In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:
The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps. The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.
The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”. Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.
As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.
The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury. There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.
Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am. After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened. His full report was only made public three decades later.
A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution. However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.
On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched. In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.
There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.
But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit. He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.
The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s. The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth. In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.
The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation. But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.
In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival had ended in violence. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse.
In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters. Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.
“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife. She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”
Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative. The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.
But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn. The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.
Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing. What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.
The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets. Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.
One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.
“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”
The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody. But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run. All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.
Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up. Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’. And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”
As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence. There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields. Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.
But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused. They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.
The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.
“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers. Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles. But suddenly things changed dramatically.
The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions. The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.
Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.
“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”
Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone. After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.
Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles. Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.
The media would not be disappointed. All hell duly broke loose in 1977 with a distinctly unpleasant bust up between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road. The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.
Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well. Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.
The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts. Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.
Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.
The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.
“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”
The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.
“War Cry! The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”
On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs. This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.
In July, 1981, David Moore was killed during the Toxteth riots. A disabled man, he was one of a small number of fatalities during that year’s summer of violence. Using several sources from the time, I’ve pieced together his story. It’s a unique insight into the stormy events of the summer of 1981:
As a baby, Liverpool born David Moore developed the condition enteritis – an inflammation of the small intestine normally caused by ingesting something contaminated. He wasn’t expected to live but somehow managed to pull through. In many ways this early brush with death presaged what was to come in his short, unhappy life.
At eight years of age, David was waiting at a bus stop in the Dingle area, where he came from. The Dingle was in the ‘South End’ of the city, cheek by jowl with neighbourhoods in Liverpool 8 where most of Liverpool’s black population lived. Together with the grand villas circling Sefton Park, a vast green space created by philanthropic Victorians, this area comprised a district called Toxteth.
As David waited for the bus, some girls were messing around on the pavement nearby. An outwardly anxious boy, he might have been a target of their ridicule or else the misfortune that now befell him could just have been a random accident. David was shoved by one of the girls and fell in to the path of the oncoming green and yellow double decker.
His right leg was crushed under its wheels and with it any hope of leading the semblance of a normal, cheerful life. In the years that followed, he would have to endure one hospital appointment after another involving corrective surgery and physio. The efforts of medical staff could not prevent David walking the rest of his days with a pronounced limp. Friends even noted his left foot always seemed to point downwards as if he was forced to walk on his toes.
Clearly this meant he couldn’t move all that quickly.
“In fact,” his brother in law John Flynn would note, “I hardly ever remember him running.”
Compounding his physical problems was his inability to learn quickly. With a crushed self-esteem, it was hardly surprising that David did not achieve academically. Sent to Dingle Lane Special School, he became something of a loner without friends. Unable to socialise successfully, he would slink off home and play with his toys hiding away the lame leg that caused him so much shame.
Desperate for some social acceptance, he found himself as a teenager trying to impress other youths with acts of idiotic bravado. It made him feel ‘big’ when he came to the attention of the police and he hoped it would make the street gangs like and even respect him a bit.
“He was really like the story book child,” his mother Agnes said, “when he was good, he was very good. But when he was bad, he was up to all kinds of mischief. But there was no badness in the boy.”
As both the port and factories shed jobs in the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, David would have considered himself lucky to have a job in the council’s parks and gardens department. Then, and even more so now, the public sector was a major employer in the city and the ‘Corpy’ – city corporation – was a lifeline to thousands of Merseyside families.
David earned around £50 a week, a king’s ransom compared to being on the dole. He’d give his mum about £30 of that sum to cover his living costs and help with her budgeting. When the parks and gardens job came to an end, he tried his hand on building sites but not being physically strong meant his time as a ‘brickie’ was short lived.
Increasingly, David was consigned to ever-longer periods on the dole queue along with most of his age group. Being without work was becoming the norm whether you were a black youth in Liverpool 8 or a white working class kid in the neighbouring Dingle. In a 1983 parliamentary response to a question from a Merseyside MP, the secretary of state for employment Peter Morrison made it clear that state intervention was no longer considered an answer to chronic levels of unemployment.
“Jobs will come to Merseyside when companies produce goods which customers will buy. I have great confidence that the people of Merseyside will rise to this challenge.”
While on the dole, David halved the amount he gave to his mum so now she got £15 a week. Always keen to make money in any way he could, David would go door to door asking people if they wanted their hedges cut or windows cleaned but the sight of this awkward looking young man led to the door being shut more often than not.
One usual routine he had was to visit his eighty one year old Auntie Ann. She lived on the second floor of a block of flats in Speke, quite a way out of the city centre. Mrs Ann Green wasn’t David’s real aunt but a companion he had made who he called his ‘auntie’. It didn’t really matter to the young man whether she was formally a member of his family or not.
Like so many who had been forced to fill in Unemployment Benefit Form 40, David was bored stupid without work and any friendly and chatty company was sought out and nurtured. For the past three years, he had brought Auntie Ann Christmas and birthday presents and in between time, just watched the TV at her house exchanging small talk.
David had redecorated the chimney breast in the living room and the two had agreed that if she could get her hands on some paint, they would do up the bathroom together. If necessary, he could stay overnight in the room he slept in most Sunday nights as part of a routine that had developed. This small space with the posters he put up on the walls was a refuge in to which he could retreat from the outside world.
But on one fateful weekend, he decided not to make his usual stay and instead to go back home to his mum. It might have been the reports of rioting in Liverpool that on the local TV news that made him want to return. So leaving the small, elderly lady, they shared one last joke then he turned away.
“I’ll see you on Sunday Auntie Ann.”
The violence between youth and police, or “bizzies” in the local Scouse slang, had already been going on for three weeks – an unprecedented period of disorder not seen elsewhere, even in Brixton. The epicentre of the trouble was Upper Parliament Street – or the “Parli”. This was a haunting Victorian boulevard lined with chunky bourgeois properties that were either derelict or subdivided in to bedsits and student digs. It still has a vibe to me of Malcolm X Boulevard, the long nineteenth century street that links Harlem to Central Park in New York. Unlike Brixton, Toxteth had wide streets and grassed open spaces that meant the riots were spread over a bigger area, were harder to contain and resembling something approaching a battle.
The Parli was the heart of the city’s black community, a long-standing neighbourhood with a large mixed race element that seemed strangely divorced from the rest of the city. Only a short bus ride from Upper Parliament Street brought you in to the University precinct or down in to the main shopping area of Liverpool. Yet as a Londoner arriving as a student in Liverpool in 1981, I was immediately struck by how few black faces I saw in the town centre or in bars and clubs.
Official figures confirm that out of 22,000 people working for Liverpool City Council at the time of the riots, only 169 were black. It was estimated that unemployment was running at something like 60% in the black community and in areas where blacks had been employed elsewhere in the UK, like public transport, there was hardly a black face to be seen. In Liverpool’s schools, only two governors were black and poor academic performance was endemic.
April of 1981 saw an anti-crime police drive in Brixton, south London – Operation Swamp – ignite several nights of violence. Three months later, on Friday 3rd July, it would take the arrest by police of 20 year old Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Shelbourne Street in Toxteth to provide the spark for a riot that would match Brixton in scale and intensity. The youth had been chased on a motorbike and fallen off as the police caught up with him. As they tried to question the young man, a small crowd pulled him away and tempers quickly heated. He was later arrested and appeared in court charged with wounding with intent to harm three police officers.
The first night involved scuffles, an arrest and some injuries on both sides but after this Toxteth simmered with a glowering rage. On the following night, an anonymous caller to the police reported a stolen car and officers who went to investigate were pelted with bricks and stones. This was the first skirmish of what would be a very long night of violence.
Eyewitness accounts from the time described a dairy and a car hire shop at the top of Upper Parliament Street providing a fortuitous combination for the rioters. A group of youths took the milk bottles from the dairy and filled them with petrol from the car hire outlet. The police line that was attempting to advance up Parli suddenly found itself at the receiving end of blazing Molotov cocktails.
Worse was to come as the actual hire cars were enlisted for use against the police line. Rather like the game of dare with stolen cars in the 1950s movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, youths jammed the accelerators with bricks then drove at pull speed towards the police jumping out before impact. “The police scattered like flies each time a driverless car screeched down at them,” an eye-witness later said. One press report called the action a wild “dodgem game”.
A police officer remembered one car “hit a lamp-post and burst in to flames. If it had stayed on course, it could have killed someone.” But it wasn’t just the cars that were hurtling towards the police line. The Daily Express, in its coverage that weekend, claimed that twelve milk floats from the dairy were driven in a similar manner while two hundred youths built barricades of flaming car tyres sending a pall of smoke rising high above Liverpool.
“There was a hail of missiles,” Constable Chris Gregory, as he then was, recalled, “We were asked to go forward. It took us all our time to hold the thin blue line and protect ourselves. It was like Belfast.”
One witness saw a JCB digger used as a “tank” with Molotov cocktail wielding rioters edging gingerly behind it until they were close enough to throw their missiles with deadly effect. The JCB would then retreat before another onslaught. It was also alleged that the heavy-duty vehicle was used to take chunks out of buildings, accounting for a small number of the two hundred properties that would be razed to the ground or burnt down in the days of rioting ahead.
Kenneth Oxford, the even more dour than usual Chief Constable of Merseyside, called on forces in Cheshire and Lancashire to come to his assistance. Ironically, finding common cause with many of the political Left, Oxford dismissed claims that the disturbances were a race riot. But that’s where the overlap in analysis abruptly ended. For the Left, it was proof that growing unemployment had driven the youth to the streets. To Ken Oxford, there was a wholly different reason.
“The situation is anti-discipline and anti-authority. It is the action of a band of hooligans who do not want to live in a civilised society.” Oxford denied claims that police had harassed local black youth and, as with similar allegations made against police in Brixton, that he had deluged the area with officers in the run up to the violence.
But local activist John Arboin of the Jamaica House community group countered that the growing police presence in the area had been seen as a provocation. With very poor relations between the forces of law and order and the people of Toxteth, this could only be seen as an act of aggression. “There was nothing going on,” Arboin said, “People were ringing up asking for them to be withdrawn.”
One of those officers drafted in by Oxford came from across the Mersey, picked up by a police van trawling for as many officers as could be mustered at speed. Jeff Ashcroft was from Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula, a part of Merseyside that had always slightly resented being carved out of more posh Cheshire when the metropolitan county was created. Ashcroft was looking forward to a “cold pint of bitter” after a day shift but now found himself driven to the Parli.
“We could hear this strange animal-like howling mixed with the sound of breaking glass. In hurried amazement and fear we lined up and were quickly given a riot shield, something I’d only seen before on the news from Belfast. Following a very nervous sergeant, we walked around the corner into hell.”
What he saw was the line of police officers and beyond that, the fires beyond. Then he clapped eyes on his first Molotov cocktail.
“Like a small meteorite, I watched in awe as it arced down over the tops of the officers, to fall with a smash and flash of fire onto the street between them and me.”
He was then told that he and his colleagues had been brought in to relieve those on the front line. His “stupid little plastic face guard” gave no protection from the missiles that rained down including stones and bits of iron railing. There was no shortage of iron railings in an area clogged with grand old Victorian houses.
During the fracas, there seemed to be a breakdown in command as dawn broke and Ashcroft claimed the officers ignored orders to hold the line. Instead, instinctively and fed up, they drew their batons and charged – some throwing away their shields as they made for the rioters. By 7am, something resembling order had been achieved amid the smoking ruins and debris.
Withdrawal was not an option for Oxford. Sunday saw no let up in the action and by 2am on Monday morning, there were so many fires burning that a police spokesman said it was as “bright as day”. 140 police had now been injured with one “speared” in the head by a railing used as a javelin at the police line.
Sunday night to Monday morning was arguably the worst night thus far. The Racquet Club, an anachronistic relic from the area’s more salubrious past, went up in flames but the inferno threatened the Princes Park Geriatric Hospital whose patients were still within the building. Ambulance workers appealed to the rioters for a halt while they ferried out the elderly occupants, one ambulance at a time.
It was during this break in the action that Oxford made a momentous decision. In his subsequent report, the Chief Constable wrote that “the single offensive tactic we possessed, the baton charge, proved increasingly ineffective”. He now gave the order to use CS gas – the first time this had been deployed in mainland Britain. The New Statesman claimed nearly a fortnight later that a total of fifty-nine gas projectiles were fired in to the crowd to disperse them.
I can remember people telling me that they were in local drinking clubs in the small hours of Monday morning when CS gas wafted in from outside and left everybody choking. One story had it that a canister rolled through a grate and in to a basement club clearing the place. Obviously, all these anecdotes have to be taken with a requisite pinch of salt but nobody doubts that the air of Toxteth reeked of a foul smelling, choking gas.
The fear that Oxford claimed motivated his decision was the fact that Upper Parliament Street was a thoroughfare that led directly to the heart of the city. The rioters could not be allowed to break out of Liverpool 8 and in to Liverpool’s commercial heart.
But the Home Office authorised use of CS gas specifically to flush out armed gunmen, not as in this case to be directed at a crowd. Civil liberties campaigners, the New Statesman and Labour politicians, made this point in the days of heated debate that followed. Oxford countered that the canisters had been fired at walls and other objects like cars and anybody injured had been the unintended victim of a ricocheting canister. If this was the case then Phil Robins was spectacularly unlucky in that he was hit twice, in the chest and back, with one wound the size of an “egg shaped hole”.
The first night of the Toxteth riot coincided with a pitched battle between skinheads and Asian youth in the Southall district of London. After the first weekend of chaos in Liverpool, the Moss Side area of Manchester obligingly erupted with a one thousand strong mob surrounding a police station. From there, it was one so-called “copycat” riot after another across the country.
In Liverpool, a furniture warehouse owned by a former Conservative councillor went up in flames while more discerning rioters, according to the Conservative MP for suburban Wavertree Anthony Steen, even looted works of art. Steen’s local association operated a tea and coffee house called Thatcher’s that had all its windows smashed at a cost of £800 to replace. I recall this tea house being picketed by young Labour Party members in Thatcher masks to the consternation of the blue-rinse ladies within.
Having left his Auntie Ann in Speke, David felt he better check in on his sister Morag and her husband, John Flynn, as the riots had been happening very close to where they lived. All this talk on the TV of clashes on the streets made him extremely nervous. David was prone to bouts of anxiety and chewed his fingernails to the bone. To calm himself, David had a few drinks in the pub before knocking on Morag’s door.
He eventually got to John and Morag’s flat and watched the telly for a while with them. He then left but barely quarter of an hour later there was an insistent knocking at the front with David asking to be let back in. There had been trouble in the Grove Street area and he wanted to be accompanied to the bus stop.
David might just have been thrown off balance after finding out that his usual bus, the 72, had been re-routed away from the northern side of Upper Parliament Street and towards Smithdown Road and Lodge Lane. In order to get the right bus, it would have been more judicious to walk towards the city centre and away from the rioters but unknowingly, he and John decided to find a stop still in use on the Smithdown Road.
As the two men walked briskly past a new housing development, the land rose slightly in to a small grassed over hill. These patches of green masked an absence of houses either bombed away by the Luftwaffe or fallen victim to post-war town planners.
It was on this mound that a terrifying vision presented itself. First there was the sound of missiles thudding off the side of police vans and Molotov cocktails being thrown and exploding on impact. Cries of ‘Get Them!’ coming from either rioters or police, it was hard to tell.
A dark blue police van was engaging in a familiar riot control tactic of charging the demonstrators to disperse them. As it sped forward, the rioters bolted directly towards David and John. The expressions on their faces were full of anger and the two men froze in the face of the oncoming spectacle.
As the crowd overwhelmed them, they were separated with David trying to run but it was more of a pathetic hopping movement. John stayed on the grassy hill to avoid the police van but David craved the flat pavement where he could find his balance more easily.
John thought he heard David call to him as the van moved in the disabled man’s direction. With headlights full on and hovering between the grass and pavement, the vehicle was moving in David’s ill-chosen spot. All around, rioters were frantically climbing fences in to the housing estate to get away.
“I heard a sound like a soggy thump,” John would later recount.
As if in a bad dream, John moved towards the small crowd that had formed on the pavement and looked down. Four times, he claimed, he stared towards the prone figure but only on the fifth occasion could he assure himself that it was David.
The left side of his face was swollen and a gash had opened up on the right side leaving large fingers of blood streaked across his face. John tried to make sense of the contorted pattern on his brother-in-law’s neck before realising they were tyre marks.
Local Labour councillor Pauline Dunlop crouched over David in a scene that had an almost Pieta-like pathos. Captured on camera, Pauline looked in to the lens with a blank despair, recognising that very little could be done for the youth at her feet.
“He was unconscious and then regained consciousness for a few minutes before he went in the ambulance. He just said that his leg hurt, that he didn’t want this to happen, that he was not doing anything.”
Accounts of what had actually happened to David were embroidered with every telling. The most reliably witnesses saw him hit once at speed by the van. But that didn’t stop one teenager telling a journalist a more gruesome and widely circulating story.
“My mate seen it with his own eyes. The van ran over him once and then reversed and ran over him again on purpose.”
David’s mum was at home watching the TV when a firm knock came at the front door. The police officer found it almost impossible to relay the true situation and fumbled for a line about David being slightly injured and could Agnes Moore, known to her friends as ‘Nance’, ring the hospital to see if her son was being discharged soon.
Incredibly David was still alive and in great pain but his condition was extremely grave. As Charles and Diana processed down the aisle of Saint Paul’s cathedral in front of a global TV audience of 750 million, the most watched programme ever, Britons enjoyed a public holiday to mark the occasion.
The comedy team from the BBC’s ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ produced a pretty tame spoof souvenir programme called ‘Not the Royal Wedding’ with Griff Rhys Jones in drag as an unlikely Lady Di and Rowan Atkinson as Prince Charles. But most commentary was unreservedly glowing for the first marriage of a Prince of Wales since 1863. The multi-thousand guest list brought together the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with comedian Spike Milligan and Nancy Reagan, wife of the US president in what was undeniably a glittering occasion.
For Agnes Moore though, the day brought the untimely death of her son. As news of this swept through Liverpool 8, youths gathered on street corners with renewed intent. Once again, the air filled with petrol bombs, stones and pieces of wood hailing down on police lines in what was to be the most severe outbreak of rioting since the first weekend in July.
Those who had seen David’s fatal accident didn’t seem to know what to make of it with 59 year old Lillian Pearse, a resident on St Nathaniel Street saying that the driver must have known he’d hit David but just drove on “at a hell of a speed”.
“If this lad had run away with the others down an alleyway he would have been all right.”
Ken Oxford, clearly stung by criticism of his previous tactics, pointed out that the tactic of driving at rioters, something he readily admitted was done, had to be preferable to using CS gas. “I would much rather use this form of dispersal,” he added.
David had the posthumous distinction of edging the Royal Wedding to one half of the front page of the Daily Post, Merseyside’s other main newspaper. “In Love” was proclaimed in bold, large type above an image of Charles and Diana kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. But next to the fairy tale romance was a smudgy image of David with the more sober warning “New Riot fears as man dies”.
For David’s mother, his passing away proved to be yet another hammer blow on top of so many that she had endured. Just two years earlier, her oldest son Malcolm had died at just 24 years of age of a sudden inflammation of the brain. He had been serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland, a familiar route out of dole misery for many working class boys.
In December, 1980, her husband had suffered a fatal heart attack while working as an engineer for the state run rail network, British Rail. And now, only seven months later – Agnes had to take on board the loss of David. The boy she had always enjoyed a close bond with as the weakest child of seven who needed that much more love and care.
For Auntie Ann, the pain was unbearable.
“My nerves just went. I went a bit hysterical then. I was screaming, top note. I’m sure the neighbours must have thought I’d hurt myself.”
For the rest of her life, Ann kept the bedroom that David slept in most Sunday nights as a kind of shrine. Agnes, meanwhile, got in to spiritualism having been informed by a medium that her disabled son was sitting in a chair in the house trying to speak to her. One of the last gifts David had given his mum was a yucca plant.
“It’s growing like anything,” she said admiringly, “he must come down and see to it himself.”
In April, 1981, Brixton exploded into a fury of rioting, which then abated. But this would prove to be a lull in the storm. Because when the summer came, city after city across Britain went up in flames. The two most violent disturbances were again in Brixton and in the Toxteth district of Liverpool. But there were highly charged nights of violence in the Moss Side area of Manchester, Southall in west London and smaller upheavals in cities like Coventry, Leicester and Leeds.
What’s emerged this year in released files is that Thatcher was looking to arm the police – particularly, it turns out, because she was concerned about security at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The wedding went ahead as planned that year but by one of those cruel ironies, the only protestor to die in the Toxteth riot – passed away on the same day that Charles and Di swapped their vows.
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 strange 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!
Something had to be done about Liverpool as riots continued in the summer of 1981 and it was Environment Minister Michael Heseltine who became de facto Minister for Merseyside. Making a beeline for the city, his arrival was greeted with warmth from allies, curiosity and derision from enemies.
A group of children at the Toxteth Methodist Centre having an evening of socialising were rather bemused when a four car cavalcade drew up and in to their midst strode the six foot three former guardsman, publishing millionaire and cabinet minister – Michael Heseltine. Expecting to be rejected by the youth, according to contemporary accounts, he was in fact inundated with their grievances and for their part, the youth seemed rather overawed by this visitation from Westminster. Heseltine’s possibly studied informality disarmed critics like black youth leader Joe Brown.
“The kids told me he was a very genuine guy and that he was really concerned and listened to them, listened really hard. They liked him.”
But the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, formed to demand the release of those arrested, was in a far less accommodating mood. On the 20th July, they stormed out of a meeting at the YMCA though 48 hours later, requested another encounter with the minister. It was difficult to ignore the Cabinet member on their turf.
Heseltine behaved like a man on a mission who was learning on the job. One of his aides told a reporter that the whole experience was changing him profoundly.
“He’d had one hell of an eye opener this week. I doubt if he had any idea what deprivation and appalling conditions can really be like in a city like this. It’s been one hell of a jolt to his mind.”
Visiting a housing estate in the mainly white working class district of Croxteth, which some statistics suggested had a higher jobless rate than Toxteth, Heseltine was overhead having a rather surreal exchange with a local woman. She turned to the figure before her.
“Where do you live?”
Heseltine replied: “Somewhere rather nice near London.”
His 400 acre estate near Banbury in Oxfordshire was calculated to be half the size of Toxteth. On that Friday, 24th July, he took time out from Liverpool to attend the 18th birthday of his daughter Annabel at their home, Thenford Manor. The gossip columns reported that the minister spent £20,000 on the party, a fact that unfortunately for him did not go unreported in Liverpool.
The housing charity Shelter stuck the boot in with a scathing editorial in its magazine, Roof. “There has been something ludicrous in Mr Heseltine’s professions of concern about the problems he has seen on Merseyside, when it was he who savaged the Housing Investment Programme and re-calculated the Rate Support Grant to favour the shire counties at the expense of the inner cities.”
At the start of August 1981 – just days after the July riots had simmered down – the New Musical Express went to Toxteth to find out what locals were really thinking. Police still patrolled every street corner and there did not appear to be a single shop in the area that had not been looted. A woman called Anna sat behind a makeshift stall beyond which was a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.
“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole. They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”
While middle aged and older residents were aghast at what had unfolded in their community, some younger interviewees were enjoying the breakdown in law and order. There was a cocky bravado at getting goods they couldn’t normally afford free of charge.
“We just do it for what we can get out of it – to see what we can nick.”
“Just ‘cos I enjoy every minute of it. I only do it for kicks an’ so I can rob cars.”
But there were more thoughtful youngsters who said the situation had been building up for twenty years. The police had always treated black and white youth in the area with suspicion, searching their bags, getting a bit rough with them. “People were bound to fight back one day.”
The death of David Moore (the only person to die in the riots, see my other blog posts on him) seemed to validate their actions as he was a defenceless, disabled man mown down by a police van. So the NME went to talk to the police who, it noted, had received 1,631 complaints (mentioned in their annual report) resulting in formal disciplinary action against just two officers.
In spite of its trendy-left reputation, the paper took an even-handed view towards the constabulary pointing out that while there had been allegations of harassment, the police themselves had been subjected to daily provocation including being spat at and called ‘pigs’ to see if they would react. As one garage attendant stoically remarked to the NME – “there’s good and bad on both sides”.
Talking to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, it became clear that well known comments about the local Toxteth community being the product of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes were now widely attributed to the Merseyside Chief Constable Ken Oxford himself – though he denied it vehemently.
The exchange between the L8DC and the NME was frosty in the extreme and things only got worse when the reporter arrived at the Carribean Community Centre to be told “no white press in here”. About twenty local youth quickly arrived on the scene to ask why the music paper only came to see them when there were bad times and crisis.
Promoting Merseyside bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark didn’t endear the NME to these black teenagers who saw that as “only another example of discrimination against blacks – in this case by the predominantly white-controlled music business”.
Clearly not having a good time in Toxteth, the reporter then alleged that he had been frisked as he moved along by inept pick-pockets and four other youths were now bouncing up and down on the bonnet of his ten year old Escort van. Remonstrating with them, he got this stark response.
“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions at black people under pressure. An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”
Describing himself and his cameraman as “white boys in the wrong part of town”, the NME reporter decided to exit the city.