1919 - The Murder of Charles Wootton
On the evening of 5 June 1919, a fight took place in Great Georges Square, Liverpool. It involved rival groups of black and ‘Scandinavian’ men. The police were called and decided to arrest the black men. They went at the head of an angry white crowd to Upper Pitt Street, where there were hostels and other houses occupied by the black community. There was resistance to this incursion and two police officers sustained gunshot wounds, seemingly from the same bullet.
Charles Wootton, a 24-year-old ships fireman from Bermuda, lived at 18 Upper Pitt Street. He fled from the house to escape. He was chased about half a mile to the Queens Dock. A police officer took hold of him there but the crowd snatched him away. He either jumped or was thrown into the water. He was then hit on the head by a stone and drowned.
You might expect such an event to make people stop and think, but if anything the horror increased. The police raid on Upper Pitt Street continued and eleven black men appeared in court the next morning, several with bandaged heads. One was wearing his naval uniform. All were charged with attempted murder on the flimsiest identification evidence.
As for the actual murder, no one was as much as questioned. Charles Wootton’s inquest opened and closed in a single day a week later. It was said that the dead man was reasonably believed to have fired at the police and that he was escaping lawful arrest. The stone that hit him was thrown ‘from the middle of the crowd’ while a police officer tried to ‘rescue’ him. The jury recorded these events without even calling the event an unlawful killing.
The atrocities continued in the following days. Crowds - at times several thousand strong - attacked black-occupied homes and hostels. Whole buildings were vandalised, emptied of their furniture and even set alight. The writer Ernest Marke describes the chilling experience of being chased all over town by white mobs. Within a week over seven hundred black residents were detained in police stations for their own protection, as the police could not cope.
There was of course a background to all this. There had been a black community in Liverpool for centuries, largely by reason of the shipping trade. World War I brought many more people from all corners of the British Empire either to fight or to fill gaps in the labour force left by recruitment and conscription. These new arrivals were British subjects and there was no work permit system.
Come the end of the war, there was massive demobilisation and unemployment. Black ex-servicemen were cast adrift and found homes in communities like Liverpool’s South End. At the same time, white ex-soldiers and sailors demanded civilian employment that had been promised them in ‘a land fit for heroes’.
So it was that the black community became a target. A city that in so many other respects was on the brink of revolution drew on its slave trade experience and turned on its black citizens.
On 10 June 1919 a black delegation visited the Liverpool Echo. They were led by the secretary of the Ethiopian Hall (off Brownlow Hill) where some seventy men had taken refuge against attack. This is an extract from their statement:
“The majority of Negroes at present are discharged soldiers and
sailors without employment; in fact some of them are practically starving,
work having been refused them on account of their colour.
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