Student mugging in the 1980s


In the early 1980s, university students comprised a small percentage of the population compared to today – and most came from fairly middle class backgrounds. There was a strong anti-student feeling in many working class areas and this could lead to conflict.

I remember local people in Liverpool referring to the Uni as the “hotel on the hill” and there was a perception that we were the gilded youth. I’m not sure things were quite as golden as the locals thought but that said, our prospects were better than the average scouser aged eighteen in 1982.

Undergraduates were beaten up and attacked. One Liverpool University student who came a cropper allowed himself to be photographed by the student paper, Guild and City Gazette, sporting two black eyes and a busted nose above the headline:

VIOLENT TIMES

This student had been set upon by ten youths aged between 18 and 21 in the Aigburth area of the city.  As the paper discovered, this was by no means an isolated case.  In the course of its investigations, a litany of robberies and attacks was uncovered.

A lecturer had been mugged outside the Roxby building with £20 stolen; a History undergraduate was knocked to the floor and £300 taken; a woman saw youths trying to steal her car and was knocked down and mugged; another lecturer had recently been beaten up in Abercromby Square in broad daylight and a ‘gang of 15 locals’ had turned up at the Brook House pub on Smithdown Road to beat up some students inside.

The University’s Security Superintendant warned that “the number of incidents of this nature is definitely on the increase”.   A University spokesman agreed that there was a trend.  “We are concerned that such attacks are becoming fashionable among teenagers in the area.”

Violent Times - a mugged student
Violent Times – a mugged student

The Deptford Fire – months before the Brixton Riots


Thirteen young people died at a house fire in Deptford, south London on 18 January, 1981. They had been at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock, aged 16. Thirteen people died in the inferno including Yvonne and her brother.

Even by the standards of the time, this was a horrific incident. And I say that because house fires claiming lives often got surprisingly little media coverage. In this case, the tone of the media commentary and the attitude of the police played into an already existing sense of grievance among many black people in south London and beyond.

It’s reasonable to say now that this house fire set in train a series of events that would lead to the riots that convulsed cities across the UK in the spring and summer of that year.

A 2001 article in The Guardian details how the police focussed on the idea of something illegal going on at the party – or possible a fight between partygoers being the root cause. In contrast, many black activists believed the fire had been an arson attack with racist motives.

In a way, the cause was overshadowed by the reaction to the event. To many black youth, it seemed that the establishment revealed its indifference. For example, there was no statement of condolence from the prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Whereas now, a tragedy like Grenfell – and similar incidents – are treated with a far greater degree of sensitivity.

Local anger resulted in a Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March, 1981 – new photographs of which were featured in a recent exhibition. It took a long route from Fordham Park in south London, through Peckham and Camberwell, on to Blackfriars and Fleet Street, then finally through the west end to Hyde Park.

Official estimates put the turnout at around 6,000 while the organisers claimed 20,000 – these kind of disparities for demo turnouts were really common at the time. The authorities always wanted to play down attendance whereas the organisers wanted to inflate the numbers. The truth was always somewhere in between.

Tragically, to this day, the cause and motive behind the fire remains a mystery.

A demonstration outside the house in Deptford