find is related below.

Henderson had arrived in Norwich in 1886, establishing a local branch of the then-nascent Socialist League (SL), an organisation founded as a revolutionary dissident splinter from the more moderate Social Democratic Federation. Charles Mowbray was secretary for this same branch, having arrived in Norwich he same year as Henderson following growing anarchist repression by police in London, where Mowbray had worked alongside William Morris to set up the original SL branch in 1884. Together Henderson and Mowbray built a strong SL presence in Norwich, evident in the regular meetings of unemployed persons organised by the Norwich SL branch that saw large numbers in attendence.

Together, one day in mid-January during one of many waves of high unemployment affected England at the time, one of these speeches turned from fiery rhetoric to incendiery action. Henderson and Mowbray set themselves up in the Haymarket for one of their regular rallies and a crowd of more than 500 people gathered. He derson and Mowbray denounced the Mayor of Norwich and encouraged rebellion, stating that it is not a crime to take food if it is wanted or needed.

Riled and raged, the crowd poured on to Gentleman’s Walk and began marching towards Guildhall, smashing shop windows, looting food, damaging a bank, and – according to some sources – attacking the mansions of the rich on the way. (This latter accusation seems anecdotal at best, though, due to a lack of residential properties along Gentleman’s Walk.) It is during the looting of one such shop that the incident received its name: the first copper to arrive at the scene noted that

I saw a ham run over the heads of the crowd

In other words, a ham had been taken and was being passed above the heads of the people in the crowd. Imagine the ham being crowdsurfed to the back.

There is no information on who exactly the participants in this crowd were, with no information available about those involved beyond Henderson and Mowbray and two other men named in court proceedings: H Hurrell and H Hall. All four were brought to trial and found guilty on 21st January 1887. Mowbray received nine months on the treadmill in Norwich Castle; Henderson received four months on the treadmill in Norwich Castle; Hurrell received one month’s hard labour; Hall received one week’s hard labour. The court itself states the trial as being for:

…riotously and tumultuously assembing to disturb the public peace, and with doing damage to the windows of the bank of Messrs Lacon, to the shop window of Mr Bonser, and to the shop of Mr Ladell…

During sentencing it appears the Judge was eagre to emphasise the wellbeing of the people of Norwich and how well the city cares for its workers in an attempt to undercut the growing rage of socialist and anarchist sentiment. Florence Boos’ annotations to William Morris’ journals present a brief excerpt from the Eastern Evening News’ 2000 word report on the riot.

. . . there was no town where the working class were more cared for. . . than Norwich. . . He was happy to know that in this country there was no reason why anyone should starve. . . In most large towns there were always a certain numbers of loafers who would rather be idling on a very small pittance than be flourishing on handiwork… Now he hoped that the working men of Norwich would take warning from that which had happened.

None of this stopped either Henderson or Mowbray from continuing their political activities, though. Henderson was arrested soon after his release, in July 1887, for heckling Lord Salisbury on the latter’s visit to Norwich, whilst Mowbray went on to write for The Commonweal and was arrested in 1892 for his ongoing espousal of violent revolution.

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