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Learning the lesson of history.

Byline: Ray Marshall

THERE was going to be a fight, the little man could sense it. Everywhere around him there were angry faces, shouting - some were, like himself, Arabs; there were Yemenis and there were local Geordies, seamen, some policemen.

It was August 2, 1930. When he had first arrived in England, four years ago, a "boss Arab" soon found him employment; in fact he seemed to get jobs for a lot of Arabs with the help of an English seaman.

But suddenly, for reasons he couldn't understand, the Englishmen would not give him, nor any Arabs, jobs.

But the English seamen still worked. The little Arab gazed about him. A few yards away, another Arab was walking among groups of compatriots, urging them to "fight", "fight", "fight" ... Not far away, Harry Gash was sensing trouble and so were his 20 police colleagues on duty at Mill Dam, the seaman's centre of South Shields.

For weeks now the tension had been building and Gash thought it was understandable.

It was 1930 and Britain was in the middle of a general slump. There were too few jobs for too many people out of work.

At South Shields, British seamen had found themselves on the docksides, out of work. Gash felt sympathy for them. He also had sympathy for the Arab seamen who were bewildered by what was happening to 1930s Britain.

Arabs had been smuggled into the country from 1925 onwards to provide crews for the prosperous shipping industry.

Now came the slump - and the Arabs were also out of work.

The main agitators were the Seamen's Minority Movement - many were communists and wanted Arabs to have the same rights as British seamen.

Gash looked around and could see about 150 Arabic men and about 100 Britons.

A Minority Movement speaker was working up to a frenzy, saying some dangerous things: "pacifist methods have had no result. They are no use - we will have to use force."

Suddenly things began to happen. There was a call for firemen for the vessel Ethelfreda and a number of Arab seamen ran to the shipping federation office, followed by white seamen - the jobs went to the white seamen.

The police moved towards the office to provide a guard for the signed-on seamen.

But before they got there, two white seamen were surrounded by disgruntled Arabs. Then the fighting started.

The two seamen were being punched and they were fighting back. Other British seaman stepped forward to rescue the trapped men and the Arabs turned on them. The police pitched in.

At Mill Dam, more Arabs poured from the maze of dingy, grimy houses that comprised their community's centre.

Now there were close on 200 Arabs and 50 policemen. The Arabs were in a frenzy, yelling, shouting abuse and the police advanced.

The Arabs threw stones and the police drew batons. Then out came the knives ... the razors ... the sticks ... the clubs.

The battle flared for just over half-an-hour. Then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped.

The Arabs turned heel and fled, chased by the police. Finally, Mill Dam was quiet again, but there were prostrate figures of wounded Arabs and policemen littering the street.

Harry Gash sat in the Shipping Federation office, a knife protruding from his back. Ambulances were picking up people and taking them to hospital ... and police cells.

Two days later, more than 20 Arabs, two British seaman, a Belgian seaman and a local miner were in the dock. In Ingham Infirmary, doctors were battling to save Harry Gash's life.

The rioters were sent to Durham Assizes. Gash, despite the pessimism of doctors, pulled round.

And, in November, 1930, 17 Arabs were imprisoned - before being deported.

The members of the Seamen's Minority Movement, charged with inciting a riot, got varying terms of imprisonment.

The riots of Mill Dam occurred 81 years ago. At the time, they taught the people of South Shields a lesson. Arabs and locals quickly learned to live side by side.

Unemployment and the great depression, with the help of agitators, was responsible for a terrible incident in the history of South Shields.


TROUBLE BREWING Yemeni immigrants and police clash and a newspaper cutting from August 2 1930 reporting the riots
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 29, 2011
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