Edmund and Ruth Frow's account of the National Unemployed Workers Movement's activities in Salford, its demonstration in 1931 against cuts in the dole, the subsequent battle with the police and aftermath.
This account of the events in Salford in 1931 is based on my own recollections helped by reference to Walter Greenwood's LOVE ON THE DOLE, Ewan McColl's autobiography, JOURNEYMAN, Wilf Gray's and Ben Durden's RECOLLECTIONS, the Report of the Chief Constable to the Watch Committee and newspaper cuttings.
Walter Greenwood was not a member or supporter of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM). But he could often be seen at meetings or demonstrations taking notes. He was present at Bexley Square on 1st October, 1931 and his book contains an eye witness account of events. Wilf Gray, Ewan McColl Oimmy Miller) and Ben Durden were active in the NUWM at the time and were all present on the day.
The 1931 Crisis
The world economic crisis, heralded by the Wall Street crash in October, 1929, led to mass unemployment in Britain. By the end of 1930, the numbers unemployed were registered at 2,300,000. But this figure was by no means the total because many women, for example, did not register.
The Labour Government failed to grapple with the problem and were no match for the capitalists who were determined that the full burden of the crisis should fall on the workers. A committee headed by Sir George May, was set up to look at National Expenditure. Their Report estimated that the Budget deficit for the year 1932 would be one hundred and twenty million pounds. Immediately, decisions were taken to introduce stringent cuts in public expenditure.
Unemployment Benefit was to be cut by ten percent and it was also recommended that Health Care, Maternity and Child Welfare grants should be reduced. The Cabinet was divided and a split rapidly developed. On 23rd August, 1931, Ramsey MacDonald, Jimmy Thomas and Philip Snowden deserted the Labour Party and joined with the Conservatives and Liberals to form a National Government.
A General Election was held in an artificial atmosphere of panic. The Labour Party polled over six and a half million votes and only returned fifty two members to Parliament. But the Conservatives, standing on the policy of a National Government, with MacDonald as Prime Minister, received double the votes and won four hundred and seventy one seats. It was a resounding defeat for the Labour Party.
The newly formed National Government under MacDonald's leadership, pressed home the projected attacks on the workers. Cuts were made in the pay of civil servants, teachers and other public employees including the Armed Forces. On 12th September, Sir Austin Chamberlain announced in the House of Commons that a shilling a day reduction was to be made in the pay of Naval Ratings. This led to the sailors in the Fleet at Invergordan refusing to obey orders on 15th September. Mass meetings were held in barracks and on board ship and the Fleet refused to sail. The Government was forced to retreat and revise the cuts.
Unemployment Benefit, however, was severely cut. A single man's benefit was reduced from 18/- (90p) a week to 1513d (about 77p). In addition, the Means Test, the most hated piece of Legislation at that time, came into force at the beginning of September. Under it, thousands were struck off Benefit. This led to impoverishment and want in working class districts. Suicide of unemployed workers became all too frequent. As Wilf Gray recalled:
"They were determined to solve their crisis at the expense of one section of the community, the working class. Only those who lived through that period can know the hardship and degradation inflicted on workers at that time." 1
Salford in the 1930s
Walter Greenwood, who was born in HANKEY PARK and knew it intimately wrote a vivid description of it:
"The district takes its name from a sloping street, HANKINSON STREET, whose pavements, much worn and very narrow, have been polished by the traffic of boots and clogs of many generations. On either side of this are other streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses 'by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawn shops by the dozen.... nude, black patches of land, 'crofts', as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill .... the blue-grey smoke swirls down like companies of ghosts from a million squat chimneys, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, the cradles of generations of the future. Places where men and women are born, live, love and die and pay preposterous rents for the privilege of calling the grimy houses 'homes'."2
Greenwood's description of HANKEY PARK was typical of almost all Salford. It was arguably the most grim place in the North of England. There were few skilled workers, but many people engaged in low paid, casual work. Seamen, dockers, carters, miners, labourers and workers in the sweated trades comprised the overwhelming majority of the workforce.
In LOWER BROUGHTON there was a copper works, a flax mill and several die works.
"These and other works and a number of dwellings, many of them in a very dilapi¬dated condition, occupy the low-lying district of the ADELPHI. The houses are mostly of the two-bedroom type.
The Great Rood of 1886, which inundated all the surrounding parts of the valley, must have penetrated many of the dwellings in this part of the ADELPHI, probably accentuating the troubles of damp and defective drainage."3
In St Matthias Ward, which lies in the valley of the Irwell and climbs up to higher ground, the Medical Officer of Health in 1929 found that 525 out of 3,361 houses suffered from insufficient light and ventilation.
Out of 950 houses in St Matthias' Ward, Salford in 1929 the following lacked normal amenities:
94 houses were without a yard 47 houses shared a yard
67 houses had to use a water tap outside 26 houses had to share a water tap
33 houses had no sink
152 houses had no boilers at all
28 houses had boilers which were unfit for use 15 houses had to share a boiler
129 houses had to share a water closet
In one group of eight houses, they were told 14 adults and their 23 children of all ages had to share two water closets.4
In such circumstances, the possibility of keeping the family clean and respectable was extremely difficult if not impossible. Washing clothes was very difficult. Water had to be heated on the living room fire and the clothes boiled in a pan, the lifting on and off of which was a severe strain on the women and a danger to children who happened to be around.
In 1930, unemployment in .Salford had shot up to one in four being registered out of work. By 1931, it was almost one third of the adult population and conditions were grim.
Salford National Unemployed Workers' Movement
As events in 1931 unfolded, the Salford Branch of The NUWM grew rapidly. The Secretary was George Watson, who as a boy had attended the Socialist Sunday School at Hyndman Hall and who later served in the Royal Navy. The Treasurer was Walter Crabtree, later to become a Labour Councillor.5
The National Unemployed Workers' Movement had been formed in 1921. It was led by Wal Hannington, a toolmaker who combined qualities of organisa¬tional leadership with the ability to speak with conviction. This made him a formidable figure. Branches were organised throughout the country and officers were trained to represent the members before Courts of Appeal and Boards of Assessors. Both local and national hunger marches were organised and deputa¬tions arranged to the authorities concerned with unemployment and relief Although many Trade Unions and the Labour Party leaders viewed the NUWM with disfavour, it won widespread support among the rank and file of the movement.
Locally, a rota of public speakers was drawn up by the Branch Committee. Innumerable meetings were held addressing queues outside Labour Exchanges as well as on crofts and at recognised meeting places.
"Knots of men barred pavements and roadways listening and interjecting as various spokesmen voiced heated criticisms of this, the latest economy move. on the part of the National Government .... From the Labour Exchange there came a continuous trickle of men wearing appropriate expressions as became their individual dispositions, more spirited individuals flushed with anger, lips trembling, eyes burning with resentment."6
Some of the unemployed were members of Salford NUWM which met weekly at the Workers' Arts Club in Hyndman Hall,7 Liverpool Street. There were usually at least a hundred present each paying a penny subscription. As an unemployed tool-maker, I was •there and frequendy became the main speaker. Although the main issue was unemployment, wider topics of economic and political interest were aired in discussion. Ben Durden was only a teenage boy at the time, but he remembers the meetings.
"I am 74 years of age and 1931 sticks out mostly in my life. Your leadership and speeches convinced my brother Dick and I of the meaning of socialism in our lives and what was going on in the world." 8
The NUWM achieved its support by giving the unemployed a feeling of human worth. One contemporary remembers,
"the constant agitation preserved above all the sense of dignity of the unemployed men and women. They really felt that here was a struggle they could take part in ¬that they weren't just on the scrap-heap." 9
The Means Test
There was cause for anger. The Means Test was devastating, as Walter Greenwood graphically describes:
"Harry Hardcasde was staggered: 'You - you - what? What did you say?' he asked, staring incredulously, at the unemployment exchange clerk on the other side of the counter.
'Are you deaf?' retorted the clerk, pettishly: he added, snappily: 'There's nothing for you. They've knocked you off dole. Sign on of a Tuesday for the future if you want your health insurance stamp. Who's next?'
The man behind Harry shouldered him away. Dream-like he turned and paused, holding the dog-eared, yellow unemployment card in his hand. This was catas¬trophic: the clerk was joking, surely; a mistake must have been made. He hadn't asked the clerk the reason why they had stopped paying him his unemployment benefit: 'Gor blimey,' he muttered: 'Hell, what am I gonna do?' He remembered Helen, instandy. The people here didn't realise, didn't know that he'd got to marry her. Nobody but themselves and Sally were aware that she was an expectant mother. He licked his lips, and, dazed, turned to the counter once more in time to hear his unspoken question answered indirecdy. The man who had succeeded him was angrily demanding an explanation of the clerk; those in the queue behind and those on either side listened attentively. That which passed concerned them all.
Hearing the man's indignant' expostulations, a policeman, on duty at the door, came nearer, silently. The man, grey-haired, middle-aged, a stocky fellow in corduroys, clay-muddied blucher boots and with 'yorks' strapped about his knees, exclaimed: 'What d'you mean? Nothin' for me. I'm out 0' collar, aren't I?'
The clerk put aside his pen and sighed, wearily: 'Doan argue wi' me,' he appealed: 'Tisn't my fault. If you want to know why, go'n see the manager. Blimey, you blokes're blurry well drivin' me barmy this morning.'.'
'Manager, eh?' the man snapped: 'You bet I'll see the manager. Where is 'e?' The clerk jerked his thumb towards the far end of the counter. 'Ask at "Enquiries" 'he said: 'Who's next?'
Harry followed the man.
The Manager ordered a clerk to look up the man's particulars; the clerk handed over some documents after a search in a filing cabinet. His superior, after perusing some notes written upon the forms, looked at the applicant and said: 'You've a couple of sons living with you who are working, haven't you?'
'Aye,' the man answered: 'One's earning twenty-five bob an't'other a couple 0' quid, when they work a full week. An' the eldest he's ... .'
'In view of this fact,' the manager interrupted: 'The public Assistance Committee have ruled your household's aggregate income sufficient for your needs; therefore your claim for transitional benefit is disallowed.' He turned from the man to glance interrogatively at Harry.
The man flushed: 'The swine,' he shouted: 'Th' eldest lad's gettin wed .... 'as 'e to keep me an' the old woman?' raising his fist: 'I'll ... .' But the attendant policeman collared him and propelled him outside, roughly, ignoring his loud protestations. Harry learned that, in the the opinion of the Public Assistance Committee, his father's dole and Sally's wages were sufficient to keep him. No more dole would be forthcoming. And when he asked whether he could re-state his case the manager informed him that there was no appeal. He didn't argue; went outside, dazed.""10
The October Demonstration
It was the Salford Branch of the NUWM that decided to organise a demonstration on 1st October, 1931. A letter was sent to each member of the City Council stating:
"In view of the drastic economy cuts proposed by the National Government, and also the economy proposals of the Finance Committee of the City Council, the Salford Branch of the NUWM has organised a demonstration of protest to the special City Council Meeting. A deputation will be elected to put the demands of the unemployed embodied in the attached Charter, forward, and we have notified the Mayor to this effect."
The detailed demands followed11
Preparation for 1st October went ahead at full speed. Jimmy Miller, a born rebel who was organising a street theatre group called THE RED MEGAPHONES and who later became a well known folk singer and actor under the name of Ewan MacColl wrote:
"For the ten days before that we were out every night advertising the demo. Our publicity methods were cheap and effective. All we needed was a good supply of bluemould, the porous chalk-like substance which housewives used to brighten up their window sills and doorsteps. It is useful stuff for chalking slogans and announcements on walls." 12
Ben Durden was in one of the chalking squads together with Tommy Morris, "the little Scotch fellow." He recalled the preparations and said he was:
"full of vim and enthusiasm at the time and probably one of the youngest around. When I went to bed the night before the demo, I said to myself, I hope a crowd turns up and believe me, as you know, the unemployed responded in mass, It made me feel strong just seeing them!"
Bluemoulds were augmented with pails of whitewash and brushes. So many teams went out that slogans and invitations to attend the demonstration could be seen in street after street throughout the City.
When 1st October arrived, it was "a dull grey day with nature truly reflecting the time."13
The assembly point was the croft adjacent to Hyndman Hall in Liverpool
"A patch of waste land upon which the biting north-east wind descended ruthlessly. To the right rose huge gasometers, to the left, slumdom squatted. The place was black with men and youths continuously augmented with batches of new arrivals .... bitter expressions contorted their lips as they loudly criticised the Means Test and the presence of the strong force of uniformed and plain-clothed police, the latter mingling with the great crowd of men across the way, some surreptitiously making short-hand notes of speeches, the former lining the pavement every yard or so."14
A participant in the event recalled that as the crowd assembled on the croft and droves of newcomers arrived every few minutes or so, he "felt uplifted, triumphant!"15
I was one of the speakers who addressed the crowd. Tommy Morris, a seaman was the other. Walter Greenwood described him as "a stocky, wire¬haired fellow speaking in a strong Scots accent" and myself as "a youngish man, wearing an open neck shirt" and "a finely featured young man with long hair."16
Jimmy Miller was standing at the back of the crowd listening to the speaker reading out a list of demands to be presented to the Town Council, which was at that moment meeting at the Town Hall in Bexley Square.
"The crowd roared its approval and a sea of hands was raised in support of the resolution."17
The meeting ended and:
"the procession moved off preceded by a Police Inspector. The remainder of the constables flanked the procession, a couple - one on each side - every six yards or so .... occasionally, the monotonous beat of the big drum was varied by the insistent clamour of a hand-bell; sometimes they were banged and rang in concert, their din attracting the attention of all within earshot."18
The man with the brass bell was Alex Armstrong who was killed in Spain in 1937 fighting Fascism in The International Brigade. Jimmy Miller, his close friend described Alex:
"It was difficult not to be conscious of him. He was so big and such a perfect specimen of early manhood, well muscled and with the strength of a young lion .... He was good-natured too. Indeed, all the time I knew him, I don't remember him losing his temper. By trade he .was a slater, an unemployed slater. He was also a rambler and climber of some note .... He usually slept rough and wherever possible, lived off the terrain."19
Jimmy Miller also described Hughie Graham, the man with the drum. He was "an indomitable Galloway Scot" whom he had known since childhood. He recalled that Hughie's early years "could match anything in brutality that Dickens ever wrote." On 1st October, his wife helped him into the big drum harness and he then kept the marching step throughout the demonstration.
In his recollections of the occasion, Miller also remembered seeing Ben Durden, the newest member of the Young Communist League and Dick France who hobbled along on his misshapen legs.
Dick France was a radial arm driller by trade whose legs were probably the result of rickets when he was a child. Miller said they were "the most deformed legs I have ever seen. They formed a complete circle and made walking difficult. In fact he rolled from side to side and if you walked with him, you had to slow your pace down to a shuffle so that he could keep up with you." in spite of this handicap, he was an active and militant trade unionist. Although he became involved in the NUWM, he never regarded it as a substitute for his union activities.20
As the march set off, Alex Armstrong acted as steward and ran alongside ringing the bell and leading slogan shouting:
DOWN! DOWN! DOWN WITH THE NATIONAL STARVATION GOVERNMENT!
DOWN! DOWN! DOWN WITH THE CUTS!
DOWN! DOWN! DOWN! WITH THE MEANS TEST!
A Brush with the Police
Wilf Gray was in one of the front ranks. He recalled that as soon as they left the croft in Liverpool Street, there was a slight brush with the police.
"We turned left and turned up Liverpool Street. We came to the cross roads, Windsor Street on the left and Albion Street on the right. The police threw a cordon across the road in order to divert us from our planned route. We went through them like a knife through soft putty. I remember my head going down as if in a rugby scrum. With the pressure from our comrades behind, we pushed them to one side quite easily."21
Since the time of the Peterloo Massacre, the numbers of people on demon¬strations and at meetings has always been understated by the press and authorities. It was the same on 1st October. The Manchester Evening Chronicle reported "A big demonstration of several thousand"24 while the Chief Constable stated that "about a thousand unemployed men assembled on a vacant plot of land in Liverpool Street."2S Both were fur short of the mark. There must have been nearer ten thousand as the march gathered strength.
Wilf Gray remembered the crowd becoming more and more dense as they approached their destination.
"By the time the main thoroughfare leading to the City Hall was reached, pavements and roads were a moving mass of hwnanity, impassable, on the Manchester approach, to traffic. At each street corner, a tributary of new arrivals immersed itself in the main river. ... the crowd had become enormous."22
Bexley Square, in front of the Town Hall was not a large area. It was flanked on either side by municipal showrooms, a bank and a solicitor's office.
"It was the meeting place of all those interested in election results at the appropriate time; a rallying point from times immemorial."
Remarkable Scenes in Bexley Square
When the head of the demonstration was half way down Chapel Street there took place what the press described as:
"remarkable scenes in Bexley Square outside Salford Town Hall after a big demonstration numbering several thousands, organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement arrived to protest against the proposed cuts in poor law relief which the Council were considering."24
The report which followed left much to be desired in accuracy. But Wilf Gray's account is nearer the truth.
"It was a disciplined, well marshalled demonstration under complete control of the organisers .... Morale was high and at no time was there any reason for the brutal police attack on the marchers which took place when we reached Bexley Square. The deputation was in the process of presenting themselves when the deliberately planned attack took place. I remember hearing a shout and turning to look back I saw police charging with their batons. They had been lying in wait for our arrival. The whole thing had been planned."25
The deputation was treated with contempt and the marchers with repression. Bexley Square had been cordoned off and when the deputation asked to be to gain access to the Town Hall, the policeman approached signed to the four constables and the inspector who had headed the procession. They turned their backs on the delegation and faced the Square.
"Orders passed. Mounted Police appeared at the trot, and, on a sudden, a swarm of plain-clothes men descended from nowhere and began to snatch the placards from the hands of the demonstrators, flinging them to the ground and trampling them underfoot."26
The result was predictable. Jimmy Miller said:
"All around was a crush of shouting, bellowing, screaming, angry and bewildered men and women. They were pushing, pulling, trying to avoid the swinging batons of the police and the terrifYing hooves of the horses. Some desperately tried to shove their way out of the ambush while others pushed forward."27
Jimmy commented that the Square became a battlefield:
"A note of fierce hatred, deep and vengeful" was heard as the marchers broke through the barricades. Alex Armstrong passed by holding his large brass bell above his head like a Town Crier. There was a lull for a few moments and then, from behind the Town Hall dozens of mounted police suddenly appeared followed by foot police brandishing their clubs. They charged and the first engagement was fierce. But when the police tasted blood, they started lashing out at anyone in their path."28
After a moment or two, the fear of the horses vanished and the crowd began to fight back. "Here a mounted cop is pulled from his horse and there a constable is deprived of his baton." But training counted. The unemployed had no strategy for such an engagement. They fought as individuals, "unarmed individuals against a disciplined armed force trained to fight as a squad."29
There was another factor which militated against the demonstrators. They were aware that the law of the land is on the side of the police who could bash people around and get away with it. But if anyone of the crowd was caught bashing one of them, they would "land up in the nick as surely as night follows day"
As the unemployed struggled-to-carry out their aim of breaching the barricades to enter Bexley Square, police horses loomed over
"gigantic, eyes rolling, nostrils flared. The smell of the horse sweat mingled with the smell of our fear". A policeman leaned out of his saddle to give an impetus to the swing of his truncheon. The blow lands with a dull thud across the shoulders of a skinny man in an old raincoat." He crumbled and sank to the ground,
There was a sudden increase in the noise and many voices took up the cry, "The deputation! They've arrested the deputation'" On this news, there was a surge of activity and the crowd moved forward to the edge of the Square. By that time, squads of police were dragging arrested marchers across the Square towards the waiting riot wagons.
As the demonstrators fought back and the police plied their boots and truncheons, a cry went up, "Down with the cossacks'" A dozen men leapt over the barricade and raced towards the batding groups. Two of them were struck down by the mounted police and the others were surrounded by squads of foot police who forced them to the ground. One of the marchers was bleeding profusely from the head and appeared to be unconscious. A young policemen grabbed hold of him and started dragging him along the ground."30
The demonstrators, having gone to protest against what they considered to be a gross injustice and to present a petition to their elected representatives, had found themselves forced to fight against a well-fed and trained army. The police, naturally, alleged that the marchers attacked them first. However the revolt of the unemployed in Salford was not an isolated event. Huge demonstrations took place throughout the country and the role of the police in repressing the workers assumed a similarity which pointed to a national policy.31
Walter Greenwood also described the events. He said:
"Harry gaped at the spectacle of helmets rolling in the roadway, truncheons descending on heads with resounding thuds, men going down and being dragged off unceremoniously to the cells .... with a rush, as though in obedience to a command" a new force of police, truncheons drawn, charged the crowd. Harry, jostled this way and that, dodging blows, caught a glimpse of the finely featured young man set upon by a couple of constables savagely, and frog-marched away by three hefty policemen."32
Greenwood's account was accurate. I was taken into the Town Hall where four policemen let fly with their batons. My nose streamed blood and I had to be taken to Salford Royal Hospital. Major Godfrey, the Chief Constable, came in to see what had happened to me after a time and I was able to tell him exactly what I thought of the brutality of the police and accuse him of having instigated it. My nose carries the scars to this day.
Meanwhile, in the Council Meeting, Councillor A.E. Harding protested:
"Men are being frog-marched about the Square and thrown about. It is most un-British and I think it is a great shame that men should be dragged about the Square."
He then moved that the Council meeting should be suspended as a protest.
But he met with platitudes from the Mayor who claimed that the police were only carrying out their duties "in maintaining law and order."33
Maintaining 'law and order' certainly was the duty of the police although in 1908, THE TIMES had an article indicating that policemen were councillors and friends on which Robert Roberts commented that:
"in view of the low educational and cultural level of the policeman of the time, and his recruitment from the ultra-conformist section of the working class, it is hard to see how he and his wife could ever have begun to act as effective social workers."34
In 1931, the Salford police had in no way changed from that assessment.
During the afternoon after the crowds had dispersed, two protest meetings were held, one at Oldfield Road and the other on the croft in Liverpool Street at which one of the speakers was Mrs Florence Broadhurst. At the latter, the arrival of a large squad of police was greeted by boos and hisses. Ben Durden remembered groups standing around Regent Road on the corners talking about the demonstration. As soon as two or three gathered, however, police would come along and move them on. They recognised that the unemployed and workers were in an angry mood.
A deputation of twenty men marched to the Town Hall demanding bail for the arrested men. Although sixteen of them were householders with their rent books in hand, bail was refused. The police demanded that two rent books be presented for each of the twelve men in custody. Later in the day, this was complied with and ten of the arrested men were released on bail. However, two remained in custody.
The following day, the Branch Committee of Salford NUWM elected Larry Finley to replace George Watson as Secretary. Although Walter Greenwood bases his hero, Larry Mearns in LOVE ON THE DOLE on Finley, much of what he wrote was fictional. It failed to capture the character of Larry Finley. He was a toolmaker by trade and a worker intellectual who was also exceptionally capable of using the tools of many trades with the facility of a skilled craftsman.35
Meeting With The Watch Committee
Under Larry's guidance, the Committee decided to write to the Chief Constable requesting the Watch Committee to receive a deputation. Larry Finley, Dick France, Walter Crabtree and William Shaw were elected. Their request was granted and the deputation attended a meeting of the Watch Committee at the Town Hall on 5th October.
Their main case was that the purpose of the march was to support the elected deputation; that the police attack was brutal and unprovoked; that the demon-stration had been peaceful and was in no way prepared to withstand such an attack; that the demonstration had been disciplined and orderly.
In reply, Major Godfrey, the Chief Constable stated that:
"the mounted section was called into operation, but they cleared the Square without drawing their sticks ... at no time during the disturbances did the police draw their batons. No civilians were injured with the exception of one, a prisoner named Frow, who sustained a cut which was treated at Salford Royal Hospital and two stitches inserted."36
One aspect of the situation was not stated by Major Godfrey. He failed to report that my injury was inflicted after apprehension and when I had been taken into the Town Hall. His contention that the police had not used their batons was patently untrue. As could be expected, the deputation received no satisfuction while the Watch Committee accepted the Chief Constable's account of events.
A similar travesty of the truth took place in the Police Court on 9th October in Salford Town Hall when the arrested men were tried by the Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr P. Macbeth. In each case they were charged with assaulting the police in the execution of their duty. All the defendants except myself were represented by Council, Mr Percy Butlin, instructed by Mr F. Edwin Monks. It was decided that I would defend myself and put the unemployed case before the Court.
The police evidence of assault was confirmed only by other policemen. A collection of brick-bats, hammer heads, assorted pieces of iron, spanners and broken bottles was displayed and it looked as if all the scrap-yards of Manchester and Salford had been combed by the police.
Dick France and James Nash gave evidence on behalf of George Watson. The Counsel for the Defence made a very weak case in almost apologetic terms and assumed their guilt when he said, "a humane and wise course would be to treat the men with the utmost leniency."!
The case against myself was made by Superintendent Howard. The press reported him as saying that I was one of the principals and was urging the crowd to resist the police. He asserted that on being told to move on, I rang an iron bell and shouted "Comrades, never mind the police! Lets force our way into the Town Hall. "' He said that I struck him a violent blow on the chest with the bell. Although several people were said to have tried to pull me away, I pursued him and continued to strike him several times with the bell. He was obviously deliberately confusing me with Alex Armstrong who had the bell.
Superintendent Howard then said that Constable Kehoe came to his aid and that I apparently went berserk and bit and fought all the way to the police station. Kehoe had to have two stitches inserted in his hand. This account was at variance with Walter Greenwood's description of "the finely featured young man set upon by by a couple of constables savagely and frog-marched away by three hefty policemen".37 This version of the events is confirmed by the press photographs.
It was clear before the proceedings commenced that nothing that I or anyone else said was going to influence the Magistrate. The police account of events would be accepted. For this reason and in order to vindicate the policy of the NUWM and expose the police brutality, it was necessary to make a comprehensive statement.
I made careful preparations and for half an hour I elucidated the events that had led to the October demonstration. I exposed the policy of the Government and showed the drastic results of the cuts in creating even worse poverty and degradation. I condemned the system of capitalism as responsible for unemployment and poverty and made the case for a change to a socialist system.
Although the press maintained that only a few members of the public were present, the public gallery was, in fuct, full throughout the trial with unemployed workers, many of whom were in the NUWM. One of those present, Henry Moorhouse, confirmed over fifty years later that the speech had had a considerable influence on him.38
Summing up, Mr Macbeth said that he was satisfied that all the defendants had assaulted the police although in different degrees. He sentenced myself to five months, George Watson to three months and Albert Lister to two months hard labour. William Roberts received one month. Clement Miller, Sidney Bullock, William Allen, Hugh Nelson and James Rice were bound over to be of good behaviour for twelve months on their own recognisances of £5 while Harry Sandiford, William Walters and William Dodd were discharged under the Probation of Offenders' Act. The proceedings lasted four hours.39
The Manchester Demonstrations
The following week, on 7th October, the Manchester Branch of the NUWM organised a demonstration and deputation to present their protest against the cuts being imposed on unemployed workers. They marched down Ashton Old Road from Openshaw but when they reached the junction of Downing Street and Fairfield Street, a row of mounted policemen barred their way. Behind the horses was a double row of foot police and behind them a barricade of tramcars, double decker buses and other vehicles.
The leaders of the demonstration with seven Labour members of the City Council attempted to discuss the situation with Police Officers. As a result, a decision was taken to forgo the march to the Town Hall and instead to go to All Saints to hold a meeting. While this decision was being conveyed to the marchers, the police drew their batons and lashed out savagely and indiscrimi¬nately. A scene of chaos ensued and to add to the confusion, firemen appeared from the Fire Station at the comer of Fairfield Street and turned hoses on the crowd.
The Manchester Guardian reported:
"In a second the cross-roads were a welter of fighting men, of horses pushing through the struggling confusion, of policemen hitting out right and left with their batons, of marchers retaliating with stout sticks to which their placards had been nailed, with stones, bricks, lumps of coal. Firemen appeared and a couple of hoses quartered the crowd like machine guns spraying water. In an incredibly short space of time after the sudden breakdown of endurance, it was possible to see the crossroads. Broken banners, broken sticks, a wash of water, a litter of hats, caps and helmets met the eye with here and there a man lying."40
Twenty six men were arrested and charged with assaulting the police. Their trial co-incided with that of the Salford men. The atmosphere was tense. Both Court Houses were guarded by hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothes police. The Manchester Guardian report was headed41:
"Police Guard Court: Big Force Hidden In Reserve"
The authorities deliberately tried to create a civil war atmosphere in order to intimidate the unemployed. Manchester Evening News stated that:
"Extraordinary police precautions were taken, Salford Town Hall, Post Office and Banks and leading shops were specially guarded."42
In addition to Manchester, protest demonstrations were held throughout the country, in many places with similar results. In Dundee there were 30 arrests among the crowd of over fifty thousand; in London a huge gathering of over fifty thousand broke the ban on demonstrations within the House of Commons area and twelve arrests were made, while in Liverpool, Derby, Stoke, Oldham, Bristol and in many Welsh towns people turned out in their thousands.
In Strangeways Gaol, the regime was harsh. Prisoners were doled out skilly (a watery porridge), bread with a smattering of margarine and a concoction called tea. The silence rule was rigorously applied and a prisoner who dared to speak except in reply to an Officer, was placed on a charge to be dealt with by the Governor. Sanitary arrangements were of the most primitive. No mattress was allowed on the bed for the first week - prisoners slept on the bare boards.
In spite of the efforts of the unemployed, Salford City Council cut relief by £70,000. In February, 1932, expenditure was cut by £76,000. The number of school teachers was reduced by 77 and the average number of children in a class increased to 42. The £4,000 allocated for free meals for necessitous children was reduced by £1,500 with a consequent drop from 911 children receiving a meal in February to 518 in September.
Salford became a distressed area and cuts at the expense of the unemployed continued. In November, 1933, the New Unemployment Act was introduced. Poor Law Relief in Salford was reduced from £73,531 for the year ending March, 1933 to £44,118, a reduction of nearly £30,000.
In 1932, Salford Branch of the NUWM conducted a survey in the Ellor Street area. Frank Morgan and I visited house after house where there was very little furniture. It had been sold for money to buy food. Soap boxes served as tables and the diet consisted of bread and margarine with cups of tea.
Salford today is changed almost beyond recogmtlOn. The Labour adminis¬tration has spared no effort to improve the City and its amenities. However, even now, over sixty years later, the grim heritage of the thirties casts a long shadow over the City.
It is pertinent to re-call the events of 1931 at the present time when social services, health and education are again under attack. The British people have almost the lowest standard of living of the European countries. There is again high unemployment with its hardship and degradation. But there is a difference. In 1931, the City Council was in Tory hands while today it is firmly Labour. Salford Council has resisted the Government imposed cuts to the legal limit. But the need for working class organisation and struggle has not been removed. It is as important for the unemployed, together with those at work, to fight against the lowering of their living standards today as it was in the grim days of 1931.
Originally published by the Working Class Movement Library, Salford, 1994
- 1. Wilf Gray: The Great Salford Unemployed Demonstration of 1931, in Wilf Gray, Mick Jenkins and Edmund and Ruth Frow: Unemployed Demonstrations. Working Class Movement Library, 1981. (Hereafter, Gray)
- 2. Walter Greenwood: Love On The Dole. 1948 edition. Page 9. (Hereafter, Greenwood)
- 3. Manchester and District Regional Survey Society: Housing Conditions In The St. Matthias' Ward Salford. 1931.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. The weekly general meetings were held at Hyndman Hall and the Committee met in the Seamen's Minority Movement room on Trafford Road near the dock gate.
- 6. Greenwood. page 193.
- 7. Hyndman Hall was a large three storey building in Liverpool Street taken over by South Salford Branch of the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The large club room on the ground floor had a fIreplace with a surround on which Jack Williams had painted WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS. YOU HAVE A WORLD TO WIN. In 1930, at the initiative of Larry Finley, the Workers' Arts Club was established in the hall with the aim of promoting working class activity in all fIelds of sport and culture.
- 8. Letter from Ben Durden to Edmund Frow 14th December, 1987.
"I knew Sid Jenkins more than Mick as he was in Hyndman Hall regular (sic). Names I remember well, Crabtree, Horrocks, Wilf Gray, Seaman Evans, Bernard Lowrey, Mrs Broadhurst, Tommy Morris, the Scot, Jimmy Miller (Ewan MacColl), Jimmy Lyle, had one of his legs in a calliper, also George Sumners came from Broughton, they were good at doing posters. Bob Goodman, a boxer, quiet chap killed in Spain, fIghting Fascism, Clinton from Eccles, Arthur Walmesley and his brother. Frank Morgan, Jimmy Murphy and his father. Bob Davies from Whit Lane. Of course the comrade banging the drum, Hughie Graham the Scotch chap lived off ElIor Street, Pendleton and one of his mates, Dick France. Just thought of another comrade, Isaacs, a coloured chap, been to sea years ago, used to speak at unemployed meetings on Liverpool Street croft, had a limp in one leg, lived near Bernard Lowrey near the docks."
- 9. .L. Morton: The 1950s in Marx Memorial Library Bulletin Number 106, Spring, 1985
- 10. Greenwood pages 191-193.
- 11. 12 Salford City Reporter 9th October 1931.
a That the proposal of the Finance Committee for 'economy' be rejected by the City Council.
b That the City Council protest to the National Government against its economy proposals, and demands no wage cuts, no dole cuts, not one worker off benefit, not a penny more tax on food.
c That the scale of relief be twenty shillings per week for all unemployed over eighteen years of age, five shillings per week for each dependent child, fifteen
shillings per week for young persons sixteen to eighteen years, ten shillings per week for wife or other adult person, ten shillings per week for those between fourteen and sixteen.
d That disablement pension and earnings of wife and children be not taken into
consideration when assessing the amount of relief.
e Every householder applicant to receive one cwt of coal per week during the winter.
f One pint of free milk per day for all children under five years of age.
g Abolition of all test schemes, 'educational' classes and training centres.
- 12. 13 Ewan MacColl: Journeyman, An Autobiography. 1990. Page 195. (Hereafter, MacColl) Ben Durden letter 14th December 1987 Gray Greenwood. Page 194.
- 13. Greenwood. Page 194.
- 14. Page 198. MacColl.
- 15. Page 196. Gray.
- 16. Manchester Evening Chronicle 1st October
- 17. 1931. Gray.
- 18. Greenwood. Page 201.
- 19. Salford City Reporter. 2nd October
- 20. Greenwood. Page 201.
- 21. Salford City Reporter. 2nd
- 22. Gray
- 23. Greenwood, page 201
- 24. Salford City Reporter. 9th October 1931
- 25. Gray
- 26. Greenwood, page 201
- 27. MacColl, page 197
- 28. MacColl, page 197
- 29. MacColl, page 197
- 30. MacColl, page 197
- 31. MacColl, page 197
- 32. Greenwood, page 202
- 33. Manchester Evening Chronicle. 1st October 1931
- 34. Robert Roberts: The Classic Slum. Salford life in the first quarter of the century. Manchester, 1971. Page 76 &77
- 35. Finley, Lawrence (Larry) 1909-1974 in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville: Dictionary of Labour Biography. Vol.4. 1977
- 36. Minutes of the Watch Committee 5th October 1931
- 37. Greenwood. Pages 201 and 202
- 38. Henry Moorhouse was present at the trial and communicated with E. Frow in 1988 by letter and telephone
- 39. Salford City Reporter 9th October 1931
- 40. Manchester Guardian. 8th October 1931
- 41. Manchester Guardian. 8th October 1931
- 42. Manchester Evening News. 7th October 1931