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24 September 2014
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A protester being led away by police South Shields has always had a sizeable Arab community dating back to the 1890s. We explore how tensions in the town led to two race riots in 1919 and 1930.

The Yemeni race riots were remarkable events in the history of South Shields. The fuse which finally triggered both riots was a dispute over work and working conditions.

The story of the Yemeni riots begins at the end of the 19th century when seamen from Yemen settled in the town in the 1890s.

The Yemeni had left their own country to seek work on British ships that passed through the colony of Aden.

For many, their journey eventually led them to North East England.

Early Settlers

Once ashore in South Shields, the Yemeni often had trouble finding accommodation due to racial discrimination.

Yemini men in South Shields
Local Yemeni residents were proud of their traditions

As a result, Ali Said opened the first Arab Seaman's Boarding House in August 1909 in the Holborn riverside district of South Shields.

The Yemeni community generally kept to themselves but the First World War was to change all that.

Manpower shortages in the navy led the government to encourage Yemeni men into the country. By the end of the war the Yemeni community in South Shields numbered 3,000.

The end of war saw the start of a campaign of racial violence and discrimination designed to drive Arabs out of the town.

It culminated in a dispute over jobs which sparked the first Yemeni riot in February 1919 when hundreds of white seamen clashed with Arabs at Mill Dam. Eight Arabs were sent to prison for their part in the riot.

Unprovoked attacks on Yemenis continued into the 1920s and many lived in fear of their lives.

In one vicious attack, an Arab boarding house was attacked and looted by a mob of white residents.

The 1930 Yemeni Riot

In 1930 a dispute broke out over working practices which the Yemeni seamen felt to be discriminatory.

Protester being led away by police
Police lead away one of the Yemeni protestors

Fuelled by racial insults from a white worker called Hamilton, the dispute provoked another violent riot at Mill Dam in South Shields.

This time the police dealt harshly with the Arabs, using their batons on them, and attacking the men with force.

Fifteen Arabs were jailed and deported for their part in the riot including Ali Said who had spoken out about injustices but hadn't actually taken part in the riot itself.

The riot left a deep and lasting impression on the Arab community, and many were left shattered and impoverished.

"Since it is seems impossible to send these people home, the next best thing is to segregate them," said the Editor of the Shieldsman.

In response to criticism, an Arab, Hassan Mohamed, wrote the following letter to the Evening Chronicle on Christmas Eve in 1931.

"I do not think the public know the extent to which the Arabs are suffering. Many have to pawn clothing and other personal belongings to buy food."

"There are scores of Arabs in Holborn who are living on one meal a day... they only want a chance to earn a living and believe that they only have the British flag behind them."

After the Riots

Police at Mill Dam
The local paper reported 'a seething mass of fighting Arabs and police'

The Yemeni community continued to experience prejudice and discrimination well into the 1930s.

Many had married local women, and this also outraged some white residents.

Eventually segregation plans were put into action by the council.

A small council estate was built in Holborn, and the houses were rented out exclusively to the Arab community.

By the Second World War and the 1940s, attitudes became more relaxed towards the Yemeni.

The Arabs started to generate some support amongst the white community, and the papers began to print more sympathetic articles.

Even today, there remains a small Arab population in South Shields.

Many families still have the memories of their forefathers and can recall this hidden moment in Tyneside history.

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