1919 race riots

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 5

Time period: Interwar 1918-1939

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Political and social reform

Suggested inquiry questions: What was the significance of the 1919 race riots in Liverpool and Cardiff? What do these documents reveal about race relations in Britain?

Potential activities: Students could research how men from Yemen and the Caribbean came to settle in port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool and how communities formed around them. Look at how these histories are remembered today in both Cardiff and Liverpool. Can you find out if the streets where the riots happened still exist?

How significant a factor was race in the riots of 1919?

The 1919 race riots were the first time many people became aware of the presence of black and minority ethnic people living in Britain, including those who had lived and worked here for many years and served in the war.

At the end of the First World War, the demobilisation of troops caused severe post-war competition for jobs. The perception that foreigners were ‘stealing’ jobs was one of the triggers for the rioting and attacks on black and minority ethnic communities in British port cities.

Use this lesson to find out more about the 1919 race riots in Cardiff and Liverpool. How significant a factor was race in these riots?


Tasks

Sources 1a, 1b, 1c: Census returns for Butetown, Cardiff, in 1911.

The census is a register or list of people in the United Kingdom that takes place every ten years. Each return shows the structure of the household, the occupations of its inhabitants, their relationships to each other and their original place of birth.

  1. What do the returns for Butetown reveal about the diversity of Cardiff port in terms of interracial marriage and religious tolerance?
  2. Examine the three different households in each of the returns. Describe the benefits of being with people who shared your country of origin or the experience of migration. What drawbacks might there be?
  3. Why do you think that details regarding faith are recorded in Source 1b?
  4. Why do you think details on Mr Shaw’s return Source 1c shows that, although born in Hong Kong, he is a ‘British subject by parentage’?
  5. What do all of the census returns tell us about the mobility of families and employment during the early twentieth century?
  6. How do the census returns help us to reflect on the types of challenges the seamen or families might have faced?
  7. What do you find most interesting or surprising about these returns?
  8. What other original sources would be useful in finding out about the diverse community of Butetown?

Source 2: Extract from a letter from the Cardiff Chief Constable to the Under Secretary of State, Home Office, 13 June 1919

  1. What economic and social factors does the author suggest could have caused the rioting?
  2. What do the black sailors claim in terms of their status? Explain the basis of their claim.
  3. The Chief Inspector refers to ‘practically concentrating all his force’ upon the Butetown area. How could geographical or other boundaries be significant in the riots? If so, how do you see this presented in this report?
  4. What does the use of the term ‘coloured men’ infer about this document and the author?

Source 3: Letter from the Assistant Head Constable of Liverpool, L. Everett, to the Home Office, 10 June 1919.

  1. Why do you think the Head Constable is writing to the Home Office?
  2. What actions is the Liverpool Head Constable calling for in his letter to the Home Office?
  3. What reasons does the letter give for the ‘outbreak of enmity against the black population’ in Liverpool?
  4. Compare this letter to Source 2. Which source do you think would be a fairer assessment of the subject? Give your reasons.
  5. The letter states that relations between the black and the white population have been deteriorating for some time. Can you explain why?
  6. Can you identify the different black populations mentioned in the letter and comment upon the attitude of the Head Constable towards them?
  7. What inferences can you draw from the tone of the letter?

Source 4: Letter from the Office of the Superintending Aliens Officer (an office of the Home Office based in Liverpool) to the Home Office in London, 11 June, 1919.

  1. Why was there a meeting between Mr Kirkham and the employment exchange?
  2. What do you think the writer means by ‘the coloured problem’?
  3. How does he suggest that this could be solved?
  4. Why are ‘Chinese and Negroes’ described as unemployable?
  5. Why is the employment of Irishmen described as ‘unacceptable’?
  6. What does this document infer about racial tensions in Liverpool at that time?

Source 5: An article from the Morning Post, 13th June 1919.

  1. What is the date of this article?
  2. Why is this date significant in relation to the 1919 race riots?
  3. Comment on the language and tone of this article.
  4. What reason does the writer give for Australia’s objection to unrestricted non-white immigration?
  5. How does the writer describe the approach of British colonial rulers when they are abroad?
  6. Which nationalist or anti-colonial voices may the writer of the article be referring to?
  7. What is the significance of the term ‘brothers-in-law’ in this context?
  8. What does this article reveal about debates taking place on the issue of race and racism at the time?

Source 6a: Letter from a clerk at Cardiff Town to the Home Office relating to lodging houses in Cardiff, 21 April 1921.

  1. Why is trade at the dockyard described as ‘stagnant’ in 1921?
  2. Why does the writer suggest that overcrowded lodging houses is a ‘serious’ issue?
  3. What possible consequences could he be referring to if matters are not resolved?
  4. How many of these men could claim to be British?
  5. What do the following suggestions for non-British Subjects mean? a) Repatriation (b) Accommodated in a concentration camp

Source 6b: Telegram from the Cardiff Seamen’s Boarding Housekeepers Association to the Colonial Office, London, 13 June, 1921.

  1. Why might the Boarding House keepers choose to contact to the Colonial Office in this way?
  2. How does this source affect your view of the boarding house keepers’ situation and the seamen who stayed with them?
  3. What other sources could you use to find out more about the missions or rest houses referred to in both sources?

Source 7: Letter from the Eugenics Education Society to the Colonial Office, 24 January 1919.

  1. Why have the Eugenics Education Society and the Anthropological Institute written to the Colonial Office?
  2. Why do both organisations regard racial mixing as a ‘problem’?
  3. What possible concerns might the Colonial Office have in relation to racial mixing in the Empire?
  4. What is the greatest concern according to the Eugenics Society and Anthropological Institute regarding racial mixing?

Source 8: Letter from a seaman named Claudius Smart to the Colonial Office, London 3 January, 1921.

  1. How does Claudius Smart express himself in this letter to explain the difficulties of his situation?
  2. How does he suggest that the authorities could resolve it?
  3. Can you explain what the repatriation scheme involved?
  4. How did repatriation affect the seamen, their wives and their wider families?
  5. What can we infer from this source and source 7 about the attitudes of the authorities and the public towards white British women who married black men at this time?
  6. What can we learn about the personal circumstances/predicament of the women, men and families affected by these changes?

Background

In the aftermath of the First World War, street protests, riots and strikes broke out in countries worldwide as millions of workers faced unemployment and housing shortages – rather than the promised peacetime prosperity. In 1919, a series of violent riots in Glasgow, South Shields, Salford, London, Hull, Newport, Barry, Liverpool and Cardiff saw street fights, vandalised properties and five people killed. Thousands-strong white working-class crowds in these port towns directed their anger at black and minority ethnic communities, blaming colonial workers – whose numbers had increased to meet war time shipping needs – for post-war job shortages.

The sense of menace and the lingering effects of racism continued into the 1920s was most evident in the comments of the immigration official E.N. Cooper, who wrote to the Home Office after visiting an employment centre for seamen: ‘…we found ourselves the only white men in a surging sea of 500 negroes pressing around us offering their services, assuming that I was the ship’s captain who had come into the room to engage a crew’ (HO 45/11897/332087/100).

The 1919 riots were one of the most severe incidents of unrest in 20th century Britain. Known as ‘race riots’, they came to national prominence via the newspapers of the day, making many aware of the presence of black and minority ethnic communities in Britain. The coverage was often hostile and racist in tone, suggesting that the problem of communities unable to mix was long-standing.

However, census records from 1911 provide a more complex picture. While there were occasional incidents of racial tension, reports testify to a spirit of co-habitation as mariners of many different races and cultures settled with White British women to bring up their families. Before the war, major port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool were international trading centres and home to established black and minority ethnic seafaring communities. They expanded during the war as workers from the colonies were recruited to meet increased demands from shipping. When peace came, the shipping industry contracted and all British workers were affected, including White merchant sailors returning to their home ports after serving in the armed forces. Inflammatory press reports at the time, however, traced the outbreak of the Cardiff riots to widespread racist attitudes towards mixed-race couples, as much as to resentment about rising unemployment.

In February 1919, the Home Office responded to concerns about rising levels of unemployment in British seaports by launching a repatriation scheme to return black and Arab colonial workers to their countries of origin. Local repatriation committees were established in port towns that had experienced riots to promote the scheme. Despite penalties for not taking part, many refused to participate, feeling Britain was their home. The continuing crisis led the government to offer £5 plus £1 voyage allowances to anyone who participated. The Colonial Office, however, were keen that married couples where the husband was black and the wife white should not be repatriated, fearing it would upset the existing social order in the colonies they were removed to.

On one level it was matters of ethnicity that triggered the ‘race’ riots. However, the historian Jacqueline Jenkinson urges caution in seeing the riots as purely a matter of racism and prejudice. She asserts that time and place are very important to keep in mind. In South Shields, Glasgow and Hull, job competition just after the war played a significant role in the disturbances. In Cardiff and Liverpool, where there were far larger and more settled black and Arab communities, race played a more significant role, fuelled by concerns in the media and amongst the public about interracial relationships.

In addition, any analysis of the rioting in 1919 and its fallout needs to take into account other factors. These include:

  • The post-war psychological trauma of returning service personnel.
  • The significant financial depression, which saw a spike in unemployment.
  • The expansion of the franchise (the right to vote), which meant that politicians needed to placate working class voters at the same time as meeting the threat of increasing industrial militancy and the fear of Bolshevik revolution.
  • Women were emboldened by their experience of war service, leading to significant changes for post-war society.
  • Finally, the ill-defined nature of Britishness further fuelled disputes as to who was British and who was not.

Teachers' notes

The focus of this lesson concerns the riots that took place in Cardiff and Liverpool in 1919. The lesson is designed to support students following a thematic study on race and immigration and attitudes towards ethnic minorities from 1919 onwards. The lesson introduces students to different historical sources – from the census, the Home Office and the Colonial Office – to evaluate how significant a factor race was in these riots.

Please note these sources include some racist and abusive language and are presented here to accurately represent a historical narrative. This language wasn’t acceptable at the time and isn’t acceptable today.  

To explore the diverse social context of Butetown in Cardiff, students can first examine extracts from the 1911 census. These provide evidence of interracial marriage and religious tolerance. Through a police letter on the Cardiff riots, students can then explore the possible social and economic causes of the riots.

Students can continue by comparing these to similar earlier riots in Liverpool, using a letter from the Head Constable to the Home Office. Subsequent Home Office sources provide further context on race relations and employment, in addition to sources from the Colonial Office, which include a telegram from the Cardiff Seamen’s Boarding Housekeepers Association and a Home Office letter about seamen’s lodging houses. The final sources explore debates about the issue of eugenics from the Medical Research Council, as well as the personal story of a seaman as told in a source from the Colonial Office, which explores interracial marriage, racial attitudes and issues concerning repatriation.

Students can work in pairs or small groups to study each source and report back to the rest of the class to discuss their answers to the different tasks. Alternatively, they can work through the tasks independently. All sources are transcribed and the lesson includes a downloadable bibliography for further reading.

You may wish to explore the following extension questions with students:

Extension questions

  • Why are the majority of these sources from the Home Office/Colonial Office?
  • How does your understanding of the sources in this lesson help explain the image of the plaque used at the top of the webpage?
  • How could the census returns be used to explore causes of tension within Butetown or between Butetown and the wider British public after the First World War?
  • How can the census be used to discuss topics such as the occupations of women, religious tolerance, co-existence of different religious communities, and intermarriage of different cultures and races?
  • What might the impact of interracial marriage have been on port society at that time?
  • What other sources could you use to explore the causes and events of the 1919 race riots?

Connections to curriculum

Edexcel A level History

Britain transformed, 1918–97 Race and immigration: immigration policies and attitudes towards ethnic minorities, 1918–39.

Sources

Banner image: Close-up of the plaque to Charles Wooten at Queens Dock, Liverpool. Photographed by Rodhullandemu. CC BY-SA 4.0. View in Wikimedia Commons

1. Census returns for Butetown, Cardiff, 1911. Catalogue references: 1a Class: RG14; Piece: 32125; No. 208 1b Class: RG14; Piece: 32125; No. 214 1c Class: RG14; Piece: 32127; No

2. Extract from a letter from the Cardiff Chief Constable to the Under Secretary of State, Home Office, 13 June 1919. Catalogue ref: HO 45/11017/377969/5

3. Letter from Assistant Head Constable of Liverpool, L. Everett to the Home Office, dated 10 June 1919. Catalogue ref: HO 45/11017/377969/6

4. Letter from the Office of the Superintending Aliens Officer (an office of the Home Office based in Liverpool) to the Home Office in London, 11 June, 1919. Catalogue ref: HO 45/11017/377969

5. An article from the Morning Post, 13th June 1919. Catalogue Ref: HO 45/11017/377969

6a. Letter from a clerk at Cardiff Town to the Home Office relating to lodging    houses in Cardiff, 21 April 1921. Catalogue ref: HO 45/11897/332087

6b. Telegram from the Cardiff Seamen’s Boarding Housekeepers Association to the Colonial Office, London, 13 June, 1921, Catalogue Ref: CO 323.879

7. Letter from the Eugenics Education Society to the Colonial Office, 24 January 1919. Catalogue ref: FD 1 1734 (5 & 4).

8. Letter from a seaman named Claudius Smart to the Colonial Office, London 3 January, 1921. Catalogue ref: CO 137 744


External links

Below is a selection of useful blogs from The National Archives with documents for further study:

Below are some additional useful links from outside The National Archives:

An online archive relating to the history of the South Shields Yemeni community.

A community-based organisation that aims to chronicle the cultural diversity of Tiger Bay and Cardiff Docklands.

An archive documenting black ex-servicemen, seamen and factory workers stranded or left destitute in Liverpool after the First World War.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 5

Time period: Interwar 1918-1939

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Political and social reform

Suggested inquiry questions: What was the significance of the 1919 race riots in Liverpool and Cardiff? What do these documents reveal about race relations in Britain?

Potential activities: Students could research how men from Yemen and the Caribbean came to settle in port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool and how communities formed around them. Look at how these histories are remembered today in both Cardiff and Liverpool. Can you find out if the streets where the riots happened still exist?

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