Liverpool has a colourful history. We all know its wealth was largely founded on the Slave Trade and the dreadful poverty of the nineteenth century had been well documented. Sometimes, however, shocking events just disappear into the mists of time without a mention in the history of the city.
The events of August Bank Holiday, 1947 showed a side of Britain that we may well wish to hide. Britain occupied Palestine and Jewish guerrillas were at war with the colonial power. Two British army sergeants were captured and, in reprisal for Britain’s hanging of captured Jewish fighters, hanged. A great outcry followed, and in a wave of anti-semitism, Jewish communities in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester were attacked. In Birkenhead, slaughterhouse workers had refused to process any more meat for Jewish consumption until the attacks on British soldiers in Palestine stopped. In Liverpool, crowds of angry young men gathered in Jewish areas and attacked shops and businesses.
My account is taken from Jerusalem Your Name is Liberty, by Walter Lever, a one-time Communist who lived in Manchester.
‘On Sunday afternoon the trouble reached Manchester. Small groups of men began breaking the windows of shops in Cheetham Hill, an area just north of the city centre which had been home to a Jewish community since the early 19th century. The pubs closed early that day because there was a shortage of beer and, by the evening, the mob’s numbers had swelled to several hundred. Most were on foot but others drove through the area, throwing bricks from moving cars.
Soon the streets were covered in broken glass and stones and the crowd moved on to bigger targets, tearing down the canopy of the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road. All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass.’
By the end of the weekend, anti-Jewish riots had taken place in Glasgow and Liverpool, with minor disturbances in Bristol, Hull, London and Warrington, as well as scores of attacks on Jewish property across the country. A solicitor in Liverpool and a Glasgow shopkeeper were beaten up. Nobody was killed, but this was the most widespread anti-Jewish violence the UK had ever seen. In Salford, the day after a crowd of several thousand had thrown stones at shop windows, signs appeared that read: “Hold your fire. These premises are British.” In Eccles, a former sergeant major named John Regan was fined £15 for telling a crowd of 700: “Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child. What are you afraid of? There’s only a handful of police.”
Arsonists in West Derby set fire to a wooden synagogue and the caretaker was attacked and badly injured when he opened the gates to the fire brigade; workers at Canada Dock in Liverpool returned from the holidays to find “Death to all Jews” painted above the entrance. The photograph shows the burnt-out wooden synagogue in West Derby Cemetery. Just two years after British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen, the language of the Third Reich had resurfaced, this time at home. Anger about what had happened in Palestine was one thing, but it seemed to have unleashed something far more vicious.