Hidden histories – 1919: Tanks on the streets of Glasgow


  By Campbell Martin

The First World War armistice, signed in November 1918, brought home thousands of soldiers and saw an end to the demands placed on Glasgow’s engineering and munitions works.

This led to fears of mass unemployment, which prompted workers in key industries to call for a reduced working week as a means of absorbing those without a job.

In January 1919 the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) helped establish the ‘Forty Hours Movement’, which called for the working week to be reduced to a maximum of forty hours.  This demand had initially been made by coalminers in pits across Scotland, from Ayrshire in the west to Fife in the east.

A call was made for a general strike to commence on 27 January in support of the 40-hour working week: days later newspapers reported 40,000 workers from engineering and shipbuilding yards on the Clyde had withdrawn their labour.  In addition, as many as 35,000 miners had stopped work, alongside others from supporting trades and occupations.

The anger and disenchantment felt by Scottish workers towards a remote union leadership in London was made clear in a CWC Strike Bulletin issued at this time, which read:

“London Executives don’t understand our aspirations here and never take the trouble to find out what is wrong when a strike occurs.  We have to emancipate ourselves from the London junta by building an organisation which will be under our control.”

On 29 January a march through Glasgow by strikers culminated in a rally in George Square, from which a CWC deputation secured a meeting with the city’s Lord Provost. 

The shop-stewards sought the Provost’s support for the workers and asked that the Council instruct Glasgow’s employers to introduce a 40-hour working week.  Apparently, the Lord Provost asked for time to consult with councillors and a further meeting on 31 January was agreed, at which the workers would be given the Council’s response.

January 31st, a Friday, saw around 60,000 demonstrators gather in George Square in support of the 40-hour strikers and to hear the Lord Provost’s response.

However, while the CWC deputation was inside the City Chambers, ranks of police waded into the crowd in an unprovoked attack.  Men, women and children were struck by batons, resulting in a violent response from the crowd, which included many ex-servicemen recently returned from fighting in the First World War.

Contemporary newspaper reports recorded the crowd retaliated with fists, iron railings and broken bottles.  The CWC deputation heard the commotion and left the City Chambers, only for two of the leaders, Willie Gallacher and Davie Kirkwood, to be batoned by the police and arrested.  Others from the CWC leadership were also taken into custody, including Emanuel Shinwell, Harry Hopkins and George Ebury.

As pitched battles took place in and around George Square, the Chief Constable stood on the steps of the municipal building and attempted to read the Riot Act.  However, workers continued to drive back police assaults.

Eventually, peace was restored as protestors re-grouped and marched-off towards Glasgow Green where they planned to hold a rally.  Police later stated they had intervened at George Square because demonstrators had been stopping trams in adjacent streets, but workers believed the violent baton charges had been planned to disrupt the legitimate protest and undermine the strike action.

By the time the workers’ march reached Glasgow Green on 31 January ranks of police officers were already waiting and further fights broke out, which spread to other parts of the city and continued into the night.

Alarmed by events in Glasgow, and concerned they faced a ‘Red uprising’ similar to the revolution that had happened in Russia just two years before, the British Government ordered troops and tanks onto the streets of Scotland’s largest city.

The troops, believed to be 10,000 in number, were drawn from English regiments, while Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill were locked in their barracks: the Government feared they would side with the Scottish workers.

Some years later, the leaders of the Clyde Workers Committee acknowledged that they had not fully understood the magnitude of what happened, and what potentially could have happened in Glasgow on 31 January 1919.

One said, “In our heads we were leading a strike, but we should have been leading a revolution.”  Another, Willie Gallacher, added, “The soldiers at Maryhill were confined to barracks and the barrack gates were kept tightly closed.  If we had gone there, we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out and Glasgow would have been in our hands.”

The actual outcome was to be very different.  By Monday 10 February, the Joint Strike Committee of the CWC called-off the strike.  They had failed to achieve a 40-hour working week, but employers had agreed a reduction to 47-hours, ten less than was the case the before the strike.

The events in Glasgow on 31 January became known as ‘Black Friday’ and forever established the name of the Red Clydesiders in the history of socialist struggle in Britain.

However, for many, the day will be remembered for what could have been had the strike’s leaders taken a different course of action and sought support from the Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill barracks.

Courtesy of The Scottish Socialist Voice