On this day, 15th August, 1911, around 90-95 people found convicted for their involvement in the Liverpool transport strike were being transported across the city to Walton Gaol in prison vans under a cavalry escort from the 18th Hussars. As the procession reached Vauxhall Road, protesters began to throw bottles and bricks at the thirty-two strong cavalry unit who, in return, promptly opened fire upon the crowd. Two men were killed that fateful day; A twenty year old carter by the name of John Sutcliffe revieved two fatal gunshot wounds to the head, whilst a twenty-nine year old docker, Michael Prendergast, was shot in the chest at close range. Three others also suffered gunshots wounds during the chaos, but thankfully survived. An inquest into the deaths of Sutcliffe and Prendergast subsequently brought in a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’, proving that we had learnt nothing from Peterloo.
To understand what happened on this day 109 years ago, we need to go back just a couple of days earlier, to a sunny Sunday August 13th, and what became known as Liverpool’s Bloody Sunday.
On that day, 100,000 workers assembled on St George’s Plateau in the city to hear speeches by workers and leaders of the unions, including the Transport Workers Federation (TWF) union leader Tom Mann. The demonstration was peaceful and went without incident until about 4 o’clock, when, without any provocation, the crowds were suddenly and indiscriminately charged upon by baton wielding police officers and soldiers, on both foot and horseback, acting on the instructions of the then Home Secretary, the future Prime Minister and the so-called ‘Greatest Briton’, Winston Churchill himself. Attacking bystanders with relentless and merciless vigour, the police and troops succeeded in clearing the steps of St George’s Hall in little more than half an hour, despite the valiant resistance from strikers and bystanders who knew they had the right to be there and who used whatever they could find as weapons. The fighting soon spilled out into nearby streets, where the police and soldiers came under attack from missiles raining down on them from rooftops.
By the end of the day, some 90 or so arrests had been made and a 186 innocent people had been wounded to such a significant extent that they required hospitalisation. Troops even opened fire on civilians on Great Homer Street, but mercifully no fatalities were recorded. Appalled and angered by their savage mistreatment, the folk of Liverpool continued to battle the authorities across the city for a couple of days, culminating in the murder of Sutcliffe and Prendergast. Four days later, Churchill gave the order for gunboats including HMS Antrim to patrol the Mersey with their guns facing the city – a potent, stark threat to Liverpudlians should the unrest continue. Yes, you’re reading that right, Churchill was willing to mortar a British city if they refused to go back to work.
Why was Churchill so ruthless? Well, in the clearest possible terms, the Liberal government of the day were terrified that the transport strike would lead to full scale revolution. It had all started with a demonstration on May 11th by the TWF in Liverpool which had been called in support of a strike action by two affiliated seaman’s unions, the National Sailors and Firemen’s Union (NFSU) and the National Union of Ships’ Stewards, regarding a plethora of issues including an end to degrading medical inspections, the demand for improved accommodation, and an increase in wages. When these demands were met with silence, a national strike was called on June 15th that saw not only all workers employed by shipping companies come out. The strike forced the hand of the companies who had no option but to enter negotiations. By the end of June, they had conceded to the union’s demands. On hearing of this success, 4,000 dockers – many of whom had refused to load ships during the national strike – subsequently went on on strike for improved pay and conditions. Soon they were accompanied by the scalers and coal heavers and, in a gesture of sympathy with their comrades, the seaman once again refused their labour. In early July, tug boat workers and labourers from the Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse also came out, followed by brewery workers, rubber plant workers, and workers in the oil mills and wool warehouses. By August 7th, the strike was joined by 15,00 railwayman and thus transportation of goods into Liverpool had come to a complete standstill. It was the railway strike that saw matters escalate to that of a national crisis as pickets began to spread across the country.
In the wake of the events in Liverpool, Llanelli railway station also came out on strike.Once again, Churchill had instructed the military – in Llanelli’s case the Worcestershire Regiment – to help break the strike. It was a decision that led to further bloodshed. Faced with the crowd, commanding officer, Major Brownlow Stuart, ordered his men to use bayonets as a means of dispersal. When this did not have the desired effect, Stuart ordered his men to open fire. Twenty-One year-old tinplate worker John ‘Jac’ John was killed, along with Leonard Worsell, a 19-year-old youth who had the misfortune to step out into his back garden at the sound of the commotion. Rioting in the town continued for several days, leading to four more deaths. In his report, Major Stuart claimed that he instructed his soldiers to fire warning shots and that they had diligently complied, but eye-witnesses reported that the strikers had been deliberately targeted. Stuart’s claims subsequently fell down when it was revealed that one soldier had refused his order and promptly deserted. A court martial was subsequently held but not widely reported upon, thanks to Churchill’s decision to keep it out of the national press; a trick he had previously employed when warning Pathe News off from screening the damaging newsreel footage that depicted the charge that led to Liverpool’s Bloody Sunday.
Despite their ability to draw on some 50,00 soldiers across the country and bolstering Liverpool’s constabulary with reinforcements from Birmingham, the government soon realised that their strong-arm tactics were simply not working and that further homicidal incidents like Liverpool and Llanelli may turn the whole country against them. On the advice of his Chancellor, David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith called upon the railway companies to come to a swift settlement with the unions to avoid a full-scale revolution sweeping the nation. Despite several calls for a public inquiry into the fatal shootings that occurred in Liverpool on August 15th and Llanelli on August 19th, justice was not granted. The government, eager to sweep the whole affair under the carpet and move on, adjourned Parliament on August 22nd in an attempt to evade questions, shirk responsibility and lick their wounds.