1919 Race Riots centenary - looking back at Untold Stories

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In November 2013 at the Museum of Liverpool we launched our Untold Stories project, exploring the stories of some of Liverpool’s Black Families in the First World War. We were able to search back through the histories of several local families, who then featured in our exhibition Reflecting on Liverpool’s Home Front, which was a great success and ran for a year from July 2014.

As part of the project we worked with local groups and organisations to create a mix of events, both in the Museum of Liverpool and in the Liverpool 8 area. While working on a series of creative writing workshops with Writing on the Wall, we got the chance to look at an amazing archive of material, relating to the Race Riots in Liverpool that happened in 1919. 100 years on Writing on the Wall told the story of the Riots as part of their WoWFest 2019 programme.

By the summer of 1919 tensions that had been rising for many months finally boiled over. Servicemen had been returning from the First World War expecting a hero’s welcome, only to find that after four long years away, their jobs had either disappeared altogether, or had been filled by lower paid women and immigrant workers. Angry letters began to appear in newspapers. Racist insults and threats were hurled at both men and women in the street and scuffles frequently broke out. The scuffles escalated into street brawls and the Police were soon trying to track down ring leaders.

On the evening of 5 June the police raided a boarding house in Upper Pitt Street, home to mainly Caribbean and West African seafarers. Violence broke out and an angry mob gathered on the street, determined to fight with the seafarers. Charles Wotten, a Bermudan ship’s fireman, escaped the house and fled towards the docks, pursued by the police and by the mob. It is unclear exactly what happened next, but he was apprehended by the police and then somehow ended up in the Dock. He tried to swim away, while the mob pelted him bricks and stones, but soon drowned. The Coroner’s investigation would not give a clear verdict as to whether he had jumped or had been pushed.

The archive researched by Writing on the Wall and an exhibition at the Liverpool Record Office in 2019 covered the story of the riots, the resulting outcry, and attempts by local and national government to deal with the crisis. The fascinating documents look at the families and the places that came under attack and the attempts by the Mayor of Liverpool to repatriate the ‘stranded’ men involved. 

Visitors to the 2019 festival could also take part in a walking tour, taking in relevant places connected to the riots on Sunday 26 May 2019. It was a really powerful way of connecting to the events of 100 years ago. On Saturday 25 May a one day conference at St Georges Hall reflected on the riots which were happening in Liverpool, but also in other sea ports around the UK and brought the discussion up to the present day and where we are now.