Chris Bambery: How Scotland’s own ‘Occupy’ movement took over Edinburgh 80 years ago

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Frustration and anger at rising inequality is nothing new, as a largely forgotten chapter of Scotland’s history of protest shows, writes Chris Bambery

In June 1933, for three days and nights, jobless protesters occupied the centre of Edinburgh, sleeping out on Princes Street under the windows of the city elite’s gentlemen’s clubs.

An army of the unemployed descended on Edinburgh from all corners of Scotland. With them were bands, field kitchens and banners. Each marcher had a knapsack and blanket. The goal of the marchers was to meet with Sir Godfrey Collins, Secretary of State for Scotland, to demand the abolition of the means test, increased relief for men, women and children and for work schemes to provide jobs. The city authorities made it clear the marchers were not welcome and they would provide no accommodation or food.

The march was organised by the Communist-led National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM), whose Scottish organiser was the veteran agitator, Harry McShane, but it won support from the Independent Labour Party, the trade unions and Labour Party. The Aberdeen and Dundee contingents marched south to join with the Fife contingent in Kirkcaldy. The Ayrshire contingent joined with Lanarkshire marching via Shotts and East Calder. The Renfrewshire and Dunbartonshire contingents, including a women’s section marched via Glasgow, Coatbridge, Airdrie, Bathgate, and Broxburn. The main Glasgow contingent marched to Kilsyth and Falkirk, where they joined with Stirlingshire, and onto Edinburgh via Bo’ness.

READ MORE: Video: Rare footage of Edinburgh in the 1930s

On Sunday 12 June, they joined up in Costorphine for their entry into the capital. The next day 20,000 people greeted them at the Mound. The first sign of a thaw on the part of the authorities was when the Ministries of Labour, Health and Education agreed to meet delegations of marchers. But there was still no reply from Collins. A second victory was when the police lifted a ban on street collections. But Collins refused to meet with them.

The NUWM members paraded through the royal palace of Holyrood with their band playing ‘The Internationale’ and other socialist tunes, and when the city council refused to provide accommodation their leader, Harry McShane, said they’d sleep on the pavement of Princes Street, the city’s most prestigious thoroughfare, as marcher William McVicar recalled: “I think someone offered us somewhere [to sleep] like Waverley Market or somethin’. And McShane and them wouldn’t accept that, they says, ‘No, no, we’re not going there.’ So they says, ‘Oh well, we cannae give you anything else.’ And of course he says, ‘Right we’ll sleep in Princes Street.’”

The Edinburgh Evening News reported McShane telling the marchers as they gathered on the south side of Princes Street: “So far here we are and here we stay until another decision is reached. We can breakfast, dinner or tea here, and the men require a rest. They can have that rest in Princes Street. We have decided to give them a long lie in ‘bed’ this morning.” The Edinburgh Dispatch caught the mood among the ordinary folk of Edinburgh as they made thier way along Princes Street on that first morning: “Walking along on the carriageway one heard snatches of conversation: ‘Slept well?’ ‘How did ye enjoy yer feather bed?’ ‘Did ye feel a draught coming in during the night?’”

On the first morning, women marchers blocked the tramway while men shaved using their reflections in the windows of the big department stores. Tom Ferns remembers: “And they couldnae ha’ picked a better spot than Princes Street. Under the Conservative Party headquarters, the Liberal Party headquarters and the big luxury hotels, here was hundreds and hundreds o’ angry unemployed. Obviously a sight like that is not seen every day, particularly in the capital city of Edinburgh.”

READ MORE: Astonishing press photographs capture interwar-era Edinburgh

Another marcher, James Allison, said, “the police were going mad”. Yet Edinburgh police were not keen on inciting a pitched battle as Hugh Sloan recalled: “At dinner time, our field-kitchen came along and the police chief told Harry McShane, ‘This is Princes Street, you can’t feed here.’ Harry told them, ‘It was good enough for us to sleep here, it’s good enough for us to feed here.’”

The marchers then demanded free transport home. Eventually the city’s chief constable and deputy town clerk told them they would provide transport if McShane guaranteed there would be no more marches to Edinburgh. He refused and the chief constable, worried about disturbances on the capital’s streets, backed down. Transport was then provided to take the marchers home.

On the last night, the marchers and their supporters gathered to burn an effigy of Sir Godfrey Collins before boarding buses and a final meal paid for by the city council. The march organisers refused to give a guarantee that no further hunger marchers would defile the city!

Throughout the 1930s, the unemployed protested but the NUWM also organised children’s parties in the summer and at Christmas. A number of the marchers would go on to fight in the Spanish Civil War, including the leader of the Aberdeen contingent, Bob Cooney.

The inter-war period, not just the “Hungry Thirties”, was grim in Scotland. Prior to the First World War, it had been at the cutting edge of British industry. Within a few years of the wars end the traditional industries, coal, steel and shipbuilding were in trouble. Scottish banks and companies were bought up by their bigger English rivals. Unemployment was a permanent feature, peaking in the 1930s and only ending with the demands of the Second World War.

The shale mining industry collapsed, for example, as cheap imported oil cut demand for paraffin. In December 1925, “The Scotsman” reported from Tarbrax, a shale mining village then in South Lanarkshire under the headline “Situation at Tarbrax: Faced With Starvation,” which reported: “Workers from Tarbrax, to the number of nearly 400, marched in procession to Carnwath, nearly ten miles distant, on Thursday night last for the purpose of asking poor relief. Relief under the emergency clause of the Poor Law Act, which enables people in a state of absolute destitution to get relief, has been given to a number of people in Tarbrax on the recommendation of the doctor there. A meeting of Carnwath Parish Council has been called for today to consider the whole situation.”

Starvation – it’s a strong word. My father was little over a year old when the mine at Tarbrax shut. His father would have been on that cold December march before briefly finding work at another pit nearby, then giving up and coming to Edinburgh in search of work. He was without a permanent job until the end of the 1930s.

A People’s History of Scotland by Chris Bambery is available in paperback