John Gibson (1887-1980): Politics & Protest [Part Two] – Writing Lives

John Gibson (1887-1980): Politics & Protest [Part Two]

John was involved in left-wing politics during a particularly divisive time, with a number of the figures discussed in part one of Politics & Protest facing arrest at least once in their careers. Whilst part one discussed John’s relationship with these fellow activists, part two will focus primarily on the infamous ‘“Battle of George Square”’ (Cameron, 1994) that took place in 1919, an event that encapsulated the divisiveness of this period. John himself was present for this significant piece of British history, and he offers a detailed eyewitness account of proceedings.

Visual representation of the labour movement during the 20th century, including some of its key figures.

A day of strike action had preceded the violence in Glasgow, as ‘all work was stopped…it was silent’ (4). The Red Clydeside movement during this time had inspired ‘working class people…to organise themselves to fight for a share of the vast profits they were making for their employers’ (Cameron, 1994), leading to increased demonstrations and direct action. Local workers were ‘paid poverty wages and were forced to live in overcrowded squalor’ (Ibid), as ‘employers…had used the arrival of hundreds of war workers in the city to raise rents and reduce wages (Todd, 2015, 33).

For the working class, this was the legacy of the war, and there existed a ‘deep resentment at the coalition government’s call for a “national” effort to win the war which, in reality, seemed to cost ordinary workers far more dearly than industrialists and property magnates’ (Ibid, 34). Tensions were clearly rising. The poor treatment of workers, coupled with the government’s paranoia surrounding another ‘“Bolshevist uprising”’ (Cameron, 1994), meant that the possibility of demonstrations in George Square descending into violence was almost a certainty.

‘George Square was packed, side by side…you couldn’t scratch your nose, if you wanted to’ (4). John had volunteered as a newspaper vendor, and so was in the square selling various socialist publications when the violence began. John recalls seeing ‘somebody…pulling this policeman off his horse’ (4), an act that was the catalyst for said violence. Whilst the culprit may well have been a demonstrator angered by the presence of the police, John suggests the possibility of an ‘agent provocateur’ (4) at work, one who wished to see the peaceful demonstration turn ugly.

‘The riot started there’ (4). One single act was all it took for the square to erupt. From here, John describes the sheer brutality of the police, pillars of the establishment, demonstrating their disdain for the working-class and their hopes for improved rights. ‘We couldn’t move but the police just attacked…They used truncheons…they were making for the people they knew were the leaders’ (4). This decision showed they were clearly threatened by the leading figures of the labour movement, attempting to undermine it by depriving it of its leadership. However, John recounts the heroic behaviour of a fellow demonstrator in attempting to protect one of the movement’s leaders.

Abstract depiction of a protest.

Having already ‘bashed [David] Kirkwood’, whose ‘head was bandaged’, the police then ‘made for [William] Gallagher [sic]’ (4). The officer ‘had his baton raised…[but] Gallagher had his stick up and all…he’d fight’ (4). Although John ‘didn’t see him get hit…I seen him go down’ (4). Not content with simply knocking him to the ground, the ‘policeman come over and he had his baton ready to hit Gallagher’ (4) again, whilst he was injured and defenceless. However, showing tremendous bravery and in the nick of time as far as Gallacher was concerned, ‘there was a young feller [sic] on his right hand side [who] flung himself on top a [sic] Gallagher, and saved him’ (4).

‘The Police had anticipated that their baton charge would drive the crowd out of the square’ (Cameron, 1994). However, due to the courage of demonstrators such as the ‘young feller’ (4) who saved Gallacher, ‘not only did the strikers and their supporters stand their ground but [they] drove the police back’ (Ibid). The fighting spilled out onto Glasgow Green, where ‘fellers had run down…[and] hauled up the steel railings, to use as spears’ (4). John remembers the violence ‘went on all night’ (5), later taking the form of looting and vandalism.

Image highlighting the military response to the violence, with tanks and armed soldiers being deployed to George Square.

Whilst not supporting the violence of his fellow protestors, John clearly felt the military response to be disproportionate, revealing much about the government’s attitude to the working-class. ‘They brought up tanks…and soldiers with guns stood outside the Post Office’ (5). This does appear to be quite a drastic escalation, running the risk of further violence rather than attempting to calm the situation down. John scathingly refers to those involved with the deployment of armed forces as ‘Christians…who would rather take life than preserve it’ (5), highlighting the hypocrisy of some of these men.

These scenes did not take place without consequences of course. Many of the demonstrators were arrested, including a number of socialist leaders. ‘Among those convicted was the Labour activist Emanuel Shinwell [‘Old Shinwell’ (4)]’ (Todd, 2015, 33), with ‘Willie Gallacher and David Kirkwood…[also] arrested’ (Cameron 1994). The sentences were harsh. Shinwell ‘received five months’ imprisonment for incitement to riot [whilst] William Gallacher served three months on the same charge’ (Todd, 2015, 33). Gibson’s colleagues, whom according to his account had been victims of police brutality rather than perpetrators of violence, had been punished for the actions of a minority in attendance.

John Gibson’s in-depth recollections of what occurred on that infamous day in 1919 place us directly at the heart of the drama during an important part of British political history. His account, transcribed in an almost stream of consciousness, exposes the brutality of the during the ‘“Battle of George Square”’ (Cameron, 1994), as well as the bravery of some of the strikers who attempted to shield their comrades from danger.


Cameron, Jim. Red Flag Over the Clyde. Scottish Militant Labour, 1994.
3:O232  GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Todd, Selina. The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. London: John Murray, 2015.

Image of tanks in George Square –
Labour movement painting –
‘Protest’ painting –

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