The Battle of George Square: How a strike led to fears of a workers' revolt

The red flag was flown in George Square heightening concerns about a socialist revolution Image copyright Herald and Times Group
Image caption The red flag was flown in George Square heightening concerns about a socialist revolution

Just months after the end of World War One, a strike over working hours led to huge crowds in Glasgow's George Square and fears it could be the start of a full-scale socialist revolution.

The ensuing violence became known as Bloody Friday, with the crowds being beaten by police batons and the Riot Act being read for one of the last times.

It led the government in London to take desperate measures to help bring the city under control.

They deployed more than 10,000 troops to restore order and six tanks were sent north along with 100 motor-lorries.

Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption A police officer uses his baton on a striker in Glasgow in 1919

By the following morning machine-gun posts had been set up on top of high buildings in Glasgow centre and thousands of troops were billeted across the city.

The catalyst for the events of 31 January 1919 was a strike, called as part of a campaign for shorter working hours.

According to military historian Gordon Barclay: "The strike had an overtly political aim: to force the government to step in to regulate industry.

"Many in government believed that it had a more profoundly political, or even revolutionary, aim."

Altruistic move

During WW1, Glasgow had played a vital role in the munitions industry and there was a 54-hour working week in factories and shipyards.

The Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) - an informal body made up of shop stewards from different trade unions - was leading a campaign to cut that to 40 hours.

This was partly an altruistic move designed to help create jobs for the thousands of soldiers returning from the war.

The committee leaders called a general strike, which began on 27 January.

'Drastic action'

Two days later, a CWC deputation went to Glasgow's City Chambers to ask the lord provost to put their demands to the government.

They left him in no doubt that "drastic action" would be taken if their demand was not met.

One of the strike leaders, Manny Shinwell, said that if it was not settled by the end of the week they would not hesitate to "stop every tramcar, shut off every light and generally paralyse the business of the city".

It was clear the organisers intended to bring employees of the city-owned power stations and tram system out on strike, but the government were concerned they could go even further.

The revolution in Russia was just over a year old and Germany had recently undergone an uprising that saw the monarchy overthrown, so the cabinet in London was rattled by the unrest in Glasgow.

Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption Police officers return from a baton charge in North Frederick Street

It was just 82 days since the Armistice had ended the fighting in WW1, but the war cabinet was still sitting and the first item on its agenda on 30 January was the situation in Scotland's largest city.

Mr Barclay makes the point that the cabinet wanted to send troops to prevent disorder and keep services going.

However, he says the civil authorities were responsible for law and order and the military could not step in unless martial law was declared.

The war cabinet's plans involved deploying troops from across Scotland and England and sending six tanks north by train to assist the civil authorities if they were requested.

40-hour demand

On the morning of Friday 31 January, tens of thousands of people marched to George Square.

A large red flag, the symbol of Marxist socialism, was carried into the square as the crowd gathered to hear the lord provost deliver the government's response.

However, the government had already rejected the 40-hour working week demand, preferring instead to talk to the official trade unions nationally.

A deputation from the CWC, including Davie Kirkwood and Manny Shinwell, went into the City Chambers to meet the provost, while Willie Gallacher addressed the crowd outside in the square.

Image copyright PAthe
Image caption A tram in George Square during the protest

A BBC documentary made in the 1970s heard eyewitness accounts of how a tram car had tried to get into the square but found it impossible to get through.

They said some people tried to overturn the tram, hammering at the glass and pushing at the car.

Estimates from the time say there were 20,000 to 25,000 people in the square, although some claim many more.

There were originally about 70 police who were later joined by another 70 officers. However, they were drastically outnumbered and unable to cope with the crowd.

Reading the Riot Act

According to the documentary, the police charged at the crowd, beating them indiscriminately with batons.

Suddenly the Sheriff of Lanarkshire Mr A Mackenzie appeared at a corner of George Square and started to read the Riot Act, declaring the gathering unlawful and ordering the crowds to disperse.

The paper was snatched out of the sheriff's hand and the city's superintendent had to finish reading it.

Writing years later, Willie Gallacher said: "Men were sprawling all around, and just beneath where I was standing a woman was lying on her side and on her face was the mark of a muddy boot."

According to eyewitnesses, Gallacher dived at the police chief constable and he was beaten with a baton and arrested.

Davie Kirkwood ran out of the City Chambers to plead for a stop to the violence and was also beaten.

Image copyright Glasgow City Archives
Image caption David Kirkwood on the ground after being struck by police batons

The fighting raged all over the square and in adjacent streets.

In North Frederick Street, the police were driven back when the strikers seized a lorry full of empty bottles and used them as missiles.

The strikers withdrew to Glasgow Green where fighting continued with police.

Sporadic fighting went on late into the night in some neighbourhoods, with tramcars smashed and shop windows broken and their stock looted.

Gallacher, Kirkwood, Shinwell and other leaders were arrested.

'Bolshevist rising'

Image caption Speaking in 1962, Willie Gallacher regretted the missed opportunity

In London, the war cabinet met as the riot raged in Glasgow.

Scottish Secretary Robert Munro is said to have called the protest "a Bolshevist uprising".

Pre-prepared orders for troops to be sent to the city, as well as the tanks and lorries, were put in motion.

According to Mr Barclay, the first troops arrived about 22:00 and continued to reach the city throughout the night.

The historian says it is unclear exactly where all the troops came from, although it seems likely that most were Scottish regiments and many were based near Edinburgh.

Mr Barclay says troops from Glasgow were removed from the units so they did not find themselves facing friends and family.

Troops from the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who were based at Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow, were also not used.

There appears to have been two English regiments among the troops - The East Surrey Regiment, who had probably been based near Bridge of Allan at the time, and the Durham Light Infantry from the north east of England.

Tanks in the Cattle Market

The morning after the riot, Glasgow woke up to find armed troops patrolling George Square and machine guns on the roof of the Post Office and North British Hotel.

By Monday, there were six tanks parked in the Cattle Market.

Mr Barclay says the military stayed in the city until 17 February but there is little indication that they were required to do anything noteworthy.

Just over a week after the Battle of George Square, the strike was over and a settlement was reached on the basis of a 47-hour working week.

This was a victory for the workers in the short term but it did not seriously challenge the role of the bosses.

Six CWC leaders and six others were put on trial.

Image caption Manny Shinwell later became a Labour MP and government minister

Only Shinwell, who went on to become a Labour MP, and Gallacher were convicted.

There is little evidence that the leaders of the strikes and demonstrations ever considered challenging the authority of the British government.

For most of the strikers and demonstrators the protests on Clydeside were about wages, working conditions and unfair rents.

Speaking more than 40 years later, Willie Gallacher regretted the missed opportunity.

"We should have been staging a workers' revolution but we hadn't sufficient political understanding."

In his memoir, Revolt on the Clyde, he said: "A rising was expected. A rising should have taken place.

"The workers were ready to effect it; the leadership had never thought of it."

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