By Laura Miles
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When race riots marred the streets of Britain

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A combination of racism, unemployment, housing shortages and post-war disillusion led to a series of terrible attacks on black communities following the end of the First World War. Laura Miles describes the events, and how the authorities either stood aside or blamed the victims.
Issue 450

A century ago, after four long years of war, Britain was on the brink of revolution. Strikes raged across the industrial heartlands such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast. Martial law was declared to quell a revolt in Luton. But vicious race riots also erupted in several British ports, resulting in four people being killed and hundreds badly injured.

Dozens of black homes and hostels were trashed and set ablaze by white mobs. In Cardiff two whites and a black man died. In Liverpool 21 year old Bermudan seafarer Charles Wotten was cornered by a mob, thrown in Queen’s Dock and drowned as people stoned him. The police present claimed they were powerless to intervene. No arrests were made.

What lay behind the riots? Partly it was grossly paternalistic and racist colonial attitudes within local and national institutions, widespread racism in society and hostility towards black communities. There were also specific economic and social factors in that year, such as rising unemployment, economic crisis, pay cuts and a housing shortage.

The Liverpool race riots were examined in a recent book, Great War to Race Riots, by Madeline Heneghan and Emy Onuora (Writing on the Wall, 2017). They drew heavily on the Great War to Race Riots archive in the Lord Mayor of Liverpool’s correspondence, covering May 1919 to November 1920. Letters and documents in the archive set out the dire situation faced by Liverpool’s sizeable black community, increasingly subject to colour bars and pervasive racist discrimination.

Many thousands of black soldiers joined up from the colonies to fight Britain’s enemies in the First World War. They were generally viewed by government and the generals as inadequate fighting material, except perhaps for rare examples of “warlike” groups such as Nepalese, Punjabi or Sudanese men. Most of those who enlisted found they were used for trench digging and other manual labour rather than fighting. Many black soldiers remained unarmed despite the danger of their work.

Racial tensions in the armed forces were ever present during the war. Towards the end of the war the British West Indies Regiment, which consisted of black servicemen essentially used as forced labour under white officers, was refused the pay increase given to white regiments. They protested by mutinying for three days in late 1918. One of the mutiny’s leaders was imprisoned for 21 years and another was executed by firing squad.

The experiences of racist hostility, neglect and ill-treatment suffered by wartime black workers and servicemen, including many who later returned home from Liverpool after the riots, boosted the independence movements in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

A fit country for heroes to live in

On 23 November 1918, 12 days after the armistice, prime minister Lloyd George made his promise that Britain would be “a fit country for heroes to live in”. The reality was that ex-servicemen were pretty much abandoned wholesale to mass unemployment, economic crisis and a crippling housing shortage. Predictably this led to deep disillusionment.

Two and a half million servicemen had been demobbed by March 1919. The number reached four million by December. The situation was especially difficult for the many black ex-servicemen who found themselves stranded in the mother country with no pay and no hope of a job because of colour bars. Forced to live off credit once they’d pawned their few possessions, many ended up in the workhouse.

Black people had been good enough to die for the Empire or sweat in the war factories, but now they were blocked from decent jobs and housing. White working class ex-soldiers were also massively disillusioned but at least they didn’t have to contend with racism – unless they were Irish. The many thousands of black colonial servicemen were not even considered good enough to be publicly recognised at the end of the war – unlike white colonial troops they were excluded from London’s victory parade.

The 1919 race riots began in Glasgow in January, spreading to South Shields in February and London between April and August. In June Newport and Barry in south Wales saw racist whites attacking black people. But the riots in Cardiff and Liverpool in that month were the most severe of the year.

A portend of the Liverpool riots occurred in September 1918, just before the end of the war, when there was serious fighting between several hundred white soldiers and 50 black soldiers in Liverpool’s Belmont Street military hospital, shortly after the arrival of a group of white soldiers from South Africa. On this occasion a number of white soldiers who had served with the black soldiers tried to defend them.

The Liverpool riots began with random attacks on black men by whites during May. A gambling house was attacked by police on 11 May. On 4 June a West Indian man, John Johnson, was stabbed in the face for refusing to give two Scandinavian seamen a cigarette. This led to a major disturbance after other black men retaliated and it was then that Charles Wotten was killed by a white mob of several hundred.

Over the next few days, large organised mobs of mostly young white men, estimated at up to 10,000, attacked any blacks they could find and ransacked and burned boarding houses, hostels and black homes. In the press and police reports of the period black people were painted as the aggressors when they defended themselves and fought back. Black people resisted where they could but many hundreds were forced to seek sanctuary in public halls and bridewells (local prisons).

Vented their frustration

Unemployment fuelled the crisis but the mobs who vented their frustration and bitterness at black workers were driven by racist ideas, seeing them as competitors for jobs and housing rather than holding those in power responsible for their predicament. Many whites also expressed both racism and misogyny in their hostility to the relationships some black men had with white women. In targeting Liverpool’s black population the rioters let the authorities and bosses off the hook.

Liverpool’s black community was substantial well before the 1914-18 war. It had been developing ever since the city became a gateway to the Empire and the European capital of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. Britain controlled over half the world’s slave trade in 1800 and the city’s wealth grew on the back of slavery, cotton, sugar and tobacco.

Black seafarers often ended up in Liverpool and by the late 19th century the city had the second largest black population after London, working in a range of jobs and trades including domestic service. The population was later swelled by war work and the many ex-servicemen who ended up there after the war.

By 1918 the black population had grown from 2,000 pre-war to perhaps 5,000. During the war many worked in the chemicals, oil cake and munitions factories and the sugar mills. By this time many of the men, mostly of African or Caribbean origin, had white British wives despite the hostility towards such relationships. Many of their descendants still live in Liverpool.

As the war ended more and more black factory workers were sacked in favour of demobbed white servicemen. Such racist measures were often supported by union leaders. Many white workers refused to work with blacks and wanted them sacked. Joining merchant crews was not an option either for black seamen as they were blocked by the colour bar operated by employers and supported by the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union. The NSFU’s leader, Havelock Wilson, was a jingoistic racist who went on to support wage cuts for his mostly white membership in 1921. Ship owners and the union favoured hiring white foreign seamen over British black seafarers.

Within a few months of the end of the war in November 1918 the original black community plus recent ex-servicemen from the colonies, now stranded in the city, were growing increasingly desperate and poverty stricken. Letters in the Great War to Race Riots archive addressed to the Lord Mayor and others show that they often saw themselves as loyal subjects of the Empire, having fought in the war or worked to cover labour shortages.

The authorities, just like today, did not respond with help and sympathy but blamed the victims, some even urging repatriation. Their response, and that of much of the press before and after the riots, was to further whip up racism and point fingers at the black community.

The presence of black people was seen as the problem, rather than the actions of racist rioters or the unwillingness or ineptitude of the police in stopping them. Thus the Assistant Head Constable at the time, Lionel Everett, wrote to the home office urging compulsory repatriation of black men as the solution. The home secretary Edward Shortt gave permission for this, but in the end a voluntary scheme was implemented. So desperate were the circumstances that as many as 2,000 black men were repatriated before the scheme closed in November 1920.

Colour bar

After the race riots Liverpool’s dock authorities introduced a colour bar for seafarers. This later became the 1925 Special Restrictions (Coloured Seamen) Order, the first immigration control designed to keep black people out of the country and a forerunner of later racist immigration acts in 1962, 65, 68 and 71, introduced under both Labour and Tory governments. Many other racist measures have followed.

As Heneghan and Onuora rightly point out, the archive material demonstrates that the ways the police and authorities responded in 1919 prefigured responses to future African-Caribbean and South Asian communities and future racist outrages such as Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1994. We can add to that the lack of justice for the many black men killed in police custody, or the Windrush scandal, or Grenfell Tower, or the treatment of Muslims, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

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