December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Police raids of clubs in the 1980s and 1990s

7 min read
Night clubs in the 1980s and 1990s were often subjected to police raids for various reasons as TV historian Tony McMahon recalls

Being told to stand still. The lights going up. The police entering in large numbers. Frisking. Individuals led away. Court appearances reported in the newspapers. Venues shut down. Such was the world of police raids of clubs in the 1980s and 1990s. The criminalisation of having a good time.

Not that there were never grounds for raids, but one suspected the police officers got a special buzz out of these operations. Not least because some of them knew the clubs well and in the case of gay venues, very definitely so. Hilarious to have a cop harrumphing in disapproval at a dark room he’d most likely frequented the week before incognito.

The official reasons for club raids in the 1980s and 1990s were, more often than not, the presence of drugs and the serving of alcohol after hours or without a licence. But few doubted that there was also an element of moral crusade and outright racism. Also an intense dislike of those who looked a bit different.

Gay clubs were targeted in Manchester to the point where LGBT people questioned openly if there was an agenda to shut down the scene entirely. It didn’t help the police case that the Chief Constable in the early 1980s made vile comments about HIV/AIDS and declared he was God’s cypher on Earth. As for Afro-Caribbean clubs, few today would argue that those police raids didn’t involve a dash of white supremacism.

But – as we’ll see below – even working men’s clubs in the industrial north of England weren’t immune to having their door kicked in and the police flooding in.

Police raid the Kit Kat Club in 1985 – typical example of raids in the 1980s and 1990s

In 1985, the vibrant Goth music and fashion scene was deemed to be of huge interest to London’s Metropolitan Police. Never mind burglary and mugging – young people were gelling their hair and wearing copious amounts of make-up.

It had to stop! 🙂

At the weekend, Goths converged on one of the many old warehouses converted into party venues. The Kit Kat Club, named after a notorious club in London’s past, took place in a warehouse known as the Pleasure Dive in Westbourne Grove, near Notting Hill. One night in January 1985, clubbers found themselves rubbing shoulders with young men and women in leathers, mascara, spiky hair, and lashings of make-up unaware they were undercover cops.

At a signal, these erstwhile Goths whipped out their warrant cards and were promptly joined by five coachloads of uniformed officers who crashed into the club. This was the usual overkill of club raids in these decades. The club organiser, Simon Hobart, was led away in high heels, an impressive hairdo, and full Goth regalia. With a splash on the front page of The Sun, the leading tabloid newspaper of the time, his future career as a club impresario was assured.

I met him ten years later running the Popstarz club, which ironically offered a refreshing, booze-based alternative to the 1990s Ecstasy-fuelled mayhem of clubland at the time. By then he had embraced the Britpop look, music, and ethos. And it was in Popstarz I met my long-term partner. Sadly Simon Hobart died in 2005 but was treated to an obituary in the broadsheet newspapers, lauded as a cultural icon.

So, a police raid did him no harm (article continues below).

1980s police raids of clubs

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, the police targeted Afro-Caribbean clubs. The 1970 raid on the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill in 1970 led to a high-profile campaign to free the “Mangrove Nine” influenced by the Black Panther movement in the United States. The club had been raided twelve times over a one-year period. All nine people arrested during a protest about the raids were subsequently acquitted.

In the 1970s, Jamaican-born Wilbert Campbell – better known as Count Suckle – was instrumental in bringing ska and reggae music to Britain through the club scene and his DJ work. For over two decades, the Cue (later “Q”) club in Paddington, west London, was the epicentre of black music in the British capital.

That was, until it was raided by the police for infringing the licensing laws. Serving booze after hours to non-club members. Having a clientele that included Muhammad Ali, Elton John, Diana Ross, and the former United States ambassador to the UK, Andrew Young, didn’t save Count Suckle.

FIND OUT MORE: Racism in 1980s Coventry night clubs

The rise of video technology provoked a moral panic in the early 1980s. What was being shown behind closed doors in clubs? In November 1982, the Shelfield Working Men’s Club in Walsall was raided for screening the movie The Wanderers to a young audience. This 1979 movie came out about the same time as The Warriors, a superior film covering the same themes of American gang violence.

Just over forty years later, you can watch The Wanderers in its entirety on YouTube – prepare to be slightly disappointed and un-shocked.

When I was at college in the early 1980s, pubs shut at 3pm and re-opened early evening before closing again before 11pm. However, some pubs flouted these rules by operating lock-ins or attempting to circumvent the law by serving (something that passed for) food or defining themselves as a private members’ club. We always assumed that those bars frequented by off-duty or plain-clothes police, who could be spotted a mile off, were never going to be raided.

Well, that logic didn’t always hold up. One social club in Cheshire was visited not once but six times by plain-clothes police before being raided for serving drinks to non-members. Presumably the police had to reinforce their suspicions on multiple visits. One planned raid was aborted when a “mole” tipped off the club. Glasses were hurriedly cleared away and youngsters told to drink up.

The 1980s saw growing enthusiasm in the suburbs for what became known as Neighbourhood Watch schemes where net curtain twitchers looked out for crimes in progress and hurriedly rang the cops. This kind of collaboration between communities and police was seen as the future for local crime prevention. Trouble was – it could sometimes backfire on the twitchers.

The town of Boothstown, near Manchester, set up what was termed a Homewatch scheme in 1989. But within days, several members were swept up in a raid on the local Conservative club. Somebody in the locality had snitched on their after hours drinking. Spitting blood, one Homewatch organiser fumed at the cops over their priorities:

“A lot of youths congregate on fields by the club drinking. Is it more important for police to be raiding clubs than sorting these people out.”

In other words, the self-appointed pillars of the community felt their taxes should go towards harassing the young and minorities while leaving them to drink after hours as they saw fit.

1990s police raids of clubs

From the late 1980s, the police focussed on raids involving the seizure of Ecstasy. This continued for several years through the early 90s. The death in 1995 of Leah Betts, who took an MDMA pill and then drank seven litres of water in 90 minutes, became the focal point for anti-Ecstasy campaigners in the UK.

In 1992, the Broadway Boulevard club was raided in Ealing, west London with the arrest of 22 people and reported seizure of a large quantity of Ecstasy pills. Two of those arrested had to be rushed to hospital after swallowing pills during the raid.

One club in Coventry, The Eclipse, got so fed up of being branded a drugs haven that they invited the police to raid them any time they wanted. The acid house venue was well known throughout the UK for its great music and fun times. The owner made a candid statement to the press: “We would be liars to say the club is drugs free. But if they do get in here then nine times out of ten we catch them.”

The 1990s still saw many police raids on gay bars and clubs. This was particular irksome as assaults on LGBT people entering and leaving venues was an under-investigated commonplace. In 1994, police in Manchester launched a very heavy-handed raid on a club, the Mineshaft. The arrests were conducted by plain-clothes police, about thirty of them, for alleged “indecency”.

One man, Barrie, was handcuffed and led through the city streets in his Calvin Klein underwear, T-shirt, biker boots, and leather jacket. He felt this was an act of deliberate humiliation and that police were on a mission to close down Manchester’s gay scene. Many agreed. Ancient legislation was being used to intimidate LGBT venues. For example, The Equinox was prosecuted under the 1751 Disorderly House Act.

The Greater Manchester Police blew hot and cold on the gay scene. Sometimes extending an olive branch and pledging to build better relations with gay and lesbian people. Then next thing raiding clubs mob handed. Things had improved by the end of the decade but only after a great deal of pain.

FIND OUT MORE: Travelling back to Liverpool 1980s clubs

It’s very noticeable trawling back through contemporary newspaper reports, how many working men’s clubs got raided. These were the social backbone of blue-collar industrial communities throughout the 20th century. But having a proud history of serving booze to the workers was no guarantee of avoiding the long arm of the law.

In 1998, the Well Street Working Men’s Club in Wellfoot was raided after hours then dragged before the magistrates as 37 people had been discovered inside allegedly drinking illegally. Till rolls, membership books, and receipts were confiscated by police. Faced with a fine, the club dating back to 1906, was looking at closure.

If you have any memories of police raids on clubs – do share them here on the blog.

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