Revisited: the ‘lynching’ of Charles Wotten
The story of a Bermudian man killed in a race riot in England more than a century ago is getting renewed attention thanks to global Black Lives Matter protests.
British author and black studies teacher Madeline Heneghan said she has received several calls for interviews about her 2018 book Great War to Race Riots.
It tells how Charles Wotten, a 27-year-old black man from Sandys, was murdered on the Queen's Dock in Liverpool on June 5, 1919 in the midst of a riot.
The fracas started after a group of Scandinavians attacked a West Indian man because he refused to give them a cigarette.
“The next day some of this guy's friends went looking for the Scandinavians and a fight broke out,” Ms Heneghan said. “Large mobs of white people gathered in the street. The police started to raid black boarding houses indiscriminately. Anywhere that was black-owned or known to house black workers was raided.”
Mr Wotten was living in a boarding house on Upper Pitt Street, having served in the Merchant Navy.
When people came searching for him, he attempted to escape, running towards the River Mersey, but the mob followed.
“He was chased into the river,” Ms Heneghan said. “With police watching, the mob pelted Wotten with stones until he drowned.
“We have a very prominent historian in England, David Olusoga, who has described it as a lynching.”
Police officers listed drowning as the cause of the Bermudian's death; no one was held accountable.
As told by Ms Heneghan, black West Indians and West Africans filled jobs left vacant in Liverpool by British soldiers during the First World War.
When the war ended in 1918, black soldiers returned home unable to find jobs because of the colour of their skin; white soldiers were given the jobs that had been held by the black workers.
Meanwhile, mobs of white men roamed neighbourhoods looking for black people to beat up.
Things became so dangerous that black women and children were often housed at police stations for their safety.
“It is a really tragic story,” Ms Heneghan said. “When I read the police reports, it was the scale of it that shocked me.”
The mob that killed Mr Wotten is estimated to have been anywhere from 200 to 300-strong.
Similar riots and attacks on black workers took place in London, Cardiff, Glasgow and many other British ports.
“In 1919, after the race riot, the British Government labelled the black workers as the problem rather than the white rioters,” Ms Heneghan said. “They tried to send them home.
“They tried to entice them by offering them free passage and £5 to go back. A lot of them didn't because they were already settled with families here, and £5 didn't even get their clothes out of the pawnshop.”
Mr Wotten has stayed in the memory of the black community in Liverpool where, in 1974, Charles Wooten College was established.
“A lot of young people learnt various skills there,” said Ms Heneghan, who added that the spelling of Mr Wotten's name varied. “Sadly, the building is now luxury apartments. It is ironic, but gentrification happens in a lot of black communities across the United Kingdom.”
Writing on the Wall, the charity where Ms Heneghan serves as co-director, received a treasure trove of letters and documents relating to the 1919 riots.
Many were written by black workers of that time who begged the Mayor of Liverpool for help. Joseph Hall wrote in May 1919: “I am distressed, penniless and homeless, and I am simply asking for assistance, as I am a British subject.”
Writing on the Wall volunteers helped to catalogue and archive the collection, which can be viewed on the Great War to Race Riots website. Mr Olusoga included Mr Wotten in a four-part BBC Two series, Black and British: A Forgotten History, which saw members of the Liverpool community place a plaque in remembrance of the Bermudian near the port where he died.
“We have now developed a walking tour that follows the events of the 1919 race riots,” Ms Heneghan said. “People on the tour follow the footsteps of Charles being chased from his boarding house down to the Queen's Dock.”
Ms Heneghan added: “People find it really moving to walk in his footsteps.”
A century later the British Government is still treating immigrants in a “draconian” way, she said. As evidence, she highlighted the 2018 Windrush scandal, which revealed that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens — many of whom had emigrated from the Caribbean and Bermuda between 1948 and 1979 — had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights.
“Some people were being sent back to Jamaica who had been here since they were 8 years old,” she said. “The British Government has set up a compensation scheme for the damage it has done to people's lives, but out of 1,000 or so applications, only 60 have been dealt with.
“All sorts of public apologies have been made, but still the British Government has not dealt with the massive mistake. And it wasn't a mistake; it was clearly intentional.”
• Learn more about Madeline Heneghan's book, Great War to Race Riots, at greatwar-to-raceriots.co.uk. The book is available for purchase on Kindle. David Olusoga has also written a book, Black and British: A Forgotten History. Available on Amazon, it partners his BBC series of the same name