Founding of the Liverpool Free State

(Many thanks to Paul C of the Gentlemen Wargames Parlour for making his notes available that for this section are used verbatum.)

Real world historical back ground.


Despite the impression that may have been gained during the 1980s, the Liverpool (or Merseyside) Labour movement was not strong in the 1930s. At no time did the Labour Party gain a majority of the over 150 Councilors and Aldermen (these were Councilors elevated for life to Aldermen by the Council) that constituted Liverpool Corporation; in fact the Labour party did not achieve 40 % of the overall total in any year during the 1930s. Partly this was the result of the refusal of the Liberal and Conservative governing parties to appoint Labour Councilors to Alderman posts, as was the norm in other cities and also partly the gerrymandering of wards to prevent a Labour majority. Davies argues that the ward boundaries were essentially those of the 1890s and did not reflect changes in population and urban settlement, to the detriment of Labour’s electoral fortunes; one “solidly Tory ward” had a mere 2,000 registered voters, while Croxteth “solidly Labour”  had 20,000 voters. (Davies, 1999, p.14)


The other major factor in making the Liverpool political scene unusual in the thirties for a large English conurbation was the importance of religious based sectarian politics and the related influence of Irish politics in the affairs of the city. There were both Catholic and Protestant parties in the local elections in Liverpool. While the scale of tension between the two faith communities was not as great as during the 1909 riots, manifestations of loyalty to Green or Orange politics, including voting patterns and parades, were still common in Liverpool during the 1930s. Allegiance to Nationalist or Loyalist politics cut across the class divide, and made a difficult environment for overtly socialist parties, including the ILP and later, Labour Party to grow and develop, in contrast to Sheffield, Tyneside, and Manchester etc.


In addition, Trade Unionism was divided between the port related occupations (dockers, seamen, ships stewards, coal heavers, warehousemen, bargemen, carters, etc) and the more skilled trades; the former tended not to be involved in the Liverpool Trades Council (the local equivalent to the national TUC), so that the more skilled trades tended to dominate the LTC. Essentially, there was a divide between the more casually employed “rougher” working class in the port and the “respectable” working class in the city; these later included shop workers, Postmen, printers, engineers, railwaymen/busmen, Life Assurance Agents and clerks. In many other British cities, this divide was less pronounced by the late 1930s.


The “respectable” group was better organised reflecting the more predictable employment patterns it enjoyed and had an influence in local politics via the Labour Party denied to the port workers. On some occasions during the interwar period, this had lead to, if not hostility, at least a cool, distant working relationship. Although far from absolute, there was a tendency for the port related trades to be more Catholic in composition than the more Protestant and sometimes, overtly Orange, skilled trades.


This sectarian divide is apparent in the affairs of the local Labour Party, which did not present a unified, secular set of policies in the interwar period. In early 1930 those Labour Councilors maintaining their Catholic faith broke party policy by agreeing to a Conservative proposal to sell land owned by the Corporation to the Catholic Church in order that a Catholic cathedral be built. This split the local Labour party, and resignations and defections followed. Equally, friction developed between the more leftwing party members who advocated contraception as a means of poor families limiting family size and the “Catholic Caucus” (Davies, 1999, p.10-11) within the party, who were adamantly opposed to contraception on faith grounds.


Thus, by 1938, the Labour movement in Liverpool was surprisingly weak and disunited for such a large city with a numerous working class. The Corporation was nowhere near dominated by Labour and many working class voters, who were in other similar ports and industrial centers supporters of Labour, still identified with,  voted for and marched to support, religious, Liberal / Conservative or other political parties.



 Davies, Sam (1999) Liverpool Labour Party and Trades Council: A Brief Introduction to the Microfilm Edition of Liverpool Labour Party and Trades Council Records, 1862-1986. Microfilm Academic Publishers.

Effects of the 1938 Constitutional Crisis in Liverpool.


Come the abdication crisis and the eventually descent into civil war, Liverpool’s Labour movement failed to present a united front of agreed policies and actions. Owing to the factors discussed above, the leadership of the city was not seized by Labour and the Trade Unions. The attitudes and influence of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Orange Order and the Protestant Party, the difference in approach and attitudes of the Trades Council and the port based Trade Unions, together with the usual divide between the Labour Party, Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, made a single united response impossible in the case of Liverpool’s labour movement.


Disunity prevented the worker’s organiations from taking the initial lead in Liverpool. The Corporation was therefore lead by an alliance of various groups and parties excluding Labour. As the crisis deepened, the ruling coalition nominated the popular right-wing Labour Councilor Henry Walpole as Lord Mayor at an emergency council meeting. Walpole was seen by the “Anti-Socialists” as an ideal Mayor, being seen as a safe pair of hands who enjoyed considerable support amongst the increasingly militant dock workers. Although mistrusted by the left of the Labour Party in Liverpool, including Jack and Cissie Craddock,  Walpole was acceptable to the majority of Labour councilors.


The subsequent “blacking” of arms and materials destined for Mosley’s government by the dockers, organised by the Transport and General Workers Union with the tacit agreement of their national leader, Ernie Bevin,  and supported after many heated and sometimes violent meetings by the majority of the TUs in Liverpool, regained the initiative for the Labour movement.


The repressive reaction of Mosley and the dispatch of BUF and regular army forces to try to break the strike and boycott, provided a basis for unity in Liverpool. A more placatory, less confrontational approach may well have been able to exploit the divisions within the disparate groups and forces in the city. As it was, the sight of “black shirted toffs from Cheshire and worse, Manchester, swanking around here” was enough to convince many in Liverpool to resist. Once the troops from the King’s Regt defected, and their renaming as the Liverpool Regiment, it became clear that the opposition to Mosley’s government was not, as some in the Orange Order and some Catholic Priests alleged, solely led by Reds.


This situation presented the Lord Mayor with a huge problem; if the Corporation plumped for any one side, the supporters of the other side would riot or worse. Armed groups were beginning to form and street fighting between the extreme groups, both pro and anti-Mosley, were beginning to occur. In many ways, the declaration of Liverpool as a Free City by Lord Mayor Walpole, was an attempt to hold at bay the civil strife that was sweeping the rest of the countryside, by finding a third way, civic independence, until the outcome of the war was settled, or more hopefully, a negotiated settlement would be agreed. Many factions within the city, not just the left, supported Walpole’s declaration. The subsequent approach by the Liverpool Corporation to the League of Nations for recognition as a free city in the same way that Danzig had been so recognised, was a desperate bid to avoid the streets of Liverpool becoming a battlefield.


The intransigence of Mosley and Edward in refusing to contemplate any negotiated compromise in relation to Liverpool’s status lead inexorably to the raising of militias, and their arming and participation in the defense of Liverpool. This in turn lead to a hardening of attitudes, as the only viable source of modern military material was the Soviet Union; whatever the intentions of the ruling group on the Corporation, the influence of the most disciplined and well-connected section of the anti-fascist movement, the Communist party, began to increase.


Faced with threats to his life, Lord Mayor Walpole formed a bodyguard of ex-International Brigade volunteers that grew to company strength. This company, known locally as the “Mayor’s Red Army” was commanded by Jack James, a prominent local trade unionist and Labour councilor recently returned from Spain. In the wake of continued claims from a BUF radio station about a “fifth column” of fascist sympathisers operating in Liverpool itself, the “Mayor’s Red Army” was increasingly concerned with internal security.

The Lord Mayor began to see his control over the situation slip away, as the different groups drilled, acquired arms and uniforms and unfurled their newly created colours. In the back ground was the certainty that the Mosley government would not allow such an important port and city as Liverpool to effectively break away from Britain or fall into the hands of the left. A siege became more inevitable, as Liverpool became more independent. Once a fall scale siege was under way, the disparate forces of the Liverpool Free State were as ready as they would ever be to meet the challenge.

Published on February 4, 2011 at 4:05 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] Some more material on the foundation of the Liverpool Free State generously provided by Paul-C of the Gentleman’s Wargame Parlour […]

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