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Britain's ports, 1910s-1930s

1911 riots

Britain's merchant navy has employed sailors from across the world for centuries. This multi-national workforce was represented in British port towns not only by the sailors themselves but also by the lodging house keepers, merchants and other tradespeople who supported the industry. During the first half of the 20th century local opposition to non-British (particularly non-European) workers in maritime towns sparked violence and explicitly racist campaigns to remove the 'peril' of foreign workers. The better known flashpoints include the campaign of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union against Chinese workers before the First World War, the 1919 race riots, and the 1930 South Shields riot.

Catalogue = This symbol after a link means that it links to catalogue descriptions of the documents (including the reference numbers which will help you to order up the original documents at the MRC).

Digitised = This symbol after a link means that it links to digitised copies of the documents.


The Modern Records Centre holds key archives relating to the British shipping industry, including archives of the National Union of Seamen, the Shipping Federation, the Chamber of Shipping and the National Maritime Board. Additional collections also hold some material relating to race relations in British ports, including items in files on the shipping industry compiled by the Trades Union Congress.

Selected sources:

Photograph of a group of sailors in South Wales, undated [early 20th century]Digitised

The photograph shows a multi-ethnic group standing outside the Mercantile Marine Department of the Board of Trade, Bute Place, Cardiff.

'The Seaman', newspaper of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union / National Union of Seamen Catalogue

The MRC has a run of this weekly newspaper from 1908, 1911-1993. Volumes between 1908, 1911-1946 have been digitised in full and extracts relating to the union's anti-Chinese campaigns during 1913-4 are identified below:

'Steadily growing menace', 27 June 1913 Digitised

Anti-Chinese cartoon originally used as publicity material for the election campaign of Joseph Havelock Wilson (the union's President) in the parliamentary constituency of Wandsworth.

"Get ready for the fight", 1 May 1914 Digitised

In April 1914 the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union launched a publicity campaign against what they termed the "Yellow Peril problem" - the "employment of Chinese and other Asiatics [i.e. Indians] on British ships". This edition of the union newspaper contains extensive coverage of the early weeks of the campaign, including reports of speeches made at public meetings.

'An impudent production', 29 May 1914 Digitised

This edition of 'The Seaman' contains further coverage of the campaign against the employment of Chinese sailors on British ships. As well as reports of speeches made at protest meetings, the newspaper also reproduces 10 points from a petition against the union's campaign, "signed by a number of Chinese grocers, boarding-house keepers, and firemen in Liverpool".

'The Asiatic Peril', 12 June 1914 Digitised

Explicitly racist and nationalistic poem published in 'The Seaman' as part of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union's campaign against Chinese sailors.

Photograph of protest against Chinese sailors on British ships, undated [1910s] Digitised

The photo was sent by the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union to the International Transport Workers' Federation.

'The Chinese invasion of Great Britain', 1913 Catalogue

Drafts of an article or pamphlet written as part of the anti-Chinese campaign of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union.

Letter and memorandum about wage scales for Chinese seamen on British ships, 1920 Catalogue

Written by Father Charles P. Hopkins, National Sailors and Firemen's Union representative on the National Maritime Board.

National Sailors and Firemen's Union attitudes towards restrictions, 1920 Catalogue

Typescript notes on the attitude of the National Maritime Board, and particularly of NSFU representatives thereon, to restrictions on "coloured" (especially Chinese) seamen.

'Problem of half-caste children', 1930 Digitised

In 1930 the Liverpool Association for the Welfare of Half-caste Children published a report following inquiries into "the Anglo-Negroid population of Liverpool" - this summary is included in the 27 June 1930 issue of 'Medical World', the journal of the Medical Practitioners' Union. The summarised report portrays "Anglo-Negroid unions" in the port city in an extremely negative way. This document has been made available as a pdf, please contact us if you are unable to access this format.

Rules for joint supply registration and engagement of Somali and Arab seamen, 1930 Digitised

In 1930 an agreement between the Shipping Federation and the National Union of Seamen introduced new regulations regarding the employment of Arab and Somali sailors on British ships. Arab and Somali sailors were now only able to work on the majority of British ships if they were registered at the Joint Supply Office, provided proof that they were "bona fide seaman and... lawfully in this country", and reported to the office every fortnight. On registering, they were categorised as either Arabs or Somalis, assigned a number, and employed only in numerical order (e.g. sailor no.5 could not be employed before sailor no.1).

South Shields riots, 1930 Catalogue

On 2 August 1930, the day after the new rules regarding the employment of Somali and Arab seamen came into force, a protest meeting in South Shields turned violent - several police officers were injured with knives and stones, and protestors were clubbed with truncheons. The report of the resulting four day long trial includes descriptions of the protests and riot. It is notable that although the majority of the prisoners were Arabs, only the European prisoners gave evidence to court. Several extracts from the report have been digitised:

The evidence of Detective Inspector Alexander Wilson Digitised

The evidence of Prisoner Dowell Digitised

The summing-up of Mr Lowenthal, Counsel for the Prosecution Digitised

The Order of the White Seamen's Brotherhood, [c.1932] Digitised

Circulars aimed at "British White Seamen", calling for repatriation of "black and yellow seamen". They were published in Barry, South Wales.

'Cardiff coloured seamen appeal', 1938 Digitised

Appeal against discrimination sent by the Colonial Defence Association of Cardiff to the National Executive of the National Union of Seamen. This version was published in the 1 May 1938 bulletin of the Colonial Information Bureau, a London-based organisation previously known as the League Against Imperialism. This document has been made available as a pdf, please contact us if you are unable to access this format.

International African Opinion, 1938-1939 Catalogue

Copies of the monthly journal of the International African Service Bureau, London. The publication included a regular column by Chris Jones (a pseudonym of Chris Braithwaite) aimed at "coloured seamen".