May Day in Coventry 100 years ago
Whilst not a British Bank Holiday until 1978, the Midland Daily Telegraph reported on May 1st 1920 that between 6 and 7 million British workers intended to treat the day as a general holiday, with demonstrations and processions up and down the country. In Coventry, there were few expectations that the city’s celebrations would be as impressive as those staged in 1919; that year was the first May Day since the end of the First World War. Not only had there been there a widespread stoppage of work, with workers staying away from the large engineering factories, there had been no trams or buses running and no bread was made or delivered. A gathering of thousands at Highfield Road football stadium had been followed by a fancy dress rugby match and a grand festival ball at the Drill Hall to end the day, with space for a thousand dancers.
Coventry’s May Day 1920 was a much smaller affair. Many industrial workers observed the day by staying away from the factories but transport ran as usual, along with much of the general business of the city. Organisers had anticipated this; May 1st 1920 fell on a Saturday and this meant that Highfield Road was otherwise occupied (in fact, Coventry City was playing a vital last game of the season against Bury. In front of a crowd of 23, 506 – the second highest in the league – City won 2-1, thus avoiding relegation out of the Second Division and into the Southern League. Quite the May Day, then for City fans) and in addition, it had not been possible to book the Drill Hall on Queen Victoria Road for dancing and instead smaller dances were due to take place at the different trade union clubs. Nevertheless, hopes for a good day were high and there was certainly plenty for Coventry folk to see and hear.
The day began with the various trade unions setting out from their respective offices across the city to gather at Pool Meadow, so often the site of glorious demonstrations. Banners and placards were handed out to the unions and organisations taking part, all of which had to adhere to a strict order for the procession through the city to Spencer Park in Earlsdon. Heading up the march was the Coventry Silver Band and behind them, in pride of place was the National Union of Ex-Servicemen, a socialist organisation formed in 1919 with branches across the country. Then came trade unions large and small, representing men and women. The Co-operative Society, which had closed its shops for the day, decorated several lorries and was accompanied by other organisations, including the Irish Club, with an Irish flag and placards drawing attention to the fact that 200 Irishmen were incarcerated in English prisons, ‘untried and starving; were they to die?’ (the Irish War of Independence had started in January 1919). In addition, there were union bands playing and representatives of ‘Hands Off Russia’ (a national movement formed in 1919 to secure non-intervention in the Russian civil war and peace with the Soviet Government). Flag sellers were kept busy along the route, collecting money for the establishment of a Trades Hall for the city (this was to be a long time coming, finally being inaugurated as the Tom Mann Club in Stoke Green in 1947). Crowds came out to watch the procession and many accompanied the marchers to the park where six platforms had been put up to accommodate an array of speakers from the labour movement. Apparently, RC Wallhead, who had stood (unsuccessfully) in the 1918 General Election as Coventry’s Labour candidate, was due to be the main speaker but was not present, having gone to Russia!
The resolution put by each of the speakers and carried unanimously makes interesting and – in part – highly disturbing reading. It was in broad alignment with the messages coming out of other cities and countries, sending greetings to men and women of all nations ‘who are working for the complete freedom of all peoples and especially send[ing] its congratulations to the people of Russia in its heroic struggle for liberty’. It reaffirmed its belief in the principle of self-determination for all nations and ‘pledges itself to strive for its establishment in Egypt, India and Ireland’. It demanded an end to the blockade of Soviet Russia (just days later, in a famous incident, London dockers would refuse to load weapons intended for use against the Red Army onto the SS Jolly George). There was a broad pledge to abolish capitalism and to establish a Co-operative Commonwealth.
To me, the most disquieting clause in the resolution was the one demanding the immediate withdrawal of all black troops from occupied areas of Germany. This was an overtly racist campaign widely supported by the international labour movement and it related to French colonial troops from Africa stationed in Germany after the First World War. The moral panic was that the presence of the black troops was placing German women and girls at risk of rape from ‘primitive’ – as opposed to ‘civilised’ – men who were unable to control their sexual urges. Support for the withdrawal of the troops was encouraged in Britain by the left-wing Daily Herald newspaper which published articles by ED Morel, author of a pamphlet entitled ‘The Horror on the Rhine’, about the perceived dangers of black soldiers deemed to be oversexualized. Both Morel and the Herald wanted to emphasise their determination to support and champion the rights of Africans in their own countries but believed that their temperament made their presence dangerous when they were being used ‘as a passively obedient instrument of capitalist society’. I include here a link to an article which gives more context to these deeply shameful, racist views and the way in which they gained support from large sections of the left. https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0020859000000419
With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive