In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were several riots in Birkenhead and district. The Garibaldi Riots of 1862 and the Means Test Riots of 1932 are the best-known. This is a timeline I’ve gleaned from local history books, but it’s by no means definitive …1839
Fierce fighting broke out between English and Irish navvies building a section of the new Birkenhead-Chester railway at Childer Thornton, near Hooton. It flared after a sub-contractor decided to employ only English workers on this part of the line.
Three hundred Irishmen, wielding pickaxe handles and shovels, chased off the English and took over the village, helping themselves to drink in the pubs. Order was restored only after soldiers were drafted in from Chester and Liverpool and 26 of the ringleaders arrested. 1850
The Whitsuntide Wakes, rowdy local festivities held each year on wasteland near the southern foreshore of Tranmere Pool, caused outrage for their ‘disgraceful and riotous scenes’.
Thousands of the ‘idle and dissolute from all over the county’ swarmed into the area – close to the Royal Castle Hotel – where a fairground had been set up with beer sellers, food vendors, freak shows, dancing, sideshows, boxing booths, games of chance, whirlygigs, swingboats and a miniature zoo.
Some 40,000 day trippers arrived by ferry from Liverpool to swell the rough crowd, indulging in an orgy of ‘drunkenness, acts of violence, robbery and shameless immorality’. The township elders called for the event to be suppressed, but it continued for many years.1850
As Irish immigration soared nationwide in the aftermath of the Great Famine, the Catholic Church controversially re-established its full hierarchy in England.
Birkenhead magistrates were asked to convene a ratepayers’ meeting in the town hall to protest against this ‘encroaching Romanism’. But the gathering was attacked by several thousand Irish navvies who were working on the docks.
Armed with sticks, pokers and iron bars, they forced their way into the town hall, breaking every window. Dozens of police were knocked down, beaten and trampled.
Police reinforcements were called in and the military put on standby, before a priest from St Werburgh’s persuaded the rioters to withdraw. The magistrates emerged from under a table, where they had taken refuge.1850
Serious rioting erupted on the docks and police were armed with cutlasses to help them quell the violence. Constables on duty on the outskirts of Birkenhead were supplied with signal rockets to summon assistance.1851
Rioting again broke out on the docks and magistrates were called in to the town hall daily to deal with offenders. 1857
Riots erupted on the docks yet again and the police were overcome as they tried to restore order. Finally, troops were drafted in from Manchester to deal with the trouble.1859
Thousands of dock navvies armed with spades, shovels and sticks brought terror and mayhem to Birkenhead as violence flared over the issue of Catholic burial grounds.
The town’s Catholics wanted a proposed new cemetery at Flaybrick
Hill to be run by a burial board, believing it would ensure they had their own dedicated religious section. But the Birkenhead commissioners, led by John Laird
, wanted control of the project – and won a vote on the issue.
The result of the vote was declared at midnight and by 2am, thousands of rioters were rampaging down Church Street, where they attacked the Laird
’s shipyard and its workers. Five navvies were arrested and taken by police to the lock-up at the town hall in Hamilton Street. But, reinforced by more armed insurgents, the mob followed, intent on freeing the prisoners.
Fearing that the rioters were likely to demolish the town hall and lives were in danger, a magistrate agreed to release the five navvies after the intervention of a local priest, who promised they would turn up for their trial. Lesser disturbances continued over the next two days and soldiers were stationed in the town hall to resist any further attacks.1862
The ‘Garibaldi Riots’ brought violent clashes between the police and Irish Catholics in Birkenhead that made worldwide news.
Trouble started when Protestant supporters of anti-Catholic Italian nationalist Guiseppe Garibaldi, whose military forces were threatening the Papal States, held a debate on Italian politics at Holy Trinity Church in Price Street. They put up posters proclaiming ‘Sympathy With Garibaldi’.
Incensed by the posters, which were printed on a bright orange background, 4,000 angry Catholics from the nearby Irish neighbourhood laid siege to the building, hurling stones.
The following week, despite official pleas to desist, the Protestants held another Garibaldi debate at Holy Trinity. More than 170 police, 175 soldiers and 1,000 special constables stood by for trouble.
Violence again erupted and police were caught up in running battles with some 15,000 cudgel-wielding Irish Catholics around Oak Street and Watson Street, where the rioters created a choking smokescreen by setting fire to the chimneys of their houses.
Windows and doors were smashed, gunshots heard, pubs and shops looted, properties burned and 55 police officers injured amid a constant hail of bricks, bottles and stones. Two priests from St Werburgh’s did their best to calm the situation, but Protestants later claimed that the two incited the mob.
At a subsequent trial of 18 rioters at Chester Castle, one man, Henry Lennon, was sentenced to 15 years transportation to the penal colony in Western Australia for allegedly hitting a policeman with an iron bar. Other sentences ranged from nine years to six months in jail.1883
Religious rioting broke out as the Salvation Army paraded along Conway Street to the Dock Cottages in the North End, where many Irish Catholics lived. As the marchers returned, two thousand people clashed in Brassey Street and Vittoria Street.1915
After the sinking of the liner Lusitania by a German submarine off Ireland, anti-German riots broke out in Birkenhead. Shops and townsfolk with German-sounding names were attacked by mobs in Watson Street, Oxton Road, Pilgrim Street and Waterford Street. Some terrified traders put notices in their windows, or in the local newspaper, proclaiming their Britishness and telling how their sons were serving in the Army. 1919
Police in Birkenhead joined a national strike for better pay and union recognition, with four sergeants and 98 constables – more than half the force – failing to report for duty. As mob rule broke out in parts of the town, shops were looted and £3,500 worth of property damaged.
More than 190 special constables were called up to try to keep order and the mayor urged all fit menfolk to join them. The Riot Act was read. Finally, 500 troops were drafted in, patrolling the streets armed with rifles and machine guns, and 300 arrests of hooligans and looters were made.
The strike lasted a fortnight and all those policemen who backed it were dismissed from the force, losing their pension entitlements.1932
The worst street violence since the Garibaldi Riots erupted in Birkenhead. The cause was the paltry amount of unemployment benefit paid by the local Public Assistance Committee (PAC) under the Means Test. A single man got just 12s 3d a week and a single woman 10s 6d.
On August 3, the National Unemployed Workers Movement organised a march of 2,000 jobless from the park entrance to the town hall to urge the mayor to call an emergency council meeting over the issue. He refused. When a second march of 5,000 took place on September 7, the mayor agreed only to put the matter before the Tory-controlled council.
There was a third march on September 13, but barricades were erected around the town hall and protesters were faced with a huge and threatening police presence. The council agreed to call for the abolition of the Means Test, but refused to tell the PAC to increase benefits.
Next day, a crowd of 18,000 gathered at the park entrance and marched to Argyle Street, gathering outside the PAC offices. But the PAC said only that it would discuss the benefits issue at its full meeting the following Monday.
It was the final straw for many of the jobless. As they marched back towards the park entrance, 2,000 peeled off and lay siege to the home in Bryanston Road, Prenton, of a Tory councillor who had earlier accused them of abusing the benefits system. But vanloads of police arrived and launched an unprovoked attack on the crowd with batons, badly injuring several.
As darkness fell, dozens of enraged demonstrators went on the rampage down Grange Road, smashing windows and looting shops. Then premises in Price Street were attacked, with grocery stores the main target of the hungry rioters.
On Saturday and Sunday, further serious violence erupted, with pitched battles between the police and unemployed in Back St Anne Street, Price Street, Beckwith Street and Conway Street. The rioters smashed street lights, removed manhole covers and laid trip-wires in an attempt to thwart pursuing constables.
Almost 1,000 police reinforcements were drafted into Birkenhead from Liverpool and Birmingham and troops put on standby in Chester. But a ferry boat bringing constables from Liverpool was forced to turn back as rioters on the Woodside landing stage bombarded it with stones.
On Monday, despite their leaders being arrested, the unemployed again gathered in force outside the PAC offices. By early evening, more than 20,000 people were crammed into the surrounding streets. Cammell Laird
workers downed tools to join the jobless in solidarity. Nobody in Birkenhead could remember so many people gathered in one place before.
A few hours later, the PAC agreed to raise the benefit rate for men to 15s 3d a week, and for single women to 13s 6d.
It was a landmark victory for the unemployed. But five of the riot leaders were later jailed for between six and 20 months. And the council refused to hold an inquiry into police brutality against demonstrators. Instead, several constables were awarded medals.