There had been a black community in Liverpool since the 1700s, largely due to shipping and the slave trade. During World War I, labour shortages swelled the black population from 3,000 to around 5,000. But the war’s end exposed deep lying racial tensions that would threaten the community’s existence.
These letters are between the mayor’s office, black Liverpudlians and social groups. They reveal a worrying degree of racial tension:
‘The coloured people of this city are daily insulted in the streets… They are attacked and assaulted, without the slightest provocation… Hundreds of our men have been ejected from their employment and left completely stranded in the city today.’
The local Mayor even wrote to the Colonial Office, concerned that the situation was going to get out of control.
His fears were justified. On the night of the 5th of June 1919 racial tensions in the city exploded following a fight between local black people and Scandinavian sailors at a pub.
When the police arrived at the scene they decided to arrest the black men. They went around the corner from the pub to Upper Pitt Street, here there were a number of hostels and boarding houses used by the black community. But by this point a mob, several hundred strong, had gathered.
In Number 18 Upper Pitt Street a young, Bermudan sailor was staying. His name was Charles Wotten and when the police tried to force the door to his boarding house he escaped out the back, but he was quickly spotted.
Charles Wotten was pursued all the way down to the Queen’s Dock. At one point it seems that the police managed to get hold of him and then the mob seized him back. The crowd pelted him with missiles and Charles ended up in the water and drowned.
Over the next three days, widespread rioting aimed at the black community took hold.
The research into the archive of letters was done by Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall group and featured in Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), a BBC series revealing the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and people whose origins are in Africa.