May Day and memories of the "remarkable scenes in Bexley Square"
IT'S May Day, the International Workers' Day tomorrow, and there's a march in London assembling 12 noon at Clerkenwell Green and marching to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Despite the convenience of May 1st the traditional date falling on a Sunday this year. there've been variations either side, with a march in Newcastle today and Croydon holding an event at Ruskin House this evening.
Edinburgh has to wait till next Saturday for a people's festival. although the Scottish Socialist Party got in cheekily with a republican march down the Royal Mile yesterday, the same day Royalist half-wits and daft American tourists were watching that wedding, and the Metropolitan Police had locked up anyone here they suspected might fart during the ceremony.
Manchester also has a May Day march tomorrow, but in my home town Salford the trades union council, together with Salford Against the Cuts, is holding a May Day rally on Monday, in Bexley Square at 2pm, and also bringing forward the commemoration of a historic event whose 80th. anniversary falls later this year.
I first read about it in Walter Greenwood's novel 'Love On the Dole'.
It was the Battle of Bexley Square.
The background was the world slump ushered in by the Wall Street crash in October 1929. Then as now the reverberations crossed the Atlantic. By the end of 1930 Britain had 2.3 million registered unemployed. This did not cover the many women, for instance, who did not bother to sign on.
The Labour government stuck to capitalist economics, and the most conservative ones at that, and was persuaded to bring in 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. But the Cabinet was divided and a split rapidly developed. On August, 23 1931, Ramsey MacDonald, Jimmy Thomas and Philip Snowden, determined to do what they thought necessary at the expense of their working class supporters, deserted the Labour Party, joining with Tories and Liberals to form a National Government.
In the 1929 General Election Labour polled over six and a half million votes and only returned fifty two members to Parliament. The Tories, 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.
Under Macdonald, the newly formed National Government cut the pay of civil servants, teachers and other public employees including the Armed Forces. When Sir Austin Chamberlain announced a shilling a day reduction in the pay of naval ratings there was a strike by sailors based in Scotland - the Invergordon mutiny. The government backed off, but pursued supposed ringleaders.
Unemployment Benefit was cut, however. A single man's benefit was reduced from 18/- (90p) a week to 15/3d (about 77p). In addition, the Means Test was brought in at the beginning of September. If someone in your family was still working, or if you possessed something that you should be able to sell - a piano or item of furniture - then you could be told you didn't need the dole. Thousands of people were struck off Benefit, causing bitter poverty in working class districts. There were many suicides, and many people suffered hunger and malnutrition. Working class women particularly often went without to feed their men.
Later, at the end of the 1930s when the country got ready for another war, army recruiting officers complained at the poor condition of potential recruits.
Even in times of full employment, many Salford workers were on low pay, and lived in deplorable conditions. Walter Greenwood described the smoke curling down from factory chimneys on " 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'."
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 the ward 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.
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.
The National Unemployed Workers' Movement had been formed in 1921. It was led by Wal Hannington, a toolmaker and communist. 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 deputations 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.
In 1931 the NUWM Salford branch was growing. Its speakers would address the dole queues outside the Labour Exchanges, or organised meetings on crofts. The NUWM branch itself met in the Workers Arts Club at Hyndman Hall. As well as what was happening to them, the members discussed the wider political picture, and the possibility of a different, socialist future. They resisted demoralisation, maintaining their solidarity and self-respect.
In 'Love on the Dole', Greenwood describes the shock of the Means Test, when a worker is refused dole, and demands to see the manager. 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.
The Salford Branch of the NUWM decided to organise a demonstration on October 1, 1931. They wrote to the city councilors and the mayor announcing their intention of presenting their demands.
Jimmy Miller, a mechanic who was also involved, recalled:
"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." Miller became better known in later years as folk singer Ewan McColl. Although he moved from Salford he remembered it in his song "Dirty Old Town".
There was a good response from the unemployed. When October 1 arrived, "a dull grey day", a big crowd gathered on the croft outside Hyndman Hall, in Liverpool Street. They were bitter about the Means Test, and at the strong police presence, but elated as each new group arrived to swell their crowd. They cheered the speakers, roaring approval for their demands, and raising hands in support.
They set off for Bexley Square, where the council was meeting in Salford town hall. Police flanked them on either side.
DOWN! DOWN WITH THE NATIONAL STARVATION GOVERNMENT!
DOWN! DOWN! DOWN WITH THE CUTS!
DOWN! DOWN! DOWN! WITH THE MEANS TEST!
At the cross roads there came the first brush the Police, who threw a cordon across the road to divert the march. Wilf Gray recalls: "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."
As they neared the town hall, the crowd grew thicker.
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."
Wilf Gray' says:
"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."
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."
Jimmy Miller remembered:
"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."
Te 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."
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."
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 battling 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."
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.
I grew up in the Salford of the 1950s, when we thought mass unemployment was a thing of the past, though slum housing was still all too present. My parents, who had begun their courting when they met while signing on at the labour exchange, identified their young lives with Greenwood's Love on the Dole,, which was made into a wartime film and a post-war radio play. They told me about the Means Test, just as they had told me about the Peterloo Massacre, but I don't remember them telling me about the battle of Bexley Square, even when my Dad took me for a work round that way. I guess like others of their generation they hoped we would never have to go through such things.
Now that we know better, when global economic crisis, cuts, unemployment and police violence are once again with us, I am glad to see the Salford trades union council and local anti-cuts activists taking responsibility for making sure a new generation can learn about this past.