Liverpool ’81: the voice of the unheard

1981:  burning milk float barricade on Upper Parliament Street

2011: the same scene today

Riots are the voices of the unheard
– Martin Luther King Jr

Sunday 5 July, 1981.  We live in a top floor flat on Canning Street in Liverpool 8.  Around seven in the evening we need some milk, so I pop over to the little backstreet store just behind Falkner Square.  Something seems to be going on; there are crowds of people milling around and a lot of noise – shouting and distant crashing sounds.  Sudden flurries of people run past, running away from the direction of Upper Parliament Street.  I say, ‘what’s happening?’  ‘There’s a riot.  The bizzies are getting hammered’.

Disturbances had kicked off two days earlier, on the evening of Friday July 3rd when the police had attempted to arrest a young, black motorcyclist at the junction of Granby and Selbourne Street.  An angry crowd had gathered, leading to a fracas during which the motorcyclist escaped but a different black youth, Leroy Cooper whose brother had been acquitted on what the local community regarded as a trumped-up charge in the Crown Court only the day before, was arrested for assault on a police officer.  There was more trouble on the following evening, but it was the events of Sunday 5 July that launched ‘Toxteth’ (as outsiders commenting on the events always called the area) into the national headlines.

1981: the junction of Granby and Selbourne Street

2011: junction of Granby and Selbourne Street today

On that Sunday night we watched as full blown riots ripped through the streets of our neighbourhood: pitched battles between police and youths throwing missiles including petrol bombs, cars seized, overturned and set ablaze to form barricades, buildings set ablaze, shops ransacked.  In the early hours of Monday morning CS gas was used for the first time on the UK mainland.

The rioting lasted for nine days, as disturbances rippled through other inner-city areas. Further serious rioting occurred on 26-28 July when, at the time of the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, a young disabled boy David Moore was killed when he was run down by a police riot vehicle.  By the time the disturbances had died down, more than 300 police officers had been injured and 500 people arrested. At least 150 buildings had burnt down or been demolished, including the former Rialto Ballroom (below), the Racquet Club, the UK’s first drive-through bank, and a sizeable proportion of the shops and pubs on Lodge Lane.

1981: Swainbanks used furniture warehouse in the Rialto burns

2011: the new Rialto building houses shops and a neighbourhood centre

In retrospect what I recall about that Sunday night is the strangeness of it all.  We watched from the grassy knoll on Upper Parliament Street as the Racquet Club opposite (a private club for judges and members of other elite professions) was set on fire.  We watched as hundreds of youths hurled missiles at the retreating police lines (all the force had on the mainland in those days were heavy riot shields that caught light when a petrol bomb hit, while protective grilles were only added to police vehicles after the riots).  We watched with no sense of fear – many of the rioters were familiar to us.  The atmosphere, as we strolled through the milling crowds, was carnival-like.  Young men in black balaclavas would fall back from their endeavours for a while and chat with friends on the sidelines.

1981: Falkner Terrace

2011: the restored Falkner Terrace, a grade II listed building

At the time my job was organising adult and community education courses in a local college.  One of the projects with which I was involved at the time was a course initiated by South Liverpool Personnel, an adult education centre in the Rialto buildings.  The aim of the course was to begin to rectify to the virtually zero representation of  local black residents on university courses and in professions such as teaching and social work locally.  The project in itself epitomised the deep social fractures that culminated in the riots.  Local community activists had been warning for several years of the probable consequences of these divisions.  Indeed, the 1973 Report of the Select Committee on Race Relations inquiry into educational opportunities for black people had noted that the black community in Liverpool was disadvantaged both inside and outside school.  The Select Committee concluded: ‘Liverpool … left us with a profound sense of uneasiness’.

Around midnight we were two blocks from our home, standing at the corner of Parliament and Catherine watching the NatWest drive-in bank and the Rialto burn. The Rialto was a sweet target for many of the rioters:  the disused cinema housed Swainbanks second-hand furniture warehouse, where many on social security had been forced to pay exorbitent sums for crappy furniture.

Someone ran past with a huge drum of olives, looted from the Greek deli in the Rialto.  One of my students loomed from the flickering shadows to apologise: he might be late handing in his essay that week.  The street was littered with fruit and veg, tins and bottles from the looted shops.  Scorched paper drifted like confetti in the air.  The traffic lights changed from red to green and back again, but there was no traffic.  And no police – they hadn’t been since for an hour or more.  A mile from the city centre, buildings burned, shops were being ransacked, and a shifting melee controlled the streets.

But – and this was also strange – it was as if there was an invisible barrier confining the uprising to the boundaries of Liverpool 8.  The pulsing mass of predominantly young people seemed unconsciously to confine themselves to their own turf.  It’s not that I would have wished it, but I have often marvelled at the way that rampaging power halted, even when the police had withdrawn completely.  (Though perhaps there is no mystery to it.  At that time, there were almost no black Liverpudlians employed in the city centre, especially in positions involving face to face contact with the paying public:   for black Liverpudlians the city was a no-go area.)

Strange it was too when, in the early hours of the morning and with work to get up for in a few hours, we left the scene and returned home.  Through our bedroom window the night sky was lurid with the flames rising from the burning buildings two streets away.  Yet, coming in, when we had met our landlord who lived downstairs on the ground floor setting out buckets of sand and water, we had thought him a little mad.



The following morning I did the usual thing of picking up a work colleague who lived further down Canning Street, to give him a lift to work.  I drove the car into Upper Parliament Street to show him the impact of the night’s events.  I negotiated the car around burnt-out vehicles, fallen rubble from collapsed buildings and looted detritus.  My colleague was not as sanguine as I was: by the end of term he had left Liverpool for East Anglia.

1981: the ruins of the Racquets Club

2011: replaced by new apartments

The following day the enormous scale of the destruction became apparent.  The previous night figures running out of the darkness had shouted excitedly that Lodge Lane was on fire from end to end.  Now we could see just how far the devastation extended.  The bustling Lane, with its shops and pubs was wrecked: though some buildings had survived – protected by desperate shop owners – the heart of a white working-class neighbourhood lay in ruins.



Video footage from the period

BBC News footage of the Toxteth riots broadcast on 6 July 1981:

1985 clip from the first BBC TV magazine programme covering issues and developments in UK ethnic minority communities:

Later that year a crew from Finnish TV came to Liverpool  to film a documentary examining the roots of the 1981 riots. I got interviewed discussing the causes of Liverpool’s decline against the backdrop of a derelict Albert Dock:

What caused this, the worst rioting ever experienced on the UK mainland?  To coincide with the 30th anniversary of these events, Liverpool University Press have published a new book Liverpool ’81: Remembering the Riots, edited by Diane Frost and Richard Phillips.

Significantly, the longest chapter is devoted to racism and policing in Liverpool 8.  And most accounts and analyses of these events draw the same conclusion: that although Liverpool 8 was (and remains) a severely deprived area with poor housing, high unemployment and negligible job opportunities, it was the brutality and racism of the police force, targeting Liverpool-born black youths, that provoked the uprising.  And that racism was endemic – from the Chief Constable down to the cop on the beat.

Looking back to that time, it’s difficult to take in just how deeply racist British institutions were.  Take, for example, this passage from James McLure’s over-excited Spike Island: A Portrait of a Police Division, approved by the Merseyside Chief Constable as ‘faithfully’ portraying the ‘often dangerous’ task of the police in the city:

To his left, the North Sub [sub-division], and it’s a bit of a desert island that side. All those cliff-dwellers in high-rise
flats; the bucks running wild and a few buckesses too . . .then straight in front of him, the market place: all that glitters, merchants and moneylenders, beggars and meths-drinkers lying about legless! . . . Then, to his right, the South Sub [sub-division]: the jungle noises and even more the jungle behaviour of clubland; then yellow people country, Chinatown; then, up in the right-hand top corner, black people country, Upper Parliament Street, a bit of Liverpool 8 . . . Then, if he’s coming on Nights, he’ll probably see five sort of stockades with campfires burning; places he can get in out of the cold and be safe from a hiding for a while . . .

Even more startling from today’s perspective is the article that appeared in 1978 in the BBC Listener magazine, written by BBC reporter Martin Young.   The racist bile in this piece led to a protest meeting and peaceful demonstration by residents of Liverpool 8;  but, worse, Ken Oxford, the Merseyside Chief Constable, was fond of echoing its phrases in his own pronouncements on the people who the police were ‘up against’ in Liverpool 8:

Policemen in general and detectives in particular, are not racialist, despite what many Black groups believe. … Yet they are the first to define the problem of half-castes in Liverpool.  Many are the products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8, the red-light district.  Naturally, they do not grow up with any kind of recognizable home life. Worse still, after they have done the round of homes and institutions, they gradually realize they are nothing.  The Negroes will not accept them as Blacks, and whites just assume they are coloureds.  As a result, the half-caste community of Merseyside – or, more particularly, Liverpool – is well outside recognised society.

The Merseyside police force at the time had a particularly bad reputation in the area for stopping and searching black youths under the hated ‘sus’ laws.  Two telling passages in Liverpool ’81 illuminate this.  In the first, local councillor and Community Relations Council member Gideon  Ben-Tovim recalls:

The concern of all of us from the CRC point of view was problems with the police, with young people getting into trouble   often   in   our  view   for   no   good   reason, with the courts often colluding with the police as part of a whole system involving people getting prison sentences or criminal records for sometimes trivial offences. By the end of the 197os there was clearly a lot of tension building up in terms of the relationship between the police and the community, young     men in particular.

In another recollection, Phillip Canter, a solicitor in Liverpool 8, recalls ‘a time in which there were very bad relations between the police and the general public and also between the police and some of the local solicitors, including us’:

Just to give an example of this, I was in close touch with the then Chairman of the Police Committee, Lady Simey, and she and I were working together in trying to make a dossier of cases. We’d had quite a number of cases in which we had been acting for particularly black young people, who had been arrested and turned out to be wrongly arrested, and were acquitted on trial. I had a folder with many cases in this, and we were on the point actually of making this public when the riots took place.

At the time, Margaret Simey, a respected local figure, was Chairman of the Merseyside Police Committee.  She worked ceaselessly to hold the police force and its Chief Constable to account for their methods, both before and after the riots.  She once remarked that in the face of such conditions the people of Liverpool 8 would have been ‘apathetic fools’ if they had not rioted.  Phil Scraton documented her struggle in his The State of the Police, published in 1985.  In Liverpool ’81, Diane Frost and Richard Phillips have excavated this revealing entry from her diary (now part of the Simey archive in Liverpool University library).  It’s November 1981 and she has been invited to address the AGM of the local Police Federation.  Simey vividly captures the culture of policing that she sought to confront:

Picture a room with a low ceiling. Crammed with beery bulky men. A jam~packed little platform: policemen are all so   hefty! And in the middle of it, me, the victim, cooked up as an Aunt Sally for their fun and entertainment. [After her speech:] Up then gets this crude Scotsman, Jardine, and rants and roars in true Hitler style. I was sickened and appalled. He urged them into battle against the ‘louts’ of Toxteth. He went for the Bishop and the Archbishop (who are Bishop Tutu types) and me and the Police Committee, ranting and roaring in the best Hitler style. The audience loved it, shouted and cheered and gave him a standing ovation. I think they were half drunk.  But how hideously frightening, that that low lot of illiterates should be sent out on the streets of Granby to chivvy our young people.

Both the Scarman Report (on the Liverpool disturbances as well as others in Brixton and Handsworth) and the Gifford Enquiry (specifically into the Liverpool events) concluded that racism and policing methods had created the conditions for violent protest.  But the Gifford report of 1988 went further, concluding that the problem of institutional racism extended beyond the police force into the procedures and recruitment practices of the City Council and local employers.  As for the police, despite the higher profile given to community policing after the riots ‘racial attitudes, abuse and violence’ still permeated the force, worsened with the introduction of armoured cars, riot vans and the new hard-line Operational Support Division.  In fact, in the months following the first riot, the police began to utilise the Norther Ireland tactic of driving armoured cars at high speed straight into crowds of youths in order to disperse them.  On 26 July this had deadly consequences when a disabled youth, David Moore, unable to run fast enough, was run down and killed.  Three more nights of rioting ensued.

In the immediate aftermath of the disturbances there was a feeling of hope in the air. In late July, the Minister for Merseyside, Michael Heseltine, arrived in the city and a month later announced a package of measures for Liverpool, including clearing a stretch of riverside wasteland polluted with toxic waste to establish the first International Garden Festival. There were plans, too, to clean up stretches of the derelict docks, including the Albert Dock, where the Tate Gallery eventually opened.

The Merseyside Task Force, consisting of high-level civil servants, was established and, along with colleagues, I had the heady experience of negotiating with members of the Task Force to obtain funds to rent and furnish a building in Liverpool 8 which would house a Black Access course.  This partnership project between the LEA, two local FE colleges and Liverpool University resulted, in the following two decades, in hundreds of individuals from Liverpool 8 – of all ages and ethnic backgrounds – gaining entry to university degree courses and then professional employment.  Looking back, I hope that it is not just my personal involvement with this project that leads me to conclude that it was one of the most positive and beneficial outcomes of the riots.

The broader question of how much has changed in Liverpool 8 since the riots is both complex and one which provokes many different and passionate responses.  What most local observers agree upon is that the big headline projects – the Garden Festival, the Albert Dock and the Tate, had little to do with Liverpool 8 (though technically they lay within the ‘Toxteth’ boundary).  Some question whether many residents of Liverpool 8 gained employment through them: often labour was recruited from outside Merseyside.

In Liverpool ’81, local councillor Gideon Ben-Tovim offers a measured assessment, suggesting that though government   initiatives did produce benefits, these did not filter through to the people who needed them most:

One of the legacies of that period was the movement to a greater regeneration of Liverpool as a whole, so the work of the Merseyside Task Force set up after the riots by Michael Heseltine certainly had a wide civic impact for Liverpool. In one sense the renaissance of Liverpool began after the riots in the 198os with the Liverpool Garden Festival, the development of the Albert Dock, the establishment of the Merseyside Development Corporation, and later City Challenge, all of which had an important city-wide impact. Thus an effect of the riots was to bring Liverpool to the attention of national politicians and to kick-start a long and overdue process of regeneration, culminating in the 2008 Capital of Culture achievement.

But l don’t think that such a huge amount was actually invested in Liverpool 8 after the riots, as compared to what was spent on the wider city. There was some cosmetic improvement to the Princes Avenue Boulevard. A process of housing improvement began, seeing in due course some of the removal of the worst quality council accommodation in Liverpool 8. There were some modest targeted initiatives that emerged through the Task Force in that period that  have had an impact in trying to achieve a better degree of black representation  in certain fields of employment. Thus there was a  positive action training scheme which involved the housing associations offering places and the Community College delivering the training, leading to the eventual employment  of some black housing staff. This had some impact on the local housing associations, and helped some individuals to develop themselves in that field.

The significant investment of the NHS in the Women’s Hospital in Liverpool 8 can be seen as a positive outcome of the riots, a deliberate attempt by the then Dean of Liverpool to invest in Liverpool 8 through his ‘Project Rosemary’. So in the period since the riots we have seen some investment  in housing and the urban infrastructure; some incremental  bits of positive action training, including housing associations and social work; the College-University Access partnership and the sustained College recruitment of Liverpool 8 students; a successful new primary school and children’s centre;  a major NHS investment in the area; some improvements in the workforce profiles of the City Council and the NHS.

However, overall I would say there have not been enough targeted interventions, and a lot of what we saw after the riots was a rather general regeneration which on the whole bypassed Liverpool 8. Within Liverpool 8  itself some of the worst council accommodation has been cleared and better council or social housing accommodation put in its place, but even here there are the ‘Four Streets’ in Granby [above] that have still not had their future decided, and Granby Street itself has not been regenerated, with many boarded-up shops remaining. However, this is bordered by a new school and attached Sure Start Centre … which recently received an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted inspection assessment.

The International Slavery Museum at the Albert Dock currently has an exhibition of photographs of the riots taken at the time by local residents. The pictures have been preserved by Sonia Bassey-Williams, then a young resident of the Toxteth area and now project manager for the Merseyside Black History Month Group. She went on to work with the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee to which local residents donated the photos.  The photos can also be seen on the Group’s 1981 Toxteth Riots website.

Coincidentally, the Museum also has an exhibition of photos of dramatic and iconic moments from over 40 years of South Africa’s history, captured by Lancashire-born Magnum photojournalist Ian Berry.  The exhibition culminates with the display of an anti-apartheid banner carried on protests organised by the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, established in response to the riots (above).  This reminded me of something significant back in 1981 – the strong and empowering currents in black culture, especially in music, and the sense of shared identity with black experience in other UK cities and in other parts of the world, especially South Africa.

American soul music from the ghettos, Jamaican reggae and British ska and reggae all explored the theme of discrimination against black people.  In Britain, amidst recession, rising unemployment and bitter hostility in the inner cities to the government of Margaret Thatcher there had also been several years of assaults on black and Asian communities by the National Front, which had in turn led to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League. 2-Tone music from bands such as the Specials and Selecter fused elements of ska, punk rock and reggae and provided much of the soundtrack to these years.  In their songs, British reggae bands like Misty in Roots, Aswad and Steel Pulse linked the tribulations on the streets at home with struggles in Africa and elsewhere.

The lyrics of Steel Pulse’s ‘Handsworth Revolution’ not only summed up the injustices felt by black Britons living in the inner cities, but also expressed the sense of hope and strength that many gained from Rastafarianism:

Dread we are for a cause
Deprived of many things
Experienced phony laws
Hatred Babylon brings
We know what we got to offer
We know what’s going on
Don’t want no favours
Cause there is still hunger
Innocent convicted
Poor wage, hard labour
Only Babylon prospers
And humble suffer
They are brothers in south of Africa
One Black represent all, all over the world
Can’t bear it no longer
Blessed with the power
Of Jah Creator
We will get stronger
And we will conquer
And forward ever, and backward never

Above all, the songs of Bob Marley gave young people in the inner city a sense of the justice denied them, as well as strength and purpose:

Get up, stand up
Stand up for your rights
Dont give up the fight!

Most people think
great God will come from the sky
Take away everything
Make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You’ll look for yours on earth

Some of these artists responded to the riots, the most striking example being The Specials, who, in the most perfect coincidence of music and politics topped the charts with ‘Ghost Town’ as the the riots spread from city to city.

Linton Kwesi Johnson responded to the riots in Brixton and elsewhere with ‘The Great Insurrection’ (below) and ‘Mekkin Histri’.

well dere woz Toxteth
an dere woz Moss Side
an a lat a addah places
whey di police ad to hide
well dare woz Brixtan
an dere woz Chapeltoun
an a lat a addah place dat woz burnt to di groun

it is noh mistri
wi mekkin histri
it is noh mistri
wi winnin victri
– Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mekkin Histri

And let’s not forget Liverpool 8’s own The Real Thing, who in 1977 had released their second album, Four from Eight(originally to have been called Liverpool 8 in honour of the neighbourhood where they grew up and still live, before their record company rejected the title).  The album concludes with the fine trilogy ‘Liverpool 8 Medley’: ‘Liverpool Eight’, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and ‘Stanhope Street’.

Children of the Ghetto
Runnin’ wild and free
In the concrete jungle
Filled with misery
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Theres no inspiration
To brighten up our day
None at all, not at all, none at all
So out of desperation
I would like to say:
Children of the Ghetto
Keep your head
To the sky

In 2011, Liverpool 8 in general looks better. There are examples of much improved housing and the schools are new,  better performing and treat children of all backgrounds with the same care and respect. Relations between the police and the community are undoubtedly better than they were. But there is a risk, if you’re someone comfortably off living on the edge of the district, of being taken in by surface stuff. Dig deeper and the reality is that Liverpool 8 is still one of the poorest areas in the country.

Nevertheless, let’s keep our head to the sky and end on a positive note, with a look at two examples of the people of Liverpool 8 aspiring to better things.

Lodge Lane at the time of the riots was a largely white working class district.  The area was devastated by the riots and subsequent housing renewal, with residents being dispersed to other parts of the inner city. Today, though, it is the centre of a highly diverse community, many of whom are more recent arrivals in the city, whether from Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe.

Walk the mile-long length of the Lane, and there is scarcely a shop boarded up with businesses that appear to be doing reasonably well.  There are no chain stores here: there’s a real sense of small entrepreneurs from every conceivable ethnic background pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.  There are takeaways offering a diverse range of ethnic food – whether your preferences is Caribbean jerk fish or chicken, English fish and chips, Chinese,or Middle Eastern cuisine. There are stores selling halal meat and poultry, barber shops offering every kind of cut including Rasta, an Internet cafe,two international call shops, a mobile phone repair shop,the Islam Lifestyle store, newsagents, a Middle Eastern restaurant, off-licences, cafes and pubs.

As well as places looking to sell you something, there are offices of organisations that support and strengthen the community: the Liverpool Arabic Centre, Lodge Lane & District Credit Union, Granby-Toxteth Development Trust, and the Muslim Enterprise Development Service.  At the top of the Lane, next to the ruined public baths building, there’s the local branch library and the ‘Pivvy’, the Pavilion Bingo Club.

At the other end of the Lane, with one of last year’s Go Penguins standing guard, is the Greenhouse Project which for the last 14 years has been providing after-school child care and running multicultural play and arts projects. The project encourages local kids to explore and celebrate the diversity of the local community. One group of young people aged 14-18, recently started a campaign called ‘Loving Lodge Lane’ to bring together business owners, residents and local services to demonstrate pride in the area.  Another group has produced a short film, These Streets, which has just won a national award.

Meanwhile, it’s a different story over at Granby Street, which is a ghost of its former self. The top end of the street has largely been demolished and alongside the new school and Sure Start centre there are new housing developments that look to be of a reasonable standard.  Further down, though, is a scene of utter dereliction: Granby Four Streets is a distressed neighbourhood where most of the houses are bricked up and empty.

But amidst this devastation, the remaining residents of Cairns Street, Beaconsfield, Ducie and Jermyn Street, off Granby Street, have joined forces to green up and regenerate their area and fight Council plans for demolition. They want to save all of the empty houses in the Four Streets area – 128 in all – and turn them into affordable homes again. The last few years have been a hard grind of lobbying, meetings and negotiations with the local council and potential developers.

At the same time the eight remaining residents of Cairns Street have taken matters into their own hands, tidying up their street, painting the boarded up houses in pastel colours, and planting flowers, shrubs, vegetables and fruit inevery available space.  On the first Saturday of every month they hold a community market.

Ironically, the spending cuts have made the situation a lot more optimistic – basically, the money for demolition and rebuilding has run out, so there might just be a chance to save the houses and revive the area.

The Four Streets Trust has issued a declaration of hope for the area:

We firmly believe that it is possible to retrofit the existing houses so that they emit 70-80% less carbon than similar houses, and generate some of their own energy. This will help to protect residents from fuel poverty and make the neighbourhood a green and pleasant place to live.  We also want jobs and training in construction and renewable technologies for local people to be a major feature of this project – so investment stays in the area, and helps to make the neighbourhood truly sustainable in the long term.

They have produced a short video setting out their hopes for the future and how they intend to use this ‘chink of light, this chance of change’ for the place and for the people:

You can listen to Richard Phillips and Diane Frost, authors of Liverpool ’81: Remembering the Riots, discuss the riots on Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor on this YouTube clip, illustrated with photos of riot locations then and now.


Update 17 August