The screams and shouts come from the street. Cries of pain and anger. The sound of glass breaking and shrill police whistles. She put her hands over her ears to drown out the sounds.
How had it come to this? Thousands of the town’s residents simply asking for the right not to starve. Asking for fairness and compassion. Was it their fault there was no work? They were sick of tightening their belts, watching their children go hungry and living in fear that next week they may not have a roof over their heads. They’d tried being reasonable and were ignored, now they were angry!
It was a hot sunny day and Sarah had the afternoon off. She loved her job but being on your feet for eight hours every day was hard in this weather. Sarah had lived in Birkenhead all her life. Born in the little two up, two down on Cleveland Street she still shared with her mam, Kate, and sister, Kitty. She was now twenty-one and life was good. It hadn’t always been like that, of course. War had broken out the year Kitty was born. Their dad, Joe, had gone off to fight ‘the dirty hun’ in France and assured the three year old Sarah and her mum that it would, “soon be over once the Birkenhead lads got there.” He never came back.
Money was tight and Kate eventually received her widows pension. She had to give up her job as a barmaid though in case it was seen as ‘immoral’ in which case the pension would be taken off her. Sarah left school at fourteen and, like most of her school friends, went into service in a big
house in Oxton. She hated it but mam needed her money. When Kitty left school she was apprenticed to the Star factory in Marion Street, learning to sew sails for the sturdy little yachts produced there. She loved it and was learning a useful trade so Sarah decided she wanted something better too. When she got a job in Woolworths, Grange Road she was over the moon. She earned £1/11s at the moment but that would eventually go up to thirty bob! She felt a sense of achievement every morning when she walked into the imposing art deco building and donned her smart maroon overall.
Sarah knew she was lucky. There were so many people out of work in the town. She knew some of them, lads that she’d gone to school with, who’d been made up to get an apprenticeship at Cammell Laird and their dads who’d spent all their working lives there. Laid off as work dried up and becoming more and more dispirited and ragged. She passed them every day on the street, “there but for the grace of God,” as her mam often said.
This, though, was her day and she wasn’t going to waste it! She was meeting her best friend, Gwen, for a walk in Birkenhead Park. They’d arranged to meet at two o’clock at the Grand Entrance and Sarah was wearing her new dress for the occasion. She’d made it herself and wanted Gwen’s opinion. It was blue poplin with a sailor collar and fitted her small, slim figure perfectly. A straw hat trimmed to match, less of a fashion statement and more to keep the sun off her face, completed her outfit. A touch of Carmine lipstick, rouge and ‘spit and brush’ mascara (applied after leaving the house – mam didn’t approve) and Sarah felt like a fashion plate.
She walked as quickly as her one inch heels would allow but as she came on to Conway Street she heard shouting and cheers and saw that a large crowd was gathered around the neo-classical buildings and arches of the Park entrance. She stopped short, mouth open in surprise.
“Sarah, Sarah here!”
She saw her friend at the edge of the crowd. “What’s going on Gwen?”
“National Unemployed Workers Movement,” Gwen said, “our Sam’s there. He said we need to do something for ourselves cos this lot will just grind us down if we don’t. Let’s listen to the speaker, he’s good.”
“It’s not just the government who are to blame. Our own council could be doing much more to help the unemployed.”
A huge cheer went up. Cries of, “fight the means test,” and, “struggle or starve,” could be heard through the crowd. As Sarah looked around she realised these were some of the same men she’d seen in the street.
“Come on” said Gwen, “ we can march with them!”
“Where to? I thought we were going to walk in the park!”
“To the Town Hall. Our Sam says they’re gonna ask the Mayor to call a Council meeting about the measly public assistance this lot give to them.”
Sarah knew Sam well. He was a year older than her and Gwen and on leaving school had started work with his dad at the shipyard. He’d taken her out to the Argyle theatre a few times and she’d thought they were courting but when he and his dad had been laid off at Cammell Laird last year he’d started to avoid her. She thought he was ashamed of being jobless and she had desperately wanted to tell him it didn’t matter but she never got the chance. Gwen said he wasn’t the same lad anymore. The Public Assistance inspector had come to their house and told them to sell the battered old family piano and their mam’s clock before they started trying to ‘live off the parish’.
“That fair broke our Sam,” she said, “he couldn’t stand seeing me mam breaking her heart crying and me dad looking so beaten.”
The crowd had grown and the march to the Town Hall began. Sarah and Gwen joined the end of the two thousand strong group.
“Me mam’ll kill me,” Sarah muttered.
When Sarah got home that evening she peeled off her shoes and stockings.
“I’ll get yer a bowl of warm water for those blisters luv,” her mam said.
“Ooh thanks mam.”
“Long walk in the park was it?”
“Er yes it was.”
“Hear there was a bit of a ruckus in town today. Did you see it?”
“Yes well! I ‘ear you were there. And not only there but joinin’ in!”
Sarah burst into tears. “I’m sorry mam, I was with Gwen and she went cos of Sam and her dad. They’ve had a rotten time of it and all they want is a bit of help. They went to ask the Mayor to call a council meeting about raising the assistance cos no one can live on that measly amount and for them to ask the government to get rid of the means test because it’s horrible and no one sings in their house anymore!” Her mam passed her a hankie.
“Come on luv no need to take on so. I’m not angry with you but I am worried. I don’t want you losing your job that’s all. I hate that bloody means test as well! When your dad went, God rest his soul, all we had to live on was the pension. I had the inspectors breathing down my neck then to make sure I was worthy,” she snorted, “hmph, cheeky buggers! Once I was looking after one of the neighbours little un every day while she went to work and this fellah came and questioned me about who’s babbie it was! As if I would’ve done anything like that with Joe hardly cold! Fine job this lot are making of a land fit for heroes. He must be turning in his grave!”
“The demonstration failed anyway, the Mayor won’t call a council meeting. The men looked so disappointed I could have cried for them.”
“Well, they might have made a mistake there, the council, cos if I know anything about this town they’ve had enough. The next time they get together they’ll be more determined and, probably, angry. Which is why you can’t get involved. I’d be worried sick that you’d get hurt, or worse. Now promise me you’ll leave well alone.”
“I will mam, promise.”
The following day in the canteen at work Sarah could hear other staff talking about the events of the previous day. “It’s a disgrace,” she overheard one say, “should be glad to get anything at all!”
“Shirkers a lot of ‘em!” opined another.
“So you think they should shut up and be grateful do you?” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Their kids should starve? There are no jobs or they would be working.” She was shaking with anger.
“Bloody Communist that one.”
She left the room before she said something she might regret.
Sarah was surprised to get a visit from Gwen one weekday evening. “I’ve told me boss I had to come home cos me mam’s ill,” she said, “but the truth is, there’s gonna be another march tomorrow, bigger this time our Sam said. Can you come?”
“No I have to be in work and anyway I promised mam I wouldn’t get involved.”
“Alright, I’m going anyway. Gotta do my bit!”
“Well, be careful. And please let me know what happens.”
She watched her friend as she walked down the road. Gwen was in service to a crochety old woman in Claughton. She didn’t mind the job and the pay was okay. The old lady was grateful to have a maid who could do the menial tasks asked of her but was also able to read the newspaper to her now her eyesight was failing. Gwen and her employer were well suited, Sarah thought, nothing got her down.
Gwen kept her word and came to tell Sarah what had happened. “There were more people this time and the mayor has agreed to put the demands to the council,” Gwen said importantly, “he could hardly refuse this time could he?”
Sarah fervently hoped that the means test would be abolished while Gwen was adamant that the public assistance rates should be increased but the latter was decided by the council and they seemed to be standing firm. They’d heard that other councils had asked the government to get rid of the test but the Tory controlled Birkenhead council was reluctant.
Less than a week later a further demonstration took place. Neither Sarah nor Gwen were there but Gwen came to tell Sarah about the latest events. “Our Sam said the crowd was even bigger this time! Thousands there were, he said. When they got to the town hall there were barricades and loads and loads of coppers. The council’s gonna call for the means test to be got rid of. That’s good news isn’t it? The only thing is they won’t ask the Public Assistance Commission to put the unemployment rates up. Our Sam said the men are really angry about it. They’re gonna march to the PAC and demand it. To be honest Sarah, I’m worried about our Sam. What if he gets hurt? Them coppers don’t hold back with their batons when they want!”
Sarah too was worried about Sam. She admired the way he’d stuck to his guns. Stood up for what he thought was right. She wondered if she could be that brave.
The following day a massive crowd marched to the PAC offices on Conway Street to demand a rise in the public assistance rates. They were told by officers that the matter would not be discussed until their next meeting the following Monday. This was too much for some of the crowd; the treatment of their demands as something trivial, the treatment of them as if they and their families were of no account. There was rioting. Shops were looted by hungry protesters. Extra police were called in to quell the riots and their methods were brutal.
Sarah knew this because she worked in Grange Road and the rioting had spread there. She watched horrified as men were beaten and kicked. The shop doors had been quickly bolted and staff sent to safety but she could still see and hear. The staff were ushered out of the back door by the manager but as Sarah hurried past Catherine Street a figure she recognised came running down from the direction of Grange Road crying, “Sarah, Sarah.” It was Sam, “thank God you’re alright,” he said.
“Sam I didn’t expect to see you here. Why? Surely you’re not with?”
“No, no I came to make sure you got home safely. Joe Rawlings has been arrested. He was the leader of the NUWM and I think they want to make an example of him. The men are angry, they think they’ve got nothing to lose now but I didn’t want you caught up in it. I’ll get you home safely.”
The rioting carried on all weekend. The town had an air of brooding hostility. Police and rioters clashed continuously with barely concealed rage. In the narrow back streets walls were dismantled to provide missiles and anything to hand, including the contents of piss pots, were thrown at the police searching for troublemakers or anyone they could find to ‘make an example of’.
On the Monday a crowd of twenty thousand people gathered at the PAC offices. Unemployed, workers from Lairds who’d downed tools in solidarity and among the crowd, Sarah and Sam. The PAC announced late afternoon a rise in the unemployment relief. From 12s 3d to 15s 3d for single men and from 10s 6d to 13s 6d for single women. One of the last items on the agenda; work schemes to help alleviate unemployment were also announced. The crowd were jubilant. Sarah and Sam smiled at each other.
“This will be remembered as a victory for the working class,” he said. “No one will forget what we did here.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Sarah as she leaned forward to kiss him.
Joe Rawlings was sentenced to twenty months hard labour for incitement. However, the success of the Birkenhead rioters inspired other towns and cities to demand a better deal and an end to the hated means test.