September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Memories of Liverpool in 1981 – part two

6 min read

In these blog posts, I’m casting my mind back to my first year at university in Liverpool. I arrived in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots and a city in ferment. Can’t deny it was very exciting. But it was also a time of massive poverty and sky-high rates of unemployment as well as shocking racism.

For us students, moving out of the halls of residence at the end of the first year normally meant living on the outskirts or slap bang in the middle of Toxteth. Flats were cheap and it was close to the university. The added attraction were the speakeasy-style drinking clubs in collapsing Georgian houses with 1960s neon signs over the door.

A group of us went to one club that was actually in mid-demolition with half the walls of what had once been a merchant’s house missing. I recall what passed for the toilets being under a starry sky. Health and safety considerations were largely absent. The names of these drinking establishments, now shut down, reflected the communities they served: Jamaica House, Yoruba, Somali and the Silver Sands.

DISCOVER: Clubbing in Liverpool in the 1980s

Not that students were necessarily welcomed with open arms in the area. There was a widespread antipathy among many Liverpool youth towards “fockin’ shtewdents” who were seen as well-heeled and insensitive to the city’s plight. One friend of mine, who always dressed in the height of fashion at his own peril, was walking down Granby Street when a local resident threw an enormous animal bone at him!

Unemployment was endemic in 1981 Toxteth. It had been steadily climbing throughout the de-industrialisation of the 1970s. But since 1979, the trend had accelerated dramatically.[1] Manufacturing investment had declined by 20% and unemployment had soared. Young people, and especially black youth, had been very hard hit. Even though the official jobless figure in Toxteth was around 30%, being out of work seemed to be the norm[2].

Three months before the riots, five hundred unemployed people had marched from Liverpool to London, invoking memories of the 1930s Jarrow hunger marches.[3] As a sixth former, I went to Hyde Park to cheer the footsore marchers as they arrived at their destination.[4] Later that year, the TUC (Trades Union Congress) organised the Jobs for Youth Campaign, which saw unemployed teenagers travel around the country by train on the so-called Jobs Express holding regional rallies before a lobby of Parliament in London.[5][6]

It wasn’t just economic policy that hit young people in Toxteth but a racism that wasn’t so much institutional as shockingly overt. Bigoted attitudes among employers were a commonplace. After graduating, I applied for a job with a life assurance company near the Liverpool docks and was offered a post.

I asked a bouffant-haired middle-aged ‘yuppie’ in a double-breasted suit why I’d been accepted. There was a bottle of Kouros after shave placed prominently on his desk to indicate his sophistication and class. “You’re not a scouser (slang for a Liverpudlian), a woman or black.” Apparently, none of these categories, he explained in his Cheshire suburban drawl, knew how to handle money. I didn’t show up on the Monday morning.

The epicentre of the Toxteth rioting was within the so-called ‘Granby Triangle’ bounded by Upper Parliament Street, Lodge Lane and Sefton Park Road. Demographics had changed substantially since the Second World War. The middle class had drifted away half a century before to the suburbs. Many working-class families had been rehoused in the new post-war council estates trading in cramped 19th century conditions for more space.

As a result, the Granby area of Toxteth like other parts of the city saw a sharp fall in population with the percentage of BAME families increasing. The nearby Dingle area was still predominantly white working class. Residents in the Dingle tended to chop and change their local identity. As one political activist from the Dingle observed to me: if it was good news then they were the Dingle but if it was bad news, then they became Toxteth.

One notable building left stranded in the area by the departure of its well-heeled clientele was the Liverpool Racquet Club. This institution opened in 1877 with a subscription of five Guineas. Within its walls, there had been two racquets courts and an “American” bowling alley with a billiards room added later and a private dining room.[7] On the 6 July 1981, it went up in smoke at the hands of rioters.

Another landmark targeted by their fury was the former Rialto cinema. In the 1920s, the cinema could seat 1,305 in the stalls and 500 in the balcony.[8] The walls were covered in murals with romantic views of Venice in the auditorium and the Wye valley in the cafe. Under the management of Gaumont British Theatres from 1928, this spacious venue screened Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” on 4 February 1929.

But as with many cinemas, it struggled after the Second World War and shut its doors in 1964. It subsequently became a furniture warehouse. The tiled hulk of a building, dominating a junction within the Granby Triangle, was razed to the ground by arsonists in the heat of July 1981. It was left in such a poor state that rapid demolition was inevitable. Looking out of the college bus window, we were greeted with an empty space where a grand old cinema had stood.[9]

In the weeks that followed there were all manner of rumours about why certain buildings had been targeted including the Rialto and the Racquet Club. For example, the Rialto was said to have once operated a dance club with a colour bar. This conspiracy theory neglected to point out that at the time of being burned down, the dance club was long gone and there was an employment agency in its basement serving mainly black clients next to a hairdresser specialising in “Afro” styles.

The owner of the furniture warehouse that had taken over the old Rialto building did have his character impugned in post-riot gossip and the Liverpool Wavertree Conservative MP Antony Steen noted darkly to the House of Commons in a debate on the civil disturbance that the warehouse was “owned by a former Tory councillor”[10].

Steen also pointed out that some rioters had journeyed out of Toxteth to smash all the windows at Thatcher’s tea and coffee house, which he had opened in his constituency. This coffee house became a focus for Labour Party Young Socialists’ demonstrations in the early 1980s. While the Tory ladies sliced their Victoria sponge cake and sipped on Earl Grey within, Liverpudlian activists in rubber Thatcher masks gawped and jeered at the windows. These were indeed strange times.

In total, about seventy buildings in Toxteth were utterly destroyed along with about a hundred cars and this mayhem resulted in five hundred arrests. I can’t deny that among the young students staring out of the bus windows, there was a slight frisson of excitement. We had seen the riots on the BBC and ITV news but here was the stark evidence before us.

[1] ‘Unemployment Statistics’, Hansard, 18 November 1981, Web

[2] Cooper, Paul, ‘Competing explanations of the Merseyside Riots of 1981’, The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 25, No.1, 1985, pp. 60-69

[3] ‘Route of Jarrow marchers’, The National Archives, Web

[4] McMahon, Tony, ‘Political Badges from the 1980s’, Thatcher Crisis Years, 30 August 2014, Web

[5] ‘Britain at Work’, London Metropolitan University, 2012, Web

[6] McMahon, Tony, ‘Sandwiches for the unemployed on the Jobs Express in 1981’, Thatcher Crisis Years, 13 January 2013, Web

[7] ‘The Racquet Club History’, Racquet Club, Web

[8] Roe, Ken, ‘Rialto Theatre’, Cinema Treasures, 13 May 2009, Web

[9] ‘Toxteth Riots 1981 background – and how it all began’, Liverpool Echo, 4 July 2011

[10] Steen, Anthony, ‘Civil Disturbances’, Hansard, 16 July 1981

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