Riots Of 1923

In the summer of 1923 a long running coal mining dispute in the town of Whitehaven led to two days of rioting and the arrests and trials of sixty three people at Carlisle Assizes. On 2nd May 1923 a new working practice was propositioned by the Whitehaven Colliery company. A letter from Mr. R. Steel Works manager proposed that from May 15th new methods of working would come into force. Instead of workings being driven six yards wide, they would be driven only 4 yards wide this would enable the pits to be developed faster and in turn be more productive.

The miners disputed this practice, to the point of view that their working facilities were to be taken away by the reduction of the width and that they should be given an equivalent in money value. This new proposal could not be agreed upon and the miners, affecting some two and half thousand men in the area took up strike action. Within 52 days of the strike over £52,000 in wages and 90,000 tons of production had been lost.

The men had long ago exhausted their strike funds and they and their wives were starving on a pittance and the town was feeding hundreds of school children daily. As July neared a conference was planned between miners and the Whitehaven Colliery Company. On Saturday night of June 30th a mass meeting was held and miners delegates were appointed to meet Colliery officials.

On Monday July 2nd A large crowd assembled in Duke Street to learn the result of the conference that had been taking place during the day. When it was learned that that the proceedings had failed to bring about a settlement a hostile crowd surrounded the offices and assumed a threatening attitude.

As the evening wore on the crowd increased and with the smallness of the police force stones began to be thrown at the office windows. The appearance of Mr.Watson Smith better known as 'Bully Smith' who was general manager of Whitehaven Colliery at a lighted window only fuelled the demonstration and demands were shouted for him to come out.

Matthew Coward was inciting the crowd and trying to break into the colliery door. Sabina Broatch was shouting for "Smith to come out and they would let him see what the women of Whitehaven can do!"

Windows were then broken and the crowd attempted to storm the building. The police force unable to quell the disturbance wisely positioned themselves to prevent the crowd getting into the building. A chance stone smashed a light in the offices which fused the electric and the building was plunged into darkness. Recognition of Mr.Watson Smith’s car which had turned up to collect him fed the fury of the mob.

Now numbering 1000 they blocked all the exits from the colliery offices and they seized the car and they repeatedly kicked it before turning it upside down. It was then dragged until opposite the Town Hall and it was set on fire. The car a blazing wreck, the roar of the mob shooting up over neighbours buildings, punctuated by the splintering of glass and flying stones thundering against the masonry of the building. Every window had been put out.

Sometime after midnight rain began and with 8000 people now on the streets the more peaceful elements dispersed. More police arrived along with Col Turnbull Chief Constable of the Cumberland and Westmorland constabulary. By 2.30 heavy rain had set in and attempts were made to establish communications with those inside. Throughout the night portions of the crowd remained and during the following day many towns people visited the scene of occurrence.

Tues 3rd July On Tuesday Police reinforcements from all over the County poured into the town in anticipation of a re-occurrence of the previous night, Towards the evening the crowds gradually increased. As nightfall came the demeanour of the crowd was of good humour with comments exchanged with police who were now two deep shoulder to shoulder at Cordons at Duke Street, and Scotch Street.

The darkness swelled the crowd and they began to jostle the police and there was fruitless attempts to break through the ring. Again great hostility was shown to Mr.Watson smith and demands for him to come out were shouted.

At 10.30 some of the police were hit by flying missiles and at 10:35 the Chief constable ordered a baton charge. On returning from the charge the crowd threw more large missiles some of them weighing up to nine pounds.

The police repeatedly charged the crowd with them running into the side streets. For the next five hours continuous conflicts between the public and police took place. Sixty nine policemen were amongst the casualties by the end of the night. The police and fire station was set alight.

Nearly every window at the police station was broken and woodwork smashed. A group of miners attacked the house of Mr. Kirkpatrick manager of Wellington and Haig Pits. They banged at doors and smashed windows and during the attack two revolver shots were fired and the rioters drew off.

For a time it looked as though the mob would get the upper hand and overcome the police, but gradually as police renforcement arrived the resistance was broken down. The state of affairs of attack, counter attack with specific isolated melee’s continued until about two o’clock, then the police got the upper hand and extended their area of clearance as far as Queen Street.

As the crowds retired, groups principally of young men and women vented their spite against the shop windows of Lowther Street. The splintering of glass seemed to exercise a peculiar fascination to them. Screams and howls of excitement and fierce hurrahs accompanied the smashing of big plate glass windows. In the early hours of Wednesday morning the Chief constable surveyed the damage around the town and inspected large plate glass windows wilfully smashed and shops looted.

At the confectionery and Lingerie shops in Lowther Street and at Henson’s Jewellers in the Market, the whole contents of the shop had been taken. The Police superintendent described the scenes as "just like a little hell".

The next day an order to collect stones and other missiles from the streets was given. Collected within a 50 yard radius of the police station was 1,300 large cobbles at an average weight of 5lbs, and 800 smaller stones - a total weight of nearly 4 tonnes.

Bottles, Jam Jars, Pieces of Iron, Iron railing tops of spear shape, which appeared to have been broken off the railings of St.Nicholas school and he also found two petrol tins. Damage done to buildings by the rioters done between 2nd and 4th July.
  • In the Colliery offices 202 windows were broken, four window frames smashed and the door damaged.
  • 18 panes of glass in the town hall.
  • 24 panes of glass at the fire station and the fire engines headlights broken.
  • 27 panes of glass at the police station and the door burned.
  • 15 Iron Railing tops knocked of from St.Nicholas school and in the County Court buildings all windows were smashed and desks doors and interior fittings were smashed.
In the following weeks 63 people ranging from 17 to 56 were charged with rioting and looting. Mr. Jackson for the defence said that Mr.Watson Smith had made himself unpopular and the result was a strike.Women and children were starving when the conference was being held on July 2nd. Under those circumstances it was foolish for Mr.Watson Smith’s to drive up in a luxury motor car, and afterwards stand with a cigar in his mouth at a window in front of a disappointed crowd. Could they be surprised that women were shouting about starving bairns and so on. A settlement to the strike came by the end of August, The strike lasted 15 weeks.

The Times Newspaper
6th July 1923
This Cumberland colliery and coal-shipping town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, as the result of two nights of mob rioting, is to-day and for an indefinite period being safeguarded by a composite force of 330 police drawn from Cumberland and Westmorland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Durham. 
The Mayor, Mr. W. H. Handless, has just told me that he considers peace and safety are secure here just so long as there is this overawing force at hand, but that if it were withdrawn the situation would at once revert to the menacing conditions of Monday, when the trouble began, for the ill-feeling out of which the riot arose, and the disappointment of the practically starving miners on strike and their wives at the failure of efforts to end the dispute still remains. 
The Mayor, however, is much averse to the exercise of his power to call in the aid of troops. At present all is quiet in Whitehaven. Business is proceeding as usual in shops in the main streets of the town, and only a few shopkeepers and one or two banks have thought it necessary to board up their windows. 
The strike at the Whitehaven Colliery Company's pits, out of which the rioting arose, has been in progress for seven weeks, and is due to the men's refusal to accept the new manager's proposals for a fresh system of working the colliery. He wants to install here the long-wall system of coal-getting, such as is practised in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, but this system would be a breach with the traditions of three generations of hewers, and it would also for a time reduce the men's earning power and force them to abandon their addiction to absenteeism, which is the bane of colliery managers in Cumberland. Hence the stubborn opposition offered to the change. 
The men long age exhausted their strike funds. They and their wives are starving on a pittance from the guardians, and the town is feeding hundreds of school children daily. 
The Mayor has appealed by letter to Sir David Shackleton, of the Mines Department, and to Mr. Herbert Smith, the president of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, but in neither case is the reply so far in the least degree helpful. Meantime Whitehaven has suffered in reputation and in pocket, and the outlook is gloomy.
The Times Newspaper
9th July 1923
Twenty-six persons appeared before the Whitehaven Magistrates on Saturday on various charges arising out of the riots in the town on Monday and Tuesday. 
Ten of the accused were described by the police as miners, seven as labourers, and two as soldiers from the Border Regiment at Carlisle, the other prisoners including a seaman, a motor driver, a clogger, and an upholsterer. Two of the prisoners were married women. The ages of the prisoners ranged from 19 to 32. One of the accused was Wilson Knowles, a prominent Cumberland boxer. Sixteen of accused were charged with riotous assembly, the two soldiers with setting fire to the police station, and the other prisoners with shop and housebreaking only. The upholsterer was discharged and the other prisoners were remanded till to-day.
Mr. W. L. Cook, from the Government Mines Department, has arrived at Whitehaven and hopes are entertained of a speedy settlement of the colliery dispute after a joint conference which will probably take place to-day outside Whitehaven.
The Times Newspaper
11th July 1923
At Whitehaven on Monday fifty-eight persons, whose ages ranged from 17 to 50, including; seven women, were charged with various offences arising out of the riots in the town last week. Seven of the prisoners were charged with breaking and entering tobacconists shops and stealing goods to the value of £35, and two prisoners,. including a soldier, were charged with setting fire to police and fire stations. 
Mr. D. J. Mason, the prosecuting solicitor, said that, most of the accused were only arrested on Sunday night, and the police were not ready to continue the case. He asked that the prisoners should be remanded to Preston Gaol till next Monday. Superintendent Melville stated that at one time during the disturbance nearly 8,000 people went surrounding the police, and suggested that further charges might be preferred. 
Several of the prisoner objected that they were not present at the time of the disturbance at all. Superintendent Melville opposed an application for ball on ground that there might be a resumption of the disturbances. The Magistrates refused bail, and the prisoner were remanded to Preston Gaol for a week, opportunity to be given for them to consult solicitors and prepare their defence.
The Times Newspaper
20th July 1923
After a hearing lasting three days, the Whitehaven magistrates on Wednesday committed for trial sixty-three, men and women on charges of rioting. In some cases they refused bail. Inspector Hogg stated that on the morning after the riot he collected 1,300 cobble stones, weighing on an avenge 5lb. each. There were also eight hundred smaller stones, all within a radius of fifty yards of the Police Station. The total weight of the stones was between three and four tons. He also picked up bottles, jam-jars, spiked railing tops, and empty petrol tins. Over two hundred panes of glass in the colliery office were smashed and about eighty in the Town Hall and Police Station. Mr. Sumner, appearing for sixty-two prisoners, reserved the defence.

  • The riots had been viewed as being so serious that the matter was raised in The House Of Commons by Thomas Gavan-Duffy - an Irish trade unionist and politician. He served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Whitehaven from 1922 to 1924. Born in Dublin, Gavan-Duffy was educated by the Christian Brothers there and became a district delegate for the Shop Assistants' Union. For 23 years he was general secretary of the Cumberland Iron Ore Miners' Association.

HC Deb 05 July 1923 vol 166 cc782-8
Mr. DUFFY In raising the question of the disturbances that have taken place in Whitehaven the last thought in my mind is to use any word that would add to the trouble in that important town. There is one thing that is most important. It requires either a tragic mining disaster or a catastrophe of this kind to make the name of Whitehaven known throughout the country. 
Yet, during the past eight weeks, whatever may be said in the flaming headlines of the London Press to-day, 2,400 miners and their families in the town of Whitehaven have borne their troubles with patience and dignity, and have pleaded time after time for consideration of their modest claim for at least a subsistence wage for the work they are called upon to do. 
It is not generally known that Whitehaven is not only unfortunately distinguished for its mining disasters, but that it has been, in the past, one of the worst paid coalfields in Great Britain. These men have to work six miles under the sea in some places and in others three or four miles under the sea, and men who have to take their lives in their hands and work under such conditions, should at least receive human sympathy and consideration from those who use the commodity which they produce. They have exercised patience during the past two months, with their wives and children practically in a condition of starvation, because, unfortunately, their union, like other unions, had not funds sufficient to last long in case of an industrial dispute. 
The result was that the children who went to school got one or two meals a day, and the children over or under school age got nothing. From the Poor Law guardians there was a distribution of seven shillings weekly, in kind. The House can well imagine the conditions under which the families have had to live. Why? This dispute never should have occurred at all. There has been in existence in Whitehaven and in Cumberland for many years, thanks to the pacifying and statesmanlike efforts of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Cape) and his predecessors in the office of general secretary of the Cumberland Coal Miners' Association, a strong conciliation board brought together by the employers and the employed, its constitution agreed to by the employers and the employed, and its rules sanctioned by the employers and the employed. It has a neutral chairman, Sir William Collins, who was at one time a distinguished Member of this House. 
In any case of dispute, if the two sides cannot agree, then the neutral chairman should be called in to decide, and his decision should be final and binding on both parties. The second rule of the Conciliation Board is as follows: The object of the Board shall be to consider and decide all questions in dispute affecting the interests of the employers and the employed constituting the Board, with regard to wages and conditions. There is no ambiguity about that Rule. It has already operated with perfect satisfaction in the past, and if the Rule is put to the test now, there is no reason why it should not operate with perfect satisfaction to-day. It is not the fault of 784 the trade union leader, in this case, that it has not been brought to the test. 
On the 1st May, a letter was flung at the men, intimating that certain new conditions would be imposed. On the 3rd May that letter was replied to. On the 11th May a conference was allowed to them for the first time, and on the 14th May another. But nothing could be done, and eventually, about the 18th May, the Mayor of Whitehaven, recognising the disastrous effect which a stoppage of the mines would have on the coalminers and on the whole trading community of Whitehaven, offered himself as a mediator on the neutral ground of the Mayor's parlour. 
The hon. Member for Workington, representing the miners, said "Yes, certainly," but the other side absolutely refused. No mediation, no meeting together, no nothing! There, I suggest, is where the Minister of Labour should come in. This country sacrificed a million of the best of its manhood and piled up a National Debt to the extent of £8,000,000,000 in order to sanctify a scrap of paper supposed to be of some value to our country. Surely this great Parliament of Great Britain ought not to lack some power to compel the carrying out of an agreement which has been entered into between both parties in order to see that this industrial paralysis, misery and cruelty shall be brought to an end. If we cannot do that, what encouragement is it to belong to the trade union movement, and to carry out the idea of conciliation? 
What is the use of going to our men and saying to them, "No matter whatever your wrongs so long as we have a conciliation board in existence, we can right them," if the Ministry of Labour have no power and no moral suasion, no moral influence to bring a thing like this to an end? In that case I say you are undermining and destroying the foundation-stones upon which conciliation boards have been built up in the past, and exist today.
There are two points with which I want to deal. I want to repudiate, with all the energy I possess, the reports, scattered in the London papers and in other papers, about the coalminers of Whitehaven having been charged with arson, looting, and pillaging the shops in Whitehaven. I am extremely pleased that the Chief Constable of Cumberland and Westmorland (Colonel Turnbull), 785 speaking with more knowledge of the people of the county than the penny-a-liners who supply the scrap paragraphs to the Press, stated last night that it should be known that the miners were not very much to blame for the rioting. 
Some of them, no doubt, took part in it, but the ringleaders were mostly corner boys and young fellows from the Whitehaven district who had joined in the thing out of sheer devilment. I am not concerned about their intention. I have known these miners of Whitehaven for the last 20 years, having lived amongst them. It may be that they have been hungry, and that they have been subjected to other troubles, but they are neither thieves nor shop breakers. 
They may like a fair fight, and they went through a fair fight for this country. In 1914, when the War broke out, more than half the coalminers of Whitehaven joined up and fought for this country, and allowed some of the patriotic Belgians to come over from Belgium and work in the Cumberland coal mines, while they themselves were fighting for their country. 
The other point is in regard to their conflict with the police. The shopkeepers and coal miners of Whitehaven have always been good friends. As an evidence of their friendship, may I point out that about a year ago when there was a lockout in Whitehaven and during that lockout the Cumberland Coal Miners' Association issued vouchers and incurred a debt of £60,000 with the shopkeepers of Whitehaven, and every penny of that has been paid off. 
There was perfect friendship between the shopkeepers and tradesmen and the miners, and there was no reason at all for looting. The same applies with regard to the relationship between the police and the coal miners of Whitehaven. The coal miners there are not angels. I am sorry there has been any conflict between the police and the coal miners, but I rest my case as to what happened upon the statement which I have read from the Chief Constable of Cumberland, who states that the coal miners were not responsible for these outrages, but that it was done by the riff-raff who were left at the street corners and who have been out of employment.
Striking Whitehaven Miners, July 1923
Striking Whitehaven Miners


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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