The Blantyre Riots

riotEvents during February 1887 had far reaching consequences for Blantyre and it’s residents. This story should be retold and not forgotten.

On the evening of Monday 7th February 1887, the miners of Blantyre attended a meeting led by Mr. William Small in Hamilton. Mr. Small greatly defended the miner’s cause who were striking at the cruelty and exploitation they had to endure in the pits. Returning home to Blantyre, some of the men also planned to head on towards Glasgow and they all stopped for the evening in Blantyre. Quite unsettled by the meeting, they hatched a plan to cause a serious riot throughout Blantyre on that evening and during daylight hours on Tuesday 8th February 1887.

Word spread of what was to happen and they managed to rouse further local miners of Blantyre too.

The Riot

A bakery van in Stonefield was attacked and the contents robbed. The mob then turned their attention to looting. Congregating outside Mr. James Downes grocer shop the men awaited a pre-arranged signal. The unknown mob leader made the signal (shot from a revolver) and the mob proceeded to tear down the shutters over windows and doors of Messrs.’ Baird and Co, the nearby grocer shop. The windows were smashed and the mob entered by that method. Barrels of whiskey were targeted first, rolled away from the premises, broken open in the back lanes and divided amongst the men, ample evidence later found by many drunken men arrested.  Bags of flour were also carted away and deposited in an unknown place. In fact, the shop was literally ransacked with hardly a single item left in place. They then turned their attention towards another shop directly across the street, owned by Mr. MacFarlane, just as reinforcement police arrived. Police were pelted with stones. Sergeant Charles received a severe blow to the side of his head, incapacitating him and forcing him off duty. Mr. Chapman, another nearby shopkeeper, just managed to get his door shut. At one point, the Police Station was attacked with so much damage done that the local police constables had to release the 2 prisoners in the cells. Many civilians and police were hurt in this commotion.

The Police Intervene

The local police at the outset of the riot were entirely overwhelmed. However, reinforcements arrived under the command of Captain McHardy. This strong force of Police from Hamilton arrived very quickly to assist the local constables. Mr. John Clark Forrest was called upon in his capacity as honorary substitute sheriff. Supporting police, he read “the riot act”, warning all of the consequences. Sherriff Birnie arrived next, again reading the riot act. The police then charged the rioters on horses, quelling the disturbance in that area and moving to the next. Police faced a barrage of stones and several of the Police were injured. Police drew themselves up in front of the shops, preventing looting by a barrier of cavalry. Afterwards, the scattered mob attempted to enter a provisions store and were again dispersed heavily.  The police were greatly reinforced by foot and horse. During daylight hours, the mounted police made their presence known throughout Blantyre by patrolling with open, drawn swords. The feeling was tense enough for women and children to stay indoors, as some 10,000 people, mostly men had taken to the streets.

Press Comments

The Press Association Glasgow telegraphed on the next day (Wednesday):

Up until noon, all was tranquil in the mining districts of Stonefield and Blantyre. The rioters seem awed by the prompt action of the authorities.  A strong force of Glasgow Police, special constables and Hussars are patrolling the district to quell any outbreak. Seventeen arrests have been made. Two prisoners were dangerously drunk due to swallowing stolen liquor. The damage to property is estimated at £3,000. Night police are guarding Glasgow today. It is not expected that the riot will be renewed. The miners are idle and determined to remain so.

The Central News correspondent at Blantyre telegraphed on Wednesday afternoon: The shop keepers have not considered it safe to open their premises for business today, although the appearance of force at the disposal of the authorities is ample to prevent further disturbance. Forty five miners have been arrested and taken to Hamilton Gael under the escort of cavalry. The streets are again crowded now with unemployed colliers, women and children.

Shopkeepers Unite

About 1pm, a meeting of shopkeepers was held, where they called upon authorities for more assistance.  The mood in the town was mischievous.

The Riot Continued

At 2pm the police who were scattered around in different places, were brought together by order after receiving an announcement that an attack had commenced on the Co-op Stores building, situated in the middle of Dixon’s Rows.  The mounted police proceeded to the spot having to endure showers of stones on the way and found a large mob endeavoring to enter the place. With the aid of policemen on foot who had arrived in a waggonette, the mob were chased away but not without trouble. Missiles of every nature were thrown from all directions at the guardians of the law and a number of them received some severe injuries. However, they managed to preserve the store intact although men continued to loiter nearby all day during which 2 further arrests were made. Mr. John Fury of Dixon’s Rows who was a miner, and William Tenner, a miner from High Blantyre.  Meantime, the mob turned their attention Westwards towards Jackson’s shop.  When the Sherriff reached the place, he found the rioters engaged in drinking brandy from looted barrels in the street, with some rioters still helping themselves to the liquor remaining in the store. He at one ordered the liquor to be poured out and not consumed. The police charged again and were pelted with stones, but again successfully dispersed the riot.

A great number of people up to 12,000 by this time were on the streets, not all locals, but now coming in from surrounding districts.  That’s the equivalent of two thirds of all Blantyre residents today! Sporadic rioting continued and altogether 7 or 8 shops were wrecked, the contents looted. What could not be carried away was destroyed. Quantities of whiskey were hidden in nearby fields.

During the night, 45 arrests were made with many on the men having items of stolen goods on their person at the time.

Military called to restore order

Enough was enough. The military were dispatched from Glasgow. A troop of fifty men from the 4th Maryhill Barracks Hussars formed the company. Arriving at Hamilton later that day, they stood on standby at Hamilton in readiness in case of further emergency.

Order restored

On Thursday 10th February 1887, some 3 days later, the colliers were quiet and order was being restored to the town. The same day the Hussars left Blantyre by horseback and returned to Glasgow, with the riot now assigned to history. Before that happened though, 4 more arrests took place, taking the total arrested men to 51. The village remained on lockdown several days following this, garrisoned by police. With shops closed, it was impossible to find sufficient amount of food to feed the police and provisions from Hamilton had to be called in. However, it was not for a full day that the provisions arrived, many police having no food or drink for over one and a half days. Breakfast was served out to the policemen in the Village, in the Livingstenia Masonic Hall and to those at Stonefield, in Dixons’ Hall.


The Prisoners

Whilst the police eventually dined, justice was being served in a most swift manner. Forty seven of the 51 men arrested, arrived at Central Station around 1pm that afternoon, courtesy of a special prison train from Hamilton. A prison van and three omnibuses guarded by eight prison warders and a small body of police together with the Deputy Governor of Duke Street Prison, were waiting.

The prisoners were transferred to the transport and immediately driven to the place of their confinement. The police had taken no chances on the train, for accompanied to the 47 prisoners, were 104 police officers form Hamilton under Lieut. Cameron.

However, peace had only been restored for a particular reason. The rioters had moved on to Airdrie that same day, which for several days after was the scene of some similar serious riots. Many of the Glasgow Police officers sent to Blantyre, endured the same troubles at Airdrie.

Justice and Claims

On Thursday 17th February 1887 the remaining men at Hamilton who were initially apprehended, were released without trial. John Hannigan, James Wilson, William Aiton and William Ford made their way back to Blantyre, presumably with some relief.

Each of the shopkeepers who suffered loss of property and contents, claimed from the County for their expenses. These were heard at Hamilton Sherriff Court on Friday 4th March and compensation was passed, with Mr. Downes receiving the largest sum of £1,113

On Saturday 9th April at Hamilton Sherriff Court, 19 of the men imprisoned 2 months previous were sentenced by trial. Most were charged with breach of the peace and of rioting. Bail was set in each instance at £5, which none of the wives or friends could afford. Sentence was therefore jail time, mostly of 60 days, which had already been served. As such, some of the men were released.

On the 5th July 1887 Mr. Allen Wylie of Hamilton County Hotel sued the county for close to £300, stating it was the sum he spent to feed the police garrison during the riots and that he had not yet been paid some 4 months later. Perhaps in a dis-service, the judge later on Monday 25th July found that the hotelier was not to be paid, as it had not been made clear to the county, nor the police that he had been expecting payment at the time. So much for helping the police!

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