Thursday, 18 November 2010

Did Newport let their heroes down

In 1919, not long after the Armistice, social tensions in Newport began to run high. At first, soldiers returning from The Great War returned to scenes of jubilation. Families welcomed their loved ones home with open arms and the town celebrated the return of their brave men and women. Indeed, on Armistice Day itself, according to the John's Directory of Newport 1919, there were "unprecedented scenes of rejoicing in the streets and everybody gave themselves over to festivity. All business was practically suspended."

However, in June 1919 there were significant signs that all was not well. On June 7th the Argus reported:

"Houses in George Street, Ruperra Street and Dolphin Street, Newport, present an appearance which will lead the uninformed observer to imagine that during Friday night Newport underwent an air raid. Windows are smashed, furniture in the front rooms has been wrecked, blood-stains are visible on the framwork, the debris lies scattered about as if after a severe bombing attack.

In many parts of the kingdom feeling has been running high lately on account of the relationship which exists between coloured men and white girls....It appears that the undercurrent of hostility which has been present had lately become more marked on the part of the people of the neighbourhood concerning the behaviour of the coloured men towards the English girls and the fact that some of the girls themselves seemed not to resent very determinedly at any rate, the attentions of the men..."

Rioting on that night consisted of up to 1000 men and women entering the boarding houses of the "coloured" and foreign workers of Newport (although the numbers were probably less than reported) . Perhaps 'lynch mob' would be a more appropriate term than 'riot' when discussing the events of that night. What is clear is that feelings ran so high that some people of Newport felt the need to attack these men in their homes. Subsequently, 4 people from the neighbourhood were arrested: James Daley (Mellon Street), William Haley (16 George Street - formerly the full back for Pill Harriers Rugby Team), Jeremiah Shea (Caroline St - Welsh International Rugby Player) and Mary E Sheedy (7 Wallis St). They were arrested for unlawfully assembling and rioting - an underwhelming number of people for such a widespread crime when you consider the Argus report of up to 1000 people and their alleged attacks on the boarding houses. What is even more surprising, or not surprising at all as the case may be, is the much larger number of 23 which represented the number of black men arrested and charged. Armed with 'sticks, pokers, blind poles and brooms' they defended themselves from the onslaught. Unfortunately for them, this meant that they were the ones facing fines and prison terms.

This event appears to have been the culmination of months of built up tension over work, housing and, ultimately, territory. There was a sense that having been asked to go and fight for King & Country, to leave their jobs, houses and WAGs in order to pursue that calling, they had been stabbed in the back. They came back to chronic housing shortages, limited job prospects and in some cases, men came back to find their 'love interests' or potential 'love interests' mixing with men who they felt were not worthy of their women. As 'Barbados Negro' suggested in a letter in the Argus, "we are looked down upon worse than the Germans" despite the fact that most had "served...King & Country as well as the white men, against German militarism."

While racism was a clear factor in the riots, the fundamental issue was that there was jealousy and resentment too. Many men returned to find their families had had to move into cramped houses to reduce costs while they had been away at the Front. To add insult to injury Landlords were constantly increasing prices. On the same day the riots were reported in the newspaper, one recently demobilised soldier wrote of his dismay and disgust at the situation:

"I think we, as returned soldiers, are the worst off in the finish.... Here I am, born and bred in the town - and I can't get as much as two rooms to live in.... The wife took it during the time I was away so as to live as near as she could to keep her and her little ones going...

Don't you think its time something was done in this respect for the discharged soldier that has helped to save King & Country from disaster? It's very hard to come home to live in this way, after leaving a decent home to join up."

Added to this was the difficulty in finding work. Many companies, having employed cheaper female labour, were less inclined to give jobs back to more expensive men, even if they had promised they would keep their jobs open for them until they returned. One angry letter to the Argus explained "the call was answered and young ladies filled our positions and carried on... When hostilities ceased....I, like many others, wrote asking my firm to apply for me, but they refused.... The reason given...was that the firm was over-staffed, but when a vacancy occurred, a clerk was engaged who, to the best of my knowledge, has not seen service. I know one office where about 20 girls are engaged in clerical work while young men are walking about seeking employment."

This letter is obviously stuffed full of resentment and bitterness, but the general view is clear - some soldiers felt let down and abandoned by their town.

Local employers, in fact, had two considerable pressures during this period. Firstly they had men returning from the Front, wishing to return to work and undoubtedly selling their war experiences as reason enough to employ them. Secondly they had women, who having earned more money than they had previously done, during the war, wanted their fair pay to continue. Indeed it was the view of some employers that now that many of the workforce were returning wages could be lowered, and that women were an easy target. This was a point raised by "A working woman" in the Argus in May 1919 when she stated "We are not shirkers, but we want fair play."

The picture painted here is that returning soldiers were treated poorly by their home town, however this is a little harsh when considering the wider context. There were difficulties as have been highlighted, but these were not unique to the town and were part of wider national, and even International, issues. There were always going to be problems when the soldiers returned to the area, not least because as a busy dock area, with plenty of war work going, it was going to attract not only foreign workers but also bring people from surrounding areas, into the town. Once the war finished, these people were connected to the area, they had worked well during the war and in many cases were cheaper. Women had experienced the freedom of independence born from working in the factories and offices in the absence of so many men. Across the country, there was a lack of willingness to again submit to the dependence of their husbands and fathers, and, moreover, 1918 had seen the enfranchisement of women over 30. The world had changed and Newport was undoubtedly impacted.

However, Newport did make considerable efforts to help their returning soliders. Classes were established at Newport Technical Institute for the training of disabled soldiers - with a view to getting them back into the work force. This was implemented as early as the 26th November 1918. Furthermore in June 1919, following shortly after the riots, a scheme was proposed to spend a million pounds on providing more affordable housing in Newport. Mrs Meggit, speaking at the council meeting on 18th June 1919, "called attention to the exploiting of discharged men by landlords and people who let rooms."

It must also be noted that not all men returned to find their jobs taken. George Morris, the young soldier who received a DCM with bar, returned to his job as a coal trimmer on Newport Docks. Indeed most men were able to find work, although it must be noted that it was more difficult for those returning to administative roles than manual labour jobs.

In order to cheer the mood of the town, sport resumed at Newport Athletic Ground and Rodney Parade.

After 4 years of no games, and the loss of many players, play was resumed to the delight of the locals. On April 12th 1919 at the Athletic Ground, Pill Harriers played host to the New Zealand team known as the 'The Champion Invincible Trench Team'. Life was gradually returning to some semblance of normality.

Newport was undoubtedly changed by the Great War. It's large docks, steel works and it's spot on the railway network meant that it couldn't avoid exposure to the direct impact of war, and certainly not the wider implications on social norms. Having supported it's men throughout the duration of the war, Newport's immediate post-war problems were not caused by the town's unwillingeness to support returning men, but by National and International social changes stemming from the upheaval of 4 years of gruelling warfare.

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