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Expert Comment: Lusitania riots of 1915

skyline 150x150 Wednesday 6 May 2015

May 7th marks 100 years since the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. Dr Bryce Evans discusses how the events of that day impacted on the ship's home port of Liverpool. 

Today, if we want a bit of tasty food with an ethnic twist we might get a kebab or a curry.

But one hundred years ago, the ethnic food store you would see on every single British high street – the ubiquitous symbol of ethnic cuisine - was the German pork shop, where you went to get your nice bit of German sausage.

One hundred years ago, though, German pork shops suddenly became the target of violent mob action. After the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania on 7 May 1915 there were riots across Britain.

Some historians have claimed that the Lusitania riots were the biggest domestic disturbances in modern British history and Liverpool was the scene of some of the worst mob action.

Liverpool, of course, was Lusitania’s home port. Civic identification with the ship as a Liverpool ship partially explains the ferocity of the Liverpool riots. But we also have to consider that many of the crew also lived, and had been born in, in the city.

Angry crowds seeking vengeance for what, at the time, was seen as an unprecedented war crime, vented their grief and rage on anything associated with Germany; and German pork shops were the most obvious target.

The first attacks took place on County Road in Walton on Saturday 8th May. German pork shops were ransacked, their furniture and other belongings thrown into the street and their food supplies taken. On Sunday 9th the violence spread to Scotland Road and on Monday 10th riots broke out in the south end of Liverpool where a crowd of some 2,000 rifled the Pork shops along six different streets.

On Tuesday 11 May 1915 the Liverpool Echo reported:

"A large pork shop at the corner of Smithdown Road has been absolutely wrecked … Women hurled strings of sausages at one another and one woman in a neighbouring street went down on her knees and scrubbed the pavement with a joint of pork … A man came to the gaping hole where the front window had been and, waving a handsome mirror over his head, smashed it to fragments against the stone still, amid cheers from the crowd below"

As the violence continued earful shop owners soon started to post signs in shop windows, or take out newspaper adverts like this, declaring that they were British and employed only British staff.

In his memoir, The Autobiography of a Liverpool-Irish Slummy, first published in 1934, Pat O’Mara, one of the rioters takes up the story of the Lusitania riots in the city:

"Some of the women, drunk, were laughing – laughing as mad people laugh when the border line had been passed ... On the corner of Scotland Road ominous gangs were gathering – men and women, very drunk and angry.

Suddenly something crashed up the road near Ben Johnson Street; followed in turn by another terrific crash of glass.

We ran up the road. A pork butcher’s had had its front window knocked in with a brick and a crowd of men and women were wrecking the place. A little higher up the same thing was happening – everything suggestive of Germany was being smashed to pieces. Up the road the crowd surged …

On we raced on to Yaag’s butcher’s, most of us boys in the vanguard and anxious to be the first to crash the enemy’s windows. Mr Yaag, a big, wholesome fellow allegedly had been born in Germany, but I don’t think he remembered much about it. Two of his nephews were with my cousin Berny and the Eighth Irish over in France. I always liked Mr Yaag, but not quite so keenly as I liked to break his window without fear of molestation.

As we converged on the big shop, Mr Yaag, arms akimbo, came out, pipe in mouth and with his usual broad smile; this vanished instantly as someone kicked him in the belly and a volley of bricks sent in the huge windows. From the sawdust floor the astounded man had the pleasure of seeing his choice sausages kicked down and thrown about and the furnishings reduced to shambles.

I began to get a pernicious bellyache on account of all the raw sausage I had eaten."

In Liverpool, overall, 200 shops were gutted with the damage estimated at £40,000. That’s just under two million pounds worth of damage in today’s money.

But how do we analyse these events?

On the one hand, they were expressions of moral outrage against what was perceived to be a German war crime.

Moral revulsion against Lusitania’s sinking was not confined to the angry mob. Even the writer DH Lawrence, on hearing of the disaster, wrote "I am mad with rage myself I would like to kill a million Germans—two million”

Everything German equalled an infraction of fair play and so German pork shops had to be smashed.

In this regard, the riots can be seen as actions borne of moral righteousness – or ‘moral economy’ as historians like to term it.

On the other hand, as O’Mara admits, "Many mistakes were made" and we can certainly go too far in sentimentalising or justifying violent actions just because they are undertaken by traditionally oppressed groups such as the working class or women.

Most sinisterly, some shops which were destroyed were clearly not even German. Liverpool’s Chinese shops were also targeted, with the Foreign Office reporting Chinese citizens begging for protection. The Republic of China, of course, was at this stage firmly neutral. Elsewhere, Russian shops were rifled simply because they had funny-sounding names.

Some rioters were clearly just out to smash the city to bits, beat up the foreigners, and get a good feed while doing so.

So what were the national implications of these riots?

Nationally, the Asquith government bowed to demands for the wholesale arrest and internment of male enemy aliens, ages seventeen to fifty five, the repatriation of older men and German-born women, and the investigation of thousands of naturalised men and women held "under suspicion" for harbouring German sympathies.

Locally, the Liverpool Echo reported that after the riots 150 German residents were rounded up by the police, marched to Lime Street station, and removed to internment camps.

Longer term, though, Germans living in Britain were excluded from the positive transformation of food politics in the country as the war progressed: moves towards communal cooperation in food supply and distribution which anticipated the celebrated record of Britain in rationing during the Second World War.

And they ensured, at the high street level, that not only the German pork shop, but the visible German community, would undergo an abrupt and strange death.

This is an abridged version of a paper Dr Bryce Evans is delivering at University College Cork to mark the 100th anniversary of Lusitania’s sinking.

Bryce Evans - full profile

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