AS 31 January dawned, tension hung in the damp city air. Demonstrators were gathering that Friday in George Square, as they had other days that week. Protestors were due to gather to listen to strike leaders about the latest news and, more importantly, to hear from the Lord Provost about his attempts to communicate with the government.

Some suggested the crowd may have been as large as 60,000, others even suggested that figure was higher still, though no precise tally was ever taken. Most likely, it was somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 and all agree that it was at least in that range. Significantly, however, it was growing by the minute as people were arriving to meet and await news from both their strike leaders and the Lord Provost. It wasn’t just men, but women and children who were present. A few directly through being on strike, many more simply accompanying husbands and fathers, or supporting the industrial action and wider cause.

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Compounding all that was the presence of 140 police officers lined up in two rows in front of the City Chambers. They were armed with batons and were mostly facing the backs of demonstrators who were listening to speakers or otherwise engaging in events in the square. Police horses were also located at the back of the City Chambers, along with other officers, on hand and ready for any increased threat to civil order. With trams passing and other vehicles moving on the road between the square and the city buildings, space was limited as the area became congested. Tempers were growing short, and both police and strikers were on edge.

Within the City Chambers itself, a deputation from the workers was waiting to meet with the Lord Provost. Those attending included Manny Shinwell, David Kirkwood and Neil Maclean, the newly elected Govan MP. John Wheatley was also present, but as a councillor, and although in the building anyway, he no doubt intended to lend his support to the strikers. For the authorities, the Lord Provost was joined in the City Chambers by the Sheriff of Lanarkshire (which then included the city of Glasgow) and the chief constable of the city police force, who was located outside the building with his men.

Then, through the growing tumult, a tramcar quietly turned into George Square. It was just one of many seeking to work its way through the milling crowds. But suddenly, a striker on board the trolley pulled the cord disconnecting the cable that powered it. Why he did so or even who he was is not known. It may have been frustration at the trams still running or just a desire to alight at that spot. But, stop it did, and that led to a fight in the tramcar between him and an off-duty soldier also seated there. The punch-up that followed between them quickly spilled out onto the street where others became embroiled. This was what sparked the riot and the events that became known as Bloody Friday, the Battle of George Square.

Just who struck the first blow after the incident on the tramcar, or what precisely happened is hard to be truly certain of. Months later at the subsequent trial, two quite separate versions were given of the same event when witnesses from both sides testified. Police claimed that they were required to intercede with batons drawn to allow tramcars to move as the crowd surrounded them, and that missiles had then rained down upon them. Whilst strikers claimed that they were charged indiscriminately by baton-wielding officers who responded to an order to attack. In truth, it was probably a mixture of both, though the reality was probably much closer to the version of the strikers.

THE windows of the municipal building lying directly behind the lines of police officers weren’t broken, despite being large and running the full length of the Square. Nor were four ornate lampposts that stand in front of the building itself – each with seven globes arching out from them. They would have been hard to miss for a mob throwing missiles indiscriminately, if it had been as was suggested.

The order came for officers to move against the crowd. No attempt seems to have been made to call the crowd to order or simply push them back from the tramcars using their physical presence and lawful authority. Instead, officers wielding batons steamed into strikers irrespective of whether they had been blocking vehicles or not, charging at the crowd in front of or facing them, and clubbing them seemingly at random and without warning.

Initially, total disarray occurred, with heads cracking and men and women running every which way, many having been caught entirely unawares. Police batons were made of solid wood, and when struck down they caused considerable injury.

The blood began to flow from wounds to heads as the police moved across the square, striking out indiscriminately at those in their way or simply beating those within range. A woman was seen on the ground with a boot mark on her face from an officer either kicking or trampling on her, and men lay dazed on the ground with blood streaming from their wounds. However, soon the tide began to turn as the crowd steadied, partly through so many standing at the far side and partly through a growing anger and determination to fight back. The police surge ceased and officers sought to regroup, possibly because of the sheer size of the crowd, a wariness about venturing too far into it, or perhaps even exhaustion.

Initially, men began striking out at officers with their feet and fists. Turf was then gathered up from the gardens in the square by others and flung at the lines of officers, along with whatever other missiles could be acquired or were just lying about. It has also been suggested that even iron railings surrounding the grassy areas of the Square were ripped out and hurled at the lines of police, as the crowd mobilised for a counter-attack. The maelstrom continued, with police striking men and individual confrontations between police and strikers taking place across the east and centre of the Square. What had started with one punch was now descending into a major riot.

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Leaders and organisers on both sides sought to try to rally their men and bring order to the chaos. (Strike leader) Willie Gallacher jumped from the plinth, having realised what was happening as the crowd surged past him pursued by baton-wielding officers. He ran towards the chief constable, who had followed his men and was soon approaching the centre of the square where his men were headed. As he approached the chief constable, officers were striking out indiscriminately and, as he admitted in his memoirs, he became angered. Accordingly, he let fly with his fists and the surrounding officers sought to protect their chief. Gallacher attempted to punch the senior officer, and in his biography talked of landing an uppercut on the chief constable.

TRUNCHEONS seemed set to batter him senseless when a comrade dived on top of Gallacher to protect him from further blows that were raining down. The striker who had flung himself on him took the full impact, saving Gallacher from more serious injury. He was Neil Alexander, who, as well as being bludgeoned that day, would soon find himself arrested and in the dock alongside the man he saved.

Those in the Chambers up above – including the deputation from the strikers waiting to see the Lord Provost – had rushed to look out and saw battle raging in the square below and were horrified at what they saw. Immediately they rushed down the stairs and out of the buildings, anxious to see what they could do to protect comrades and restore calm. Rather than succeeding in defusing the situation, they simply ran into the eye of the storm themselves. David Kirkwood was first out and was half way across the road in front of the Chambers when he saw a bloodied and beaten Gallacher being dragged away by officers. He sought to object to what was happening to his colleague, but before he could make any protest he was struck by a police sergeant, and was knocked unconscious.

POLICE horses that had been at the back of the building were brought round to be used as a form of cavalry in the pandemonium that was playing out. Their size and weight were intimidating, as they sought to force their way through. Whilst other such disturbances in Glasgow and elsewhere had been speedily resolved simply by their appearance, with the size of this crowd there was limited room for them to manoeuvre. As police were pushed back by the volume of people in the square (never mind the hail of missiles that were unleashed), the space for horses was limited. It seems that they failed to have the usual deterrent effect and their riders suffered the same torrent of missiles that their colleagues on foot also sustained. The battlefield carnage accumulated as bodies lay all around, some wounded and others exhausted. Fights continued and blood, glass and objects were strewn about.

Others, as well as the strikers’ deputation, had come out from the (City Chambers) when they saw the melee. They included the Sheriff of Lanarkshire, who appeared to quickly converse with the chief constable about the gravity of the situation that was unfolding. Fearing that control was being lost, he decided to read the Riot Act.

Given the circumstances in which it could plausibly be applied and the draconian powers it unleashed, it was rarely used. But its use in twentieth-century Glasgow proves the panic felt by the authorities as they lay besieged in the City Chambers. Despite the sheriff reading – or attempting to read – the Riot Act, the forces of law and order were losing control and police casualties were rising. Initially it had been noticeable that the bulk of the injured were strikers, but as that began to change a sense of foreboding grew for the authorities, as they realised they faced being overwhelmed. The sheriff accordingly put in a telephone call for military assistance.