Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Great Unrest 1910-11. Part 6: The Liverpool General Strike

The most extreme events of the Great Unrest occurred in Liverpool which suffered a local general strike. As a result there was rioting, including bread riots and the largest military presence put on active duty into any city during this period and included two warships being moored in the River Mersey. Sustained rioting led to deaths, but again, cool-headness by commanders on the spot avoided the massacre which could have easily occurred if local politicians had had their way.

Liverpool: a city under siege

Unlike for the rest of Britain, in Liverpool, a major port on the North-West coast of England, rioting was pretty common occurrence. This was founded on the sectarian division between Protestants and Catholics in the city, which had a large Irish population. For example, the March 1911 Bootle by-election which the subsequent Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, won, led to rioting and sectarian attacks. However, the strikes and accompanying unrest in summer 1911 went much further, effectively sealed off the city. A combination of strikes by seamen, dockers, and local railway men as well as numerous sympathetic strikes plunged the city into chaos and helped spark the national rail strike.[1]

The strike began on 5 August 1911, when 1,200 goods porters of the London and Yorkshire Railway Company struck. Within days they had been joined by thousands of other railway workers in Liverpool. This action was to trigger a national rail strike on August 18. Mounted police had been used against disturbances at pickets and food vans had been attacked and looted. On 9 August the council and the police requested military assistance and the following day 400 soldiers from the Warwickshire Regiment arrived. They were joined by two squadrons of Royal Scots Greys, plus a detachment of the Royal Service Corps to supply the supply the troops. In addition police were brought from Leeds and Birmingham and 200 police officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary, a police force equipped with rifles, were also shipped across to Liverpool. A break down of talks between ship owners and dockers led to a lock out of 25,000 dockers on 14 August. Convoys of vehicles carrying food had to be escorted by soldiers as they travelled through the city. On Sunday 13 August a rally on St. George’s Plateau turned into a riot with 200 people being injured. However, the riot which had been sparked by a couple of minor incidents was broken by police, and the infantry and cavalry on standby were only needed to patrol the streets afterwards. In no doubt of the potential carnage of shooting into a packed crowd, the commanding officer refused police demands on the spot to open fire.[2]

Magistrates requested more soldiers, especially lancers to run down crowds. On 14 August, the day a general transport strike was declared in the city, a detachment of the 18th Hussars were sent. Looting continued overnight, and as well as bayonet charges, warning shots were fired by Yorkshire Regiment infantry. The following day 3,000 rioters attacked five prison vans transporting people convicted for their part in earlier unrest. Only thirty-four soldiers and police accompanied the convoy. The hussars escorting the vans were caught out by the situation. Their horses were not equipped with the rubber shoes mounted police used and skidded on the street cobbles. In the panic they fired six shots, killing two and injuring two more. The ensuing rioting led to many injuries and the killing of a police office kicked to death.[3]

Unlike at Llanelly, later that week, the death of rioters did not ultimately calm the situation. The situation deteriorated. With the docks closed and rail services suspended no food was coming into the city. Tramway men struck on August 16, followed by power station workers and refuse collectors. Power in the city began to run short and volunteer workers had to be enlisted. Attacks began on bakeries by people desperate for food. By August 19, Churchill wrote the lord mayor advising him to recruit a special corps of dockers to unload food and fuel ships. He promised he would be ‘prepared to support you by force or otherwise’. With garbage piling up in the streets the city’s health committee noted that the average death rate had almost doubled since the strike had started.[4]

The general strike in Liverpool impacted on the surrounding region of Lancashire, Cheshire and the North Welsh towns dependent on food supplies through the city’s docks. Contact with the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea was also broken, as many steamship services had been curtailed. The Government Secretary on the island could only communicate with the mainland via the H.M.S. ‘Warrior’ berthed at the island.[5]

By the third week in August there were 2,500 soldiers in the city and an additional 4,000 special constables were sworn in to augment the police force. Public houses closed at 2 p.m.. With the national rail strike over, but with unrest continuing in Liverpool, a three-man team was appointed by the Home Office to investigate what was happening. The team consisted of two Liverpool MPs - Thomas O’ Connor, a Liberal and the Conservative, George Kyffin-Taylor along with D.J. Shackleton, the Home Office’s labor advisor. They provided Churchill with a more objective view of the developments in the disputes than the city council or local employers could offer. Despite the settlement of the national rail strike on August 19, the strikes in Liverpool, which had become highly entangled, continued. The complexity of the situation is shown by the example of loyal tramwaymen striking to protest about previously striking tramwaymen being reinstated. Thus the dispute continued until finally all the different grievances could be settled on August 26. [6]

The prompt dispatch of military units to Liverpool shows that by the summer of 1911 the government realised that in certain circumstances they were the only solution. There were lessons to be learnt from Liverpool, particularly from the attack on the prison convoy. Some of these would be integrated into the Army's 1912 pamphlet on action in civil disturbances. It would have been difficult to avoid the St. George’s Plateau riot, but the calmness of the military at the scene prevented the incident becoming more severe. In a city where rioting was all too common any authority faced a difficult task of balancing the need to minimize unrest and ensuring law and order.

[1] P.J. Waller, Democracy and Sectarianism. A Political and Social History of Liverpool, 1868-1939, (Liverpool, 1981), pp. 249-50.
[2] National Archives [henceforward NA], HO 45/10658, sub-file 452, ‘Disturbances’, undated. This gives a day-by-day account of the unrest; T.A. Critchley, The Conquest of Violence. Order and Liberty in Britain, (London, 1970), p. 170.
[3] Anthony Babington, Military Intervention in Britain from the Gordon Riots to the Gibraltar Incident, (London, 1990), p.141; Waller, p.255.
[4] Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury, 18 August 1911, ‘The Unscavenged City’. [Scavenging was the term given to rubbish collection]. The death rate had risen from 13.3/1000 the previous August to 24.5/1000.
[5] NA HO 45/10655/212470 sub-file 176, Home Secretary to Lord Mayor, 19 August, 1911.; sub-file 179, Government Secretary, Isle of Man to Under Secretary of State, Home Office, 19 August 1911.
[6] Waller, p. 256; NA, HO 45/1065/212470, sub-file 356, T.P. O’Connor, G. Kyffin-Taylor, D.J. Shackleton to Home Secretary, 20 August 1911, 1 am and 11pm; 21 August 1911, 3 telegrams; 22 August 1911, 3 telegrams; Lord George Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes, (London, 1920), p. 172.


Rooksmoor said...

On a website about Liverpool history I came across a great posting from a local historian known as Waterways, which he posted last October. It includes photos of military units in Liverpool in 1911 during the unrest. See:

You need to scroll down the page to reach the photographs.

Jeremy said...

I read this item with great interest and tried to join the forum on Yoliverpool only to be accused of being a spammer. My principal interest is as part of Nerve magazine (based in Liverpool) where we are putting together a commemorative calendar for next year marking 100 years since 1911. To give you an idea of what we can do, check the mag website on
which has a calendar documenting other parts of Liverpool's radical history.
As part of the present exercise I have been chasing through local press of that era, brought to a halt this weekend by the temporary closure of Central Library records. There were one or two points in your narrative that I'd beg to dispute - factual not political I'd stress - for example, it is my impression that there were no military in the city on 13 August.
So I wonder if you could let me have via the mag website an e-address to pursue this on.
Jeremy Hawthorn

Rooksmoor said...

I felt it was worthwhile to include the email that Jeremy subsequently sent me regarding the doubts he had initially raised in the comment posted here:

Many thanks for a most informative despatch.I'm presently working through the frantic notes I made in the Central Library before it shut (I'll have to chase the last two weeks of August when it reopens) and then I'll get back to you again if I may. I realise I was quite wrong about the date of the military arrival as the Echo has detaied reports of the first convoys of goods from the rail depots.I would actually be interested to see the notes from the Home Office files,obviously not if you had to make any promises to the archive people. I'd be interested in what you made of that three-man panel (TP O'Connor, Kyffin-Taylor and one other), as to what they actually did if anything. And am I right in thinking that the rail dispute was brought to an end by the promise of a Royal commission?Anyway, I'll get back to you in a few days, by which time I should be a little wiser.RegardsJeremy Hawthorn