The bloody battle of Glasgow's Tiananmen Square

Union leaders being arrested at the demonstrationBy Elizabeth McQuillan

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.

Tanks and soldiers in the Saltmarket
Tanks and soldiers in the Saltmarket

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.

  • Uncle Fester

    Oh where are the boys of the Old Brigade?

    When I was a youngster my father and his uncles spoke with enthusiasm and supported with their meagre cash and time the militancy and the vision of the Labour Party. Now we have a Scottish(sic) Labour Party that has no independent thought or finance and appears to be in complete thrall to the self- serving visions of the likes of the Islington faction of Tony Blair and the Contrabands -grab as much as you can as quickly as you can and to hell with the disposessed. Tory sleaze has been superceded by Labour corruption and it exists at every level in the political chain. Daily we learn of politicians who were on the gravy train and anyone who read the report on Expenses will know that those who are being pursued by the law are only a token sample of those who were lining their pockets at public expense. Several Scottish(sic) Labour MPs retired from office in 2010 with dark clouds of suspicion surrounding them and yet months later appear clad in ermine as respectable (if that is possible) members of the House of Lords.Any informed political observer will have little difficulty in identifying the guilty parties and yet our Scottish media remain tongue tied and silent. Investigative journalism has largely been abandoned in Scotland.
    I don’t know what Jimmy Maxton would have made of that but I am fairly confident that my own forebears would have seen through the layers of hypocricy.

    PS I made up that last bit. I am fairly sure that Jimmy Maxton would have nailed them!

  • john ferguson

    I remember my father telling me about it and that their were vickers machine guns mounted on the roof of the PO building and the Copthorn hotel pointing in to George square where the people were. If Scorland looked like it would become independent I could see the same thing happening. England know it would be in chaos if Scotland were to become independent.

  • It is a pity that New Labour has dumped all over any concept of socialism and that Glasgow Labour is now the epitome of ‘Tammany Hall’ meets the ‘Good Fellas’.

    Both my Granddads came back from the First World War and were at Glasgow Cross in 1919, they travelled from Edinburgh to do so, to listen to the likes of John MacLean, Kier Hardy and John Maxton talk about an independent, republican, socialist Scotland.

    No wonder Westminster was bricking itself, they knew the local land owners had called off the factor’s over the Govan Rent Strike and caved in. They saw what was happening in Russia and Germany and knew that many of the demobbed soldiers, sailors and airmen were unemployed and going to be unemployed for many years to come. Scotland was a defacto colony and the English knew how to deal with restless colonials – as the massacre at Amritsar just four or so years later was to show.

    2011 and what has changed?

    Westminster is still bricking it in case Scotland gets a spine and becomes independent, the machine guns are now biased media reporting and politicians like Bendy Wendy – as for Labour in Scotland …..

    Well corrupt, hand in glove with criminals in Glasgow, bent as a nine bob note over expenses and ALEOs and as far away from the socilism of Hardy, Maxton and Mclean as possible.

  • Dominic Wolsey

    Extraordinary stuff! The article omits that local regiments were locked in their barracks and soldiers were brought up from over the border as it was feared that Glaswegian soldiers might join the dissent.

    Seen against the background of events in Germany and Russia the response of the British government is unsurprising really.

  • gus1940

    Is it any coincidence that an English Regiment (The Rifles) has been based in Edinburgh for most of the duration of the current SNP Government?

    Does anybody have a record of previous post WW2 occasions when English Regiments have been based in Scotland?

  • A time when the towering figures in the Labour party in Scotland approved of independence. What changed?

    • Hugo

      They got into power in Westminster!