1919 Race Riots

01 Jan 1919
Precise date unknown: 
End date: 
01 Aug 1919
Precise end date unknown: 
Event location: 

London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Salford, Hull, South Shields, Newport, Barry.


In the wake of the First World War and demobilization, the surplus of labour led to dissatisfaction among Britain’s workers, in particular seamen. This was arguably the key factor that led to the outbreak of rioting between white and minority workers in Britain’s major seaports, from January to August 1919. Along with African, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Arab sailors, South Asians were targeted because of the highly competitive nature of the job market and the perception that these minorities were ‘stealing’ the jobs that should belong to white indigenous British workers. The housing shortage due to a lack of materials and labour during the war exacerbated the situation. The issue of ‘aliens’ taking jobs and houses from white workers was raised in the House of Commons. Further, as Indian seamen were hired at a considerably lower rate than their white counterparts and had to tolerate much poor working and living conditions, they were blamed by unions for undercutting the wages of white workers. Of course, racism, and specifically the fear of miscegenation, also motivated the hostility towards these settlers.

During the months of racially motivated violence in 1919 there were violent attacks on minority workers, resulting in five fatalities, as well as vandalization of their homes and properties. South Asians suffered somewhat less than black or Chinese workers as they were not regarded as such direct competition for jobs and housing; most remained within the navy and within their subsidized accommodation rather than seeking alternative employment and accommodation. However, a number of incidents involving South Asians have been traced. In May 1919, the Strangers’ Home for Asiatic Seamen in West India Dock Road was surrounded by a hostile crowd and ‘any coloured man who appeared was greeted with abuse and had to be escorted by the police. It was necessary at times to bar the doors of the Home’ (The Times, 30 May 1919). Newspapers of the time also report the devastation of a Malay boarding house and the shop of one Abdul Satar in Cardiff (Visram, p. 199).

Secondary works: 

Evans, Neil, ‘The South Wales Race Riots of 1919’, Llafur 3 (1980), pp. 5-29

Jenkinson, Jacqueline, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009)

May, Roy and Cohen, Robin, ‘The Interaction between Race and Colonialism: A Case Study of the Liverpool Race Riots of 1919’, Race and Class XVI.2 (1974), pp. 111-26

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)


East End News, 22 April 1919, p. 2


This is an extract from an East End News report of a racial incident preceding the major outbreak of rioting. The article reports an attack by white men on an Arab restaurant that was frequented by white women.


There has been some friction between the Arabs and some English girls visiting an Arab eating house in Cable Street. On Wednesday a number of ex-soldiers entered the eating-house and soon afterwards revolver shots were fired. A general fight followed in which revolvers, knives and bottles were used. A large and hostile crowd gathered outside the restaurant and were very menacing in their attitude towards the coloured men inside. A large number of policemen arrived, but were unable for some time to gain admission. After the fight had been in progress for some time however, they managed to get the wounded men and their prisoners away.


This extract illuminates the fear of black male sexuality and particularly miscegenation on the part of normative British culture in this period, and the way in which this fear contributed to the hostility and violence experienced by minority workers. While the focus here is on an attack on an Arab restaurant, similar concerns shaped the public response to Indian as well as African men.

Archive source: 

Local newspapers held at local libraries or at the British Library Newspaper Collection, Colindale, London

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