Charles Wootton was a 24-year-old ship’s fireman from Bermuda who was murdered by an angry white mob during the Liverpool race riots of 1919.
What led to Charles Wotten’s murder?
Liverpool had been a powder keg since the end of the First World War thanks to large scale demobilisation and unemployment. Black ex-servicemen were cast adrift and found homes in communities like Liverpool’s South End. At the same time, white ex-soldiers and sailors demanded employment that had been promised to them. Finding a shortage of jobs and homes, their resentment turned towards the Black and ethnic minorities. This resentment resulted in many outbreaks of violence during 1919.
At around ten o’clock on the evening of 5 June 1919, a fight took place in Great Georges Square, Liverpool involving rival groups of West Indian and Scandinavian seafarers. The police were called and decided to arrest the Black men. They went at the head of an angry white crowd to Upper Pitt Street, where there were hostels and other houses occupied by the black community. There was resistance to this incursion and two police officers sustained gunshot wounds, seemingly from the same bullet.
Charles Wotton who lived in Upper Pitt Street fled from his house to escape the mob. He was pursued by a mob that was between 200-300 strong about half a mile to the Queens Dock and surrounded on the water’s edge by the hostile crowd. A police officer took hold of him there but Wootton was ripped out of the officers grasp by the mob. Stones were thrown, driving Wotton into the water.
Some reports say that members of the crowd at that point shouted, ‘Let him drown’… as Wotton floundered in the water, ‘a detective climbed down a ship’s rope and was about to pull the man out of the water when a stone thrown from the middle of the crowd struck Wootton in the head and he sank. His body was later recovered. Although a number of police officers were at the scene of the night of the murder no arrests were made.
The police raid on Upper Pitt Street continued and eleven black men appeared in court the next morning, several with bandaged heads. One was wearing his naval uniform. All were charged with attempted murder on the flimsiest identification evidence.
As for the actual murder of Charles Wotton, no one was questioned. The inquest into his murder opened and closed in a single day a week later. It was said that the dead man was reasonably believed to have fired at the police and that he was escaping lawful arrest. The stone that hit him was thrown from the middle of the crowd while a police officer tried to rescue him. The jury recorded these events without even calling the event an unlawful killing.
In his book, Black & British: a Forgotten History historian David Olusoga concludes that Charles Wooten was lynched given the public nature of the act and the inability or unwillingness of the law to determine who was at fault.
In May 2016, a BBC commemorative plaque was dedicated to Wooten at the site of his death. The plaque restores his correct name, which was misspelt in police, coroner’s and newspaper reports.