No-go zones, racism and the press in British history

One of the advantages of balancing a PhD with research at the Black Country Museum is that I get to compare and contrast over time. My PhD work is about the Black Country in the 1840s through to the 1870s; at the Museum, it’s the 1940s through to the 1960s. This is great, but as a significant part of what I study in each period is the perception of race and the subsequent racism, discrimination and rhetoric that follows, it can also be somewhat depressing. That’s even more true when I can look at the present and see exactly what hasn’t got any better in 170s years. I was reminded (via a Facebook post in which someone suggested an “ethnic cleanse” of a local town) this week of a recent revival of language with a sad tradition in the Black Country. In this post I want to trace how an influx of immigration into a specific area brings out the worst in some people.* I’m going to look at Wolverhampton in the mid-19th century; Smethwick in the mid-20th century; and Lye in the 21st century.

“Another Stafford Street Row”

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Stafford Street in the late 1870s (Wolverhampton Archives P/6546)

Wolverhampton – like many towns – witnessed an influx of outsiders from the end of the 1840s through to the 1860s. In this case, they were not foreign migrants: they were from Ireland, since 1800 part of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. The “push” factor was strongest here: Ireland was already impoverished through centuries of misrule and mismanagement, but the catastrophic blight which wiped out the potato crops in 1845 and 1846 had led hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation. When workhouses and soup kitchens were overrun, many had only one remaining option – emigration. It’s estimated that 1.5 million left as a result of the Famine, many seeking work and food in Britain. Several thousand sought those in Wolverhampton, leading local medical men to comment on the “Irish vagrants” thronging the town’s streets. Famine and destitution are invariably accompanied by disease, and the typhoid that some brought – plus the unrelated cholera outbreak of 1849 – led many to proffer old prejudices as clear evidence of the idleness, dirtiness and danger of the Irish.

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Letter from J. Dehane, Wolverhampton Chronicle, 26 May 1847

Many, for obvious reasons, ended up in the poorest available housing, including the infamous Carribee Island, off Stafford Street. With competition for limited housing and different groups arriving at different times, another inevitability was the outbreak of violent frustration, which certainly occurred, and the introduction of social stigma based on the perceived propensity of the Irish for drinking, crime and taking the jobs that local workers could have had. It didn’t seem to occur to many that this was happening just as the local economy began an unprecedented upswing with labour in high demand. It was easier to assume that where there was a problem in the town, that the Irish were to blame.

Newspapers were instigators, propagators, and arbiters of these prejudices. The Tory Wolverhampton Chronicle, like most local newspapers, filled its columns with local crime reporting. By carefully selective reporting, it was able to impute all kinds of wrongdoing to the Irish – so much so that barristers occasionally had to warn jurors not to be influenced by what they read in the newspaper. The Chronicle played on the spatial knowledge of its readership – it didn’t always need to mention the nationality, but implied it through reference to “Stafford Street Rows” in the sure knowledge that those reading would make the leap. The Whig-(ish) Staffordshire Advertiser, based in Stafford, was less subtle – it included bald contextualisation for its readers which explained how

“Irishmen of the class of those committed frequent Cole’s Croft, in Canal-street, in large numbers, and they are often in the habit of sallying forth at night to knock down and otherwise ill treat the first undedefended person they meet.”
Staffordshire Advertiser, 4 December 1852

Stories like this were found time and time again, and often alluded to the familiarity of the setting with expressions like “another Stafford Street row.” Even the simplest words matter – they create a sense of ongoing trouble and danger even though they are reporting just one incident. Alongside stories on how people were attacked or detained by the groups of Irish people thronging the street, the Stafford Street was designated a no-go area for decent, respectable Wulfrunians. The manners, dress, habits and customs of the Irish were so alien to a subset of Wolverhampton’s middle-class society, that any area associated with them was deemed unsafe. The result was the perpetuation of stereotypes about the Irish so that they were the first to be blamed for crimes and targeted by the police, the first to be blamed for sickness and targeted with invasive interventions by medical officers. Since then the Irish were for decades the butt of jokes, the source of stereotypes, and ultimately the victims of oppressive policy based on the belief in such stereotypes.

Smethwick

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Peter Griffiths on the campaign trail in Smethwick, 1964 (Express & Star)

A century later, and the Black Country was witnessing another influx of outsiders. This time, it was “pull” factors – the region was experiencing a post-war industrial boom and labour was desperately short. It was in this context that the government created volunteer schemes for Eastern European Displaced Persons, and Polish exiles, and continued to welcome the Irish who – even after Ireland’s independence – were still by far the largest immigrant group into the UK. When these schemes couldn’t meet demand, recruiters looked further afield to the British Empire, and the British citizens who had long been eligible to live, work and raise their families in this country. Commonwealth citizens also had the right to settle in the UK following the British Nationality Act 1948.

In Smethwick, massive foundries such as Birmid Industries had been using South Asian labour in increasing numbers since the war. Many had settled in the town – which, with its smoky factories and poor housing stock was otherwise shrinking in its population – from the Caribbean, and particularly from the Punjab in Northern India and Western Pakistan. They faced many of the same challenges that the Irish had faced in Wolverhampton. A lack of decent accommodation meant that many had to share overcrowded properties that were so tired they were soon labelled as slums – exactly as in Carribee Island, and with the exact same effect that some people assumed that was in the nature of immigrants to overcrowd houses to unhealthy levels. Any cases of tuberculosis – as had been the case with cholera or typhoid earlier – were blamed on immigrants, and many doctors petitioned for medical screening of new immigrants. The habits and everyday lives of immigrants were also castigated – their dietary, religious and social habits. When a group of Sikhs successfully converted a closed church on Smethwick High Street into Europe’s first dedicated gurdwara in 1961, it prompted similar complaints as when Roman Catholics began to expand their services in Wolverhampton a century before.

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Smethwick Telephone, 9 June 1961

Again, the press was at the heart of agitation, and it’s tempting to suggest that there has rarely been a press campaign with such vitriol and naked exploitation of people’s basest instincts, as that in the Smethwick Telephone in the early 1960s. Following a series of salacious reports about the housing conditions of (particularly) Indian immigrants in 1961, the paper called out in its letters page for readers to write in with their own worst examples of immigrant housing conditions. This letters page already featured, week after week, diatribes by – for example – Conservative councillor Don Finney, who formed a local branch of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association at the Red Cow pub that same year. The Telephone‘s reporting was much less subtle than the Wolverhampton Chronicle‘s, even, although they too were clever enough to let secondhand opinions – by Finney and other correspondents – do their work for them. As the decade progressed, viewpoints which by any standard were extremely racist became mainstream in the newspaper. The letters were joined by headlines on Smethwick’s “colour problem,” multiple stories of overcrowding, and so on. The letters continued much in the vain of modern race-baiting discourse: Finney featured almost week describing how “Negroes today have far more rights in the Commonwealth than we English have… it’s time immigrants to this country were told to live as we do, or get out.”

As with Wolverhampton’s Irish, language like this created two mythical beasts: the ordinary white English man whose rights, jobs and health were under threat; and the ordinary “coloured” immigrant who brought disease, preferred to live in terrible conditions, and threatened the purity of Smethwick’s white women. Both, it hardly needs to be said, were fictional. Nevertheless this dichotomy allowed the leader of the Conservative bloc on the council, one Peter Griffiths, to run for Parliament on an explicitly racist ticket. Griffiths was in favour of policies like school segregation leading one Labour council to exclaim “this is Staffordshire, not Alabama.” A slogan was found painted across Smethwick: “If you want a n_____ for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Griffiths denied sanctioning the slogan, but readily admitted it was a fair reflection of Smethwick’s opinion. He won the seat amidst national condemnation; the next year  he supported a petition by the residents of Marshall Street to make it white’s-only – the area, they claimed, was being overrun by immigrants, leaving no place to go for the white population. Malcolm X himself visited Smethwick to protest this, and the town gained a reputation of the most racist town in Britain. In this case, a persistent thread of press coverage exacerbated a problem that was the invention of a few racist minds – keeping a close eye was one Enoch Powell, who in his notorious 1968 “rivers of blood” speech employed the same secondhand shifting of blame as the Telephone and Griffiths had. It was full of examples of anonymous constituents who had complained to him – it enabled him to present extreme-right views as empirical and disinterested. That speech was immediately followed by a wave of racial violence in Wolverhampton, and repressive policies culminating in riots in the early 1980s.

Lye

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Stourbridge News, 20 July 2018

“Lye High Street is becoming a ‘no-go’ zone due to fear and crime, it is claimed.”

So ran the front page of the Stourbridge News in July. The language of the “no-go zone” has seen a spike of late, and it’s almost always with a racialised edge. Areas like Saltley in Birmingham, parts of East London, Molenbeek in Brussels, Paris banlieue’s etc. have all been described as places police and respectable people are afraid to go. This story was in relation to a particularly violent assault in which a man was stripped and beaten, and crime statistics that claim police are called to Lye High Street a shocking two or three times a week. The question of “no-go” for whom is answered as anonymous residents’ views are aired further on in the piece: one correspondent claimed to speak for those afraid to leave the doctors with their prescriptions, for mums who fear their children will be snatched, for residents driven to distraction by 24/7 sirens, and “for people wanting to vote at the Samaritans centre but too apprehensive to walk through the huge congregation of Romanian families who insist on loitering at the front of our church.”

sn1There is so much going on here. This is the same flagging of spaces which represent immigrant populations that we saw in the Wolverhampton Chronicle and the Smethwick Telephone. That anonymous source in particular is completely fascinating. They invoke much of the same upstanding English character that were so disgusted by the Irish and the “coloured” in Wolverhampton and Smethwick: the charitable nature and civic responsibility of the ‘ordinary’ citizen trying to do their duty. “Our church” brings to mind the threat felt by those who associated the Anglican Christian tradition with the reality of Britishness in Wolverhampton and Smethwick, when threatened by Catholicism, Sikhism, or whatever they think the Romanians are. The creation here of a problem population is also similar: the Romanians are “huge congregations,” taking up public space, “loitering” – in other words, idle. It was not considered relevant to print that the man so violently assaulted was of Romanian or Asian origin himself.

This is far from the only article: in their own words:

The News has this year reported on claims of human trafficking, slavery, scavenging, threatening behaviour, theft and a hepatitis outbreak in Lye – with much alleged to centre around a growing Roma community.

One local businessman said “I give it six months before the area starts turning vigilante. It’s turning into a cesspit… It’s a shame because Lye used to be a really busy village but now it’s like a ghost town.” He made sure to stress that you can’t blame the Roma for everything.

It’s obviously not possible to know what will develop from the growth of stigmatising, racialising language used about people in Lye. But I hope that the examples of Wolverhampton and Smethwick make it very clear that no good thing comes of such language. It separates by creating one ‘race’ as inferior to another: in all of these situations, one powerless, voiceless group has been condemned for un-English behaviour. Employing secondhand opinion is no excuse. There is always an editorial choice in how to present racist language. The Wolverhampton Chronicle, the Smethwick Telephone and now the Stourbridge News have chosen to accommodate and exploit such prejudice rather than challenge this.

Further Reading

  • Buettner, Elizabeth. ‘“This Is Staffordshire Not Alabama”: Racial Geographies of Commonwealth Immigration in Early 1960s Britain’. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 42, no. 4 (8 August 2014): 710–40.
  • Foot, Paul. Immigration and Race in British Politics. London: Penguin, 1965.
  • Foot, Paul. The Rise of Enoch Powell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
  • Hirsch, Shirin. In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, Locality and Resistance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2018.
  • Reeves, Frank. Race and Borough Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1989.
  • Swift, Roger. ‘“Another Stafford Street Row”: Law, Order and the Irish Presence in Mid-Victorian Wolverhampton’. edited by Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley, 179–206. The Irish in the Victorian City. London: Croom Helm, 1985.
  • ———. Crime and Society in Wolverhampton 1815-1860. Wolverhampton: Wolverhampton Public Libraries, 1987.
  • Yemm, Rachel. ‘Immigration, Race and Local Media: Smethwick and the 1964 General Election’. Contemporary British History, 22 October 2018.
* EDIT 2/11/18: I’ve had a particularly useful comment about this sentence, which doesn’t really capture what I mean to say here. The response to immigration is different everywhere, and there is no inevitability about racism. People are not naturally predisposed towards prejudice, and the fact of immigration into an area does not automatically mean that there will be a racist response to this. Where there is a racist response – such as in the situations outlined in this post – there is a (small-p) political reason for it. It is stoked by some people for their own purposes. Suggesting that immigration inevitably brings out the worst in some people is thus not really right; racism can be used as a weapon to a political end, however.
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