1981 Manchester riot with police station surrounded


Manchester riot
The most violent night in the Moss Side riot

July was the month of riots in 1981 and they came thick and fast from Toxteth, a re-ignited Brixton (which had already rioted in April), Southall and mini-riots from Coventry to Leicester and some very unlikely places like Chigwell in Essex!

The Manchester riot was particularly vicious. I remember driving through Moss Side – having been on a canal trip! It was just after the violence had died down and there was evidence of the destruction everywhere. And a very eerie atmosphere.

Read the Wikipedia entry on the 1981 Moss Side Riot and it could easily be an article in a police magazine. The community leaders failed to stop the youth taking to the streets (as if they had any real power to stop them) and Chief Constable James Anderton was lauded by one and all for his tough measures including driving police vans directly at the rioters (similar tactic resulted in one death in Toxteth) and snatch squads then pouncing on rioters.

In truth, Anderton – who famously brought his religious views very publicly into his work – came under a hail of criticism from both the left and even other police chiefs. His approach was seen as abrasive and antagonistic. Undoubtedly he thought that was just what the situation needed.

The most memorable and chilling moment of the riot was when a police station was surrounded and among the weapons used were garden tools and a crossbow!

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