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Last updated:23 April 2015

Salford unemployed march 1931

Ewan MacColl: An unemployed march in Salford in 1931

(From Journeyman p195-200)

"When, in 1931, the National Government led by Ramsay MacDonald fired its opening salvoes against the living standards of the Brtish working class, the most hard-hit were, naturally, the unemployed. Naturally? Of course.

From he that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
And who has less than the unemployed?
Who is more accustomed to suffering the pangs of hunger than the hungry?

So now unemployment benefit has been pared down even further and a means test introduced, a humiliating inquisition calculated to squeeze out the last drop of human dignity from every unemployed family in the land. No, it wasn't calculated - our rulers are not like that. They are not conscious of the fact that working people possess human dignity or indeed that they have feelings of any kind. We are engaged in a war, dammit!

One attacks the enemy at his weakest point and that point is the three-million unemployed and their families. So let's have no more of this human dignity claptrap. And let us hear no more about equality of sacrifice or grinning and bearing it, or how we British can take it. Don't bother trying to conceal your contempt for us and we won't try to conceal our hatred of you.

Cover of The constitution and rules of the NUWMOur branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement is calling for a mass demonstration against the new measures on 2 October. For the ten days before that we were out every night advertising the demo. Our publicity methods are cheap and effective. All you need is a good supply of blue mould, the porous, chalk-like substance which housewives use to brighten up their window silis and doorsteps. It's useful stuff for chalking slogans and announcements on walls.

In addition, a rota of public speakers has been drawn up. Their job is to address queues outside labour exchanges at various points throughout the day. My stint covers the five and ten o'clock queues. I'm a poor public speaker and my harangues rarely attract more than a handful of listeners. On the morning of the demo, however, I change my tactics and decide to make my pitch inside the exchange. Almost before I can begin speaking I am seized by a dozen pair of hands, pushed to the counter and lifted on to it. No speech is needed this morning, just the announcement:

'All out against the means test! Assemble at Liverpool Street croft!'

Within seconds the labour exchange has emptied and the street outside is filled with the unemployed. We begin moving immediately. A crowd of several hundred is already assembled on the croft and droves of newcomers are arriving every few minutes or so. I feel uplifted, triumphant. At last we are getting somewhere!

I am proud of my Albion Street contingent and try to keep them together, but they are moving away and joining friends and acquaintances in the crowd. Stewards wearing improvised armbands are attempting to marshal the surprisingly quiet crowd into four ranks. Others are handing out placards and unfurling banners.

I run into Dick France hobbling along on his misshapen legs. He points to a black banner which has just been unfurled and which dates from some forgotten struggle of the twenties. 'There'll be trouble before the day's out,' he says. 'There's trouble every time that bugger comes out.' There's Old George's head above the crowd; I make a bee-line for him, anxious to discover whether he has seen any members of the agitprop group. He points vaguely with his thumb in the direction of the head of the rapidly forming column of unemployed. He scarcely seems aware of the furious activity all around him; his face still wears its customary look of benign abstractedness. Let's hope he sees the cops before they see him.

Still searching, I encounter Hughie Graeme, an indomitable Galloway Scot whom I have known since I was a small child and whose early years could match anything in brutality that Dickens ever wrote. His wife is helping him to get into the big-drum harness.

The crowd has grown enormous and stragglers are still arriving. I hurry back down the line of restlessNational Unemployed Workers Movement membership card demonstrators and see two members of the agitprop group. I join them just as an empty coal cart is pushed on to the croft. Two members of the local NUWM clamber on to it and one of them begins to address the crowd.

The half-formed column breaks up and the crowd surges towards the can. We stand at the back of the crowd and listen to the speaker read out the list of demands to be presented to the town council which is, at this moment, meeting at the Town Hall in Bexley Square. The crowd roars its approval and a sea of hands is raised in support of the resolution.

The second speaker isn't allowed to say more than a few words when he is interrupted by Hughie's drum. The crowd is restless; they want to be on the move. In no time at all the column is formed; the first marchers wheel off the croft and proceed up Liverpool Street and along Regent Road.

At first there isn't a great deal of noise, just the regular beat of the drum and the occasional shout. The mood is one of quiet desperation. Along Oldfield Road there are small groups of mounted police and squads of foot police waiting in all the side streets.

Dick France is not the only one who thinks there is going to be trouble. As soon as we reach the main road, the chanting begins: 'Down with the means test!' Right down the lime the slogan is taken up and repeated. 'Down with the National Starvation Government!' It's extraordinary the way voices travel. A slogan begins way back and a few seconds later a closer group begin chanting the same slogan, and then another group closer still so that the effect is like a blurred action-photo.

'We need a song,' says someone. I hear my name being called and see Ben Durden, the newest member of our YCL group, waving at me from the sidewalk. I slip out of the column for a moment and join him.

'Jimmy Rigby's looking for you,' he says. 'He's about a hundred yards ahead.'

I look back. The line of marchers goes back as far as I can see. 'Jesus! Just look at it. It goes on for ever.'

'They say there's 50,000 here. More, some say.

'Why aren't you marching?' I ask.

'I've been up front. I came to look for you.'

We start hurrying towards the head of the procession. I see my father and Jock Smiley and wave to them. A little further on, the marchers ahead of us shuffle to a halt, while those immediately behind are pushed into us. For a few moments our part of the column becomes a confused and struggling mass of bodies. In those few moments wild rumours are born and hard on their heels comes advice from the head of the column. 'Keep calm! Don't allow yourselves to be provoked.'

We re-form and slowly move off again. 'Down with the means test! Down with the National Starvation Government!' Now I can see the black banner, Dick France's trouble-banner. It's about a hundred yards ahead. . . must be the head of the demo.

At the same moment I catch sight of Jimmy Rigby, the fourth member of the Red Megaphones, and hurry towards him. This time there are no rumours, no time for advice about keeping calm. Without warning, mounted police, wielding riot sticks, attack us from side streets on both sides of the road. They are followed by foot police, who come at us slashing with their truncheons.

'It's a fucking ambush!' Way back down the column, the marchers are still chanting slogans, not yet aware of what is happening ahead. Here the rhythmic protests have swelled to an angry roar, punctuated by yells, curses, screams and the clatter of galloping horses. in the midst of the mêlée it is difficult to get a dear picture of what is happening.

The Battle of Bexley SquareAll around us there is a crush of shouting, bellowing, screaming, angry and bewildered men and women. They are pushing, pulling, trying to avoid the swinging batons of the police and the terrifying hooves of the horses. Some are trying desperately to shove their way out of the ambush, others push forward, intent on reaching the barricades which the police have erected around Bexley Square.

A police horse looms over us, gigantic, eyes rolling, nostrils flared. The smell of horse sweat mingles with the smell of our fear. Panic-stricken, we try to escape as its rider leans out of the saddle to give extra impetus to the swing of his club. The blow lands with a dull thud across the shoulders of a skinny man in an old raincoat. I am standing so close to him that the pores in the flesh of his nose look like huge craters, and I surprise myself by thinking of Lemuel Gulliver's sojourn among the Brobdingnagians and remembering the distaste expressed in the description of the enlarged features of the maids of honour. The skinny man crumples and sinks to the ground. 'Man down!' A dozen pairs of hands reach for the mounted policeman, but the horse rears up and we cower away.

There's a sudden increase in the noise and then there are voices taking up the cry: 'The deputation! They've arrested the deputation!' There is a great surge of activity as we move forward, carrying the battle to the edge of the barricaded square.

Squads of police are dragging arrested marchers across the square towards the waiting not wagons. The marchers fight back and the police are busy with boots and truncheons. A great roar of fury goes up from the crowd: 'Down with the Cossacks!'

A dozen men leap over the barricades and race towards the battling groups. Two of them are struck down by the mounted police and the rest surrounded and brought to the ground by squads of foot police. One of the marchers is bleeding badly from the head and appears to be unconscious. A young cop grabs his arm and starts dragging him along the ground.

Until now the marchers have been concerned only to defend themselves, but now the mood changes: a note of fierce hatred, deep and vengeful, is beard as the marchers break en masse through the barricades. The square has become a battlefield.

At one point there is a lull in the fighting and, as if by mutual agreement, police and marchers draw away from each other. A riderless horse is picking its way among the crowd and an injured police-sergeant is being helped from the scene by his colleagues. We have suffered more grievously. Several marchers lie bleeding on the road and an injured woman is sitting on the kerb bolding her bead and weeping. Close by, in the gutter, sits Dick France. I go over to him and help him to his feet. He is bleeding from a gash along his cheekbone. 'Didn't I tell you? Every time that banner's brought out there's a barney like this.'

Alec Armstrong comes by, a wide grin on his face. He is holding a large brass handbell, the kind used to summon children back to the schoolroom. He rings it above his bead like a town crier. 'Second set in a few minutes!' be declaims, and then goes off crying, 'Anyone for tennis? Anyone for tennis?'

Myer Parkinson approaches, a small boy perched on his shoulders, his wife following behind, pushing a pram with her youngest in it. Two small girls hold on to her skirt. 'Jesus Christ!' says Dick. 'You're off your bloody rocker, Myer.'

"Why's that?'

'Bringing kids to a do like this.'

'They've got to find out about t' police some time. Better now than later.'

'Aren't you feared for 'em?'

'They'll be awreet. They're just babbies, too young to be arrested. Tha's got to be ten years old before they start beating you up.'

From anyone else, such irony would sound somewhat heavy-handed, but Myer tempers it with Lanky - Lancashire dialect. He talks Lanky and makes the most outrageous remarks sound ingenuous. He is what my father calls a 'rum bugger'. His confrontations with labour-exchange officials have become legendary and it is said that inspectors at the Board of Guardians go into hiding when they see him approaching with his brood. He catches sight of Hughie Graeme and his wife and begins waving furiously. They come over to us. 'What's happened to the drum?'

'Finished. Kaput!' Hughie bellows cheerfully.

'It's broken/ his wife adds. 'He brought it down on the head of a big fat dick.'

'Jesus Christ!' says Dick. 'I'd have given six months' dole to see that.'

'Just like a bloody circus,' Mrs Graeme says, with a loud laugh.

The lull is over. From behind the town hall, dozens of mounted police suddenly appear and charge at us, followed by foot police brandishing their dubs. The first engagement was fierce but the police have tasted blood and are now lashing out at anyone in their path. But we are fighting back and the horses no longer terrify us.

Here a mounted cop is pulled from his horse, and there a constable deprived of his baton. But we lack training for this kind of fight - we have no strategy. We fight as individuals, unarmed individuals against a disciplined armed force trained to fight as a squad. Furthermore, we are conscious of the fact that the law of the land is on the side of the police. They can bash us around as much as they like and get away with it. But let one of us be caught bashing one of them and we will land in the nick as surely as night follows day. We don't need training classes to learn about the police. We have understood their role in society since we were children running about the streets.

How long does this second assault last? Five minutes, fifteen minutes? Half an hour? We are no match for these uniformed bully-boys. We came here to protest against what we consider to be gross injustice. Our intention was to present a petition to our elected representatives. Instead, we are being forced to defend ourselves against an armed and well-fed enemy. The result is a foregone conclusion, but leaves many questions unanswered.

'Stand by, we're on in a minute!' In a theatre, those words would have a special significance. That moment when you stand in the wings awaiting your cue is a magical one: the process of stepping out of your skin and assuming a different persona is completed in that moment though you still have to take one or two steps to enter a new world.

Here, on the Liverpool Street gasworks' croft, it isn't like that at all. There is only one world, the world of the grey October sky, the gasometers, the long brick wall and the wan-faced men and women who make up this huge crowd. What other persona is possible - or desirable - in the face of this kind of reality? In any case, there are no wings here, no dark comers where you can make your final preparations, no quiet spot where you can commune with yourself.

'We'll do the "Billy Boy" thing first and then straight into the Maggie Bondfield sketch.' God! Do we really have to do that awful bloody 'Billy Boy' parody? It seemed funny when I wrote it but now. . . it's terrible. Ridiculous. We really need something absolutely different, rousing. 'Right, Blondie.' We jump on to the can and begin singing the opening of our anti-means-test duet. Oh God, we've pitched it too high. Bloody hell! I just made it that time. Got to relax or I'll sound hike a bloody screeching parrot. Blondie looks quite calm. Smiling away. The crowd like her, you can tell.

That was better that time. Four more verses. Christ! More mounted coppers, must be a couple of dozen of 'em. Take no notice. Some of the people at the back have seen 'em. Carry on. Punch line coming up. It gets a roar of applause. Great! Alf and the others are climbing on to the cart. The applause dies away and we begin the Maggie Bondfield sketch. It's funny in parts but full of holes. Needs tightening up. It's going well though, plenty of laughs from the crowd. If only we had a sketch that was really suitable for the occasion.

'Trouble,' says Blondie, and the next moment Jimmy Rigby stops in mid-sentence and points. For an endless moment, we stare in disbelief. The horse police are charging towards us, their riot sticks held aloft like lances. The panic of the crowd is terrible to behold. They scatter in utter confusion the way ants do when their nest is disturbed. There is some resistance but the terrain is not in our favour. There is no cover, no place to hide.

In disarray, we retreat into the side streets, where a small group, mostly young unemployed, reassemble and decide to march to the houses of the councillors who are members of the unemployment tribunal. We start off, a silent group of fifteen or twenty youths. In a surprisingly short time our numbers have increased by more than 200. As we walk we hatch elaborate schemes of revenge and wonder if things will ever be the same again."

See also Ruth and Eddie Frows' The Battle of Bexley Square, published by the WCML .
Eddie Frow was one of the leaders of the Salford demonstration.

 

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