Every now and then, I post a photograph that I could write reams about. Today’s image is a case in point, revealing a bit of Liverpool’s ‘hidden’ and less savoury history. We tend to select those aspects of our past that accentuate the positive, blacker incidents are usually overlooked in the history books.
On 7 May 1915, the Cunarder RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the tip of southern Ireland killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard. The sinking was a key moment in the First World War, influencing the United States to abandon their neutrality. Controversy has raged over whether Lusitania was a legitimate war target because she was carrying weapons and munitions. In a previous post, I mention the Baralong affair when the British merchant ship flying the flag of neutral USA forced the crew of a U-boat to surrender and then executed them, provoking one of the major diplomatic incidents of the War. My grandfather was a crew member but had nothing to do with the executions, although he was unrepentent about the action, which happened 3 months after the Lusitania’s sinking. The Baralong’s crew had seen the aftermath, with hundreds of corpses of men, women and children lined up along the quayside at Queenstown, so their pent-up anger could be understood to some extent.
Back in Liverpool, the news of the Lusitania’s sinking was met with an equally violent reaction. The Liverpool Echo reported rioting that broke out on May 11th. ‘A large pork shop at the corner of Smithdown Road and Arundel Avenue had been absolutely wrecked, all the windows had been smashed and the stock commandeered or thrown into the street. Women hurled strings of sausages at one another and one woman from a neighbouring street went down on her knees and scrubbed the pavement with a joint of pork. Other women went home with their aprons full of pork and bacon. After sacking the shops, the invaders went into the living room upstairs and spread destruction …’
In The Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy, Pat O’Mara’s account makes fascinating reading and captures the mood of both anger and opportunism that swept the mob.
‘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 had gone down with the ‘Lusy’ and we heard the bitter threats against Germany and anything with a German name. We walked down Bostock Street, where practically every blind was drawn in token of a death .All these little houses were occupied by Irish coal-trimmers and firemen and sailormen on the Lusitania … On the corner of Scotland Road, ominous gangs were gathering – men and women, very drunk and very 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 Jonson 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 – everything suggestive of Germany was being smashed to pieces.’
Pat O’Mara then left to go back to his home territory in Park Street to continue the ‘fun’, helping destroy Mr Cook’s butchers shop, for although Mr Cook was a patriotic Yorkshireman, his sin was to sell pork. (Pat O’Mara adds that he began to get sick from all the free sausage he had been eating).
His account is a rare and excellent eye-witness account of a mob in action written by the hand of an active participant.
The photograph shows how widespread the rioting was. It is an American Press Agency image and is of the Britannia Hotel at 283 Breck Road, on the corner with Coniston Road. My 1910 Gore’s Directory has Charles C. Bobbie as the licensee – hardly a German name but he may not have been there in 1915.
There is plenty more to add to this story but I suggest reading Pat O’Mara to get the full flavour of those incendiary nights.