Red Clyeside - What Remains?
There is an unfortunate lack of remaining objects (such as banners, badges, flags, etc.) from the early twentieth century Red Clydeside period. What is clear though is that despite their contemporary absence, material cultures were central to the labour and social organising which emerged at this time. A cursory glimpse at Red Clydeside will reveal the imagery of the waving of the red flag, pictured above, during the George Square gathering of striking workers in 1919. This has become the symbol of this period and in many ways the defining imagery of Glasgow’s popular and political history. Thus, while there may be a lack of remaining materials, it is clear that the activists and political groups utilised material cultures within their campaigns and the circulation of such items became crucial to their movements. This post aims to introduce these material cultures of radicalism through an overarching engagement with Red Clydeside by briefly reflecting on the material cultures of historical activism through key events and individuals.
The forty hours movement of 1919 witnessed the raising of the red flag in George square during a large demonstration. Industrial strike actions were taken across the Clydeside region in January of that year to enforce a shorter working week of forty hours (working hours were approximately 57 at this point). Over 60,000 people gathered in central Glasgow on Friday 31st January and the red flag was raised in George Square. In total, it is estimated that over a million working days were lost to employers during this dispute. Material cultures were central to the movement with banners and flags clearly evident during these demonstrations, whilst they were also accompanied by the singing of political songs, such as the ‘Red Flag’.
The Strike Bulletin newspaper was a further resource produced on behalf of the strike committee and became an important circulating document providing workers with updates of local developments and broader struggles (references to Ireland, India and Spain were made) throughout the two week strike. Newspapers, pamphlets and letters are amongst those items which have been preserved, maintained and made available from this period. The workers were ultimately defeated following the violence of ‘Bloody Friday’ in George Square where police violently intervened during the strike, yet the events of 1919 were viewed as a major trigger for subsequent reforms. This is reflected in the establishment of a shorter working week of 47 hours shortly after the strike and a significant shift towards the left within parliamentary politics (Glasgow returned 10 labour MP’s in the 1922 election). With this in mind, the raising of the red flag in George Square in 1919 can be viewed as a symbol for the broader movements of this period.
Prior to this momentous strike, the working class of Glasgow responded to the First World War in a similarly hostile manner. Again the activities during this period made use of material cultures to promote an anti-war culture, which critiqued the war from multiple perspectives. In Glasgow, women such as Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan channelled their anti-war efforts through the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC). These women had a significant presence within the city and held regular open-air meetings around Clydeside and produced leaflets, pamphlets and badges that were distributed throughout Scotland. Such activities were representative of the strong female position within the working class presence of Clydeside. Reflecting on her involvement with this movement and the strategies used, Crawfurd stated that:
It has been, and still is my opinion that we do not make sufficient use of the artistic and the spectacular in our work. Youth needs this. It was a most valuable addition to our propaganda and educational work. We organised public meetings, demonstrations and street corner meetings and sold badges which the women wore in their buttonholes
The use of such cultures were perhaps most prominent during the famous 1915 rent strikes as pictured below. The rent strikes are often referred to as the most successful campaign to emerge from the Red Clydeside period. The campaigners, primarily women within Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, (including members of WPC), forced a rent restriction act returning rent to pre-war rates.
The street corner strategy was common within Glasgow and was also commented upon by Glasgow-based activist Guy Aldred in his newspaper The Commune. It is clear that activists were eager to place a particular emphasis on the importance of street meetings in articulating a working class and feminist politics. Echoing this sentiment, Aldred claimed that his Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation was "concentrating on making a Socialist proletariat" and "that is why we prefer the street corners" (The Commune, March 1923).
These material cultures of Glasgow also crossed borders with communication and the circulation of documents prominent beyond Clydeside. There would be regular exchanging of material goods on trips and organised visits to other politically minded groups. Similarly postcards, letters, badges and pamphlets would be distributed to support other like-minded struggles. This support was often pragmatic, such as the provision of resources during a strike, but also held a wider political element through the exchange of ideas. Guy Aldred reflected on the potential significance of this in relation to pamphlets:
A pamphlet is different. At the moment it may appear to be extremely dull and of a small consequence. One may regard it as a lifeless creation. Yet its ultimate worth may be very great. It may prove to be a work of great historical significance. Headlines are not always indices to events.
The possibilities for pamphlets, and other material cultures, to inspire and create solidarities were made clear during this period by political activists and campaigns. That said, these exchanges and forms of organising were not always without there issues. For example in 1919, there is evidence of racism and violence amongst sailors within the local docks during this period whilst longer forms of discrimination towards migrant workers were also prevalent. Thus, it remains important not to romanticise material cultures without acknowledging the coexistence of hostilities and tensions within movements.
The material cultures of Red Clydeside are perhaps defined by their present day absence but their significance is reflected in the historical narratives of the period. Despite the missing material, Red Clydeside’s retains a central place in the popular memory of the region. Recent campaigns for a statue of Mary Barbour reflect this longer trajectory of radicalism. Similarly, the sites and places of protest still resonate with present day political organising. Demonstrations and marches regularly gather at Glasgow Green due to its historical significance as a site of organising. There is clearly a public memory which has passed on through the generations of Glaswegians. What remains clear, from only a brief look into the material cultures of Red Clydeside, is the diversity of political memories and reflections from this period. Many different struggles and traditions formed the history now defined as Red Clydeside. This diversity must be remembered in any characterisation of the city’s cultural and political history. Guy Aldred, Helen Crawfurd, the anti-war movement and the forty hours movement begin to reflect this diversity, but also illustrate solidarity and continuity between different movements. Through this understanding it is clear that such materials, as newspapers, badges, placards and pamphlets, became a crucial part of the assertion of a historical working class presence.
Alistair Hulett at The Fraser Centre Milgavie, Scotland performing The Red Clydesiders from his 2002 song cycle Red Clydeside. The original album was recorded with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and is available by mail order from Alistair's website on www.alistairhulett.com