Race riots in Britain did not start in the 1950s, similar set of riots occurred years ago in 1919 across Britain, when tension between white locals, police and the new black communities reached breaking point. The new communities were concentrated in Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Barry and Newport.

Most of these riots took place around the country’s docklands where a majority of Caribbean and some African people worked as sailors, sea merchants and manual labourers. Wales’ first race riot broke out in Newport on Friday 6th June 1919 and was said to have been caused by a black man accosting a white girl. The story was presented in this way by the London Times. A soldier intervened and knocked the black man to the ground: “Partisans gathered, and for two hours disturbances ensued. A Chinese laundry, refreshment houses, and lodging houses were wrecked and the furniture was taken into the street (in the George Street area) and burned.” Another report said that “The coloured men defended themselves with revolvers, pokers and sticks.” One rioter told the South Wales Argus “we are all one in Newport and mean to clear the ====== out”. The hatred was directed at West Indians, West Africans and other non-whites as well. White mobs wrecked so many properties that, according to the South Wales Argus, the town looked as if it had suffered an air raid. A police constable’s view of the riot clearly indicates that there was an intent to attack the boarding lodges in numbers 3 and 4 George Street.

The rioting culminated the next day in an affray that was only quelled by a police baton charge: “Stones and iron bolts were thrown, and towards midnight the crowd had increased to several thousands. No blacks were to be seen in the streets.” The anti-black riots that spread through British ports that spring were associated with the demobilisation of the armed forces after the first world war, a period of economic crisis in which black populations became the scapegoats. There were no serious injuries, but extensive damage to property. When the police arrived they arrested 27 black and three white people. The impression derived from a reading of press accounts is that police arrested the black victims of violence out of all proportion to their numbers, and relatively few white perpetrators. At the beginning of July at Court the police brought eight white men, one white woman and 32 Black men to the hearing as charged.

The Court report in the Western Mail recounts that between 1000 and 1500 men and youths were outside the Black seaman’s boarding house in George Street. The mob was led by Gordon Maskell. They got into the house and smashed furniture, burning it on the railway siding. According to PC Nancarrow Maskell led the mob to the Swan Cafe in Commercial Road, Pill shouting ‘now for the Chinese’ before going on to wreck Arab and Mexican boarding houses. William Hunt is also credited as leading the mob. Mary Sheedy is noted to have caused criminal damage and incited the other rioters. Further riots occurred in Potters Parade and Ruperra Street.

Of the white rioters, Maskell and Sheedy were sentenced to three months imprisonment, a William Ryan to two months. A mixed race man ,thought to be part of the mob, Percy White was sentenced to three months hard labour. All others were bound over or acquitted. All the black seaman were thought to be from Africa and all fought in World War One as part of the British war effort and some went on to fight in World War Two. Only one went to prison, Jack Savage, serving one months’ hard labour. All the others were bound over or acquitted.

An Open University research project into 1919 race riots notes ” In the wake of the First World War and demobilisation, the surplus of labour led to dissatisfaction among Britain’s workers, in particular seamen. This was arguably the key factor that led to the outbreak of rioting between white and minority workers in Britain’s major seaports, from January to August 1919. Along with African, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Arab sailors, South Asians were targeted because of the highly competitive nature of the job market and the perception that these minorities were ‘stealing’ the jobs that should belong to white indigenous British workers. The housing shortage due to a lack of materials and labour during the war exacerbated the situation.”

Sunday Pictorial 8 June 1919