Well be looking at George Garrett’s own account of this event and the two preceding mass gatherings, shortly. In the meantime here’s an extract from Civil disobedience and political agitation: the art museum as a siteof protest in the early twentieth century by Suzanne MacLeod who is a Lecturer in the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester where she is also Programme Director for the Art Museum and Gallery Studies Programme).
(Note that Mary Bamber and her daughter Bessie Braddock were both there. We’ll be looking at each of them separately in the City of Radicals strand.)
In September 1921, the Walker Art Gallery was ‘rushed’ and occupied by the National
Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (NUWCM). The NUWCM was formed in the years following the First World War when thousands of men had returned from the trenches to mass unemployment and poverty in cities such as Liverpool. Resentment set in and, led by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the NUWCM organized itself under the slogan of “Work or Maintenance” and an agenda for action centred on non-violent protest, tolerance and passive demonstration (Braddock and Braddock 1963: 32; Garrett 1999; Pridmore 2002). Its principal aim in Liverpool was to raise levels of Poor Law relief for families facing starvation. These, as illustrated here by the West Derby Union Board of Guardians, barely met the requirements of subsistence:
Minimum disbursement for those accepted as in need of Poor Law relief was a food order for 7/6d., but because the guardians often bought goods under contract and in bulk, its true value might be nearer 10/-. The minimum order for a man, his wife and three children was 13/2d. The goods actually handed out to a man for himself, his wife and one child were: 6 oz. of cocoa, 16lb. of bread, 1lb.of syrup, 2lb. of rice, 1 lb. of soap, 1 lb. of margarine, 1 lb. of sugar and 4 oz. of tea.
No meat. No fuel. No money for the rent. The unemployed sold their possessions until all that remained were the clothes they wore (Braddock and Braddock 1963:32; quoted from Garrett 1999: 186).
A series of demonstrations was organized in Liverpool. The first involved the occupation of the Exchange Flags, the paved area behind the Town Hall where the merchants conducted their business. The second protest took the form of a military-style march through the streets of the city. A third demonstration was planned for Monday 12 September 1921 on St Georges Plateau, the paved area to the front of St Georges Hall and adjacent to the Gallery. Participants, Jack and Bessie Braddock later recalled that following the speeches and frustrated by their lack of progress, the organizers of the protest, who included Bessie’s mother, Ma Bamber, decided to take everybody to have a look at the pictures in the Walker Art Gallery. They were intent on staying there until the Lord Mayor gave permission for them to hold meetings in comfort in St. George’s Hall. The crowd, reported to be ‘the largest meeting yet held’ (Garrett 1999: 198), was addressed by one of the organizers who is reported to have said:
I think we’ll go for a walk… A short walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and have a look at the pictures in the Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the public (Garrett 1999: 199).
Initially about two hundred protestors entered the Gallery with a number, about fifty, immediately changing their minds and leaving (Braddock and Braddock 1963: 34). The events that followed were well documented in the Liverpool press. The men who remained in the gallery were shut in the vestibule by the police who arrived quickly and in number ( Doors and windows were closed and the unemployed protestors, according to all reports, were given a severe beating. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported:
When an attempt to force an exit was made by those shut in the vestibule, the police drew their batons, and a brief but severe combat ensued… Many of the men, seeing the doors closed and the police guarding them, made an attempt to force their way out, and were struck down by the police. A number of visitors to the gallery who had been on the ground floor rooms before the appearance of the crowd found themselves trapped by the closing of the doors, and among themwere several women, who were greatly terrified. These people were let out through a back entrance by a member of the art gallery staff. Some of the unemployed probably escaped subsequently by back entrances, for those taken into custody or to hospital later on were fewer in numbers than had originally entered the building (Anon. 1921; also quoted in Braddock andBraddock 1963: 35).
George Garrett who had spoken at the rally and was then involved in what he described as the ‘storming’ of the Walker later wrote:
Inside the Art Gallery, more police caused pandemonium, men yelped aloud as they were batoned down. Others dashed around panic-stricken. A few desperate ones dropped from an open window into a side street and got away. Those attempting to follow were struck down from behind. The police closed all windows and doors. There were no further escapes. Batons split skull after skull. Men fell where they were hit. The floor streamed with blood. Those lying on it were trampled on by others who were soon flattened out alongside them. Gallery workers were battered, too. The police had gone wild (Garrett 1999: 200)