- Islington as a Place of Refuge – Tour Stop 1
- Significance: Location of rally for Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth
By 1848, a storm of discontent swept through European states, culminating in a series of republican revolts against monarchies. Beginning in Sicily, most of Europe tried, and failed, to implement a political revolution. The aftermath left many political activists repressed, disillusioned and often in need of refuge. A key figure of the Hungarian revolt was Lajos Kossuth, whose exile landed him in London for many years. His arrival to Britain was celebrated locally, with a rally held in Copenhagen Fields in Islington attended by 25,000-50,000 supporters. No longer ‘fields’, the site is now home to Caledonian Park and the Cally Clock Tower.
Count István Széchenyi, politician and champion of the Hungarian Reform Age, made four long stays in England, and wrote in his diary, “In my opinion three things must be chiefly learnt from England – the constitution, the machines, and horse-breeding”. The ideas of constitutionalism and liberty resonated with Hungarian progressives and Britain presented a beacon of hope for revolutionaries in the nineteenth century. With no real immigration restrictions, a free press and the rights to free speech and assembly, vast numbers of continental radicals would pursue a new life in Britain.
By 1852, over 7,000 political activists would seek sanctuary in Britain, with most settling in and around London. Amongst them was a key member of the Hungarian independence movement, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth arrived in England on 23 October 1851 after being exiled from Hungary the year before. Born on September 19, 1802 in Monok, Hungary, Lajos Kossuth was from a noble, but not wealthy family. He studied at the Protestant academy of Sárospatak, but became frustrated by his narrow life after his education. In 1832 his employer sent him as a substitute delegate to the national Diet (parliament) in Pozsony, now Bratislava. Here, Kossuth was introduced to ideas of political reformation and he developed his own philosophy on political radicalism for Hungary.
Of the utmost importance to Lajos Kossuth was national liberty. After a long period of Turkish occupation, Hungary was ruled from Vienna by the Habsburg dynasty from 1718. No social or economic growth was possible, in Kossuth’s eyes, until the Hungarian people could govern themselves. Without the ability to present his ideas to the Diet, Kossuth sought to encourage public engagement in politics via descriptions of the Diet’s proceedings in the form of colourful ‘political pamphlets’. These were widely read articles; however, they landed Kossuth a prison sentence for ‘subversion’ after being arrested on 4 May 1837. Released in 1840, Kossuth became a popular hero with the public.
In 1847 the county of Pest elected Kossuth as their representative to the Diet. He became the leader of the ‘national opposition’ and undertook a number of rogue actions whilst looking after the finance portfolio in government. During the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49, Kossuth was integral to the cause of political reformation and independence from Austria. He became the Governor-President of Hungary, declaring this independence from Austria and demanding a parliamentary government for his country; however, the Russian Tsar Nicholas I assisted the Habsburgs to stamp out the revolution and Kossuth fled in exile in 1850.
Lajos Kossuth would migrate to England in 1851 and would live in London until 1859. Kossuth was generally well-received in Britain upon his arrival. Crowds gathered to greet him all over England, and when The Times published article attacking him, people burnt copies of the newspaper publicly. The Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trade Unions wanted to congratulate Kossuth on behalf of the working classes, and organised a rally in Copenhagen Fields (now the location of Caledonian Park) in Islington on 3 November 1851 to do so.
The London Evening Standard reported on 4 November that, “the place selected for this purpose, in consequence of the immense number that were expected to greet M. Kossuth with a hearty welcome, was Copenhagen-fields – the hotel there being the headquarters of the united committee”. Copenhagen Fields had welcomed large demonstrations of this nature in the past, with a demonstration and protest in Copenhagen Fields to march for the pardon of the Tolpuddle Martyrs organised by the Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trades Unions.
A procession took place from Russell Square all the way to Copenhagen Fields, with music and banners. One such banner in gold lettering proclaimed: “The Tower Hamlets. Welcome, Kossuth, the exiled leader of Hungary, soldier and patriot, who having defeated the army of Austria, fell a victim to internal treachery and Russian treachery”. Another read simply, “What is life without Liberty”.
The shops along the procession route were all closed, but in their windows stood spectators, many wearing the Hungarian national colours. The London Daily News reported that 12,000 to 15,000 people took part in the procession, but those amassed on Copenhagen Fields were vastly greater: The Examiner reporting 25,000 spectators, whilst the Morning Advertiser suggesting 50,000 attendees!
A platform was erected in front of Copenhagen House, where an address was made from the ‘Inhabitants of London’ to Kossuth, the transcript of which was mounted on a handsome crimson roller and presented to Kossuth. The Hungarian revolutionary addressed the crowd, having learnt English from reading the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, stating that, “It is to me highly gratifying to know that a large party of the present meeting belongs to the working classes”. The excitement of the event lead to many attendees being pushed into the duck pond in front of Copenhagen House in an attempt by some to get closer to the action. The event culminated in a dinner at Highbury Barn Tavern, with 800 attendees.
The Foreign Secretary at the time, Lord Palmerston, has supported many of the failed revolutions of 1848 and was determined to meet with Kossuth. It was forbidden and Palmerston’s resignation was called for by Queen Victoria. With Prime Minister Lord Russell suggesting this would not be a popular move, Palmerston remained in post. Lord Palmerston declared his indifference to royal displeasure by instead receiving the Trade Unionists from Islington and Finsbury, who read out their address from the rally at Copenhagen Fields, praising Kossuth and condemning the rulers of Austria and Russia.
Kossuth was regarded as freedom fighter for democracy during his lifetime, particularly in Britain and America. So many more radical thinkers would find support and refuge in Islington during his time. Kossuth would continue to fight for his cause, and encourage revolutionaries from afar. He was re-elected to the Hunagarian Diet in 1867, but never took his seat, instead choosing to live in Turin, Italy, for the remainder of his life.
The only known voice recording of Kossuth, taken 20 September, 1890 states, “This question will be answered by the judge of the world-history. Let the sacred martyrs in their mortal remains be blessed, let them in their spirits be blessed with the best knowledge of the fatherland’s God of liberty, through eternity. October 6th will find me, who is unable to throw myself down in the dust of the Hungarian Golgotha, on my knees in the hermit’s abode of my homelessness, stretching my aged arms towards the country that has cast me out, blessing the sacred memory of the martyrs with the fervent sentiments of gratitude, their faithfulness to the homeland, and for the sublime example they gave to those who came after, and asking the God of the Magyars with ardent prayer to make victorious the appeal that searches the very marrow of the bone and sounds from the lips of Hungaria to the Hungarian Nation. So be it, Amen!”
Lajos Kossuth died in Turin on 20 March 1894. He wrote on his deathbed that he was not against the Habsburgs, but the joint statehood of Hungary and Austria. His body was taken to Budapest, where he was buried with great ceremony and splendour.
This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.