The Great Hair Cut Riots

While hard-nosed peace negotiations were taking place at Versailles in France at the end of the Great War. While 74 ships of the German fleet were scuttled at Scapa Flow in Scotland. While Greeks and Turks fought over territory, encouraged by Britain. While rioting by Canadian troops stationed in England and Wales resulted in brutal murder. While all this was happening in 1919, a year the world was plunged into crises – uprisings, mutinies, riots and revolution – the Spartacists in Germany, reds versus whites in Russia, rebellion against British imperialism just about everywhere – always viciously repressed – in Egypt, Malta, Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica, India – and closer to home tanks and military turning their firepower on civilians in Ireland and in Glasgow. 1919 while the world tottered on its axis Aberdeen was rocked by rioting over haircuts. It happened like this.

Frederick Street School with its rooftop playground

In 1919 young girls usually wore their hair long and loose, no less so in pockets of the city where desperate poverty meant large families lived cheek-by-jowl in tenement rooms with limited access to soap and water – cold water from a communal tap on a stair landing or outside. Never hot water on tap. These were the homes for heroes promised by Lloyd George during WWI. In 1919 seriously deprived families, their men-folk just returning (if they were lucky) from serving in one of the most horrific wars ever, were no doubt struggling to contend with adjusting to life, attempting to find work, trying to keep the wolf from the door and possibly one of the last things on their minds were nits (head lice.)

Nits are little insects that crawl from one head of hair to another. There they set up home and lay their eggs until another head of hair comes close, in which case they may decide to jump ship and infest a different head. Nits are blood-suckers. And they itch like mad. Getting from head A to head B is easier on long hair that effortlessly comes into contact with other long hair. In 1919 the Health Committee of Aberdeen Burgh Education Authority decided to tackle an outbreak of nits among school pupils with action taken in the case of schoolgirls whose parents persistently failed to take responsibility for the problem themselves. Dr George Rose, the schools medical officer took it upon himself to deal with verminous heads and if parents would not cut their child’s hair, he would arrange for it to be done.  

In fact incidence of head lice was not an enormous problem in Aberdeen and Dr Rose found only one girl with ‘filthy hair’ at the Middle School when he inspected children there in June 1919 and when an appeal to her parents was ignored the doctor took matters into his own hands. His insensitive handling of the case was misjudged. All hell broke loose.

Several pupils from the Middle School went on strike, their number boosted by youths already skiving (truanting) who when they heard of the hair-cutting incident readily joined the collective action. STRIKE was chalked over the school’s playgrounds to underline their protest. Word got out and pupils from schools across the east end joined the protesters or rioters as they were identified, mainly but not exclusively, teenage boys. They went from school to school drumming up support. More playgrounds were chalked to indicate strike in those schools and school buildings were pelted with stones. Windows were smashed; scarcely a pane of glass remained intact at the Middle School. Marywell Street and Ferryhill suffered similar attacks. Some rioters turned their attention on Union Terrace, gathering outside the education authority offices they booed their disapproval of the committee that sanctioned cutting girls’ hair. Loud protests carried on into the nights of the third week of July 1919 and there was consternation among the citizens of the town about where it would all end. The local authority fought back.

At the root of this Middle School fracas there seems to be the contempt for and insubordination to authority which are characteristics of the times among certain classes of the community.

I think the city fathers feared rebellion against authority affecting both Britain and the rest of the world that year had permeated through to the lower classes in Aberdeen. The haircut riots had become class riots. Working class parents complained of being given no or too little warning to have their girls’ hair cut and heads treated for lice while middle class critics sneered that –

The working-classes are all for State control of everything…glass was smashed because they dislike the medicine they themselves demand.

These were harsh times. A correspondent to Aberdeen Weekly Journal had little patience for treating children with kid gloves and on the subject of punishing school pupils for misbehaviour had this to say,

A few children may have died as the result of corporal punishment, but they were exceptional cases, and furnish not reason for its abolition. 

The school medical authorities justified their behaviour by pointing to powers under the Scottish Act of 1908 that enabled them to act if after 24 hours written notice to a parent to

…cleanse the child within 24 hours…[if] this notice is not complied with, the medical officer…may remove the children…and cause their persons and clothing to be cleansed.

The school strikes spread. Pupils from Skene Square school abandoned lessons and headed to the beach noisily shouting and cheering. At Frederick Street school the appearance of a nurse at a window led to a rumour that the vilified medical officer, Dr Rose, was about to wield his scissors there. In no time local mothers and children assembled by the school gates. The police were called and tried to assure them Dr Rose was not inside but the crowd were in no mood to be pacified. Missiles were thrown. A janitor was struck. At the end of the school day, at four o’clock, pupils were dismissed with no sign of Dr Rose. The crowd waited; certain the now notorious doctor would emerge. He did not.

Head lice

Some striking youths hanging about the nearby Links decided to seek out Dr Rose at his house in the city’s west end, at Rubislaw Terrace. They lined up outside it, shouting and waving union Jacks before pelting it with stones, breaking one window. When the police turned up a group of rioters disappeared round to the rear of the property where the police didn’t think to follow.  Stones rained down on a garage thought to belong to Dr Rose. It was his unfortunate neighbour who lost 19 panes of glass from his garage. From the west end they turned their attention again to Skene Square School which received volley after volley of rocks.   

One of the lads was dressed in soldier’s trousers and puttees and seemed to be in command. He was carrying a banner and shouting his orders to his ‘troops.’ He was considered a great hero that night, and imagined himself as such. His mother stated that he came home that night without his collar and tie; and thinking he had done a great thing.

Eventually the hair cut riots petered out. Then came the aftermath with punishments taking the form of the scud (the tawse or belt) or an appearance at the Children’s Court which resulted in 12 months probation for all the youths who appeared before it, for glass breaking.

Dr Rose was criticised for acting without tact over the few cases he had to deal with; one or two girls in a thousand had their hair cut by the school authorities. Just nine percent of the city’s girls had what was classified as dirty hair compared with forty percent found ten years earlier. So the problem was waning.

A proposed increase in Dr Rose’s salary was turned down by the Staffing, Salaries and Bursaries Committee and remained at £650. The doctor was backed by the BMA who said his salary should be £800, describing him as one of the best school medical officers not only in Scotland but ‘in the kingdom’ and called the local authority members who failed to support Dr Rose, ‘unfair and cowardly.’

It might be supposed Dr Rose would have decided to move on but in 1920 he was still in his position reporting on the usual childhood ailments: whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria – all on the increase. He also noted a resurgence in city children’s ‘fetish’ for sugar – which had been interrupted during the war years when supplies couldn’t get through. Schoolchildren’s teeth were in bad shape. Some schoolchildren were still verminous – from about 93 city families.

1919 the year of revolt and riot. Few protesters came out on top. Authority everywhere had come though four years of terrible bloody conflict and were in no mood to compromise although in a way Aberdeen’s school authorities did by rapping Dr Rose across the knuckles in denying him a promised salary increase and they did ensure that in future parents would be more courteously treated when asked to keep their children’s heads clean and clear of nits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: