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1919 race riots in Britain—a legacy of empire

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One hundred years ago Britain was gripped by huge workers’ struggles but also horrific race riots. Ken Olende looks at how the racist violence was unleashed—and how some of the left organised against it
Issue 2676
Crew on the merchant ship SS Chyebassa of the British India Line, 1917
Crew on the merchant ship SS Chyebassa of the British India Line, 1917 (Pic: Heritage Calling/IWM)

The year 1919 saw some of the most intense ­workers’ struggles ever in Britain.

Soldiers protested about how slowly they were demobilised—or that they were being sent instead to fight for imperial interests in Ireland, Russia, the Middle East and India.

There were 34 million strike days and mass ­resistance to the ­government and the bosses.

A secret service report given to prime minister David Lloyd George in January 1919 showed their worries and their racism.

“In England Bolshevism must be faced and grappled with, the efforts of international Jews of Russia combatted, and their agents eliminated from the United Kingdom,” it read.

“Unless some serious consideration is given to the matter, I believe that there will be some sort of revolution in this country and that before 12 months are past.”

But amidst the militancy there was also racism. White mobs attacked black people—mostly merchant seamen—during 1919, in some of the worst race riots in British history.

Five people were killed, dozens injured and at least 250 arrested.

Riots took place in Glasgow, South Shields, Salford, Hull, London, Liverpool, Newport, Cardiff and Barry between January and August.

“Crowds of white working class people thousands strong targeted minority ethnic groups including African, African-Caribbean, ‘Arab’, south Asian and Chinese workers,” writes Jacqueline Jenkinson in her book Black 1919.

“Colonial” troops and merchant seamen had been encouraged to come to help Britain’s war effort. This loosened the pre?war imperial racial hierarchy—and Britain’s rulers wanted a return to it.

In July 1919 15,000 troops marched through central London to celebrate the ­signing of the treaty that officially ended the First World War.

Organisers decreed that no non-white troops would participate.

A tidal wave of racism spread across the world. The US saw murderous race riots. In East St Louis alone rioters killed at least 39 black people.

The soldiers that Empire forgot
The soldiers that Empire forgot
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The British merchant fleet already relied on a significant number of “lascars” who had established small communities in port cities. The term originally meant Indian sailors, but could refer to any non-white sailor.

Many lascars were first recruited in ports abroad on lower wages. Then, as now, the way to beat the bosses’ divide and rule tactic was to demand equal wages for all workers.

Instead the biggest seafarers’ union, the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union (NSFU), campaigned to keep “colonial”

sailors off the ships.

The TUC union federation passed a resolution in September 1919 demanding “immediate steps be taken to abolish all underpaid Asiatic labour in the mercantile marine, and that preference of employment be given, first to white, then to British coloured, in preference to Chinamen”.

The small immigrant ­communities made convenient scapegoats.

In Poplar, east London, a rumour that a Chinese man and his British wife got housing ­previously refused to a demobbed man sparked a riot.

The first of the race riots broke out in Glasgow and some of those involved were trade unionists. Manny Shinwell had been one of the leaders of an upsurge in workers’ struggle in Glasgow that became known as Red Clydeside. He led the Glasgow branch of the British Seafarers Union (BSU), which barred black members.

Shinwell faced racist abuse from the bosses as a “Jew tailor”.

Yet he had spoken at a BSU meeting outside the shipyard opposing the employment of Chinese workers.

Some of the crowd attacked a group of about 30 black ­sailors from Britain’s colony of Sierra Leone. The sailors fled, eventually reaching their lodgings on Broomielaw.

Here, some managed to hold the mob back by firing shots. One white rioter was wounded. Another was stabbed, as was one of the black sailors.

Police took all the black ­sailors into “protective” custody. In what would become a pattern through the year, it was the victims who were charged with riot.


In February nine Arab stokers signed on to a ship in South Shields, near Newcastle. They went to the NSFU union office to pay their dues.

However, NSFU union official James Gilroy told bosses there would be “bloodshed” if the men—members of his own union—were hired.

He got the ship to hire a new set of white workers.

A crowd of about 200 chased the Arabs into the area where they lived and about 50 local black people came to their aid.

The authorities called in the army to end the fighting.

In April, mobs attacked a cafe used by black and Arab sailors in Cable Street in London’s east end.

Four Arabs were hospitalised and another four given medical treatment in custody. Again no white person was charged.

The rioting in Liverpool was the most sustained of the year with crowds of up to 10,000.

A memorial to Charles Wootten in Liverpool, who was killed during race riots

A memorial to Charles Wootten in Liverpool, who was killed during race riots

A mob killed a young African-Caribbean man, Charles Wotten, while more than 700 black people were forced to leave their homes.

Wotten was either pushed or forced to jump from the dock where he drowned under a hail of stones from the rioters.

The Liverpool Echo ­newspaper claimed, “In every case the coloured men were the aggressors.”

A mob killed a young African-Caribbean man, Charles Wotten, while more than 700 black people were forced to leave their homes. Wotten was either pushed or forced to jump from the dock where he drowned under a hail of stones from the rioters.

Some had been attacked at home while in bed.

The Cardiff riots were the most brutal with three black “coalers” killed.

The ringleader of their ­murderers, Gordon Maskell, said, “I did it for the benefit of the seamen of which I am one, and cannot get a job because of these niggers being here.”

He was sentenced to three months hard labour.

The government introduced a scheme of voluntary repatriation. But a large majority of sailors who were given a choice decided to stay.

A repatriation ship with 800 berths left Cardiff with just 63 Indians and 50 Adenese on board.

The Jamaican socialist and poet Claude McKay was ­outraged at racist scapegoating in the press.

Even the left leaning Daily Herald newspaper published a racist front page that read, “Black Scourge in Europe—Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine.”


The article outrageously ­condemned France for using black African colonial troops, “thrusting her black savages into the heart of Germany”.

McKay wrote a letter complaining that the “result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war”.

The Herald refused to publish it. It was only Sylvia Pankhurst’s revolutionary socialist paper Workers’ Dreadnought that gave him space to counter the lies in the mainstream press.

The racist attacks were often associated with sexual paranoia.

Some of the cafes attacked in London were Arab run and employed white women who were accused of “consorting” with the customers.

1919—Britain in revolt
1919—Britain in revolt
  Read More

In Cardiff the trigger for a riot was a mixed group of black men and white women ­returning from a day out in a carriage.

In Newport a chip shop jointly owned by a white woman and her African Caribbean husband was wrecked.

The very fact that such relationships existed shows another side to immigrant life that is not in the newspaper reports.

These tended to assume that any woman who would get involved with a non-white man was of low moral character.

Each of these stories suggests that, for some people, life was less racist.

It was the Communist Party (CP) that took a lead in challenging the racism of much of the trade union leadership from its founding in 1920.

The CP was key to ­setting up the National Minority Movement in 1924. This organised the left wing ­minority that opposed the conservatism of the union leaderships.

Class resistance has the potential to combat racism, sexism and all forms of oppression.

Yet the fact of race riots at a time of high class struggle underlines that this is not automatic.

Even at times of much higher class struggle than in Britain today there will need to be specific agitation and organisation against oppression.

Otherwise the ruling class will use such divisions to hold back a united working class challenge.

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