Terfysg yn Y Bae? Terfysg yn Y Barri! The history of the 1919 Race Riots goes beyond Cardiff
S4C’s recent programme Terfysg yn y Bae (Riot in the Bay – available to watch here) about the 1919 Cardiff Race Riots, presented by Sean Fletcher, is an important part of Welsh history that has been under-chronicled over the years.
But Cardiff wasn’t the only Welsh docks in which the 1919 riots took place, nor is Cardiff’s story about the riots necessarily the same as other population centres, such as Barry and Newport.
The focus on Cardiff Bay and its Docks communities shouldn’t obscure other stories from being told.
Prior to World War One, Barry was the world’s biggest coal exporting dock. The town had grown from a population of 400 in 1881 to 40,000 a few decades later.
It was a boomtown, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that involved; political fights over religion and teetotalism cheek and jowl against shebeens and brothels in the streets leading up from the Docks.
But the war brought that to an end. Demobbed soldiers came back to a land that wasn’t fit for heroes. The economic impact upon industry and the docks reduced employment opportunities and the town’s pre-war housing boom had come to an end.
Women, now empowered with the vote, couldn’t be so easily blamed by those in power, so other scapegoats were sought for society’s ills.
The tinderbox that led to riots across docks towns and cities in England and Wales, and perhaps revolutions in other parts of the world, was no different in Barry. But the context was local.
The first death came on 11th June 1919, in a dispute in Beverley Street, a Cadoxton cul-de-sac, where former soldier Frederick Longman started a fight with Charles Emanuel, a visitor to the black seamen’s lodgings next door. After a scuffle in which Longman was stabbed, Emanuel was chased down Main Street by a crowd, where he was taken into custody by the Police. He was later found guilty of manslaughter with a sentence of five years in prison.
The crowd returned to Beverley Street, where they chased another visitor, Ernest Jackman, until he was given police protection. As the night wore on, the mob, seeking revenge, gathered in Forster Street and down to Laura Street, smashing windows as they went. Four arrests were made that night.
The following night, 12th June, 1919, they gathered once again, smashing up a fish and chip shop owned by a black man at the Bassett end of Holton Road. The owner, Mr Gillespie, had worked in Barry Docks for more than twenty years, marrying a local white woman, before setting up his business. The shop never re-opened.
With the ongoing disturbances, the army were brought to Barry to quell the riots. In a show of strength, the three hundred soldiers departed the train at Cadoxton on 13th June, and marched through Main Street and up the hills before setting up camp at the Buttrills Fields.
Fortunately they were never required to take action.
Instead, the police in Barry became the heroes of the story. Barricades were placed at the top of Thompson Street to prevent entry to the Docks area streets that had the highest density of black residents, police protection was offered to those in fear and, most proactively, snatch squads dragged ringleaders out of the mob and chucked them in the cells.
Inspector Thomas, the most senior policeman on the ground, became the chief prosecution witness for the subsequent court trials of the men arrested for the violence over those nights.
An important piece of local context was the 1920 Barry Eisteddfod proclamation, due to be held at the end of the week, a major cultural and political event designed to showcase the growth and respectability of the town.
By then, the riots had subsided, but a large mounted police presence of around fifty officers was a show of strength in the town, travelling ahead of the procession from King Square westwards down Holton Road to head off any further show of frustration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, high-profile invitees, such as David Lloyd-George did not attend that day.
While the Race Riots of June gain the headlines, the underlying circumstances continued, and in September there was another death when Chilean sailor, Jose Martinez, was stabbed three times on his upper left hand body.
At around 10:15pm on Wednesday, 10th September, fights between seamen of different races started on Thompson Street after foreign sailors were accused of harassing young women walking home. On the neighbouring Travis Street, Martinez escaped into a boarding house, where the owner stopped his assailants from coming through the front door.
Sadly, he bled to death in the hallway of 27 Travis Street from his injuries before medical help could save him. Contemporary reports talk of one death and a further four or five stabbed during the fights.
In court, Ulsterman, Alexander Craig, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was given a sentence of seven years.
Sadly, the decline of Barry Docks and the later demolition of some of the streets linking the docks and the town centre, including the majority of Thompson Street (where Abdulrahim Abby Farah was raised), means that the stories and some of the community has been lost.
For many years, the 1919 Race Riots have remained a dirty secret in Welsh history, not to be mentioned. But how we can put our history in context if we are not honest about it?
Commemorating the centenary in 2019, Barry Town Council and local historians Cllr Nic Hodges and Cllr Shirley Hodges organised tours of Merthyr Dyfan Cemetery, where many of the protagonists, including the two murder victims, are buried.
The new Curriculum for Wales offers the opportunity to recognise the multiple histories of Wales, but it will be important that those developing their school curricula, with the support of regional consortia and local authorities, already know the history of their area – and are able to balance local history with Welsh history.
If history is unknown to those developing the curricula, it will be unfamiliar to those teaching and those being taught.
We’ll know in a few years whether the changes to the curricula have been successful in that task. And whether we can also teach adults the forgotten and hidden histories of their own square mile.
The author would like to thank Shirley and Nic Hodges for their research on the 1919 Barry Race Riots.