40 years on: The summer our cities burned

In the latest in a series on milestone anniversaries in politics and cultural history, produced with Huddersfield University, we recall the year our cities caught fire.

The 1981 violence in Brixton which sparked outbreaks nationwide
The 1981 violence in Brixton which sparked outbreaks nationwide

It was on the night of July 11 1981 that Chapeltown, the part of Leeds midway between the city centre and the green surrounds of Roundhay Park, went up in flames.

There had been violence in the area before and there would be again. But the disturbances of 1981 captured a moment in time in a nation caught between the urban unrest of the 1970s and the Thatcher years to come. None of its biggest cities would be left unscathed.

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The new Prime Minister had been in office for a little less than two years when the first flashpoint sent shockwaves around the country, especially those parts of it with large ethnic communities.

The 1981 violence in Brixton which sparked outbreaks nationwide

It was in Brixton, south London, on a day in April that became known as Bloody Saturday, that simmering tensions spilled over into the streets. A black youth had been stabbed by three others in an attack witnessed by a police patrol. As the victim was being helped, a hostile crowd gathered and set about the police officers, believing them to have stopped to question him rather than offer help. As rumours spread that they had left him to die, a mob of 200 turned on them.

It was not felt to be an isolated incident, for as the author and historian Professor Brendan Evans recalls, the reviled police tactic of “stop and search” had driven a wedge between communities.

Handsworth in Birmingham was next to erupt, followed by Chapeltown, then Toxteth in Liverpool and Moss Side in Manchester. Bradford, Halifax, Hull, Huddersfield, Sheffield and around 20 other centres also saw violence in varying degrees.

“It was an important turning point,” said Professor Evans, a Huddersfield University academic who has interviewed many of the key figures from the Thatcher administration.

“Some policemen, consciously or unconsciously, were more inclined than others to intervene in disturbances and to stop and search those involved. And there were probably individuals or groups of police who were much harsher and who thought they could use fairly strong methods without there being a backlash against them. So what happened next was a surprise to them.”

In Leeds, what happened was two nights of pitched battles on and around Chapeltown Road. Police with riot helmets and shields cordoned off the area as both black and white youths went on the rampage, destroying a sex shop and the fashion showroom next door before firefighters could get there.

A sniper with an air rifle was reported to be taking pot shots at officers from a building as down below, a car was overturned and set on fire. Several youths were dragged out of the mob and put into vans before the police retreated under a hail of missiles. Meanwhile, more than two dozen shops were looted.

It was the looting more than the social injustice that at first riled Mrs Thatcher.

“She initially tried to brazen it out. Her first comment was nothing to do with unemployment or deprivation but about the small shopkeepers having their property destroyed,” said Prof Evans. “She was thinking back to her father’s grocery shop in Grantham.”

Yet the PM was more concerned about youth unemployment than her critics give her credit for, he added.

“The Youth Training Scheme, which swept a lot of young people off the dole and required them to train or work, was a product of that era and one which flourished for many years after the riots.”

The impact of joblessness and deprivation was an inconvenient truth about which some of Mrs Thatcher’s colleagues had been in denial, many critics believed.

“Norman Tebbit made a famous speech at the 1981 conference condemning rioters and saying that when there was unemployment in the 1930s his father got on his bike and looked for work,” said Professor Evans.

“There was certainly a faction within the Cabinet which wanted to embark upon repression and held that unemployment was no excuse for criminality.”

By the time Mr Tebbit spoke, Mrs Thatcher had reshuffled her team to eliminate her so-called “wets” who took a softer line and who, said Professor Evans, had helped to promote the Youth Training Scheme.

The other output was the report by the judge Lord Scarman, which acknowledged the issues surrounding poverty, unemployment and deprivation, but which identified as the main cause of the violence the relationships between police and ethnic communities and the heavier policing of areas with large minority populations.

The reforms that swept through the 1980s brought a temporary halt to the riots, but there were more in 2001, across the country and especially in Leeds, following the alleged wrongful arrest of a man in the Harehills district. And Prof Evans said it would be unwise to assume that the threat of more had gone away.

“It will be interesting to see what happens the next few years. As the debt problem is handled there will be cuts in public services and widespread unemployment, and youth tend to be affected more than older people. Race relations have improved but they’re not cured and there may well be people prepared to exploit the situation.

“Maybe it won’t happen next time. We’ll have to wait and see.”

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