High summer temperatures; a feeling of injustice; heavy handed policing; insensitive politicians. Classic ingredients for public unrest. In August 1914, in Quarry Bank, hard pressed workers were outraged when shopkeepers increased food prices upon the outbreak of war. Even more so when two of the shop-keepers were local councillors. Cue the Quarry Bank Riots!
As the start of the Great War is commemorated across the country a great deal of focus is understandably being placed on those soldiers who went away to war.
But what of those who stayed at home?
They were being hit hard too: there was no welfare state to speak of, so if you were out of work you were pretty much on your own, desperate to find ways in which to feed yourself and your family; there was high levels of poverty and unemployment in any case, but with the start of the war export markets were closed down, orders lost and workers laid off – left to fend for themselves and their families.
Additionally, those in the territorial forces, who were mobilised at the outbreak of war, left wives and families behind amidst great confusion regarding separation allowances.
When a town meeting in Quarry Bank took place on Tuesday 25th August one resident, a Mr. Mason, set out how bad the situation was:
“…apart from the dependents of sailors and soldiers he knew there were 21 families, with 90 persons, in Quarry Bank at that time who were on the verge of starvation…Last Saturday about 20 women went to his house asking for relief. One woman with eight children had not had a particle of food or fire in the house during Saturday, and there was no prospect of any for the Sunday.”
To make things worse there was panic buying when war broke out. Prices in the shops went up. Food was in short supply. In Brierley Hill the country’s biggest producer of cured ham and bacon, Marsh & Baxter, claimed that farmers were holding on to pigs in the hope of higher prices and bemoaned the fact that pigs had risen in price by more than 25s in the days following the outbreak of war.
Already struggling, people suspecting profiteering was taking place. When two Quarry Bank shopkeepers – both local councillors – put their prices up tensions began to boil over.
With high summer temperatures, unemployment and financial hardship rife, a mistrust of politicans, a substantial intake of alcohol and some arguably insensitive policing the conditions were set for the Quarry Bank Riots of 1914.
Caption: this picture appeared in the Black Country Bugle in April 1981 and shows some of the damage caused by the Quarry Bank Riots.
Early on the afternoon of Friday 7th August groups of men gathered and started speaking angrily of “…certain tradesmen in the district raising the prices of food stuffs.” As the afternoon wore on greater numbers gathered and by five o’clock many hundreds marches into New Street to the premises of one of those accused of raising prices – Mr. Joseph H. Goodwin, a local councillor and owner of a provisions shop.
As tensions rose, there was an exchange of words and a stone was thrown. Fortunately, on this occasion, the stone hit the wood holding the plate glass and bounced away.
But things were getting ugglier.
The crowd then moved to the premises of Cllr Yardley, the chairman of Quarry Bank UDC – another shop keeper.
In a short time two or three panes of glass were smashed.
Yardley promised to reduce prices, and did so. The windows of his shop were boarded up.
Police had arrived – Sergeants Beddoes and Tunnicliffe – and were said to have handled the crowd tactfully.
At length the vicar, Rev T. J. McNulty, left the vicarage and asked the crowds to go with him to Mr Barnes’ field at the top of High Street. Leaders of the mob proceeded with him, followed by several hundreds of people.
At the field McNulty tapped into the emotions of the time. Calling on the patriotic spirit of the crowd he stressed the need for unity at that time of crisis. Recognising the strength of feeling of injustice and fear amongst the crowd he also made a personal commitment to use all of his influence to help members of the working class and the poorer members of the community.
The vicars words were received “with great cordiality” and, for the moment, tensions were eased.
A public meeting was planned for later that night to peacefully consider the community’s grievances.
Accordingly, at seven thirty, the town bell was rung, summoning residents to an open air protest meeting at the top of Maughan Street.
By eight o’clock several hundreds had gathered listening to an address firstly by Mr. John Foxall, a member of the council, and then by Mr. James Neason, secretary of the local Brickmaker’s Society. Neason moved a resolution of protest and that an appeal be made to the Board of Trade. Mr Andrew Homer seconded and…
“…appealed all present to remain quiet and sober minded, and when they had nothing else to do to dig their back gardens rather than be getting into skirmishes such as they had had that day.”
In the vanishing light of the summer’s evening the air resounded with a mighty “Aye” as the proposition was put the vote.
The crisis was averted. Calm returned to Quarry Bank.
For the moment.
Caption: The Rev. T. J. McNulty whose words brought peace to Quarry Bank on the night of 7th August 1914, but was unable to quell the anger the following evening.
Saturday, 8th August started quietly. But by the evening it was clear that, although many traders had dropped their prices there was still a lot of anger in the town.
The trigger for the second round of rioting occurred when two brothers, William Bucknall of High Street and Samuel Bucknall of Maughan Street, having been drinking, visited Goodwin’s shop at 9pm.
The County Express reported “…there conduct was such that the police felt it necessary to interfere, and eventually had to take them into custody.”
This police action didn’t go down well.
News of arrests spread and hostility and anger amongst the crowds quickly reached boiling point. Police reinforcements were called for and Brierley Hill Superintendent Johnson and some of his men arrived.
The belief was that Cllr Goodwin had instructed the arrests and “…no amount of reasoning sufficed to dispel this view”.
By eleven o’clock that Saturday night a crowd approaching 2,000 persons marched from High Street to Goodwin’s Shop in New Street:
“At one period there was approaching 2,000 persons in the vicinity of Mr Goodwin’s shop”
“Stone throwing started, and the thick plate glass windows of both shops were smashed. Again and again there were very ugly rushes, so much so that the comparatively small body of about a dozen policemen were powerless to stop them effectively.
Looting was commenced and large quantities of provisions, including hams and bacon, jams and other articles were taken from the shops and passed out to the crowd and carried away.
In the smaller shop of the two a ‘battering ram’ was used from inside, with which looters broke the window stays, and this act was followed by a general rush to wreck the premises and carry away the goods.
The crowd were frequently repulsed by the police, but their best effort could not prevent a continuance of the riotous behaviour of the wildest sections.”
Women cheered and sang when the windows were broken.
For the second night running the vicar, Rev. T. J. McNulty, attempted to intervene, asking the ringleaders to stay their hand.
This time it was to no avail. The disturbances went on the two or three o’clock on Sunday morning.
“When Sunday morning dawned it was seen that great havoc had been wrought. Both Mr Goodwin’s shop windows were entirely wrecked and what goods remained in the shops were damaged. The windows in the private portions of the front elevation were also smashed.”
Some years later Hartley Shaw, son of County Councillor Albert Shaw, the soft drinks magnate, recalled the event:
Rioting broke out in many places. One such happened in Quarry Bank where a grocer attracted much wrath. One night his shop was broken into by a crowd, and they smashed in the window, grabbing much of the stock from the shelves. Falling over each other, much was spilled onto the pavement outside. I was on holiday at the time and saw the next morning the evidence of the riot. Jam and other soft food were strewn on the pavement. When the crowd dispersed, the terrified grocer phoned Brierley Hill who ordered the members of the force who resided in Quarry Bank to investigate.
The protestors appear to have had support from local residents. As Shaw says:
“When they arrived on the scene in the early hours, astonishment showed on their faces. There was not a soul in sight apart from a few spectators from bedroom windows. When interrogated, these witnesses failed to recognise anyone in the crowd. Recounting the event some days later with me, the constable chuckled; he had a soft spot for the poor and no time for the profiteers, although he did not say so.”
The court cases
On the Monday following the riots William and Samuel Bucknall whose arrest had triggered the second wave of rioting were charged at Brierley Hill Police Court with being drunk and disorderly. They were bound over for six months in the sum of £5.
The next day George Collins, aged 61, chain striker, and David Robinson, 25, labourer, of Sheffield Street; John Hutton, 21, galvaniser, of West Street and Benjamin Homer, 43, chain striker of Lower High Street were committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions on a charge that:
“On August 9th with divers other persons being riotously and tumultuously assembled together to the disturbance of the public peace, they did unlawfully and with force dame the shop of John Goodwin, New Street Quarry Bank.”
The trial at Staffordshire Quarter sessions took place two months later on 16th October 1914. The prosecutor, Mr. H. G. Tarrant claimed that three thousand people had been involved in the riots and had caused damage estimated at £100 (just over £8,000 at today’s prices.)
“It was alleged that prisoners incited the crowd and assisted to help in the destruction of the shop. A witness stated that the shop was assailed with a constant shower of stones, and the crowd did not disperse until early on the Sunday morning. The women in the crowd cheered and sang when the windows were broken.”
Collins “who was considered the ringleader” received sentence of twelve months hard labour, Hutton and Homer nine months’ hard labour, and Robinson six month’s hard labour.
In The Times of 7th August 1914 the Prince of Wales made an urgent appeal for a relief fund recognising
“…that the present time of deep anxiety will be followed by one of considerable distress among the people of this country least able to bear it.”
Quarry Bank’s response to the appeal was initiated at a Town’s Meeting (referred to above) on 25th August.
At the meeting the Rev McNulty recognised the value of hop-picking.
“Instead of being kept at home without means, many would be able to go to the hop-fields and earn money with which they could keep their children whilst there, and for some time after they returned.”
He further appealed to Staffordshire Education Committee not to summon parents who took their children to the hop-fields.
In the event the Education Committee ignored the request, creating anger amongst members of the Kingswinford School managers. At their meeting at the end of October County Councillor Albert Shaw raised the matter:
“It was pointed out that there was very great unrest in the district, and at the time the poor people went to the hop fields, there was considerable distress and agitation in the district and it was felt on all hands that perhaps one of the best things that could be done was for the people to go to the hop fields.”
“Poor people had given generously to the Prince of Wales’ Fund.
“The local managers felt that at this time it was above everything else necessary that people should be kept happy and contented, and the only way to do it was to act with leniency so long as law and order were preserved”
The number of parents ordered to be summoned by Staffordshire County Education Committee increased from 39 to 111 in 1914 – %185. This may reflect that more people were forced by circumstances to go away hop-picking – the County Express of 5th September reporting a record exodus. The Committee claimed that Quarry Bank had no special circumstances different to other towns and, even after receiving a delegation, hardened their stance.
Three years later further insensitivity by the authorities was shown.
Faced with being unable to feed the population following the success of the U-Boat campaign Food Control Committees were set up to manage food supplies in the UK.
Quarry Bank residents were outraged at the composition of their local committee set up the the local council. They were only satisfied after more workers were appointed and two members resigned.
The names of the two members? Cllrs Goodwin and Yardley.