The 1842 Strike, Part 1

In the summer of 1842 a great wave of strikes engulfed Lancashire and Yorkshire. The wave began in the Staffordshire coalfield in July when the miners went on strike for fewer hours and more pay. They also linked economic with political demands when a meeting passed a resolution stating that “nothing but the People’s Charter can give us a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’.” Miners marched from pit to pit spreading the strike as far north as Stockport.

Cotton masters in Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne gave notice that they intended to reduce wages by 25%. A mass meeting was held in Ashton on 26 July which was addressed by two Chartists and this was followed by other local meetings.

On Monday 8 August thousands of workers gathered at the Haigh in Stalybridge and brought out mills and factories in Ashton, Dukinfield and other villages. At 2pm thousands gathered in Ashton market square and then dispatched delegations to Oldham and Hyde to bring them out as well.

Tuesday 9 August

Perhaps 20,000 strikers gathered in Ashton and set off to Manchester along Ashton New Road, turning out mills and factories along the way. When they reached the junction of Pollard Street and Great Ancoats Street they were met by the magistrates, police and military. According to a letter later printed in the Manchester Guardian from Mr Daniel Maude, the chief magistrate, the procession “was led by large party of young women very decently dressed. Both they and the men who followed were arranged in regular file and nothing could be apparently more respectful and peaceable than their demeanour”.

Mr Maude refused to listen to the entreaties of the Chief Constable Sir Charles Shaw, who wanted to turn the police and military loose on the crowd, but instead placed himself at the head of the procession and led them to Granby Row Fields where they held an open air meeting which was joined by thousands from the neighbouring mills as they shut for dinner at noon. Richard Pilling stood on a cart and spoke of what had happened in Ashton and other towns. He told the crowd that they were determined not to return to work until the prices of 1840 were restored and they were seeking the co-operation of the people of Manchester for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour. At 1.30pm the crowd gave three very loud cheers for the People’s Charter and then set off back to their homes.

During the afternoon the Manchester mills were visited and turned out as well. There was some trouble where mill managers refused. The lodge at the Oxford Road twist company was gutted but the mill was untouched. At Birley’s Mill in Chorlton-upon-Medlock the managers closed and barricaded the doors and turned hose–pipes on the crowd, which retaliated by hurling lumps of coal at the windows, smashing hundreds. The managers climbed onto the roof and hurled down stones and pieces of metal onto the crowd below, nearly killing a young woman. Eventually the police and military turned up and dispersed the crowd, arresting seven people.

There was an attempt to start the mill the following morning but many workers were stopped from going in by mass picketing. The streets were cleared and patrolled by armed soldiers. On Thursday the there was fierce battle between the police and strikers, who only retreated after being charged by riflemen with fixed bayonets. The company closed the works at the end of the week, stating that on Friday and Saturday “a large proportion of the hands did not come and we reluctantly closed our Mills… We lament the necessity for suspending the payment of weekly wages to large number of usually contented and well conducted individuals, on many of whom others depend for support. “

The mill remained shut until 2 September.

Wednesday 10 August

There was meeting of 5, 000 at 6am at Granby Row addressed by a number of Chartists, including Christopher Doyle, who advised the crowd to apply to the workhouse for subsistence and not to go to work until the wages are raised. He advised people to go peacefully and not to break the law. The strikers marched to Ancoats, turning out mills on the way, the numbers growing to 10,000. The police blocked the way to the Kennedy mills, and there was some trouble with the cavalry being sent for.

Some of the crowd crossed Victoria Bridge into Salford, turning out mills along Greengate. The Manchester Guardian reported that

“ In passing along Broughton Road, one or two boys went into the shop of James Faulkner, provision dealer, and asked for bread. He gave them a 4lb loaf which was instantly torn to pieces in the crowd. There seemed to be at first an inclination amongst the younger member of the crowd to enter the shop and see if they could not get more bread, but the main body of the rioters forced them away saying that it would ruin their cause should they begin to plunder. Having proceeded as far as Broughton Bridge they halted in front of Mr Williams’s silk mill, having heard that there were some hands at work, but on being assured that such was not the case, they passed along Silk Street, Hope Fields, Adelphi Street, across Broken Bank, into Oldfield Road, from which they announced of making their way to Granby Row, to attend the meeting which was to take place there as stated in the morning”

By 9am all the mills in the areas of Ancoats, London Road and Oxford Road had turned out their hands. Deputations went to the managers of the mills and warned them that if the mills did not stop, there might be disturbances. Mr Jones mill on Chester Street initially refused but gave way after a crowd gathered outside.

At Messrs Stirling & Beckton on Lower Mosley Street (where they had been trouble the previous evening) the mill was visited several times crowds who called on the hands to come out. When they refused the crowd began throwing stones at the mill and Mr Beckton’s house. The cavalry arrived and, drawing their swords, they dispersed the crowds who ran in all directions.

There was another meeting at lunchtime at Granby Row Fields attended by thousands and chaired by Daniel Donovan. The speakers urged people not to return to work until their demands had been met and also urged people not to go to the bread shops. The meeting was adjourned until the following morning. The crowd then went in procession to Little Ireland.

Round about noon a crowd of several hundred young men and women, many armed with sticks, came down from the direction of Newtown Silk Mill to the Union Bridge over the Irk at the bottom of Gould Street and called down to men working in the river cleaning the filters to stop work. They then moved on to attack the gas works but driven off by a small number of police They returned in greater numbers and began hurling stones at the offices and house, before leaving the area. (The gas works was later guarded by police, soldiers, and sixty Chelsea pensioners who had been sworn in as special constables)

The crowd now set about a small house on Roger Street being used as a police station, eventually breaking in and ransacking the building, throwing the furniture into the street and hurling the policeman’s clothes into the Irk. Sergeant Almon, the only man left in the building (the rest having fled) hid under the cellar steps and was not found. The Manchester Guardian reported that after the crowd had moved, “their places were filled by a great number of lads, women and even girls who appeared to take delight in taking the work of destruction even further. They tore the handles and locks from the doors, broke the doors inside the house to pieces, pulled down mantelpieces, and even tore the grates out of the brick-work. The iron shelves of the oven were thrown out of the window, and everything was done to destroy the property.” Eventually fifty police and several dragoons arrived and seized a girl aged 14, who had thrown many things out of the window, and took her to the New Bailey prison. With the coast now clear Sergeant Almon emerged from his hiding place, clutching a sword. Nothing remained of the house except the floor and walls.

At about 12.15 a crowd of several hundred went down Princess Street, some of whom entered a provisions shop belonging to Mr Howarth and demanded bread. Perhaps not surprisingly he handed over several 4lb loaves. When the police arrived within a short space they arrested seven men who were still in the shop and took them to the New Bailey prison.

Later that same afternoon a crowd of thirty or so knocked on all the doors of house of Cooper Street, demanding money or bread from the house-holders who complied. The police led by Inspector Green stepped in and arrested the leaders.

Between 3pm and 4pm another group, who had already taken bread from shops on Deansgate, attacked a number shops on Oldham Street, stealing bread and other provisions and money. They then went off for a drink on the proceeds to the Cross Keys public house, Cross Street, Swan Street, where they were found by the police who arrested five men. The Manchester Guardian reported that they had been assured that “these parties consisted for most part of young thieves and not at all of workmen.”

At half past three a meeting of mechanics on a piece of waste ground near Oxford Road was attacked by a party of dragoons with sabres and the Rifle Brigade and dispersed, but not before they had agreed to meet the following day at the Carpenters Hall.

On Wednesday evening a public notice was issued summoning Chelsea pensioners to the Town Hall. The following morning some three hundred reported for duty and were sworn in as special constables

That same evening a group of women gathered in Great Ancoats Street and marched through the streets , their numbers increasing as they went. Their object was to bring out more mills. They were successful on Mill Street where the workers came out and they then moved onto Kennedy’s Mill, demanding that the mill to be closed. When this was refused they attacked the mills with stones, broke open the door and were about to invade the mill when the police arrived and set about the crowd. The Northern Star reported that the police “charged the people, sparing neither age nor sex, but laying about them right and left with their bludgeons and cutlasses; many were knocked down and beaten until they were unable to rise from the ground.” The women fought back with volleys of stones and the police eventually ran off “amidst the curses and execrations of the immense assemblage”.

Major Warre , the Manchester military commander, wrote to the Home Secretary requesting more soldiers, explaining that “I have but a very inadequate force in this town under the altered and excited state of things from the state of organisation among the working classes…..I did not expect that the general turn-out of work would take place in the towns of Lancashire to the south of this place… and that they should venture to march in bodies into Manchester notwithstanding the police and garrison.”

Until they had more soldiers, the town authorities advised mill-owners not to attempt to start up their mills as they could not provide enough forces to protect the mills and workers.

[Continued in Part 2]

Article by Michael Herbert

Peace and Antiwar activities in 1930s Manchester

In the decade before the outbreak of the Second World War there was extensive campaigning by a number of organisations in Manchester on the issues of peace and opposition to war.

The experience of the slaughter of millions during First World War (“the war to end all wars”) had led many to believe that war was not a solution to international conflict, indeed it might lead to the complete collapse of civilisation. The establishment of the League of Nations after the Paris Conference had appeared to offer hope that new system of international accord might prevent future conflicts. Its aims, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing war through collective security and settling international issues through discussion and arbitration. By 1935 it had 58 members, but not the United States, which refused to join despite the best efforts of President Woodrow Wilson.

Despite some successes, the League was revealed as powerless and ineffectual when countries ignored it and embarked on wars of aggression. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (then part of China), in 1935 Italy attacked Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), in 1936 Franco and other generals launched a coup against Spain’s Republican government, aided by Italy and Germany, in 1937 Japan launched a full-scale war against China. In each of these cases the League was unable to act effectively. Coupled with the accession to power of the Nazis in 1933 and their rapid re-armament of Germany, the worsening international situation appeared to portend that another world conflict was inevitable, a prospect many people found almost unbearable when memories of the last war were still so raw.

This public mood was crystallised by what became known as “the King and Country debate” at the Oxford Union on 9 February 1933. A motion stating “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” was proposed. It was moved by Kenelm Digby, who told the packed chamber that , “It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique. The justification urged for the last war was that it was a war to end war. If that were untrue it was a dastardly lie; if it were true, what justification is there for opposition to this motion tonight?” “. The motion was passed by 275 votes to 15.

The debate and the result caused enormous public controversy and contributed to the emergence of a new peace movement. In 1934 the Peace Pledge Union was founded by Canon Dick Shepherd and attracted tens of thousands of members. The PPU joined with the Women’s Co-operative Guild to promote the wearing of the White Poppy on Remembrance Sunday, which the Guild had started selling in 1933.

A survey conducted in 1934 by the Manchester and District Anti-War Council listed the following organisations in Manchester. Some had been started in response to the Great War, others founded more recently.

Manchester & District Anti-War Council:
This had been formed in 1933 and was a coalition of about fifty mainly working-class and left-wing organisations such as Co-operative Guilds, trade union branches, Labour Parties, ILP, Communists and youth organisations. It carried on regular propaganda work, including public meetings, producing leaflets and posters, contacting the press and holding monthly meetings. On occasions it worked with the Women’s International League and the Society of Friends. The officers were listed as Louise Bell of Daisy Bank, Manchester 10 and Cicely M. Marsh of Granville Road, Fallowfield.

Anti-War Group, Manchester University:
This University society was affiliated to the British Students’ Anti-War council. Student members, which were estimated at about one hundred, pledged themselves not to take part in war and to work actively against wars. The Secretary was P. Chantler.

Fellowship of Reconciliation:
This was an international Christian pacifist society founded in 1914. The Manchester branch was willing to collaborate with any organisation whose views did not conflict with those of FOR. The Secretary was Frank Adey, of Lower Broughton Road.

Manchester & Salford Joint Disarmament Council:
This had been formed in 1931 and was established for the purpose of co-ordinating the work of some thirty local organisations in preparation for the Disarmament conference. This conference was organised by the League of Nations and took place in Geneva from 1932 to 1933. It broke down when Hitler, on coming to power, withdrew Germany from the conference and also from the League of Nations. By 1934 this Council seems to have ceased to function.

League of Nations Union:
This had been established as a national organisation in October 1918 by the merger of the League of Free Nations Association and the League of Nations Society, with the aim of working for the support of the League of Nations amongst the people. Membership in Manchester and near-by districts was claimed to be around 25,000, organised into 72 branches. The LNU issued literature and provided speakers for public meetings and schools. The Secretary was C E Clift and the LNU had an office at 53 Barton Arcade.

Manchester Peace Players:
This drama society was formed to produce Peace Plays only and to perform these plays to churches, Co-operative Societies and Peace organisations. The players had about 25 acting members and 40 supporting members. The secretary was Helen Savage of York Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

No More War Movement:
The NWM was the British branch of the War Resisters International, founded in 1921. Members signed a declaration not to support any war, international or civil, and to work for the establishment of all caused of war, and the establishment of a new social and international order, based on co-operation for the common good. Membership was estimated at about 330. The Secretary was W Bingham, of Stretford Road.

Society of Friends:
The Friends Peace Committee actively sought to bring about a better understanding and co-operation between all peoples and collaborate where possible with other bodies in education for world peace. It issued literature and held public meetings and had been prominent in the activities of the Manchester and Salford Joint Disarmament council. The Secretary was Joseph Pennington, of Chestnut Avenue, Walkden.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:
On April 28, 1915, despite many obstacles, a group of a thousand women met in an International Congress in The Hague, Netherlands to protest against the First world War. The organisers of the Congress were women who had been active in the International Suffrage Alliance, and who saw the connection between their struggle for equal rights and the struggle for peace.
The Congress led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WIL branch in Manchester was active in organising public meetings, providing speakers and protesting against military displays. It had 540 members and the Secretary was Audrey Bullough. They had an office at 1 Princess Street

Peace and anti-war activities

1935

The Manchester Anti-War Council organised an exhibition which took place in the Friends Meeting House between 14-19 January 1935. It was opened by George Sutherland, principal of Dalton Hall, with E C Whitaker in the chair.

The President of the Council was John Jagger, who was a trade unionist, President of the shop workers’ union the NUDAW, and was elected as MP for Manchester Clayton at the general election in November 1935. The exhibition comprised eight sections which looked at the causes, conduct and aftermath of the Great War and how preparations for another war were being made. The exhibition programme included an advert for anti-war literature at Books & Books, 54 Victoria Street.

1937

In July 1937 there was a Manchester & Salford Peace Week organised by an umbrella council, whose Presidents were the Lord Mayors of Manchester and Salford. The Peace Week appears to have been closely connected with the LNU as the Secretary of the council was C E Clift, who was also the Secretary of the LNU. The events included a Peace Exhibition at Central Hall, Oldham Street; a Peace shop on Deansgate (corner of Blackfriars); a Peace Shop and Exhibition on Wellington Street, Gorton; a performance of the anti-war play The Miracle of Verdun by Hans Schlumberg; and Peace Films at the Tatler Theatre, Oxford Road . There were also processions and meetings in many parts of Manchester and Salford, including meetings at the Friends Meeting House where on Monday 5 July Dr Herbert Gray spoke on “What Makes Nations Dangerous” while on 7 July Professor C E M Joad spoke on “The Coming of the World State”. On Wednesday 7 July there was a Women’s Day whose main event was a procession of one hundred women’s organisations from All Saints to Platt Fields where the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson MP.

The week concluded with a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall , chaired by the Lord Mayor. The speakers were Norman Angell and Phillip Noel Baker MP. Norman Angell was Labour MP for Bradford 1929-1931 and active an international issues, including opposition to fascism. He was the author of many books. Philip Noel Baker (1899-1982) was from a Quaker family and during the First World War led the Friends Ambulance Unit which was staffed by conscientious objectors. He was MP for Derby 1936-1970 and later served in the House of Lords.

During the week there was an office for selling tickets at 53 Barton Arcade.

1938

In January 1938 the Manchester & District Ant-War Council hosted the Cambridge Anti-War Exhibition at the Burlington Café, Oxford Road (11-14 January) and then at the Friends Meeting house (15-19 January). The exhibition was opened by Maurice Dobb, a lecturer on economics at Trinity College Cambridge University. He was a member of the CPGB.

The art and lighting direction was by E G Barlow, who lent six of his own drawings. The design and mounting was by Misha Black who was an architect and designer, joint founder of the Artists’ International Association in 1933, and later professor of industrial design at the Royal College of Art from 1959-1975, and by Barbara Nixon (about whom I have not been able to find more information).

The mystery of Guernica

Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting, created in response to the bombing of the Basque town by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces on 26 April 1937. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.
On completion Guernica was taken on tour around the world in an attempt to bring the situation in Spain to public attention. In January 1939 Guernica and the studies were exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End. Intriguingly there is a persistent rumour that in February 1939 Guernica was exhibited in Manchester for two weeks in a vacant car showroom opposite the Cathedral, before it was returned to France and from there to the USA where it stayed for 42 years, only being sent back to Spain after the death of Franco. Enquiries are ongoing to establish the truth of this.

Article by Michael Herbert

Gus John and the Moss Side Defence Committee

Gus John lived through the 1980s as a community activist and youth worker in Moss Side, having arrived in the UK from the West Indies in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the 1981 Moss Side riots, he was a key figure in the Moss Side Defence Committee, which assisted with legal support to the youths charged by the police, challenged police violence and attempted to convey to the press and public a different interpretation of the events which had taken place. The committee would later undertake a detailed critique of the Hytner Report, established by the government to investigate the disturbances and their causes. Here Gus recalls his experiences of the times, in an interview carried out by Andrew Bowman just a week before the outbreak of rioting across England’s urban centres in summer 2011.

1981 was the year in which British people of African descent protested against racism and police oppression as never before in modern history. The Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981 brought around 25,000 people onto the streets of London to protest against the massacre of 13 young Africans in a fire, suspected to have been caused by racists, at a birthday party in New Cross in South London. Protesters also attempted to highlight the misconduct of the Metropolitan Police force in their subsequent investigation, the bias of the press, the inadequate response of the government to the tragedy and the generalised racial discrimination in British society. Added to the problem of racial discrimination, the Conservative government’s economic programme was making conditions worse in many poorer communities in inner city areas.
Between April and August that year there was violent urban unrest in St Paul’s in Bristol, Brixton in South London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester, Handsworth in Birmingham, and elsewhere in the country.

Gus, what were conditions like when you arrived in Moss Side?

I arrived in Moss Side on the 1st January 1971, having worked on youth and race in Handsworth in Birmingham for the Runnymede Trust. There was a vibrancy about it, in that people had organised themselves around a campaign to do with housing. The local authority was doing compulsory purchases and knocking down houses which were actually rather sturdy – some of them had fallen into disrepair but structurally they were pretty fine. There were campaigns to save these houses because people were not enamoured with what they had seen in Hulme – these deck access crescent buildings, which were not just an eyesore, they became very dangerous after a while.
But the two things that stuck out for me were, first, a lot of young people coming out of school and being unemployed for a long time. It was taking the average school leaver about six months to find any employment, and some of them simply joined an earlier generation of fathers or siblings who had not worked. The second thing that was obvious was the way in which the police operated within the community – they tended to see black people as exotic … and generally formed the impression that the older people were safe and sound: they shared commonly held values, they were disciplinarians keeping the children under control, and it was really the youth which were at odds with the establishment, and the police as the most visible arm of the establishment.
It is true that at that time many parents didn’t want to see the police having cause to come near their home – it was seen as a massive stigma.  It took a long time for parents to understand, based on their own experience, that your child didn’t have to do something wrong for the police to appear on your doorstep. It wasn’t always that young person’s fault that the police got involved in their lives.
In 1972 I had got some money from the British Council of Churches to set up a hostel for young black people, because they were sleeping on their friends’ floors or sleeping rough in Moss Side, the reason being that their parents had been decanted to places like Sale and Partington, as part of the whole so-called ‘regeneration’ business. And they continued to gravitate back to Moss Side, they would be here until after the last bus left, some of them would be in the night time dives – shebeens as we used to call them – and there was generally a sense of drift and disaffection among them. That made them even more in danger of getting involved with the police.

How similar were things in Moss Side to other areas of the UK you had worked in?

The four issues I just mentioned were present in all inner city areas I had worked in. I had just come from Handsworth, and one of the reasons for the Runnymede Trust commissioning the research I did there was that the Birmingham Evening Mail had run a series of stories called ‘The Angry Suburbs’, and one of them I remember was called ‘Must Harlem come to Birmingham?’ There were issues highlighted in those reports of unrest between black and white people which I have to say were not what I found in Birmingham.
Yes, there were tensions, with some white people feeling that black people were coming in numbers, taking homes etc, but what happened in Birmingham as in other parts of the country, was that the newcomers, black people from the Caribbean especially, were coming to find employment in areas where there was already an established working class, a neglected working class. So the quality of accommodation that local whites had was pretty poor anyway. As is typical of these situations, and not just in this country, the incoming black people were blamed for the squalor that had existed for generations.
So there were nuances, but generally you could identify issues which were common to most of those former industrial towns and cities. Many black children were being sent to schools for the educationally subnormal, not because they were in any way deficient, but because the schooling system refused to believe that those children were coming with a language of their own that was not Standard English.
That early period of 1968-73 was also the time when psychologists were propounding theories of scientific racism – suggesting that the intelligence levels of black people were lower than that of whites for genetic reasons. You had to battle against that gunge, especially as it was being taught in colleges that were training teachers – it really was horrendous.

What kind of police harassment did youngsters face in Moss Side?

I remember the first situation in which I personally intervened after arriving here, the police had stopped a young boy of about 13 cycling along Moss Lane West by the Hyde Brewery for riding his bicycle without lights. They were aggressive, and he was frightened. Rather than calming the situation, they started telling him to “stop being cheeky”, and before long there was a confrontation. As you went up and asked what was going on, they would tell you to “mind your own fucking business” or they would arrest you as well, for “obstructing the police in the course of their duty”.
We became aware of how vicious the police were to young people, so that when an incident like this happened, we would begin to gather, because the community wanted the police to know that we were watching what they were doing. The police became very on edge about that, very intolerant of the idea that anyone would witness what they were doing and question their conduct.
Here in Moss Side, as I had also witnessed in Oxford, Birmingham and London, it was not just happening to young people. Caribbean families, the men in particular, were proud of their cars. To own one was prestigious, and these men worked hard and bought their cars, and they were regularly being stopped by the police, for daring to own a vehicle like that: “Is it yours? Can you prove it is yours? What is your address? What is the proof of your address?” Constant petty harassment! There was a level of crime in these urban centres anyway, petty criminals as well as organised criminals – who were white. That criminality had not contaminated the black community in any measure when I came to Manchester.
Yes, some people got involved in crimes, burglaries etc. I used to teach black history at Wakefield Prison, and I was astounded by the zeal and zest with which prisoners there took to an understanding of black history and its relevance to them. They were interested in what was happening in the United States at the time, as they were about the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I told them about the work that I and others who were members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination did. How I would pair up with a white person and we would go looking for a room to rent or something. The black person would go in first and typically would have the door slammed in their face: “The room’s gone.” Your mate, the white person, would then go and was told, “It’s five shillings, when are you moving in?”
We did the same in relation to job applications. The black person would present a form with the best qualifications, the white person would present a form with lower qualifications, and the white person would automatically be given the job. We did this research up and down the country, and we were able to present the government with incontrovertible evidence of the extent of visceral racial discrimination, and that caused the Harold Wilson government to enact the 1968 Race Relations Act and establish the Race Relations Board which was the precursor of the Industrial Tribunal.
All those people in Wakefield Prison had what I called arrested growth: very bright people. Some could give you the most horrendous stories about their schooling, and why they dropped out of school. In some cases they had had physical altercations with teachers, and were either expelled from school or never went back.
The fact is, there was not a high degree of engagement in delinquency or criminality among the African-Caribbean population … Now relative to our numbers in the population overall, the highest proportion of people in the prisons and young offender institutions are black people.
Ever since the beginning of the 1960s there has been systemic structural and structured exclusion of black people within the society, and that has got certain consequences. It becomes easy to believe that that is because black people don’t have brains, which of course is complete nonsense. All of that is an important back-story to what people in Manchester were experiencing and grappling with in the 1970s and 1980s.

How active were organised racist groups in Manchester during the 1980s? Groups like the National Front?

Very active. In the year of the disturbances in Moss Side there were running battles between us and the NF. They had the temerity to come and hand out leaflets in Moss Side and Hulme, trying to inflame the passions of white people and encourage them to blame black people for whatever social deprivation they were suffering. What was pleasing about that was that the white community determined that they wanted nothing to do with the NF, and joined political activists such as myself, deciding that they as a white community would not allow the NF to get one inch of space within the white community, and physically booted them out.
So you had the harassment of the police, and then you had the planned collective attacks by white racists – people would be physically attacked, have excrement and firebombs put through their doors, or there would be NF signs put up around the place. That didn’t come from nowhere – the neo-fascists became emboldened by the lead politicians gave…

Such as Enoch Powell?

Yes, such as Enoch Powell, but he could be seen as the extreme end of the spectrum. His problem was that he was open and honest about those matters. It was the people who were passing laws in Parliament, one more draconian piece of immigration legislation than the one before, who were constantly conflating immigration and race relations and holding up the spectre of an alien black force destabilising an assumed settled and cohesive society.
It was like a mantra: “You can’t have good race relations unless you control immigration”.  In other words, if you don’t control immigration, the white population will get fed up that you’re expecting them to be too tolerant of these blacks. Or the black population would start creating mayhem. As a consequence, every year at a certain point, even before the Office for National Statistics published their reports; you would find some newspaper, principally the tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail, publishing figures about the number of live births to immigrants. It was all scaremongering, a moral panic about black people, and an insistence on keeping Britain white. And people talked openly about the need to keep Britain white.
You have to situate the 1981 uprisings in that broader context, and if you don’t, you fail to understand the structural relationship between the way black people experience living in the society, and the way they choose to resist.
And the resistance took many forms, it took political forms, it took cultural forms, through music, art, publishing or through soundsystems and travelling discos – people find ways of surviving, and not allowing their essential humanity to be debased, and expressing and affirming their creativity. Cultures of oppression inexorably spawn cultures of resistance.
Given all this background, how surprised were you when the riots broke out? A lot of the press coverage at the time, and now in reflection, talks about the riots being a ‘spontaneous’ event.
It wasn’t a surprise to me nor many other people in Moss Side. It could have happened any time before that July. It could have happened in March that year, when a cache of illegal weapons were found stashed in Moss Side police station. Those weapons were found to be knives, hatchets, coshes, clubs, and a considerable quantity of cannabis was also found.
We were alarmed because we knew the police planted cannabis on unsuspecting citizens, and would then throw the book at them for drug possession. They also used to give cannabis to prostitutes to sell, and if they didn’t comply they would be dragged in for prostituting themselves. Typically, when people got arrested and taken to Moss Side Police Station or Platt Lane Police Station, they were likely to get a good hiding from the police, to reveal the names of others or confess to some crime, or just for being ‘lippy’ and standing up for themselves, whether they did or did not commit a crime.
So it was alarming that this cache was found in the police station. What were the police going to do with them? No sooner did the reports come out than everything disappeared. That was on March 12-13 1981. Ten days earlier, six coach loads of people had left here for London, to go to the biggest march black people here have ever organised, the New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action, on 2 March 1981, following the murder of those 13 young people in that Deptford fire.
That massacre did not take place in Moss Side, but it could well have. That became a metaphor for the experiences that we were having at the hands of the racists and fascists across the country, and the way the police dealt with those things. So the events in July in Moss Side could have happened at any point that year.

Gus, what was the reaction among the press and political elites to the Moss Side riots? The MEN’s recent coverage refers to it as ‘an orgy of violence’ and a ‘spontaneous eruption of hatred’. Is there a sense in which there was, and still is, an attempt to depoliticise what happened?

Yes. And it is for that reason that I do not refer to those disturbances as riots, because that is to devalue and detract from the righteous political component of the whole thing. It was a violent eruption of protest, on the part of principally black people, but lots of white people as well, because they too had experienced for generations lots of vicious, disrespectful oppressive forms of policing.
The coverage in the media of Manchester, Toxteth, Brixton and St Paul’s, was just totally racist. The tabloids have a lot to answer for. They were echoing what senior police officers were saying. They were always eager to claim that it was pure criminality – that it came from nowhere. As if these criminals suddenly drank something and decided to go and create mayhem.
I say about that, as I say about the gangs and knife crime now, I cannot believe, I refuse to believe that black people have some kind of congenital propensity to evil. If you don’t believe that, you have to ask some searching questions about what predisposes people to do this, but that’s too sophisticated for these hacks. They display their prejudices, and in a sense mirroring the bigotry of the people in leadership positions in the country generally.
How did you attempt to get your message out about what was happening when the mainstream press was like this?
There is an invention called the Gestetner. Do you remember it? No? That places us in different age bands! The Gestetner was a domestic printing machine. You typed onto a stencil, and attached it to the machine, turned a lever to make sure ink covered the drum, and then you start rolling off your hundreds of sheets of paper. Political activists of my age were friends of the Gestetner. You always knew which people were very active, because they were always covered in ink!
So, we had meetings, for the Moss Side Defence Committee, we produced masses of leaflets and handed them out door to door, outside cinemas, and indeed outside the magistrate’s court. Picketing and handing them out. And we physically hand-delivered our statements to the news media. Some of them ignored it, some of them printed stuff. On a good day, the MEN wrote respectable articles, on other days, they had some very stupid headlines. There were some good journalists at the MEN though – Paul Horrocks was a good staff reporter, more reflective than the others who just wanted to print rubbish and get a story in the paper.
So that’s what we did: loads of community meetings that were very well attended and we handed these leaflets around. And that was our political practice. We organised and campaigned around education issues, we had anti-deportation campaigns. The man in this community, Anthony Brown, who now is one of the organisers of the Manchester Carnival – he was facing deportation in the 1970s, and we launched a campaign and succeeded in having him stay here.
What kinds of people were getting involved in these protests?
Lets differentiate a bit. The anti-fascist demos drew just about everybody: old and young, black and white, as well as people from the Asian sub continent. There were large groups of women, large groups of young people, the core of whom were political activists who were running organisations or members of organisations, who came together to work in solidarity with us to work towards particular ends.
That was a regular pattern. When we established the Moss Side Defence Committee in 1981, we decided there would be a subcommittee called the ‘Labour Movement and Trade Union Committee’. We tried to visit their meetings to get individual unions to pass resolutions and donate funds to the particular campaign.
For some causes, we had university students unions supporting – materially, and with cash. Some union offices allowed us to run off leaflets, some organised coaches to demonstrations. It became a loose coalition of progressive forces, including the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Particularly in the aftermath of the disturbances, when the police were just dragging people indiscriminately off the streets, we, the Moss Side Defence Committee, met the Haldane Society, and got pretty horrific reports about the how the courts were getting the probations service to write quick reports on individuals – used by the judge before he passed sentence. This was being done in a sausage machine mode, and the people were not getting the personal treatment they needed. It was all aimed at demonstrating to the public that the situation was in hand, and in the firm grasp of the state. As a result of protests, they discontinued this practice.
As far as the disturbances themselves were concerned, there was clearly not a conscious political decision made that this would be a form of resistance that we were going to engage in on this particular night. In any event, people would not do that, because they would be too scared of a Guy Fawkes movement: someone squealing to the police. So it was spontaneous, but attracted people who felt that they had been hard done by for a long time, and that they would take on the police.

On reflection, how successful was Moss Side Defence Committee?

We were moderately successful. Many of the people who were arrested trusted us implicitly to go and assist them in putting their case together, and in getting legal representation. We introduced a way of working with defendants where we ensured that the defendant remained in charge of the case. We took statements from people, saying we don’t care what you have told the police, you can make a statement here not under duress but it has to be truthful, and we will use that statement to organise your defence.
It sent a powerful message to the magistrates, and that was that we as a community are watching the decisions you make. We want to see evidence that you are taking as seriously the submissions of people from Moss Side as you are taking submissions from the police, and we will expose whatever endorsement you as a court give of police malpractices.
We organised ourselves and went to the court. Some of us went and sat in, some were outside giving out leaflets, and that worked pretty well. The only other thing I would say is this. We worked with individuals that had been arrested, and I believe the whole programme would have accelerated quicker if we had worked with other organisations to build a wider body of mass support. There ought to have been many more people on demonstrations outside the court.
It was a politically volatile period, but politically rich in a whole number of ways. I really had hoped that given the careful work we had put into challenging the Hytner Enquiry, boycotting the enquiry and writing a critique of his findings, having all these meetings around the place, picketing the courts every time somebody was on trial, I was rather hoping we might have built a mass movement around all of that, in pursuit of justice and against police brutality and harassment.
But I think people were happy to come together from their organisations as an alliance, which was effectively what the Moss Side Defence Committee was, rather than seeing themselves as integrally part of one collective group, seeking to build a movement of working class people around these issues. And I suppose people got tired: it had been an exhausting few months.
It has always been a regret to me that I personally and others didn’t return to our critique of the Hytner Enquiry and look at it more analytically, making the links to all that stuff I have been sharing with you, to make a more complete story that others today could look at. Young people particularly, should not be encouraged to see the so-called riots in isolation from everything else.

What changed after the disturbances?

Many, if not most young people developed – however temporarily – developed a greater sense of their own power. Many had the feeling that even if the state didn’t sit up and take account of the message they were giving on the street through these disturbances, they had made their presence felt. Not least to James Anderton and his Greater Manchester Police.
The fact that William Whitelaw, Heseltine and Thatcher introduced a range of projects around the place trying to consolidate the black voluntary sector and links with business, with the support of the banks, they gave start up grants for small entrepreneurs.
And then there was a large amount of refurbishment … and the regeneration of the centre radiated outwards towards Hulme and Moss Side, but while there has been a lot of physical regeneration, not as much has been spent on rehabilitating people.
And the demography of the community has changed: large numbers of Somalis coming in, Lebanese as well, even before the Polish started to arrive. There has been a process of constant adaptation to that.
I get a sense though that there is much less community cohesion now than there used to be. I just don’t get a feeling that communities are working together, with a sense of common purpose and a vision of the future. It is not that people are defeated as such – though Thatcherism had a toll on us all God knows – it’s that the climate is not necessarily conducive to civil action or protest, or change coming about through people becoming adamant that the status quo must change.
Maybe people don’t have a sense of their own strength?
Exactly. I tell that to young people all the time, I say, “You have got the capacity to be as organised as the teaching unions are, and within your schools you have got to sit down talk about issues, and find ways to hold the school to account. You don’t have to do it in a belligerent or antagonistic way, but simply to assert your right to comment on and influence the way the community of which you are a part functions.”
Headteachers run a mile when they hear that kind of thing. But I do feel that if all those young black people who are knifing and shooting one another on the streets had had their energies directed into serious political activism, where they consciously attempting to get their voices heard and influence policies on whatever issue it is, there would be such a sense of empowerment of the capacity to get things done and of achievements to be celebrated, people would have neither the time or the stomach for the kind of violence within our communities.

What can reflections on the disturbances tell us in the present? For people who are looking at problems of racism and police violence

Let me preface my answer by saying, I believe the greatest disservice the state does to its population is through the crappy schooling system we have. When you consider that there is such an emphasis on high level exam results, as if that’s the only mark of schools’ effectiveness, the debate about schooling is always about providing labour for the market, Britain’s economic competitiveness, and the extent to which schools and universities are churning people out.
It has nothing to do with giving people the tools to take control of their own lives, equipping people to act collectively to bring about change, and it is certainly nothing to do with understanding the evolution of British social history, such that we can as a society learn from our advances and defeats. That kind of discourse is seen as a throwback to the days of ‘red-led’ protests of the past for lefties. The assumption is that it is not necessary to think in terms of class or the individual up against the state, and that we should be counting our blessings. Meanwhile, stratification within society becomes more entrenched. Those who are poor are not just disenfranchised by lacking wages through which they can live dignified lives; they are also denied the tools by which they can organise in defence of their lives.
People fall prey to an opaque sameness, an assumed consensus in terms of the values we commonly share. Which allows clowns like Cameron to talk about the ‘Big Society’.
It is very important that we understand what led to 1981, and what gives rise to the peaks and troughs as far as the emergence of neo-fascist organisations are concerned. I would not be surprised if in the coming period as European economies begin falling in on themselves you have another upsurge of pan-European fascism.
We need to see ourselves as being in a continuity of struggle, and the struggle is never won until we are living in the kind of social democracies that do not place on a pedestal the market, with all the neo-liberal values that come with it; the rampant individualism, the greed, the abandonment of hope, the abandonment of idealism, the sense that the state has no role in regulating forces within society so those who want to prey on the weak in society have full vent to do that.
It has been taken to extreme lengths in terms of the way schooling is going now: the privatisation of everything that moves. Academies, trusts, and Michael Gove’s assertion that you can open schools all over the place, with no concern about cohesion, no concern about social inclusion.
And in due course all of that must implode upon itself, because it is not just in dictatorships that you find people being oppressed, it happens within so-called democracies as well, and we ignore that at our peril.
I’d like to think in reflecting on 30 years ago we can reflect on what happened since: why did the labour movement that had all these giants, why did it all suddenly get eclipsed? What happened to trade union basic education projects and the workers education movement? What are young people in Moss Side today grounding their sense of identity and purpose? What connection do they have with these lessons of the past? How are they being primed and equipped to make their mark in this present age as each generation has a duty to do?
If anyone tells me that those who are educated will find a way to do that because they have the social capital to do that, I would say that is complete nonsense. Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. The fact is, schooling is dumbing down people’s sense of history, if not their aspirations as human beings working together to shape a future. I believe the country lost a trick when there was a concentration on building a citizenship curriculum, without concentrating on the need to teach British social history: we need to understand the society, how we have come to be as we are, that rich tradition of fighting for rights. Expanding rights in the society, and with that the responsibilities people have in the present, to build a better future for those coming after them.
I don’t get a sense right now, that there is that level of awareness or political literacy.
I don’t know why people don’t ask the question more regularly, if the centralist tendency within the government is leading to the collapse of local government in safeguarding the rights of citizens, then if what matters to me is how my life in Manchester is regulated by those at the Town Hall, then why should I be concerned about what happens in Whitehall? And yet people in Whitehall feel they have the right to cut off local government and leave people to all kinds of forces without understanding that not everyone has the capacity to engage with the market in that way.
I find it a not very hopeful scenario, and that is why I spend a lot of time trying to connect people with that long sweep of historical struggle, and giving them some tools of analysis so they can better understand what is going on around them.

Article by Andrew Bowman

This article was originally published in The Mule online newspaper in August 2011, and is reproduced by permission of the author.