Riot: South Shields 1930: Britain’s First Race Riot

Riot: South Shields 1930: Britain’s First Race Riot

A Stage Play by Peter Mortimer with an Arabic translation by Abdulalem al-Shamery. Five Leaves Publications (info@fiveleaves.co.uk), 2008. ISBN 978-1-905512-49-2. 

This is the script of a two-act play written by Peter Mortimer in 2005 about Yemeni seamen’s experiences in South Shields, and about what is subtitled as Britain’s ‘first race riot’ in August 1930. The story of the events and Mr Mortimer’s research and development of the idea has already been told in his book Cool for Oat (2005). 

As the introduction suggests, in the current era of economic recession and islamophobia it is instructive to look back to another time when similar issues were raised, although mercifully today’s responses have been less violent. The pugilist prowess of Yussuf brings to mind that of ‘Prince’ Nassim Hamed sixty years later. While race may have played a part, it is as likely that cheaper (foreign) competition for British jobs was the underlying cause – again an issue of our times. 

The play has two main strands: the love story between Thelma and Yussuf, complicated by her father’s rejection of Yussuf;and the competition for work between English and Yemeni seamen, together with collusion between the Shipping Federation and the National Union of Seamen in favour of British seamen. The play allows reasonable exposure of the issues, although the leading role of narrator/continuity man (news vendor etc) seemed to interrupt the flow, certainly on paper. 

Riot was initially written and performed in English. Although tinged with ‘Geordie’, the text is in modern English which unsurprisingly grates slightly with the quotations from contemporary newspaper excerpts. This edition also includes a translation into Arabic by Abdulalem al-Shamery. The Arabic is a sound (also relatively formal) rendering, but the font size of the text is so small (41 pages of Arabic versus the 67 pages for the English version) that anyone trying to use it as a script may struggle. 

There are a few textual oddities which are mildly distracting. There is also a suggestion that Yemeni seamen were chewing qat in South Shields which seems improbable considering the lack of timely airfreight in the 1930s. 

Given the similarities of situation, the play provides an interesting mirror of the change in English society, particularly with the advent of the welfare state and human rights legislation. Riot is unlikely to be a West End hit, but it serves to remind us of enduring societal concerns and reactions to them. 

James Spencer

Author: 
Peter Mortimer