Race Riot

‘Several delicate balancing acts are required in discussing the specifics of the racial riots in Liverpool. The first is to avoid reducing the Black community to the role of helpless victims in the face of white aggression, and the second is to regard the 1919 riots as part of the long term history of the Black population in the city.’  (Jacqueline Jenkinson, 1987)

In the wake of the First World War competition for jobs led to dissatisfaction among Britain’s white workers, who quickly came to resent the presence of black labour. This was the key factor that led to the outbreak of race rioting in Britain’s major seaports from January to August 1919. Another significant factor, highlighted by contemporary media and modern day historians, is the perceived threat to white masculinity posed by the increasing number of relationships between black men and white women.

Liverpool’s black population had grown dramatically during the war, made welcome by industries such as chemicals, sugar refining and munitions in order to fill the labour shortage created when white British workers enlisted in the armed forces. The end of the war in November 1918 further swelled the city’s black population when black servicemen were demobilised and black seafarers discharged to Liverpool. Estimates of the size of the population vary from 2,000 to 5,000, with a significant proportion rendered unemployed. As the war-time need for surplus labour fizzled out, white workers refused to work alongside black workers and the ‘colour bar’, supported by trade unions, was imposed across the city.

Approaches were made to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool on behalf of black citizens by black organisations and churches and by individual black men themselves. They detailed the destitution faced by those unable to return home and by those who had settled here, many with families and unable to find work. The Lord Mayor also received a deputation claiming to represent 5,000 unemployed white ex-serviceman and seafarers complaining of competition from black workers, a situation with which he sympathised. By May 1919, as attacks on black men increased, the Lord Mayor was reporting outbreaks of violence to the Colonial office and was seeking support in finding a solution to the problem of ‘coloured labour’.

Much has been documented locally on the murder of Charles Wootton, a Bermudan Seafarer whose boarding house was raided by police on 5th June 1919, which resulted in him being both police and an angry mob into the Mersey where he was pelted with stones until he died. This tragedy signalled the beginning of Liverpool’s race riots. The level of anti-black hostility and violence was unprecedented, with organised gangs of up to 10,000 searching the city for black men and attacking them in their homes and on the street. Black boarding houses were ransacked and set alight.

Reports by local and national media placed the blame for the riots on black men, as did the police, who blamed West Indian men in particular; black arrests far outnumbered white arrests. While black men defended themselves with whatever weapons were at their disposal, the courts clearly laid the blame on the white mobs, who were ‘making the name of Liverpool an abomination and disgrace to the rest of the country’. (Fryer 303)

Such was the scale of the violence that by June 10th over 700 men, women and children were housed in bridewells and fire stations. The containment of black men and their families in one place encouraged the Lord Mayor, a representative from the Ministry of Labour and Liverpool’s Chief Constable, to hatch a plan for the entire black population to be housed in army compounds until a repatriation scheme could be put into place. This plan was never implemented, possibly because of the practicalities of repatriating a population the size of Liverpool’s black community and the high occurrence of mixed race relationships.