Back in the early 1920s, the mood throughout the country was grim. The Homes for Heroes illusion had well and truly been shattered as unemployment kept rising against the background of worldwide depression. In Jarrow, on Tyneside, where the famous walk on London began (just one of a number from the North, including Liverpool), unemployment had reached 80%. This was compounded by a welfare system which was basic in the extreme.
The government was in a panic. After all, the Russian Revolution was too close for comfort and the ruling class (“Our country is in a jam: YOU must tighten your belts”) was hell-bent on crushing dissent. In Liverpool, the 1919 police strike had been put down with disastrous consequences for its participants. The press barons knew where their interests lay and reported a growing number of unemployed ‘disturbances’ throughout the country. In Liverpool, a cartoonist portrayed the unemployed as pot-bellied idlers receiving their meagre benefit cheques from an official while a distracted ratepayer looked on with the caption “Why work.”
If the press was unsympathetic, at least the unemployed had a small voice: one George Garrett, a genuinely working-class socialist. His writings are largely forgotten now but he impressed many at the time, including George Orwell, with his eloquent plays and short stories on the class struggle. Garrett’s account of the events of September 1921 is well worth reading.
A mass meeting of the unemployed had assembled at St George’s Plateau to continue a series of demonstrations through Liverpool to draw attention to their plight. It was the largest meeting yet held but also the least organised. As the focus seemed to be drifting, one of the key demonstrators, a police sergeant who had been sacked in 1919 when only weeks from the end of his career (without pension as a punishment), suggested: “I think we’ll go for a walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and look at the pictures in the Art Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the people.”
A crowd followed him into the Walker but, as they entered, hundreds of police ran out of the Sessions House next door with their batons raised. Mayhem ensued; heads were split, limbs broken and demonstrators arrested.
In the subsequent trial, the police were pilloried. Even the Walker Art Gallery officials gave evidence against the. Nevertheless, the jury found the demonstrators guilty. The Recorder, however, had heard enough and sentenced them all to one day’s imprisonment, meaning an immediate release since they had already been held in custody for that time.
Another bit of Liverpool’s ‘secret’ history fortunately captured on camera for posterity and gives that leisurely stroll around the Walker a bit of a darker context.