“Suddenly, without warning, police made a savage, totally unexpected assault on the rear of the meeting, smashing right and left with their batons…”
Willie Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, 1936
Recently-opened papers in the National Records of Scotland archive reveal the inside story of the George Square Riot of 1919 – a violent and shocking battle between police and trade unionists in the heart of Glasgow, one hundred years ago today.
It was the largest strike to date and one of the worst riots of its era, and for one day it seemed like Glasgow might be on the brink of revolt… Newly opened files in the National Records of Scotland archives now reveal the inside story of the George Square riot, one hundred years ago today.
In this photograph from 1919, an unidentified man – possibly trade unionist David Kirkwood, who was later elected to Parliament – is pushed away from the scene of the infamous George Square Riot by a baton-wielding policeman in 1919.
Other papers include an evidence list showing weapons, revolutionary pamphlets and personal items; witness testimony providing a unique insight into the strike leaders’ views, and correspondence that reveals the outrage of trade unionists.
Police sergeant with baton drawn, with a protester outside City Chambers, George Square, 31 January 1919. The protester may well be David Kirkwood, who testified that he had been standing on the statue of WE Gladstone before he was struck with a police baton and knocked unconscious. Sadly, there’s now no way to confirm the man’s identity. The spot in the photograph is now occupied by the Glasgow Cenotaph, which was added in the 1920s. (Ref: AD15/19/11/7)
In early 1919, the British economy had begun to contract following the end of the First World War, with a huge influx of demobilised servicemen into the labour market creating fears of mass unemployment.
The solution proposed by Scottish workers’ unions was straightforward and overtly political – a 40-hour working week, which would ensure returning soldiers would find employment at the same remuneration, rather than depressing wages.
On 31 January, a huge crowd of trades unionists gathered outside the City Chambers to press their case – including notable trade unionists David Kirkwood, Emmanuel “Manny” Shinwell and William Gallacher, all three of whom would later be elected to Parliament.
Accounts differ on subsequent events but all agree that police charged the crowd of trade unionists with batons drawn. George Square was transformed into a battlefield and Shinwell, Kirkwood and Gallacher were arrested and charged with instigating the riot.
Violent disorder continued throughout the day and into the night. Taken aback, the authorities read a section of the Riot Act to the crowd and later that day, the British Government ordered soldiers to take charge of the streets.
With the arrival of the troops, machine gun nests were placed in George Square and famously, tanks were stationed at the city’s Cattle Market.
In an eleven day trial starting on 7 April, Shinwell, Kirkwood and Gallacher appeared in court to answer charges, along with five of their colleagues.
“(The accused did) …Instigate and incite large crowds of persons assembled… to form part of a riotous mob to be assembled… for the purpose of holding up the traffic in said Square and adjoining streets, of overawing and intimidating the police officers on duty there, and of forcibly taking possession of the Municipal Buildings and North British Station Hotel…
“a riotous mob of 20,000 of thereby evil-disposed persons… did assemble in George Square aforesaid, and acting of common purpose, did conduct itself in a violent, riotous and tumultuous manner to the great terror and alarm of the lieges… and did forcibly stop tramway cars… and smash windows of said tramway cars and of shops and other premises situated in George Square”.
Indictment of Shinwell, Kirkwood, Gallacher +5, April 1919 (HH16/149)
The list of evidence gathered for the trial includes makeshift weapons and missiles, including a tramcar handrail, a wooden mallet and an iron bar, as well as personal items like watches, jewellery and a blood-stained handkerchief.
The evidence list also points towards official fears of the revolutionary fervour that had recently been seen in Germany and Russia, as police seized pamphlets including A Hand Book For Rebels, New Russia and The Call.
Unusually, the trial papers also include transcripts of proceedings – usually only recorded in the most serious cases.
Witness testimony provides an insight into the aims and character of the strike. Trade unionist William Shaw, secretary of the Glasgow Trades and Labour Council, relates a discussion with Manny Shinwell after strikers had raised a Red Flag in George Square on 27 January. For Shaw and Shinwell at least, the immediate issue at hand was remuneration of workers and their future relations with their employers.
“We were crossing the Square in company with Nimlin and we heard the cheering and a laugh and I looked round and Councillor Shinwell said, “That is them with the Red Flag”. They were running it up on the pole.
“I said “I think that is nonsense” and Shinwell said quite emphatically “This damned nonsense has got to stop; this is the 40 hours movement”.
Testimony of William Shaw, Ref: JC36/31/7
While most of the accused were later released, Shinwell and Gallacher were convicted of the offences, serving five and three months in prison respectively.
A letter from the United Garment Workers’ Trade Union, sent to the Secretary of State for Scotland after the trial, registered the trade unions’ outrage at events. The union protested against the imprisonment of Shinwell and Gallacher, and calls for their immediate release and a wider inquiry into “the whole circumstances surrounding the events” of 31 January.
The George Square Riot resulted from one of the largest strikes up to that time and it marked the rise of what became to be known as the Red Clydeside era, with many socialists, trade unionists and communists being elected to Parliament – a period of deprivation, labour disputes, high unemployment as Europe struggled in the aftermath of the First World War.
Manny Shinwell, then Secretary of the British Seafarers and Firemen’s Union, was elected to Parliament as MP for Linlithgow in 1922. He served in the National Government during World War II and later as Minister of Fuel and Power in the post-war government of Clement Attlee. He was made a life peer in 1970 and died at the age of 101 in 1986.
“I was on the (Gladstone) statue. I came down from the statue and got my head split…” David Kirkwood, a veteran trade unionist, was knocked unconscious after being struck with a baton by police during the riot. He was elected MP for Dumbarton at the 1922 election and was made 1st Baron Kirkwood in 1951. He died in 1955.
William Gallacher had been imprisoned during World War I after The Worker, the magazine of the Clyde Worker’s Union, criticised the war. He was imprisoned again in 1921 and in 1925. Gallacher was elected to Parliament in 1935 and served as an MP for the Communist Party for 15 years.
You can find guidance on searching NRS crime and court records here.