Rioting on Cable Street. And unemployed East Enders taking out their frustrations on the immigrants they believed had taken their jobs. But it wasn’t 1936, and it wasn’t Oswald Mosley and his BUF attacking the local Jewish population. 17 years earlier, Cable Street had been the scene of a riot against Asian, Arab and Black people working on the docks and owning local businesses.
The Great War was to have been the one to end all wars, and the soldiers returning from the hell of the trenches would be coming home to a land ‘fit for heroes’. But ex-servicemen trying to slip back into Civvy Street in the East End after demob found Britain and its labour market in chaos. The mobilisation of (mainly) men for the war effort had been enormous, and had taken place over several years. But within weeks of the war ending, six million service men were returned to a country barely equipped to take them.
There had already been a chronic shortage of housing before the war began. By its end, Britain’s manpower and economic muscle had been employed on the fields of Belgium and France for four years and little construction had been done. Britain now lacked 600,000 of the homes she needed, and the housing stock in poorer areas such as Wapping, often little better than slums to start with, was crumbling.
Many of the soldiers were kept for months in camps, waiting for demob. Tensions boiled over with violence and minor mutinies. A government in terror of Bolshevism saw the risk of not only the working classes revolting but the army turning its weapons on its own masters. Former soldiers and sailors meanwhile were returning to the cities to find their jobs long gone.
Jacob Green had fought from almost the start of the war, seeing the hell of the Somme and counting himself fortunate to live to see the Armistice, but returning to Wapping was a salutary experience. ‘I had worked as a bricklayer but I returned to find my job taken by another. There was precious little building going on mind you, and little to be gained by going from firm to firm. I found some work as a labourer … and on lower wages then five years before! Did I really expect my firm to keep my job open? It never occurred to me that it would be otherwise.’
Many worked on the docks or in the merchant navy – a hand to mouth existence of casual employment at the best of times. And these were not the best. During the war years, the company owners had brought in migrant labour from Britain’s Empire to fill the breach. To the delight of the employers, they could pay lower wages, and use the competition for jobs to drive down pay further still.
In 1919, just months after the Armistice, there were ‘race riots’ in the East End of London, in Liverpool, Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Glasgow, Salford, Hull and on Tyneside. The white working classes of Britain’s major seaports blamed immigrants (many of whom had in fact been born in the United Kingdom) for undercutting their wages and taking their jobs. The Black and Asian seamen meanwhile were fighting furiously for parity of pay, as they found themselves working alongside white sailors for less money. And with a colour bar in place, supported by the union, Black sailors would always be second in line to a white man going for the same job.
The government of David Lloyd George, fearful of revolution and with a surplus working population on its hands took a craven way out. Black and Asian families, many of them born in Britain, were offered financial inducements to go ‘home’ or to resettle elsewhere in the Empire. With its actions, the Liberal government exported resentment overseas against Britain and arguably sowed the seeds of the independence movements that would flourish in the inter- and postwar years, and eventually see the end of the Commonwealth.
Back in Britain, a succession of weak and shortlived administrations fought vainly against the impending Great Depression – though the great collapse happened in 1929-32, it’s clear that most of Britain was in recession from the end of the First World War until the late 1930s. Emergency measures, such as coming off the gold standard, were one answer. Another was a shameful ‘reclassification’ of black British sailors as ‘alien’ workers in 1925. Now there were limits both on the jobs they could take and their freedom to move around the country in search of work.
The policy was not only callous, it was ineffective. Jobs did not magically reappear, and for areas such as Wapping and Shadwell the post-War slump would never really end. Another war would come along before that. History, meanwhile, would balefully repeat itself. Some among the new generation of East Enders would find an outlet for their frustrations in the uniform of the British Union of Fascists, the promise of order, and the warped charisma of its leader. And in 1936, ‘incomers’ would again get the blame for a nation’s economic ills.