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1919: Britain's red summer

A century ago, Britain was convulsed by race riots, mutinies and violent strikes. Clifford Williamson tells the story of a summer when the government was haunted by the fear of Bolshevik revolution...

A police officer uses his baton on a protester in Glasgow, 1919
Published: June 15, 2020 at 3:30 pm
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Over the August bank holiday weekend of 1919 the super-dreadnought HMS Valiant and two escorts sailed from Gibraltar to the mouth of the river Mersey just outside Liverpool. This was not, however, a holiday treat for the locals to see the pride of the Royal Navy anchor in their city. Valiant was there in support of the army, which had been sent into Liverpool to put down three nights of serious rioting. The disorder had been triggered by a strike of the Merseyside police that, as the Daily Mail put it, had left the city in the hands of “the hooligan element”.


By the time that the unrest had died down, a thousand soldiers had been drafted into Liverpool and had made repeated bayonet charges to dispel the crowds. More than 600 people were arrested, over £100,000 (£7m in 2019) worth of damage done. Journalists likened the Scotland Road area, where most of the rioting took place, to the First World War battlefield of Ypres.

The authorities grew increasingly paranoid that any outbreak of disorder was a precursor to a red revolution

The Liverpool riot was just one of many instances of violence and disorder to punctuate Britain’s ‘Red Summer’ of 1919. From Glasgow to Southampton, from Cork to London unrest swept the nation as workers, demobilised soldiers, and even the police, took to the streets to seek redress for grievances – and, in some cases, to foment revolution.

The authorities saw the disorder not as a response to the slow pace of demobilisation, or the disorientation caused by the end of four years of war, but as a deadly shadow of Bolshevism – the same Bolshevism that had upturned the social order in Russia just two years earlier.

The British government was already deeply immersed in efforts to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Russia through the dispatch of an expeditionary force to the Russian mainland, and by using the Royal Navy to blockade the Baltic. In fact, the prime minister, David Lloyd George, saw Great Britain as a “barrier against Bolshevism”. At home the authorities grew increasingly paranoid that any outbreak of disorder was a precursor to a red revolution. One MP, Alfred Short, even tried to get the publication of the book Speeches by Lenin banned under the Defence of the Realm Acts.

Listen to Catherine Merridale recount the future Soviet leader’s famous 1917 train journey across Europe to Petrograd, where he took command of the Bolsheviks:

Liverpool may have been the epicentre of the violence but it was in Glasgow that the unrest that plagued 1919 had begun. On 31 January 1919, hundreds of protesters, many from the huge Parkhead Forge in the east end of the city and the shipyards of the Clyde, massed in the centre to demonstrate over low wages and long working hours. Soon the protesters were clashing with police. The lord provost, fearing a Bolshevik-style revolution (red flags were waving in the square in front of the chambers), sought help from Lloyd George, who dispatched the army, supported by tanks, to quell the unrest.

We went to France and when we came back foreigners have got our jobs,” railed one unemployed former soldier

Future Labour cabinet minister Emanuel Shinwell, who was arrested and convicted of inciting riot, described the actions of some sections of the police as “deplorable”. However there were also those who deplored the actions of the strikers. One recently repatriated prisoner of war wrote to the Glasgow Herald: “I only wish these same disturbers of the peace, these selfish irresponsible hooligans, had had a taste of what our boys in France… had to suffer.”

Soviet-style council

Glasgow wasn’t alone in witnessing serious disorder in January 1919. Five hundred miles south, at a British military camp near Calais, a group of soldiers set up a soviet-style council after springing one of their colleagues, imprisoned for making a “seditions speech”, out of jail. Within a few days, an estimated 20,000 men had mutinied. The mutineers were protesting at the conditions in the camp – especially lack of food – as well as the glacial pace of demobilisation. The mutiny would end on 30 January with some concessions.

As events in Glasgow demonstrated, simmering tensions over demobilisation and the future of jobs and wages pervaded British cities. To these grievances could be added two more toxic ingredients: fears over the role of immigrant labour, and resentment over sexual relations between white women and men from ethnic minorities.

West Indian and Chinese labour had been recruited in many ports across the UK to make up for the loss of workers to war service and the extra demand created by war work. But now these soldiers were returning home – by July 1919, 1,300 of Cardiff’s 2,000 registered unemployed were demobilised troops. “We went to France and when we came back foreigners have got our jobs and we can’t get rid of them,” complained one unemployed former soldier in Cardiff in July 1919. And it was in the docklands of south Wales – especially in Newport, Barry and the Welsh capital – that these grievances were to explode into violence in the early summer of 1919.

The first disorder broke out on 6 June in Newport, where a fight over alleged insults against a white woman by a foreign man escalated into the vandalisation of local Greek and Chinese businesses. There were 22 arrests and mounted police were called in to restore order.

The following week, a gang of white men attacked a group of West Indians walking with their white wives in Cardiff. It was alleged that the women were former prostitutes, and the white men their ex-pimps, enraged at losing the women to men of different ethnicities. The incident sparked three days of violence, and one death, in the Welsh capital.

In Liverpool, a fight between rival black and white foreign seamen escalated into a full-scale riot, as white Liverpudlians revolted over familiar anxieties: unemployment and interracial relationships. A number of black seamen were robbed during the disturbances, which suggests that jealousy of the perceived affluence of foreign sailors was a motivating factor in the unrest.

The British government’s response to this rising tide of racist violence was swift. Within a matter of months it had instituted a programme of repatriation that, by 1921, resulted in hundreds of foreign workers being forcibly returned to their nations of origin. Legislation designed to limit the employment of West Indian labour followed in 1925.

A world of unrest

Britain wasn’t the only nation to be rocked by disorder in 1919...

America’s red scare

The United States experienced a year of civil, social and racial turmoil, which saw Seattle brought to a standstill by a general strike, dozens dying in brutal race riots and letter bombs being sent to public figures.

One of those figures, Attorney General A Mitchell Palmer, launched raids on anarchists and communists, which resulted in more than 20,000 people being deported to the Soviet Union. The raids were part of the first Red Scare in the US and brought J Edgar Hoover – future FBI director – to public consciousness.

Big trouble in China

In May 1919, 3,000 students marched to Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace to protest the Paris treaty that set the peace terms following the First World War, which saw the nation largely snubbed by western allies and the region of Shandong given to Japan.

The demonstrators trashed a number of buildings, and organised boycotts of Japanese goods. The protests would change the course of Chinese history, helping to radicalise two future Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

Canada’s ‘bloody Sunday’

In the summer of 1919, a general strike in the city of Winnipeg turned into the most famous riot in Canadian history. For 36 days local workers, including many demobilised veterans, brought Winnipeg to a standstill.

Local transport company officials tried to break the strike by hiring blacklegs to operate streetcars, leading to clashes with strikers. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police restored order – but not before, on Sunday 21 June, they had fired on the crowd, killing a protester.

Brutal killings in Berlin

On 4 January, Berlin was plunged into chaos when elements of the German Communist Party (KPD) rose up against the country’s Social Democrat (SPD)-led government.

The chaos in the capital led SPD chancellor Friedrich Ebert to seek support from the rightwing Freikorps, who meted out extrajudicial punishments on the leaders of the KPD. Among these targeted were Rosa Luxemburg (who had initially opposed the uprising) and Karl Liebknecht. Luxemburg was beaten to death and Liebknecht shot in the back of the head.

Police flashpoint

The most serious disorder of the Red Summer was triggered not by racial tensions but by disgruntled Liverpool police officers who, as July turned into August, decided to walk out on strike. They were responding to a call for industrial action by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) over recognition of a police union and deteriorating wages and conditions. Police wages had fallen relative to other professions during the First World War: in 1917, a police constable’s weekly wage of £2 8s was signifi-cantly less than the £3 10s that other skilled workers could expect to earn. And, due to the haemorrhaging of police officers to the armed forces, they had lost a weekly rest day.

Bayonet charges, the use of armoured cars, the reading of the Riot Act… all failed to quell the disturbances

The government had been caught on the hop by a police strike in 1918, but this time it was prepared, threatening those who walked out with dismissal. Sir Nevil Macready, the chief constable of the Met, declared that the strike “must be smashed once and for all time; otherwise, I do not think you will ever have any peace with the police of this country”.

Macready’s threat resulted in a collapse of the strike everywhere… except in Liverpool, where longstanding grievances over conditions, hours, promotions and wages had bred a unique brand of militancy. The result was the disappearance of police officers from swathes of the city and – on Friday 1 August, at the start of a bank holiday weekend – the outbreak of widespread looting.

The looters sacked clothes shops, general stores, department stores and even musical instrument stores. Premises that sold alcoholic drinks were a particular target. As The Times correspondent put it: “The air resounded with the crash of huge plate glass windows!”

Repeated bayonet charges by soldiers, the use of armoured cars, the reading of the Riot Act by a local magistrate… all failed to quell the disturbances. In fact, it was only on Sunday, after a massed baton charge by non-striking police and special constables, with the army in the rear, that the looting subsided and the strike collapsed.

The government used a mix of a carrot and stick to head off a new wave of police strikes. It introduced an improved pay scale with a starting salary of £3 10s per week – rising to £4 10s with experience – and granted the force an official body, the ‘Police Federation’, to represent rank and file officers. However, it also imposed a ban on industrial action by the police, which is still enforced today, and dismissed all officers who, in the words of Home Secretary Edward Shortt, had “mutinied”. Many were blacklisted from any future employment.

The Liverpool police strike was the last great outbreak of disorder in mainland Britain’s Red Summer of 1919. The acceleration of demobilisation and the rapid return of servicemen to civilian jobs – often displacing women who had held them during wartime – brought temporary calm to the industrial and political landscape.

But tensions remained. As Vladimir Lenin, leader of the new Soviet Union, championed an international communist revolution, the British security services began to spy upon and infiltrate radical groups. The spectre of Bolshevism would remain a powerful rallying point for the authorities into the 1920s and beyond.

Swathes of Britain’s working class also contemplated a deeply uncertain future. This was especially the case for the country’s miners who – after enjoying greater equality in wages and working hours during the First World War, as the industry effectively went into temporary public control – looked on with growing anger as these benefits were withdrawn. The debate on the miners’ future would ultimately lead to the General Strike of 1926.

The mutinies may have ended. Soldiers may have returned to work. A Bolshevik coup may have been averted. But Britain remained a nation at war with itself.

Clifford Williamson is a lecturer in history at Bath Spa University

This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


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