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1981 England riots

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1981 England riots

1981 riots in the UK
Date April 1981 (1981-04)–July 1981 (1981-07)
Location London, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool

In 1981, England suffered serious riots across many major cities. They were perceived as race riots between communities,[1] in all cases the main motives for the riots were related to racial tension and inner city deprivation.[2] The riots were caused by a distrust of the police and authority. The four main riots that occurred were the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riots in Birmingham, the Chapeltown riot in Leeds and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool.


In all four main cases, the areas had large ethnic minority communities, who had largely come from the Commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s to do low paid manual jobs. All the areas suffered from poor housing (mostly dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries), high unemployment and particular problems with racial tensions. According to the Scarman report which was subsequently commissioned by the UK government, the riots were a spontaneous outburst of built-up resentment sparked by particular incidents. Lord Scarman stated that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest". The Scarman report highlighted problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline, warning that "urgent action" was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an "endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society".[3]

Brixton (London), Toxteth (Liverpool) and Chapeltown (Leeds) were originally built as affluent areas of the city. However the relocation of industry, rising popularity of homes on new private housing estates since the 1930s, poor connections and the influx of migrant workers had led to a downfall in their fortunes and the large Victorian terraces and villas were often divided up into low rent bed sits, and many of those still existing as houses had been bought by landlords who let them to tenants.

The Conservative Party government elected in 1979 had instituted new powers for the Police under the Vagrancy Act of 1824 to stop and search people based on only a 'reasonable suspicion' that an offence had been committed — hence their common name of "sus laws". These were applied disproportionately to the black community, and caused widespread resentment amongst young black men. The majority of these were not immigrants, they were the British born children of immigrants, mostly born in the late 1950s or the first half of the 1960s.[4]

The election of the Conservative government in 1979 had also seen the implementation of monetarism economic policies which were designed to tackle inflation, which was still above 10% by 1981[5] and had peaked at well over 20% by the end of James Callaghan's Labour Party government in May 1979. Inflation had rarely been below 10% throughout the 1970s and had exceeded 20% more than once.

Although inflation was falling by 1981, unemployment was still rising and the recession was now in its second year, passing the 2.5 million mark in April 1981 having stood at 1.5 million two years earlier. Less than a decade earlier, unemployment had still been in six figures and it had stood at less than 400,000 as recently as the mid 1960s. The inner city areas affected by the 1981 riots were among those hit particularly hard by the recession and the unemployment and other social issues which came with it.

This level of unemployment, not seen since the 1930s, had led to mass discontent in the working class areas of Britain most affected by the recession.[6]

The Asian community also felt isolated and vulnerable to racist attack. The Police were given new powers to question people about their immigration status. Resentment arose that these laws were applied, but the police were failing to protect the Asian community from violence. On 11 July 1981, the "Bradford 12" — a group of Asian youths, members of the "United Black Youth League" — were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs, allegedly to protect their community from a threatened attack. At the subsequent trial, they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self defence.

On 13 January 1981, thirteen Black youths died in the New Cross Fire in London. The police quickly dismissed a racial motive for the apparent arson attack;[7] and the local Black community were dismayed by the indifference shown in the press towards the deaths. 15,000 people marched demanding action to Central London, in the largest Black issue demonstration seen in the UK.[8]

Racial tensions continued to rise in the early part of the year. On 28 March 1981, Enoch Powell — by then an Ulster Unionist MP, but still an influence on the Conservative Party — gave a speech in which he warned of the dangers of a "racial civil war" in Britain. By 6 April, it was announced that overall unemployment had risen from 1.5 million to 2.5 million in 12 months; and that joblessness among ethnic minorities had risen faster, up 82% in the same period.[8] During March and April, the Metropolitan Police begin Operation Swamp 81, a London-wide campaign against burglary and robbery. In Brixton, over only six days, 120 plain-clothes officers stopped 943 people, arresting 118 — predominantly Black youths. The police justified their heavy-handed policing by statistics showing that while street robberies had increased 38% across London between 1976–80; in Brixton it had risen 138%.[8]

The first disturbances began in Brixton over the weekend of 10-12 April 1981, and were followed in July by a series of similar disturbances in 12 cities and towns, especially Liverpool. In London, these included Dalston, Stoke Newington, Clapham, Hounslow and Acton. Leech notes "Here these were not race riots - riots between races. Rather the conflict was with police as symbols of white authority, with state racism and criminalisation of black communities".[9]


These riots by the unemployed called the Government to attention that strategies for helping young people into work were not working. The Youth Training Scheme and suchlike were brought in.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, who develop police policy in England, produced their Public Order Manual in response to the riots. This was subsequently used in training by police forces throughout Britain.

The UK government commissioned the Scarman report two days after the Brixton Riots. The terms of reference for the enquiry were "to inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10–12 April 1981 and to report, with the power to make recommendations".[10]

Scarman was concerned with the "plight" of the ethnic communities in UK inner cities and their relationship with the rest of the national "community". He concluded that it was essential that "people are encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area". He called for a policy of "direct coordinated attack on racial disadvantage".[11]

As a consequence of the Scarman report a new code for police behaviour was put forward in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; and the act also created an independent Police Complaints Authority, established in 1985, to attempt to restore public confidence in the police.[12]

The sus law was repealed on 27 August 1981, when the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 received Royal Assent.[13]


While there were common root causes, the triggers of the riots were different.


On the evening of 10 April, at around 17:15, a black youth who had been stabbed by three other black youths in an attack was being helped by a police patrol in Atlantic Road. As he was being helped, a large hostile crowd gathered. As they tried to take him to a waiting car on Railton Road, the crowd intervened. The police were attacked and the struggle only ended when more police officers arrived; the youth was taken to a hospital. The crowd is reported to have believed that the police stopped and questioned the stabbed youth, rather than help him. Rumours spread that the youth had been left to die by the police or that the police looked on as the stabbed youth was lying on the street. Over 200 youths reportedly turned on the police. In response the police decided to increase the number of police foot patrols in Railton Road, despite the tensions, and continue "Operation Swamp 81" throughout the night of Friday the 10th and into the following day, Saturday the 11th of April. During the disturbances, 299 police were injured, and at least 65 civilians. 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. 28 premises were burned and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made.[14] Reports suggested that up to 5,000 people were involved in the riot.[15]


The first riot in Handsworth took place on 10 July 1981. The second larger riot took place between 9 and 11 September 1985. The riots were reportedly sparked by the arrest of a man near the Acapulco Cafe, Lozells and a police raid on the Villa Cross public house in the same area. Hundreds of people attacked police and property, looting and smashing, even setting off fire bombs.


The exact trigger for the riots is unclear, although much speculation took place in the local and national press. By 1981, Chapeltown was experiencing a high level of violent crime, tensions were high, particularly amongst the area's Caribbean majority. The high crime brought about a police purge and the riots took place in July 1981.[16]


The Merseyside police force had, at the time, a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the area, under the "sus" laws, and the perceived heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Friday 3 July, watched by an angry crowd, led to a disturbance in which three policemen were injured.


The Sheffield riot occurred on 9 July in and around Sheffield Town Hall. The exact cause is unclear. 14 policemen and 5 civilians were injured, 20 arrests were made, and several offices inside the Town Hall were badly damaged with several trees being set alight outside.

See also


  1. ^ "How smouldering tension erupted to set Brixton aflame". The Guardian (London). 13 April 1981. 
  2. ^ Kettle, Martin & Hodges, Lucy (1982) Uprising!: Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities
  3. ^ "Q&A THe Scarman Report". BBC News. 20 April 2004. 
  4. ^ John, Cindi (5 April 2006). "The legacy of the Brixton riots". BBC News. Retrieved 20 April 2013. 
  5. ^ "UK Inflation History by month: 1976 - 1995". swanlowpark. Retrieved 2011-08-11. 
  6. ^ "Economics Essays: UK Economy under Mrs Thatcher 1979-1984". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  7. ^ In the aftermath, an inquest held soon after the fire recorded an 'Open Verdict'; and a second inquest in 2004 confirmed the conclusion. It was only with advances in forensic science in the intervening 23 years that it was finally determined that the fire was likely to have been an accident.
  8. ^ a b c 1981 riots timeline Untold History (Channel Four Television) accessed 5 March 2009
  9. ^ Kenneth Leech Struggle in Babylon (Sheldon Press 1988)
  10. ^ "Q&A THe Scarman Report". BBC News. 20 April 2004. 
  11. ^ Rich, Paul B. (1990). race and empire in British politics. CUP Archive. pp. 212–213.  
  12. ^ "IPCC - History".  
  13. ^ section 8, Criminal Attempts Act 1981, by section 11 (commencement), one month after date of assent
  14. ^ Brixton Riots, 1981 (MPS) accessed 6 March 2009
  15. ^ The Guardian — How smouldering tension erupted to set Brixton aflame, 13 April 1981
  16. ^ "Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs". openDemocracy. 2005-07-21. Archived from the original on 24 August 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 

External links

  • Timetable of riots in Britain in 1980 to 1985
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