September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Memories of Liverpool in 1981 – part one

5 min read
Tony McMahon recalls how he arrived as a student in Liverpool in 1981 after a summer of riots had devastated Toxteth

I went to university in Liverpool in 1981. It was just after the summer of riots that had swept through Toxteth. So, what did I – a middle-class southerner – discover in my first weeks. Well, quite a lot as it goes. In the next few blog posts – I’m going to cast my mind back to those stormy events.

The Toxteth district of the city had been rocked by a summer of riots. Even compared to similar disturbances in Brixton, Moss Side in Manchester and Chapeltown in Leeds, Toxteth stood out for its raw, lethal energy. We were not informed as newly arrived students that police from all over the country had been billeted in our rooms through July and August to put down this huge upheaval.

The duration of the Toxteth riots is notable. The violence began with an arrest on 3 July 1981 rising to a fiery crescendo over the next three days, abating slightly until fighting on the 28 July between rioters and police led to the single fatality. And then a further resurgence up until the 15 August. In contrast, the 2011 summer riots across England were over in under four days.[1] While the 2001 riots had a similar duration but smaller in scale and restricted to northern towns[2].

A total of 690 police support units from forty UK police forces were deployed on the streets of Toxteth during the weeks of rioting. About 781 officers were injured and 214 police vehicles damaged. There were hundreds of arrests and one young man, David Moore, was killed. And for the first time in the UK, CS gas rounds were fired at civilians.[3]

The next morning, still ignorant of a copper having slept in my bed, I boarded a college double decker bus from the Carnatic halls of residence site to the university precinct. Fifteen minutes later we were in Toxteth. We southern, middle class students sat slack-jawed as the bus trundled down Upper Parliament Street. Or what was left of it. It was as if a fiery tornado had ripped down this Victorian boulevard leaving once grand merchants’ residences gutted.

What had happened was relayed to me in anecdotes from local political activists over the next few months as I immersed myself in Liverpool politics. Tales of the young daredevils who drove milk floats at speed into police lines bailing out like James Dean at the last moment. One press report described this spectacle as a wild “dodgem game”.

Glass milk bottles from the same dairy filled with petrol from a nearby car hire outlet, cloth packed in the top and the resulting Molotov cocktails rained down on the riot police. To get close enough to the forces of law and order, a JCB digger was used by the rioters to hide behind before lobbing their fiery missiles. This and the blazing car tyres strewn across the roads as barricades sent a grim pall of smoke over the city.

One police officer shuddered to recall that infamous JCB: “It was like a big metal T-Rex, it was snapping its jaws and I thought ‘we’re not going to stop this’”[4].  He added that “builders spikes” were being hurled like javelins from behind the digger and that one police officer drafted in from Greater Manchester was speared through the leg.

This officer concedes there was a lot of fake news during the 1981 riots. Both rioters and police spread exaggerated or conflicting accounts. The spear that went through the police officer’s leg shot through his head in another account that circulated widely.[5] The officer was told by fellow police that a colleague had been killed, somebody had their legs chopped off and yet another person had been decapitated with a spade.[6] None of these stories were true.

Once on riot duty, the same officer was confronted by a crowd he noted was racially mixed. And by the second night of rioting, “there were very few black faces[7]”. This somewhat contradicts the inflammatory Daily Mail frontpage headline on 6 July 1981 that declared: Black War on Police.[8]

It also calls into question the claim made by Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford that the blame for the bulk of the violence rested with “young, black hooligans” though in the same breath and the same issue of the Daily Mail, Oxford conceded that white youth were also involved and that “this was not a racial issue”.[9]

Oxford was keen to differentiate Toxteth from Brixton and Southall, playing down the idea that there had been a race riot. “There was certainly no confrontation between black and white”.

DISCOVER: Toxteth riot aftermath – university students attacked

Oxford alighted on a “small hooligan and criminal element hell-bent on confrontation”. Liverpool did not have an immigration problem, he added, as the black community was long established. The same point was made by Home Secretary William Whitelaw in response to Conservative Party hardliners who wanted tough anti-immigration measures and even repatriation of ‘New Commonwealth’ immigrants after the riots.[10]

However, no matter how well-established the black community of Toxteth was, it was by no means fully integrated into the rest of the city. What struck me in my first few months in Liverpool, especially coming from London, was the absence of black faces in the main central pedestrian precinct either as shoppers or behind shop counters. There seemed to be an invisible line drawn between Toxteth and the centre of the city, a twenty-minute walk away, segregating the population on racial lines.

The late Margaret Simey, a City councillor for a Toxteth ward in the 80s, echoed this concern. She wrote that not only were there no black faces in the middle of the city but that some of her fellow councillors representing suburban Liverpool couldn’t point to Toxteth on a map. The area and its population were simply invisible to them.[11]

[1] ‘UK shaken by worst riots in decades’, Press Association, 9 August 2011, Web

[2] ‘Bradford counts cost of riot’, BBC News, 8 July 2001

[3] Scraton, Phil, ‘Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’, Routledge, UK, 2007, pp. 26-28

[4] ‘Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’, BBC News, 3 July 2011, Web

[5] Kettle, Martin, Hodges, Lucy, ‘Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain’s Cities’, Macmillan, 1982, UK

[6] Ibid: ‘Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’

[7] Ibid: “Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’

[8] ‘Black War on Police’, Daily Mail, 6 July 1981

[9] Ibid: ‘Black War on Police’

[10] Vivekanandan, B., ‘Riots in Britain: An Analysis’, India Quarterly, Vol. 38, No.1, 1982, pp. 51-63

[11] Nassy Brown, Jacqueline, ‘Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool’, Princeton University Press, 1st Edition, 2005, pp. 81-85

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