The Race Riots of 1919
Wednesday 11th June had been the hottest day of 1919 thus far. A temperature of nearly 80°F had been recorded in the shade. Now, towards late evening, a large crowd of young White men and girls were confronting a large crowd of Blacks. The two groups, some 70 or 100 yards apart, threatened each other and taunted each other to attack:
For four wasted years British soldiers had endured the mud, blood and spattered guts of Flanders. While they were butchering and being butchered by their fellow White men, some of Britain’s major cities were being invaded by racial aliens who had been imported by the Government to aid the war effort.
The war ended in November 1918. Those Britons who survived the ordeal of criminal insanity which wrecked and exhausted Europe were supposed to come home to a ‘Land Fit For Heroes.’ In fact, they came home to encounter unemployment, poverty and Coloured immigrant populations interbreeding with White women.
The young men of that era had not been steeped in liberal-minority propaganda by the media, but had been schooled in the horrors of trench warfare. The stage was set for an explosion of racial violence, and it came as surely as the summer.
The Coloured Immigrant population was concentrated in Liverpool, South Wales and London, in what a Liverpool newspaper described as “distinct foreign colonies,” and which it viewed as “partly a check against the pollution of a healthy community by undesirables.”2
The same paper said that the Negro population of Liverpool had grown by “leaps and bounds” during the war, and estimated it at 4,000 to 5,000.3 The Times said that the Blacks were “largely West Indians” and put their number at about 5,000.4 The Daily Express put their number at 2,000.5 The South Wales Echo estimated that there were in Cardiff 1,200 unemployed Coloured seamen, including Arabs, Somalis, West African and West Indians.6
In Barry, according to the Liverpool Echo, there was a population of “some hundreds of Brazilian negroes, many of whom have been living on unemployment benefit.”7
London’s Immigrant population seems to have been mainly Chinese. A report in a national newspaper described London’s Chinatown:
“Turn down Burdett Road into the West India Dock Road. That is the way to the narrow, dirty streets where San Sing squats on the pavement of a night, smoking his long pipe and blinking up at the moon through its smoke.” The report referred to “evil-smelling dens where Chinamen sleep in four tiers of bunks,” and to the general “squalor,” “dirt” and “smell” of the area. It concluded: “Chinatown is growing. There are more Chinese in the purlieus of Rock Street and Pennyfields than ever before. The shop signs are creeping west.”8
The rioting first broke out in Liverpool on Thursday 5th June. It began in a pub when a Coloured man picked up a glass of beer and threw it at a group of Scandinavians at another table: “The Scandinavians left the premises and in the street were assaulted by the coloured men with sticks, knives, razors and pieces of iron torn from lampposts.”9
The Blacks then went on a general rampage, assaulting three old men and a policeman. A crowd of about 2,000 Whites gathered, but were dispersed by the police. The Blacks were not grateful for their rescue, however, and showed their resentment of police interference by shooting one policeman in the mouth and slashing another across the face with a razor.
Rioting broke out again on Sunday 8th June. An account of subsequent court proceedings said that a Coloured man had been running along the street waving an iron bar and shouting “Down with the white race.”10 The account continued: “White men appear determined to clear out the blacks, who have been advised to remain indoors. This counsel many of them disregard, and late on Sunday a large body of police had to be requisitioned to prevent serious consequences. Whenever a negro was seen he was chased and, if caught, severely beaten...”
The pattern was repeated late on the night of Monday 9th June. Another account of court proceedings read: “Evidence was given to the effect that the district was in uproar and every coloured man seen was followed by large hostile crowds. In two instances the negroes, on being attacked, pulled out knives and razors and attempted to stab some of the crowd. On was heard to shout, ‘Come on, you English dogs, I will do for you.’”11
Fresh disturbances in the early hours of Wednesday 11th June were also reported. A correspondent telephoning from Liverpool at one o’clock in the morning said that “the streets were filled with thousands of excited people.”12
Rioting broke out at Newport on Friday 6th June and was said to have been caused by a Coloured man accosting a white girl. A soldier intervened and knocked the Coloured man to the ground: “Partisans gathered, and for two hours distrubances ensued. A Chinese laundry, refreshment houses, and lodging houses were wrecked and the furniture was taken into the street and burned.”13 Another report said that “The coloured men defended themselves with revolvers, pokers and sticks.”14
The rioting culminated the next day in an affray that was only quelled by a police baton charge: “Stones and iron bolts were thrown, and towards midnight the crowd had increased to several thousands. No blacks were to be seen in the streets.”15
According to the Head Constable’s report on the Cardiff riots, the confrontation described in our opening paragraphs had begun “when a brake containing a number of coloured men and white women, apparently returning from an excursion, attracted a mixed crowd.”16
“About 10 o’clock a wordy argument between blacks and whites ended in the blacks, who were in superior numbers, setting upon one of the white men, who was thrown to the ground and brutally kicked.”17 The White man was rescued by a policeman “and the blacks, seeing that the anger of the whites had now been roused, bolted precipitately.”18
After this minor skirmish came the major confrontation, the White charge, and the Black retreat into “Nigger Town.” This area contained a large colony of Negroes, many of whom had married White women. “The whites followed the blacks into their retreat and pandemonium ensued.”19
A Black flourishing a razor was knocked down, and the razor kicked from his hand. More shots were fired, and a group of Blacks was seen rushing into a shop. The Whites smashed the door and windows, rushed into the shop, and hustled out two Blacks, who were beaten with sticks and frying-pans.
In another street a house occupied by Blacks was attacked: “The door was battered to splinters. The screams of a woman were heard and revolver shots again rang out. A fleeing negro was sighted and, giving chase, the whites overhauled him and brought him down. A revolver was wrested from his hand, and he was belaboured with sticks, kicked and struck.”20
Another house where Negroes lived was set on fire, but the fire brigade extinguished the flames: “A young white woman was rescued from the premises, and the police, who escorted her away, had some difficulty in protecting her from other white women.”21
A group of Whites led by a soldier were confronted, when entering one house, by four white girls in night attire: “We are British girls,” one of them said. “Thank God there are others!” was the answer from one of the leaders, meaning that there were white girls who would not consort with black men. The four girls were hastily brushed aside and the house searched for coloured men.”22
Elsewhere in the city “a young man named Harold Smart walked up to a constable and complained that a coloured man had cut his throat. The constable promptly took him to King Edward’s Hospital in a taxicab, but the man died almost immediately after his arrival.”23
Smart was a 20 year-old ex-soldier who had been discharged from the army after being wounded in the left arm. He was described in a local paper as “a very quiet lad.”24 When he was buried on the 17th June the streets in his area were lined with people: “The coffin was covered with the Union Jack, and a party of men from the 1st Welsh Regiment acted as bearers, while the ‘Last Post’ was sounded by a lance corporal.”25
By the following evening the authorities had become sufficiently alarmed to keep a magistrate on hand to read the Riot Act and a company of the Welsh Regiment on hand to enforce it.26
Two men were killed that evening, an unidentified Negro and an Irishman, John Donovan, who was shot through the heart with a revolver bullet fired by a Negro:
“It was late at night when the trouble was renewed, and some two or three hours elapsed before the police were able to quell the riot... As trouble was anticipated extra police had been drafted into ‘Nigger Town,’ but the tone of the crowd of whites became more and more angry. They assembled in front of a house where eight negroes were known to reside, and challenges were issued to them to come out. Several colonial soldiers constituted themselves the ringleaders of the besieging party, which was largely made up of discharged soldiers. Some of the latter asked:– “Why should these coloured men be able to get work when it is refused us?” The relations of coloured men with white women were also referred to angrily.
“The door of the house was burst in, and the assailants crowded into the narrow passage, and began to ascend the stairs. Then a revolver shot rang out, and an exclamation was heard, “My God, I am hit.” It came from Donovan. Two colonial soldiers who led the attackers fell flat to avoid further bullets, but quickly arose, and headed in a rush into a room where the negroes were gathered. A desperate fight ensued, but eventually the coloured men were overcome, not, however, before one of the attackers had been severely cut on the head with a razor... The authorities are being urged to import an armed military force.”27
The “colonial soldiers” were, apparently, Australians.28
On the same day that the Cardiff riots began (Wednesday 11th June), Fred Longman, a dock labourer, was stabbed to death in Barry by a Negro sailor: “The black waylaid him, seized him by the throat, pinned him against a wall, and stabbed him under the heart.”29
Another account relates: “The news spread like wildfire, and thousands of people, many being women, raided the negroes’ quarters.”30 The assailant turned out to be a native of the French West Indies.31
The troubles in London were more sporadic. On Saturday 14th June there was an incident at a coffee shop in Cable Street, East London, where two Negroes were “roughly handled.”32 The Daily Mail reported that “a coffee shop kept by an Arab was stormed and the furniture wrecked; two revolver shots were fired at the crowd by Negroes who were found in the house... The riot arose on a report being spread that some white girls had been seen to enter the house. Soon a crowd of about 3,000 people assembled, and the place was attacked.”33
There were further riots on the evening of Monday 16th June when “the attention of the white people” was “first turned against Chinese inhabitants,” while later in the evening “a quarrel between white and black men broke out...”34 The anti-Chinese riot took the form of “an act of incendiarism at premises occupied by L. Sing, at Northumberland Street, Poplar.”35
From Heritage and Destiny, issue 5, Summer 1982, pp. 6-8.