Those old enough to remember watching the TV in 1989 will likely remember the images of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square, flanked by troops primed and ready to quell any uprising or dissent from the 100 000 peaceful demonstrators that had gathered. Some might then be a tad surprised to learn that in 1919, a demonstration in George Square, Glasgow, resulted in twitchy British government officials opting for a similar approach. Tanks and English troops were sent in to deal with the unrest.
Discontentment had been brewing for a number of years in the industrial areas of Glasgow and its environs, especially Clydeside, with new working practices in many of the larger factories forcing a higher demand on work output with a decrease in wages. Famously, a 1911 strike at the Singer factory – instigated by 12 female cabinet polishers protesting – was the first time that solidarity amongst the workers was evident, with 11,000 employees from all occupations joining their cause.
This “coming together” of all genders, jobs and religions was a first, and has been attributed to the influence of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Socialist Labour Party. However, the strike was ultimately a failure with no compromise from the factory and a subsequent witch-hunt and sacking of union members and leaders.
Immediately before the First World War, the woman of Clydeside were also becoming more politicised with the suffrage movement and taking an active stand against the poor housing conditions they had to endure. Harsh housing laws allowed landlords to evict tenants who were in slight arrears with rent, or to enter the property and remove personal goods in lieu of payment. Many women protested and became involved with tenant’s groups.
With the start of the war there was a huge migration of workers to munitions factories in the area, and the landlords saw “£” signs. Rents were increased and the sense of injustice intensified. Tenants groups organised strikes and the Independent Labour Party became involved with their struggle. Tenants in 25,000 homes refused to pay rent. Support came from local munitions workers and factory workers, with sympathy strikes threatened, and the question of fair rents entered the political forum.
Between 1914 and 1918, unrest continued to grow within the workforce, with frustration at the inability to establish any positive change within their work and social environment, opposition to the war, factory disputes and political disquiet intensifying. Many once compliant workers were becoming more militant in both their views and actions.
On Friday 31 January, 1919, between 60,000 and 90,000 demonstrators gathered in George Square. They were supporting the introduction of a 40-hour working week. It followed a Clydeside strike, with 40,000 engineering and shipbuilding workers out on strike, and led by the Clyde Workers’ Committee. The main political aim was to secure work for returning soldiers, and on 31 January – Bloody Friday – the leaders of the committee had secured a meeting with the Lord Provost.
While they were talking with the Lord Provost, the police read the Riot Act and launched a horrendous and unprovoked attack on the demonstrators, beating and thrashing at unarmed men and women with their batons. Many were seriously injured. The demonstrators, with plenty of ex-servicemen in their ranks, utilised bottles, railings and whatever was to hand to force the police to retreat. There were running battles with police at various sites around Glasgow where demonstrators regrouped.
Glasgow was already seen by the government as a dangerous cauldron of socialist ideas and revolt, and it worried them greatly. Deeply concerned that the protests would lead to revolution, troops and tanks rolled into Glasgow. Rather than using the Scottish troops based at Maryhill, presumably in case of sympathisers, 10,000 English troops were sent to deal with any further disquiet.
The strikes and demonstrations did not ultimately achieve the goal they hoped for, but it did result in change. The working week was reduced by ten hours to a 47-hour week, and the power and solidarity of the workforce became a force to be reckoned with. The red flag was reputedly raised at the gathering on Bloody Friday, and the title of “Red Clydeside” perhaps unfairly suggests definite affiliations.
There were certainly pockets of activists, perhaps helping with organising and pushing things along, but the majority of demonstrators probably had no such political inclinations. It was perhaps simply a united, structured and desperate fight from these working class people to bring about change and improve their appalling working and living conditions.