Race riots of 1919: Charles Wootton

After hundreds of years of slavery and now through the so called ‘Freedom’ of the modern age, from the murder of Charles Wootton of Liverpool in 1919 to the burning of young people in New Cross fire in Walthamstow 1981 to the frequent daily events of today Black people have had to contend with racial violence.

Following the First World War – in which Caribbean soldiers had done some of the most dangerous and back-breaking work for lower pay than their White counterparts – racial tensions in some of the UK’s major cities were at a high.

Many Caribbean war veterans wanted to reside in the “motherland”, as the UK was sometimes called, but were often blamed for all the problems that beset a country following war.

Many of these Black servicemen and workers were left destitute in the city after a ‘colour bar’ was introduced in many industries. It saw White workers, often backed by unions, refusing to work alongside Black people.

The Black community had been welcomed and were well established in the city but “resentment brewed” following WWI, as Black workers were blamed for a lack of jobs and housing. There was also a strong resentment at the growing relationships between Black men and White women. The same sequence of events repeated themselves after WWII with a similar resentment, racism and outcome.

Tensions eventually boiled over in the 1919 race riots in seaports across Britain.

On the night of June 5, 1919, a fight broke out in Liverpool between Black and Scandinavian sailors, leading police to raid the streets where the city’s Black community lived.

Charles Wootton, also known as Wotten, a 24-year-old Bermudan who served in the Royal Navy during the war, fled his home but was chased into the River Mersey, by the police and a racist mob, where he was pelted with stones until he drowned. Police, who initially came to arrest him, did nothing to stop the attack (a blue plaque bearing his name now stands at the spot).

The rioting crowd swelled to almost 10,000 people. Minority-owned businesses and homes were destroyed by White rioters. Unsurprisingly the government did not reimburse victims for any damages they incurred, and fast-tracked a repatriation package set up for Caribbean servicemen. These days Priti Patel just puts them on a plane at midnight without recourse to law, with our own Caribbean racist version of ‘Extraordinary Rendition’.

Below news reports of the events:

1919 – The Murder of Charles Wootton

By Jeremy Hawthgorne in Nerve

On the evening of 5 June 1919, a fight took place in Great Georges Square, Liverpool. It involved rival groups of Black and Scandinavian men. The police were called and decided to arrest the black men. They went at the head of an angry white crowd to Upper Pitt Street, where there were hostels and other houses occupied by the black community. There was resistance to this incursion and two police officers sustained gunshot wounds, seemingly from the same bullet.

Charles Wootton, a 24-year-old ships fireman from Bermuda, lived at 18 Upper Pitt Street. He fled from the house to escape. He was chased about half a mile to the Queens Dock. A police officer took hold of him there but the crowd snatched him away. He either jumped or was thrown into the water. He was then hit on the head by a stone and drowned.

You might expect such an event to make people stop and think, but if anything the horror increased. The police raid on Upper Pitt Street continued and eleven black men appeared in court the next morning, several with bandaged heads. One was wearing his naval uniform. All were charged with attempted murder on the flimsiest identification evidence.

As for the actual murder, no one was as much as questioned. Charles Wootton’s inquest opened and closed in a single day a week later. It was said that the dead man was reasonably believed to have fired at the police and that he was escaping lawful arrest. The stone that hit him was thrown .from the middle of the crowd. While a police officer tried to rescue him. The jury recorded these events without even calling the event an unlawful killing.

The atrocities continued in the following days. Crowds – at times several thousand strong – attacked black-occupied homes and hostels. Whole buildings were vandalised, emptied of their furniture and even set alight. The writer Ernest Marke describes the chilling experience of being chased all over town by white mobs. Within a week over seven hundred black residents were detained in police stations for their own protection, as the police could not cope.

There was of course a background to all this. There had been a black community in Liverpool for centuries, largely by reason of the shipping trade. World War I brought many more people from all corners of the British Empire either to fight or to fill gaps in the labour force left by recruitment and conscription. These new arrivals were British subjects and there was no work permit system.

Come the end of the war, there was massive demobilisation and unemployment. Black ex-servicemen were cast adrift and found homes in communities like Liverpool.s South End. At the same time, white ex-soldiers and sailors demanded civilian employment that had been promised them in .a land fit for heroes..

So it was that the black community became a target. A city that in so many other respects was on the brink of revolution drew on its slave trade experience and turned on its black citizens.

On 10 June 1919 a black delegation visited the Liverpool Echo. They were led by the secretary of the Ethiopian Hall (off Brownlow Hill) where some seventy men had taken refuge against attack. This is an extract from their statement:

“The majority of Negroes at present are discharged soldiers and sailors without employment; in fact some of them are practically starving, work having been refused them on account of their colour.

On May 13 I visited the Lord Mayor with a view to the repatriation of some coloured men and to find if it was possible for a bounty to be given to these men through the Colonial Office, as the majority of them have pawned their clothes in order to obtain food. This was due to their being unable to obtain work as seafarers. Our goods and our houses have been broken and taken away from us.

“Some of us have been wounded and lost limbs and eyes fighting for the Empire in which we have the honour to belong.

“At present between 40 and 43 coloured men report themselves daily for repatriation.

“During the war, when the Mauretania was due to sail, the white crew failed to put in an appearance. She was manned by ‘niggers’. We ask for British justice, to be treated as true and loyal sons of Great Britain. We must remind the public that in Africa there are white men and last week 180 Europeans came home on leave from the West Coast. The Liverpool public must reflect on these points.”

Read More

Liverpool in 1919 – Open Research Projects – Making Britain

New Cross fire in Walthamstow 1981 – Black History Bootleg

World War I and World War II – Black History Bootleg and Memorial Gates Trust

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