The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

As the level of civil disturbance rose in the 1970s, many police officers complained that too often they only had dustbin lids and traffic cones in their armoury when confronted with urban rioters. In the 1980s, this would lead to the development of the riot police we have today replete with special helmets, fire-resistant uniforms, visors, tasers, etc, etc.

Specialist rapid response units were created as early as the 1960s such as the Special Patrol Group, part of London’s Metropolitan Police. But even they lacked the riot gear we take for granted on demonstrations today. Very often, riot police went into battle on the streets with a traffic cone covering one arm and a dustbin lid in the other.

In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.

So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s.

The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. Looking back now – with our police having access to very sophisticated protection – it does look rather incongruous.

Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that prepared the ground for a police force with more riot equipment.

Battle of Lewisham

One thought on “Riot police armed with dustbin lids

  1. Paul Smith says:

    By 1980 I was living in Lewisham and the following year the NF organised a march to commemorate Lewisham’s ‘Bloody Sunday’. They were allowed to march to Catford Bridge Station, by the Police, from Sydenham! They were then put on a train back to London.

    The ANL and the SWP had organised a counter demo, but were prevented from getting close to the marchers by the Police. The whole thing went off quietly, as I recall, until it was some how decided that the counter demonstrators would then march from Catford to Lewisham!

    A wave moved down towards Lewisham Hospital and, it seemed to get faster as we moved along. The Police panicked, I could hear them talking on their radios calling for back up and asking what to do. The green buses they used at the time drove past, on the wrong side of the road and they formed a line right across the road near the entrance to the Hospital. What wasn’t known was that this line was the SPG, not the local coppers, and they started to push back towards Catford. The effect was a bit like a train running into buffers at speed as those at the demonstrators at the front hit the police line and then those behind came crashing into our backs.

    Then, the Police/SPG started breaking up and charging into us, grabbing people and using batons on some! The group I was with managed to get away, except for one. Having lost contact with him we headed for home, Camberwell, and sat beside the phone?. Several hours later a call came through to say he’d been taken to Paddington Green and later charged with threatening behaviour and assaulting a police officer. As he said later, “it’s a bit hard to assault anyone when you’ve been knee’d in the balls.”

    There were many demos and protests to go on in the Thatcher Years, this was my first and probably the hairiest?! 🙂

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