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British Race Riots: Liverpool UK 1919

Tensions over jobs for World War one veterans were a major cause of a wave of riots in Britain in 1919. Apart from one account which seems to be trying to claim the violence was started by Blacks the various accounts indicate that black people were victims not aggressors. In 1919 rioting took place in London, Liverpool, Barry and Cardiff and other places, with the result that Black people were placed in protective custody in Liverpool. The highly competitive job market and the idea that immigrants were “stealing” jobs and women from white British led to attacks on African, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Arab sailors.

Indian seamen were hired at much lower rates than white and endured far worse conditions, which led union to accuse them of undercutting white workers. As in the 1958 riots and recent tensions over importing workers from low wage countries, immigrants were blamed not the people importing them and the government that encouraged immigration escaped blame, just as in the first decade of the 21st century Prime Minister Gordon Brown escaped censure for a de facto policy of “British Jobs for Indian Workers” and his successor has not been criticised for a treaty that placed workers from India on the same footing as workers from the enlarged European Union.

The Riots

1919 saw riots in a number of cities: Glasgow, South Shields, Salford, Hull, London, Liverpool and the Welsh ports of Cardiff, Newport and Barry. In the riots in the port towns 5 people were killed. In most cases it was Black people who were the victims of aggression, thought they defended themselves ferociously. One source of violent confrontation was the colour bar favoured by the seamens' union whereby white workers were given preference over Black and Arab workers.

As a result a series of ugly race riots occurred in Liverpool and Cardiff during June 1919, as the local white population clashed with black workers and seamen, many of whom were left unemployed at the end of the war. In Cardiff white ex-servicemen, including Australians stationed in the area, headed lynch mobs that terrorised the city's black community during a week of violence that left three men dead and dozens more injured.

In Newport on June 6th White mobs trashed the city: the South Wales Argus said the city looked like it had suffered an air raid. The Riots in Cardiff were the worst: by June 11 they had become, as with the 1958 riots, a series of organised attacks in Cardiff city centre and, in particular, on Bute Town, where most of the black population lived. Hotels and lodging houses were besieged by mobs led by "colonial" (Australian) soldiers armed with rifles, who presented themselves as leaders of the action (As I recall proscriptions on firearms were not introduced till later).

Nick the Blacks and send them back

On the 12th of June 1919 the New York Times reported that after consultation between the Ministry of Labor, the Chief of Police and the Lord Mayor of Liverpool it had been decided to intern negroes brought from Africa and other countries to serve as Labor Battalions during the war, replacing white workers who were fighting the Germans and others. Eventually the government repatriated hundreds of black people (600 by mid-September 1919). The bulk of the black population rejected repatriation however, insisting on their right to stay and be treated as equal citizens. It appears that the government's efforts at repatriation were largely unsuccessful

In the same article the New York Times noted that over a thousand negroes, all British subjects, had been locked up in Liverpool's Bridewell Jail in order to protect the from the white mobs attacking the area where most black people lived. The New York Times said the cause of the riots was negro familiarity with white women and the fact that negroes were holding jobs the demobilised white population believed belonged to them.

The victims were treated as criminals and the police arrested nearly twice as many Black people, who were, in almost all cases the victims of aggression, as white people, even prosecuting some who had been taken into protective custody. However nearly half of the Black arrestees were acquitted, indicating that the courts corrected for police bias, though those Blacks convicted got harsher sentences than whites convicted of similar crimes. This pattern persisted in the USA and in 2012 Black school children received harsher punishment than white for the same offences

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Racist Unions, Opportunistic Employers

One shameful point is that the union not only opposed Black seafarers’ employment, but colluded covertly in their relegation to colonial conditions of super-exploitation as Lascar or similarly underpaid contract workers: between 1901 and 1938, Lascars increasingly displaced white and Black mariners alike from union-protected jobs. One union official John Barnabus Fye, a naturalised American citizen, twice precipitated violence by calling Arab mariners `black bastards’. Like the riots, the union’s deplorable racial politics took shape not only in a national but a global and imperial context, on terms largely dictated by employers, who took full advantage of the ambiguities of imperial linkages and disparities. The same sort of thing happened in 1958 and gave rise to the Notting Hill Riots.


The 1919 and 1958 riots both occurred in a context of conflict for jobs between white British and Black Immigrants. This in turn resulted from a deliberate policy of importing immigrants nominally to cover a labour shortage but actually designed to drive down wages for the White population and so keep them in their place. There were also elements of racism and fear of Black sexuality, which may have been catalysts in the riots.

This policy of using (and exploiting) immigrants from poor countries was repeated in the 1990s and early 2000s with the offshoring and later onshoring of cheap labour from poor countries. In 2005 Polish seamen in Ireland were hired for €1 per hour in Ireland, showing that this was a global phenomenon, and on the the shout99 website one British Indian complained about the exploitation of Indian workers imported and paid £35 a day but intimidated into a 12 hour day.

There has not so far been a backlash against these immigrants because racism is no longer socially acceptable (unless you are an employer claiming Indian workers are better than white ones) and any critical comment on such policies is automatically dismissed as racism. When the powers that be want to stifle any reasoned protest that might succeed they publicise statements by extreme right wing parties like the British National Party. Since few wish to be seen as supporting such parties this move instantly kills all debate.

The 1919 riots were far more violent than the 1958 riots, which in turn were more violent than the 2011 London riots, in which the main damage was to property rather than people. In 1919 the official response was to deport (“repatriate”) the victims, in gratitude for the work they had put into the war effort, in 1958 it was to brand the rioters as criminals and in 2011 the official response was to ignore all possibilities of underlying social causes, like the poverty caused by the 2008 recession, or insensitive policing, and brand the rioting as mere criminality, implying some form of genetic criminal tendency in the rioters.

In writing this I have become aware of the complexity of the issues involved, and every race riot investigated seems to reveal new ones. While the subject as a whole is a herculean task avoiding it will mean race riots will recur and be dismissed for, to use a well known quote, those who egnore history are condemned to repeat it.


Hello, hello, from London, UK on October 22, 2011:

A great written hub spanning almost 100 years history. I am no expert on the last riot but the man who got shot was a gangster and his gang and many others created this riot. Using it to destroy and especially to loot. Most of them had already criminal records.

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