What young people were thinking in 1981


You have to try hard to remember what young people were thinking in 1979, 1980, 1981 as the UK went through the mother of all recessions. In contrast to the dreary and sullen mood now, there was a rebellious anger in those days mixed with a strong counter-culture rooted in the 70s punk movement.

Demonstrations and rallies sometimes felt like parties and none more than the Jobs Express that brought thousands of youngsters to London to vent their feelings at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

I found this newspaper article from the time in my archives and the two girls interviewed – Sheila and Becky – had very typical views of Labour trending teenagers. Get rid of the bomb – the nuclear bomb needless to say. Put the money from that into creating jobs – not in the arms industry clearly.

The government Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) was hated – after all these kids’ parents had enjoyed apprenticeships in factories. And on the subject of manufacturing, it’s interesting that Becky says Thatcher must go before she destroys BL (British Leyland – the nationalised car maker).

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 Рor 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

Was anybody on the People’s March for Jobs in the early 80s?


It all seems a long time ago now – and yet mass youth joblessness is back with us in Europe. The People’s March for Jobs in 1981 was a very big march streaming into Hyde Park and made up of many young people who had come from all over Britain. Grim economic times but a real gritty determination to fight back in those days. This leaflet may jog some memories.