Britain on the Brink? The long summer of unrest in 1919

There has been much talk about the potential damaging economic fallout and possible civil upheaval that might occur if Britain ends up with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit in the autumn.

In fact, the summer of 2019 marks yet another period of intense uncertainty about the UK’s national identity and future, and recent polls and surveys suggest the electorate is increasingly polarised and unhappy, with significant numbers of people in an ‘anti-establishment’ mood.

Yet, in a sense, the country has faced similar periods of acute anxiety after major events during its modern history, including just after the end of the First World War. A century ago, Britain faced great uncertainty and increasing social and industrial unrest, which appeared to reach a climax during the long hot summer of 1919.

Army on duty in Summer 1919

A new article in the monthly BBC History magazine, entitled ‘Britain’s Red Summer’, and penned by the historian Clifford Williamson, tells the dramatic story of a summer when a combination of race riots, mutinies and violent strikes saw politicians very uncertain about how to deal with such disorder.

At the same time, the Government was also haunted by fears of Bolshevism spreading to the colonies and Dominions, or even of Bolshevik revolution breaking out in Britain itself.

Such worries were exacerbated by a number of police strikes across the country. As Williamson notes, for example, in Liverpool three nights of serious rioting had occurred after members of Merseyside police took industrial action and the city had been left in the hands of ‘the hooligan element’. By the time the unrest died down, a thousand soldiers had been drafted in and more than 600 people arrested.

According to Williamson, the Liverpool riot was just one of ‘many instances of violence and disorder to punctuate Britain’s “Red Summer” of 1919’. Glasgow, to give another example, saw considerable unrest in the east end of the city and in the shipyards of the Clyde. In Cardiff in Wales, tensions over lack of jobs for returning demobilised troops resulted in a series of ugly racial attacks on foreign labourers. Local Greek and Chinese businesses were also vandalised, and a gang of white men attacked West Indians or foreign sailors.

Perhaps of greatest concern to the Government was evidence of discontent and mutinous protest over conditions in British military camps and the apparent slowness of demobilisation. In the eyes of the Cabinet, there was a danger that soldiers were becoming ‘politicised’ and susceptible to ‘Communist’ agitation, and great pressure was brought to bear on local authorities to ensure demobilised soldiers regained their old jobs as quickly as possible. This was often bad news for women and ‘foreign’ labourers, who had become instrumental to the economy during the war. Moreover, local employers were not necessarily keen to re-employ large numbers of former soldiers, especially if they were now disabled from battle injuries. Unemployment among ex-service men thus remained high during 1919, and various marches and protests were staged by veterans’ associations, some of which turned disorderly.

My own research work on the period tends to support this analysis of 1919 as a hot and ‘Red’ summer of upheaval and discontent, a time of anxiety which exerted an impact even on the leafy suburbs of Kingston and Surbiton. Earlier in the year the local Surrey Comet in Kingston had already devoted an editorial to what it called ‘A Surge of Strikes’, which, the newspaper claimed, threatened ‘to engulf the whole community’. The Comet had asked: ‘What is afoot? Strike, strike, strike. One would imagine that the whole industrial population had become infected with some virus as deadly in its effect as the bite of a mad dog’.

Sacked police returning their uniforms

By May and June, 1919, the Comet was devoting space to the possibility of a police strike in the Metropolitan Police area of London. Some officers and constables did indeed take action, but the strike collapsed after the government offered better pay and conditions. Police members who did take action were severely punished, often with instant dismissal, and a number were banished from the service for life and blacklisted from other occupations (the photo above shows some dismissed police officers returning their uniforms).

Anxiety over industrial unrest and the seeming rise of ‘Red’ agitation also saw the formation in Kingston of a local branch of the Middle Classes Union (MCU), which had been founded in London in March, 1919. The new local branch held its first meeting in Surbiton Assembly Rooms in July. The object of the MCU was stated to be to protect the ‘middle classes’ from both the rise of labour and the exploitation of rich capitalists, and also to prevent the trade unions from ‘paralysing’ the country.

Similarly, a local branch of the British Empire Union (BEU), which had originally been formed in 1915 as the Anti-German Union, voiced conspiratorial claims that ‘Germans’ and ‘Reds’ were in a secret alliance to undermine the country, as the ‘Hun’ could not accept his defeat in the war.

Significantly, in early August, 1919, the Surrey Comet produced an editorial entitled ‘Drifting Towards Anarchy’, which complained that the striking Yorkshire Miners were now ‘bringing ruin’ upon the industries of England, and claimed that the happenings of the last few days ‘cannot fail to awaken serious misgivings as to the future of our beloved land’. A railway strike on the London and South-West Railway also saw the Comet allege that the striking railway workers had ‘lost the respect of all fair-minded men’.

At national level, as Williamson’s new article ably points out, there was sufficient upheaval across the country during the summer of 1919 to suggest that, at the time, post-war Britain ‘remained a nation at war with itself’.

The new issue of BBC History magazine (July, 2019) is on sale now.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)



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