Battle of George Square

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Battle of George Square
Part of Red Clydeside
1919 Battle of George Square - David Kirkwood.jpg
David Kirkwood and Willie Gallacher being detained by police at the City Chambers
Date 31 January 1919
Location Glasgow, Scotland
Caused by
  • Anger with 53-hour working week
  • Unemployment
  • Reduced working week
  • Reduced unemployment
  • Strike action
  • Rioting throughout Glasgow
  • Running battles with police
Resulted in
  • Army units deployed to Glasgow
  • Workers return to work under guarantee of 47 hour week
  • Growth of Labour movement in Scotland
Parties to the civil conflict


  • Striking workers
Lead figures
Lord Provost Sir James Watson Stewart
Sheriff MacKenzie
De-Centralized Leadership

60,000+ Protesters

(Not all involved in violence)
Many injured

The "Battle of George Square", also known as "Bloody Friday" and "Black Friday", was one of the most intense riots in the history of Glasgow; it took place on Friday, 31 January 1919.[1] The dispute revolved around a campaign for shorter working hours, backed by widespread unofficial strike action. Clashes between the City of Glasgow Police and protesters broke out, prompting the War Cabinet to make soldiers available to the civil power, to prevent the violence from escalating, the UK government feared a Bolshevist uprising. It was described as a "socialist revolution" by supporters,[2] as had happened in the 1917 Russian Revolution, and was occurring in Germany and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire while the 'Forty Hours' strike unfolded.

Forty Hours strike[edit]

Before the First World War, the standard working week was 54 hours. National negotiations had established a 47-hour working week for men in the shipbuilding and engineering trades, to be introduced in 1919. A Joint Committee of shop stewards, members of the Scottish TUC and Clyde Workers' Committee however proposed a campaign to limit working hours to 30 per week, which was altered to 40 per week after the Glasgow Trades Council became involved.[3] It was, however, opposed by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and most other unions.[4]

The immediate objective was to alleviate unemployment, exacerbated by the post-World War I recession, by sharing out available working hours more widely at a time when unemployment was rising as war contracts were completed and when tens of thousands of ex-servicemen were returning to the civilian labour force. Many workers also resented the fact that the new 47-hour week agreement removed their traditional morning break.[4]

A strikers' meeting was called for Monday 27 January, and more than 3,000 workers gathered at the St. Andrew's Halls; 40,000 Glasgow workers came out on strike that same day. By Friday 31 January, the number had swollen to "upwards of 60,000",[1] it was Scotland's first mass picket since the Radical War of 1820. The strike culminated in a mass meeting in George Square on the Friday to hear Lord Provost Sir James Watson Stewart issue a response from the British government to the unions' request for government intervention in the dispute. Emanuel Shinwell, president of the Glasgow Trades Council, was among those to address the crowd.[citation needed]

The situation in Glasgow was discussed at the War Cabinet at 3pm on 30 January, chaired by Andrew Bonar Law, in the absence of the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who was at the Peace Conference in Paris .[5] The Lord Provost's telegram and a draft response to it were discussed: the Cabinet agreed that the government could not intervene over the heads of the official trades unions, the situation in Glasgow was considered to be problematic: mass pickets were, the Cabinet considered, intimidating men who wished to work; the strikers seemed intent on closing down the power stations, leaving only light for hospitals, and possibly homes and street-lighting; and the organisers had threatened to use unconstituional means. It was decided that troops within Scottish Command should be put on stand-by, it was explicitly considered less problematic to use Scottish soldiers than to bring in any from England. General W R Robertson (C-in-C Home Forces) informed the meeting that there were 19 infantry battalions in Scotland, of which only one was non-Scottish. The Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill said that the War Office would consider arrangements for placing troops in the vicinity of Glasgow, the War Cabinet decided to send the telegram to the Lord Provost; to inform him and the Sheriff of Lanarkshire, that the military would be 'in readiness to give their services when requested by the civil authorities', and that no 'provocative action should be taken'; to send a senior Scottish Office civil servant from London to Glasgow, to liaise with the city authorities; that a four-man cabinet committee be set up, chaired by the Secretary for Scotland; and that the Lord Advocate should explore the legal basis for arresting the leaders of the strike.


The fierce fighting between the City of Glasgow Police and protesters began shortly after noon [6]while a Clyde Workers' Committee deputation was in the Glasgow City Chambers meeting with the Lord Provost of Glasgow. On hearing the ensuing riot that was taking place in George Square, CWC leaders David Kirkwood and Emanuel Shinwell moved outside in an effort to quell the riot, before they could reach the crowds outside however, Kirkwood was knocked to the ground by police and he, William Gallacher and Shinwell were arrested and charged with "instigating and inciting large crowds of persons to form part of a riotous mob". Sheriff MacKenzie's attempts to read the Riot Act proved unsuccessful as the crowd tore his copy of the Act from him as he was in the process of reading it.[citation needed]

The exact cause of the riot has been disputed – some sources indicate it was caused by an unprovoked baton charge by the police, while others indicate that strikers attempted to stop trams travelling through the square.[2] Pitched battles took place between police and strikers in the streets around the square. Iron palings were pulled up and used as a defence against the police truncheons, while bottles were taken from a passing lorry to serve as missiles, the police's efforts to disperse the crowd from the Square were unsuccessful. Eventually there was a re-grouping and the workers began to move off from George Square to march towards Glasgow Green. Police were again unsuccessful in their attempts to disperse the strikers.[citation needed]

For the rest of the day and into the night, further fighting took place throughout the city. Many people, women and children among them, were injured. More than a dozen strikers were taken to Duke Street Prison and later tried at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh.[citation needed]

Military intervention[edit]

Medium Mark C tanks and soldiers at the Glasgow Cattle Market in the Gallowgate

The failure of the police to control the riot prompted a request for military assistance, the only person (except in sudden emergencies) empowered to call for this assistance was the Sheriff of Lanarkshire.[7] If the legal process was followed, then this must have been done between noon, when the riot started, and the War Cabinet meeting at 3pm,[8] it was at this meeting that the Scottish Secretary described the demonstration as 'a Bolshevist uprising', but the minutes record Major General Romer informing the Cabinet that the necessary orders had already been given to the GOC Scotland, with regard to the movement of troops. The Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff informed the meeting that 6 tanks and 100 motor lorries, with drivers were 'going north that evening', it was stated that up to 12,000 troops could be deployed. Contemporary accounts say 10,000 troops were deployed,[9] this is said to be the largest deployment of British troops on native soil.

It is widely stated that 'English' troops were used, but no reference dated before 1999 has yet been found for this.[10] No Glaswegian troops were deployed, with the government fearing that fellow Glaswegians, soldiers or otherwise, might go over to the workers' side if a revolutionary situation developed, as noted above, Scottish regiments were transported to Glasgow from other parts of Scotland, including the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Gordon Highlanders and Seaforth Highlanders, arrived from Stirling Castle, Redford Barracks and Fort George into Queen Street Station.[1]

The first trains arrived in the late evening and continued to arrive overnight,[11] the troops were heavily armed, with machine guns and a howitzer. A 4.5 inch Howitzer was positioned at the City Chambers. The tanks seem only to have arrived on Monday 3 February, when their progress across the city from the station to the Cattle Market was reported in the press.[12] Lewis Guns were posted on the top of the North British Hotel and the General Post Office, armed troops stood sentry outside power stations and docks, and patrolled the streets, to prevent the recurrence of any disturbance. The Glasgow Herald reported, on 18 February 1919, that the troops had been gradually withdrawing, and that the last had left on the 17th.[13]


Manny Shinwell, William Gallacher and David Kirkwood were jailed for several months.[citation needed] The striking workers returned to work with the guarantee of a 47-hour week, ten hours less than they were working beforehand.[14]

In the General Election of 1922, Scotland elected 29 Labour MPs, including the 40 Hour Strike organisers and Independent Labour Party members Manny Shinwell and David Kirkwood.[15][16] The United Kingdom general election, 1923 eventually saw the first Labour government come to power under Ramsay MacDonald. The region's socialist sympathies earned it the epithet of Red Clydeside.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Glasgow Digital Library – The battle of George Square (Bloody Friday) 1919". Strathclyde University. Retrieved 2006-07-24. 
  2. ^ a b "Red Clydeside". International Socialist Archives. Archived from the original on 21 June 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-24. 
  3. ^ "Glasgow Digital Library – The 40-hours strike 1919". Strathclyde University. Retrieved 2006-07-24. 
  4. ^ a b Iain., McLean, (1999, ©1983). The legend of Red Clydeside. Edinburgh: J. Donald. ISBN 9780859765169. OCLC 44884180.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ The National Archives, Kew. File CAB 23/9/9 (War Cabinet meeting 522), 3pm 30 January 1919
  6. ^ Evening News, 31 January 1919
  7. ^ Army, Great Britain (1914). King's Regulations (1914). War Office. pp. Paras 955–975. 
  8. ^ The National Archives, Kew. File CAB 23/9/10. War Cabinet Minutes (meeting 523), 31 January 1919, 3pm
  9. ^ Dundee Courier Monday 3 February 1919
  10. ^ International Socialist, Issue 1, Spring 1999
  11. ^ Glasgow Herald Monday 3 February 1919
  12. ^ Aberdeen Daily Journal (later Aberdeen Press & Journal) Tuesday 4 February 1919. 'Tanks Reinforce Troops in Glasgow'
  13. ^ Glasgow Herald Tuesday 18 February 1919. 'Departure of Troops from Glasgow'
  14. ^ "Glasgow Digital Library – The battle of George Square (Bloody Friday) 1919". Strathclyde University. Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  15. ^ The Times, 17 November 1922
  16. ^ "David Kirkwood: Biography". Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  17. ^ "Red Clydeside - 20th and 21st centuries". Retrieved 6 November 2013. 

Works cited