Emigrant Irish and the ‘Lusitania Riots’ of 1915
by Dr. Bryce Evans
In May 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Cunard Line British passenger ocean liner, provoked food riots across Britain. Most of these violent actions were directed against German pork shops in British urban centres. This piece explores the reasons behind the notable involvement of Liverpool’s Irish community in these riots.
Food Riots in the First World War
British industrial unrest during the First World War, in particular industrial action on ‘Red Clydeside’, is well documented. Less documented is the fact that Britain was convulsed by food riots throughout the conflict. Britain, of course, was not alone.
In Germany and Russia, for example, scarcity and price inflation resulted in riots. Frustrated by standing in lengthy queues for little or no return, butter riots break out in Berlin 1915 led by women. There were a number of subsistence riots in Russia during the war years and, again, women played a leading role in these.
‘Moral Economy’ and Wartime
Because consumer sacrifice in wartime comes to be associated with the collective community struggle, governments have to take action to ensure fair price. But, as we know, full rationing was not established in Britain until 1918 – the last year of the war. So what about popular (as opposed to state-imposed) actions against profiteering before then?
The famous English radical historian EP Thompson spoke of early modern food riots as being legitimated by ‘traditional rights or customs’ and ‘supported by the wider consensus of the community’. Following this idea, which Thompson termed ‘moral economy’, perceptions of market fairness were as important, and in most cases more important, than merely hunger itself.
So when women and men took part in food riots, they were prompted by ‘an outrage to these moral assumptions’, quite as much as actual deprivation. Food riots were not just ‘rebellions of the belly’ according to this theory.
Historians usually portray community-based subsistence riots as occurring in pre- or proto-industrial settings where informal community politics prevail and not in modern market economies. During wartime, however, there is an intensification of economic morality in society. Why? Because food and other resources are more scarce. Amidst frugality on the home front in WWI, food queues developed, there were arrests of hoarders and, because of wheat scarcity, brewing was limited.
With this enhanced wartime morality, did older notions of ‘moral economy’ reappear? And, if so, how did they tie in with the popular nationalism of the war effort?
The Lusitania Riots
In May 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Cunard Line British passenger ocean liner, provoked moral outrage and food riots across Britain. Lusitania left New York bound for Liverpool on 1 May 1915. On 7 May, eleven miles off the southern coast of Ireland, she was sunk by a German U-boat, causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew.
German pork shops – symbolic of the enemy but also of domestic food shortages – were to bear the brunt of the riots which followed the sinking.
Home Office files Document unrest and rioting in Britain following this outrage. In mid 1915 the importation of flour was briefly suspended as a consequence of what was called “the uncertain conditions of trade caused by the recent riots on German bakers shops”, 60% of which in London were German.
In Gateshead, British Home Office sources reported, several German pork butcher shops were ransacked. In London, riots broke out across the city, with The Times reporting that these actions were ‘Particularly serious in Poplar and East-end districts with a number of people and police injured’ and that the Damage done was very great.’ In Southend, the military were deployed after crowds wrecked German owned pork shops and tobacconists. In Manchester, 13 men and 8 women were convicted of disorderly conduct and wilful damage to property.
Pat O’Mara and the Liverpool-Irish Rioters
But some of the worst riots were to occur in Liverpool, which possessed a very large Irish emigrant community.
Pat O'Mara, in his memoir, The Autobiography of a Liverpool-Irish Slummy, which was first published in 1934, takes up the story of the Liverpool riots in May 1915:
“It took about two days for the names of the drowned among the crew to be published. They were appalling. That night Freddie and I, clad in our American tailored suits, started for a dance over Paddy's Market in St Martin's Hall. We never attended it, however. Before entering the Hall we walked around Scotland Road listening to the cries of the women whose husbands and sons had gone down in the 'Lusy' and we heard the bitter threats made against Germany and anything with a German name.
We walked down Bostock Street, where practically every blind was drawn in token of death. All these little houses were occupied by Irish coal-trimmers and firemen and sailormen on the Lusitania; now these men who, barely two weeks ago, had carried their bags jokingly down the street were gone, never to return.
Some of the women, drunk, were laughing – laughing as mad people laugh when the border line had been passed ... On the corner of Scotland Road ominous gangs were gathering – men and women, very drunk and angry. Something was afoot; we could sense that and, like good slummy boys, we crowded around eager to help in any disturbance.
Suddenly something crashed up the road near Ben Johnson Street; followed in turn by another terrific crash of glass. We ran up the road. A pork butcher’s had had its front window knocked in with a brick and a crowd of men and women were wrecking the place. A little higher up the same thing was happening – everything suggestive of Germany was being smashed to pieces. Up the road the crowd surged, some cutting into Sawny Pope Street; others going into Ben Johnson Street; others continuing up the road.
Down Scotland Road, in the opposite direction, the window crashing was more terrific – clear down to Bryon Street. Everyone had a brick or a stick or something tucked under his or her coat or apron and there was much pilfering. The police themselves, imbued with bitterness, were the most passive guardians of the law. I recall one stout little Irish sausage dealer pleading with the crowd that her husband wasn’t a German, but the name was too suspicious and in the windows went and the place was wrecked. Freddie turned to me: “What about all the ‘Uns up our way? I’ll bet they’re having some bloody fun up there now. Let’s go up there.” So we left the Scotland Road mob and took the tram up to our own South End.
The Violence Spreads across the city
Freddie had guessed correctly. As soon as the tram got near Charlie Beech’s pork shop, opposite St Vincent’s Church, a dense mob caused it to stop. Mr Beech had been living in Liverpool thirty odd years, but there was a faint suspicion that years ago, anticipating just such a riot, he had changed his name. His big shop was in shambles when, running from the halted tramcar, we got to it; Mr Beech and his son had made their escape. Someone in the mob mentioned Mr Agte was a retired German sailorman, now a naturalized Britisher, and married to the popular Sarah Doran, as Irish as a leprechaun.
“Ah, lave thim alone!” said a Joan of Arc who was leading the mob. “Sarah allers hilped the church. Let’s get after Yaag – that’s the bloody ‘Un!” So instead of Agte’s we raced on to Yaag’s pork butcher’s in the Great George Street, most of us boys in the vanguard and anxious to be the first to crash the enemy’s windows. Mr Yaag, a big, wholesome fellow allegedly had been born in Germany, but I don’t think he remembered much about it. Two of his nephews were with my cousin Berny and the Eighth Irish over in France. I always liked Mr Yaag, but not quite so keenly as I liked to break his window without fear of molestation.
As we converged on the big shop, Mr Yaag, arms akimbo and thinking some urchin was fleeing from Aeroplane Joe, came out, pipe in mouth and with his usual broad smile; this vanished instantly as someone kicked him in the belly and a volley of bricks sent in the huge windows. From the sawdust floor the astounded man had the pleasure of seeing his choice sausages kicked down and thrown about and the furnishings reduced to shambles. “You’ll sink the bleedin ‘Lusy’, will you!” yelled our Joan, waving a shillelagh over his prostate form. “I’ll give you sinking the bloody ‘Lusy’! ‘Ere, bust that up; kick that out; smash the whole bloody business!”
We left Mr Yaag and Yaag, Inc., in a worse mess than Charlie Beech’s. Cook’s pork butcher’s in Mill Street came next. Mr Cook knew as much about Germany at the time, I think, as I did. Later investigation proved that he came from strictly Yorkshire stock and was a devoted student of Mr Kipling dashing off a bit of patriotic verse himself once in a while. But he had a pork butcher’s shop, and as pork and Germany were identical items, we left his shop in a shambles and himself stretched across the counter groaning. I began to get sick from all the free sausage I’d been eating.
Our next conquest was Annie Monnigan’s little shack. Annie was just as Irish as Sarah Doran, German Bob Agte’s wife, but she didn’t contribute as generously to St Vincent’s and this made a big difference. Several reasons why Annie didn’t contribute so much to the church as Sarah was that she had no sailors’ boarding house, had six small children to feed, and her husband was interned. But she was quite as good a Catholic as Sarah. Years ago, she had married Charlie Thomas, fresh from a German four-masted barque. As the children came, Charlie quit the sea and matriculated, like all old sailors, to dock labouring – an occupation he was at when hauled off to the German detention camp on the Isle of Man. One of our crowd, with remarkable memory, verified this and the stampede was on. I shall never forget the hysteria of this last debacle, with the six children screaming and Annie, like a good colleen, fighting back and asking no quarter. After doing a second job here, we left loudly cheering our commander-in-chief, herself now sporting a black eye, given her by the fighting Annie.
The following day all was quiet, and the police, now mindful of their jobs, started taking an inventory. All damage was carefully checked and all victims adequately reimbursed, the cost going on the tax rate as is the way with good British justice. Our commander-in-chief, the fiery little Irishwoman, was relieved from her chip-chopping activities and given six months in Walton for her valour, and only his adeptness at secreting himself behind the chimney pots saved the Black Prince from going along with her. Several others got minor sentences.
There was some disguised blessings, too. Most of the wrecked butchers shops were obsolete contraptions, but when the reconstruction architects came in, newer and gaudier edifices were erected. Little fighting Annie Monnigan had always detested the little shack in Frederick Street, so when the government offered to rebuild it according to the original plan, she threw up her hands in horror and suggested a cash settlement. Poor Charlie Beech and I were the worst sufferers. Charlie’s son John dropped dead after racing with his father from the shop to his house Aigburth; and I got a pernicious bellyache on account of all the raw sausage I had eaten.
Analysis: the Righteousness of Moral Economy, or the Bigotry of Racism?
In Liverpool, overall, 200 shops were gutted with the damage costed at £400,000.
O’Mara admits "Many mistakes were made" and the excerpt shows the flighty, almost schizophrenic character of the Liverpool mob, making it hard to detect what we might regard as any overriding moral economic valour, or logic, in their actions. Some shops clearly not even German. Moreover, EP Thompson may have denied that food riots were merely ‘rebellions of the belly’, but Pat O’Mara’s bellyache from raw sausage seems to defy this notion.
Nonetheless, the reluctance to smash Sarah Doran’s shop, because she gave money to the church, shows that there were at least flashes of a moral economic ethic at work here. That pork and Germany were viewed as identical items suggests a moral economy issue. In total war societies, the notion of morality and immorality, based around perceived infractions in the moral conduct of war, but also notions of absence and abundance, was powerful: here we see popular moral polarisation at work, with everything German (in the wake of the Lusitania’s sinking) viewed as symbolic of an infraction of fair play more broadly.
Another classic aspect of moral economy is the primacy of women, as moral economic guarantors, as evidenced in the excerpt
What’s most interesting is the involvement of the Irish: O’Mara, in the book, talks about dutifully taking his place in Liverpool's pre-war sectarian riots between Irish catholic and Irish Protestant populations in the city, about opposing loyalism and the fierce sense of separate identity among the Liverpool Irish - but then, as he puts it, "the foe for the brief moment had changed from England to Germany" in 1915.
The Liverpool Echo reported that after the riots 150 German residents were rounded up by the police and removed to internment camps (to secure public order as much as for their own safety). There was, we are told, no hostility shown towards them by a large crowd that had gathered at Lime Street Station – this suggests, perhaps, that popular outrage centred on food and pricing rather than ethnic animosity alone.
The Introduction of full Rationing in Britain, 1918
Full rationing ostensibly staved off rioting by ensuring fair price and equitable distribution. But this was not until the very latest stages of the war.
But late into the war, and well after the shift from Asquith’s somewhat complacent leadership to Lloyd George’s “push and go” administration, food riots were still breaking out – these were ‘anti alien’ riots, yes, but more often than not they were centred on food shops.
For example, a Home Office report of 9 July 1917 revealed that in just one day of anti-German riots in East London 30 shops were rifled, 37 arrested, and 14 police officers injured; flour, biscuits, tea and cash were stolen from each of the premises by members of the mob.
In conclusion, actions such as Liverpool’s anti-German riots of May 1915 were examples of race riots. Indeed, the German pork butchers were not the only targets of mob action in 1915: Liverpool’s Chinese shops were also targeted, with the Foreign Office reporting Chinese citizens begging for protection. The Republic of China, of course, was at this stage firmly neutral.
But despite their unpalatable character, and albeit heavily coloured by the nasty ethnocentrism of a war economy, these actions possess many of the tenets of that - admittedly most elastic of concepts - moral economy. And the involvement of the Liverpool Irish raises many questions about the complex issues attached to national identity in wartime societies.