Memorial plaque Memorial to Charles Wotten, Liverpool. Photos: WoW festival

One hundred years after the race riots of 1919, author, activist and co-director of Writing on the Wall, Madeline Heneghan reflects on racism then and now

This week I was invited to talk in Cardiff about the race riots of 1919, to bring a Liverpool perspective to this dark period in the history of both cities. Much of my research has been based on documents from the Lord Mayor’s archive from that year and so it is both sad and ironic that on the same day that I was travelling the news broke that the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Peter Brennan, had been  forced to resign over his sharing of a racist tweet that compared black people to monkeys. Brennan was a trustee of the Anthony Walker Foundation and the tweet came to light on the 14th anniversary of Anthony’s unprovoked racist murder. Like much of Merseyside the members of the Anthony Walker Foundation were ‘deeply shocked’.

In 1919 in Liverpool another young black man, Charles Wottenwas murdered by a racist white mob in what David Olusoga has described ‘a lynching’. Such anti-black violence broke out not only Liverpool but in seaports across the UK. Glasgow was the first to witness race rioting in January, followed by South Shields in February, with serious levels of violence in London from April to August. In June, Newport and Barry saw rioting, while in Cardiff, three men were killed.

Following the First World War, black colonial citizens who had come from across the Empire to defend the ‘Mother Country’ on land and at sea, or had worked in factories to support the war effort, found themselves destitute and surplus to requirements. The post-war economic slump saw unemployment rise and resentment develop towards black labour. A boycott by white workers, supported by the trades unions, resulted in a colour bar in employment. Racism was inflamed by the press and politicians and hostility exploded into full blown rioting.

Here in Liverpool major disturbances began on 4th June when John Johnson, a West Indian, was stabbed by two Scandinavians because he refused to give them a cigarette. The news spread quickly and a couple of nights later eight of Johnson’s friends went to the Liverpool Arms at 1 Bailey Street in ‘Sailortown’, a fight broke out and a policeman was rendered unconscious. The police reaction was to raid boarding houses used by black seamen.

A mob formed, and Charles Wotten, a 24-year-old ship’s fireman who had been discharged from the Merchant Navy in March 1919, ran from one of the raided houses in Pitt Street. He was pursued by two policemen and an angry 200-300 strong crowd throwing missiles at him. The policemen caught him at the edge of Queen’s Dock. The mob tore Wotten from the police and threw him into the dock, where he was pelted with rocks until he drowned. The subsequent inquest recorded a verdict of ‘Found drowned’ and despite the heavy police presence, no arrests were made. 

During the next few days, there was mob rule on the streets of Liverpool. Black homes and boarding houses were ransacked, and contents set alight. Families were taken to local bridewells (police stations) for their own protection.

This post-war phenomenon of race riots was not restricted to the UK. In the United States, in what became known as ‘Red Summer’, such riots occurred in more than three dozen cities and one rural county. In both Britain and the US black communities fought back fiercely with a determination to assert their rights as citizens who had contributed as much to the war effort as white servicemen and workers. These race riots, and the black reaction to them on both sides of the Atlantic, were symptomatic of post-war working class dissatisfaction, which was expressed not only in racial terms but in class terms too. The period was one of mass strikes, protests and calls for self-governance in colonised lands. One of the defining moments of the 20th century, the 1917 Russian Revolution, inspired workers across the world. In Europe, revolutions followed in Germany, Austria and Hungary, and mass Communist Parties grew. The Russian Revolution sent shock waves through the western ruling class; whose biggest fear was the ‘red menace’ of Bolshevism. In port cities white working-class anger was successfully diverted towards black labour.

In the aftermath of the riots much debate and government wrangling ensued regarding ‘the coloured labour problem’ and the potential for forced deportation of people from the colonies resident in Liverpool. Unlike the government of today and their behaviour around the Windrush scandal, the establishment of the time recognised that they could not forcibly remove citizens with legal right to be here. A voluntary repatriation had been offered prior to the riots in February 1919 but take up was poor as men were unwilling to go home penniless or to leave white wives and partners behind. Following the riots in Liverpool and Cardiff, a joint committee representing the Home Office, Colonial Office and Ministry of Labour, was now prepared to ‘bribe’ colonial citizens to leave, agreeing to offer the sum of approximately £5, plus £1 ‘crossing allowance’ and free passage home. In the first instance, the scheme only applied to single men or married men with black wives, but by September 1919, as a result of the men’s refusal to leave their families behind, provision for white wives and children was considered on a case by case basis. The debate around the inclusion of white wives was imbued with colonial racist thinking. It’s hard to establish the numbers of colonial citizens that took the offer, but significant numbers remained and contributed to the economy of and vibrancy of the port cities.

The history of 1919 Race Riots contains important lessons for us today are crucial to our understanding of empire, immigration and race relations. It contains important lessons for modern Britain, where xenophobia is rising and the demand of ‘British jobs for British workers’ is not just one of the far right but is promoted by a government in crisis. Clear parallels can be drawn between today and 1919 in that order is partially maintained through the creation of a racialised scapegoat.  The focus on immigration and the use of the popular press as a vehicle to blame the ills of society on the ‘outsider’ is a classic combination which seeks to shift the focus away from a ruling elite, whose concern is not the welfare of the masses but the protection of capitalism and the drive for profit. In a period where political leaders, globally and locally, display racist attitudes and implement racist legislation with impunity the lessons of 1919 could not be more relevant.

The Great War To Race Riots publication by Emy Onoura & Madeline Heneghan can be ordered from [email protected]