Understanding Dudley’s Race Riots pt.2: The Contexts
Black Country Living Museum researcher Dr Simon Briercliffe explores the context and wider implications following Dudley’s ‘race riots’ in July 1962.
July 2022 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Dudley’s so-called “race riots”: a wave of violence towards the town’s ethnic minority communities in 1962. In an earlier blog, I outlined the history of these events; in this blog I will look at some of the wider context of the Black Country in the early 1960s that might help us to understand why these riots occurred.
Industry & Economy
Britain emerged from World War Two with a huge labour shortage and an economic crisis. The Government prioritised manufacturing for export, and the Black Country was perfectly placed to produce what was needed: components, engineering, and consumer items from washing machines to pots and pans. This combination led to an unprecedented period of full employment, which contributed to rising wages and improving working conditions.
The labour shortage persisted, however. The government experimented with employing Displaced Persons (such as Polish refugees), Eastern European Voluntary Workers and economic emigrants from Ireland, but the shortage remained acute. The solution arrived in the form of workers from the British Empire and Commonwealth. Some large foundries in the Black Country – such as Smethwick’s Birmid – began employing workers from South Asia during the war. By 1947, a fifth of the Birmid’s workforce was Indian, predominantly Punjabi Sikhs. In the following decades others joined them from elsewhere in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, workers from the Caribbean began to arrive in the late 1940s and by the early 1960s many Black Country towns had small communities from around the world.
Major employers included the new NHS, public transport and certain large factories – key employers included Bean’s, Duport, Goodyear and Bilston steelworks – which meant that settlement was not uniform across the region: some towns like Smethwick, Wolverhampton or West Bromwich had populations of Commonwealth-born residents in the low thousands, but others like Sedgley or Rowley Regis had very few. Dudley sat in the middle: in 1961 there were 218 South Asian residents, 649 from the Caribbean, and 488 from Ireland, out of a total population of 62,965. Housing discrimination and employment opportunities meant that these residents were clustered in the poorest parts of town.
Dudley’s English-born population, on the other hand, were enjoying economic boom and the new welfare state. New housing estates replaced slums, the welfare state provided a safety net for all, and jobs were there for the taking. For the first-time, working-class Britons could afford decent homes, leisure activities and consumer goods like televisions, cars and record players.
Youth & Society
This new affluence extended to teenagers – even though most had to give up part of their pay-packet towards the household budget, teenagers had money in their pocket, and spent it on leisure, fashion and going out. An affluent working-class family could afford for a son to go into an apprenticeship on leaving school – this meant he earnt less for a while, but had greater earning potential on completion. For a less well-off family, however, children would be expected to get the highest-paid job they could. With limited technical skills, this usually meant well-paid but menial labour, with limited prospects. In 1961, Dudley teachers complained that “too many children enter dead-end jobs” – inflated wages for unskilled work were more tempting than the “jam tomorrow” wage of an apprentice. Moral leaders worried that money and leisure time would turn teenagers into hooligans, and indeed Dudley newspapers were filled with reports of “restless youths” fighting and smashing church windows. The biggest bogeyman was the infamous Teddy Boy subculture, with its reputation for racial violence.
These years are often described as a “postwar consensus” of social democracy, with high taxes and high government spending. Immigration remained a point of division for politicians. The 1948 British Nationality Act had formalised the right of imperial and Commonwealth citizens to reside in Britain and had allowed Caribbean and South Asian workers to settle. By the early 1960s, however, a vocal minority of right-wing Conservatives were arguing for immigration restrictions. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, designed to placate the Conservative right, led to a rush to move to the UK before it became law in July 1962 (the month of the riots). It introduced stringent restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, but not countries like Ireland or Poland (the largest providers of new arrivals), leading activists like A. Sivanandan to argue that it had enshrined state racism in law. Recent analysis has shown that such legislation “was designed at least in part to reduce the number of people with black or brown skin who were permitted to live and work in the UK.”
As today, the press played a major part in the public perception of immigration, both nationally and locally. The most notorious instance was in nearby Smethwick, where the Smethwick Telephone began colluding with anti-immigration campaigners around 1960 to whip up an atmosphere of hatred in the town. Its pages began to fill with articles about the town’s “colour problem,” and making explicit links between immigrants and public health, housing and crime. It even invited residents to write in with examples of “obviously overcrowded and/or insanitary” houses in “areas in which immigrants have congregated,” which prompted a flood of letters. Most were from writers affiliated with vigilante groups like the Birmingham Immigration Control Association (BICA), or from the local Conservative Party led by Peter Griffiths, who went on to win Smethwick in the 1964 general election with an explicitly racist campaign. The newspaper claimed to represent what they saw as both sides of the debate; in reality, they were permitting extreme views to be seen as legitimate.
The Dudley Herald did not take quite the same tone. Its language was more neutral, though – as with young people – there was a tendency to report any story featuring a black or Asian person negatively, and as though they were representative of all immigrants. After the riots, The Observer’s Roy Perrott concluded that “the week’s disturbances were allowed to take place because there was not a strong enough atmosphere in Dudley to discourage it.” That is, politicians, the press and others were essentially inactive in combatting racist language and behaviours.
Local Press and the Far Right
The final key context is the rise of far-right politics after World War Two. Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley re-entered politics after the Notting Hill riots, and both he and Coventry-based neo-Nazi leader Colin Jordan held rallies in Trafalgar Square in July 1962. However, far-right positions could also be found within established politics. Winston Churchill himself suggested “Keep England White” as an election slogan in 1955, and there are reports of similar wording appearing as a poster in Wolverhampton that year. Churchill was overruled by the more moderate mainstream of the Conservative Party, though in Smethwick, the anti-immigration campaign was managed by individuals within the Conservative Party: Peter Griffiths was Council Leader, and BICA’s Don Finney was a leading local Conservative activist.
None of these contexts can in themselves explain or justify the outbreaks of violence against black and South Asian people in Dudley in 1962. It is still difficult to answer the questions that the town asked itself at the time: why Dudley? Why then? On this occasion, the fuel was provided by a glut of young, well-paid workers on industrial holiday; easy access to alcohol; widespread racial prejudice; anti-immigration politics; far-right activism in nearby towns; and a complacent press, council and civil society unwilling to push back against prejudice and discrimination. It just so happened that the spark appeared in Dudley, as it had in Notting Hill and Nottingham – but these events show how fragile communities were in this period, and how important it is to challenge racism and prejudice attitudes wherever and whenever they might be found.
- Simon Briercliffe, Forging Ahead: Austerity to Prosperity in the Black Country, 1945-1968 (History West Midlands, 2021)
- Shirin Hirsch, In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, Locality and Resistance (Manchester University Press, 2018) http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526127396
- Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (Allen Lane, 2017)