The riots of 1981: When anarchy gripped the West Midlands

As the Liverpool district of Toxteth went up in flames, a reporter from The Times thought it would be a good idea to write a feature about an inner-city community at peace with itself.

Police facing rioters in Handsworth in July, 1981
Police facing rioters in Handsworth in July, 1981

Attending a festival at Handsworth Park in Birmingham, he wrote glowingly about "8,000 people, black and white" in "a spirit as amiable and peaceful as a rural village fete".

Four days later, Handsworth was on fire too.

It is 40 years since the infamous summer of rioting tore through the West Midlands. While Handsworth suffered the worst, Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury were also hit by copycat outbreaks. Although the disturbances fizzled out after a few days, they left scars behind which are still to fully heal.

As is so often the case, the precise grievances that sparked the riots in the first place quickly got lost as the violence took hold.

In Handsworth, it is thought the violence was sparked by rumours that the National Front was planning a march through the area, although the march didn't actually materialise. But during a long-hot summer, at a time of soaring youth unemployment and discontent about inner-city decay, it rarely took much to set the tinderbox aflame. Ghost Town, The Specials' eerie and melancholy song about urban decline, would become the soundtrack to a summer of mayhem.

Tensions had been simmering for some months, and Brixton in south London was the first area to be hit by a riot. In response to an increase in burglaries and robberies across London – and Brixton in particular – the Metropolitan Police mounted an operation called Swamp 81. In just six days, 943 people were stopped by plain-clothes police officers, leading to 118 arrests.

Resentment built up among young black men, who believed they were being unfairly targeted, and tensions reached fever pitch when word got out that a young man called Michael Bailey had been brutally attacked by police. Officers had actually taken him to hospital after finding him with stab wounds, but once the rumours took hold, the damage was done.

It was the heavy-handed arrest of 20-year-old Leroy Alphonse Cooper on July 3 that sparked the Toxteth riots. His detention led to a brief disturbance that left three officers injured, but instead of fading away, the trouble escalated over the days that followed. The crowds were eventually dispersed with the use of CS gas – the first time such a tactic had been used in Great Britain.

In Handsworth and Wolverhampton, the worst violence took place on the nights of July 10 and 11. On the first night of the trouble, nearly 100 people were arrested and five police officers injured in what this newspaper described as a 'five-hour orgy of destruction'. A total of 50 shops were wrecked and looted and £500,000 worth of damage was caused – about £2 million at today's prices.

A man runs off with a shirt after looting Foster's in Dudley Street, Wolverhampton
Shopkeepers survey the damage in Handsworth

Surveying the scenes in Handsworth on the morning of July 11, Express & Star reporter Ken Tudor described "an eerie dawn chorus of burglar alarms" as "law-abiding residents drifted among the main shopping street, strewn with rubble and glass for two miles."

In Wolverhampton, reporter Derek Tucker described violence that had simmered throughout the day finally boiling over as the pubs closed.

"Small gangs of youths who had prowled the streets earlier in the evening began bombarding shops in Market Street and Dudley Street with bricks and bottles," he wrote.

"A hi-jacked car was first crashed and then overturned as the gangs ran amok through the Mander Centre. Bricks were hurled indiscriminately through shop windows, and looters picked their way through the debris, snatching clothing as they ran. Windows were smashed in Foster Menswear and Littlewoods in Dudley Street, then at Tandy's audio shop in Market Street."

Coachloads of police were dispatched to the town centre in an attempt to bring the area under control.

The violence continued the next day, as terrified Saturday afternoon shoppers witnessed stand-offs between police and looters in both Wolverhampton and Birmingham city centre.

Police preparing for trouble in Wolverhampton
Officers guarding the entrance to Dunstall Road police station in Wolverhampton

In Wolverhampton, teacher John Wassall was looking at rings at a jeweller's when the shop was surrounded by youths.

"The gang began throwing bricks at shops, and people were running all over the place to try to get out of the way," he said. Similar scenes were also reported in Walsall, where two officers were hurt and 17 people arrested.

Whitmore Reans bore the brunt of the second night of violence, with hordes of hooligans descending on the smart new Farndale estate, which had been built on the site of the former Courtalds textile works off Hordern Road.

One resident of Hordern Road said: "They came past our house like an army of ants. There must have been 150 of them. I was terrified, you just don't expect to see such a sight in this country". The police station in Dunstall Road came under attack for the second time in 24 hours when a 150-strong mob started throwing stones.

Reporter Peter Salkeld, who himself was hit by a brick, described residents in Farndale Avenue asking from their bedroom windows "Is it over yet?", while others stood anxiously in their front gardens wondering if their homes would be attacked.

Some residents claimed that disturbances in Whitmore Reans came after a police car had been driven ''too close' to pedestrians, causing anger.

The Little Swan pub in Horseley Fields was another flashpoint in Wolverhampton
Police line up behind riot shields as they run the gauntlet of petrol bombs, bottles and stones in Farndale Avenue, Whitmore Reans

West Midlands Labour Party accused the police of 'provocative action', particularly with regards to the deployment of the Special Patrol Group, which was used to chase away looters in Wolverhampton. But West Midlands Chief Constable Sir Philip Knight defended his actions, saying that the toll of the looting and rioting would have been much worse had it not been for the strong relationship between the police and community.

Sir Philip said some of the people arrested over the weekend had given addresses in London, and that people with "extreme militant tendencies" had been seen at the riot scenes.

How much of the violence was down to outside agitators will probably never be known. But there was no shortage of locals who took part in the disturbances either. In the days that followed, a 23-year-old man from Dudley was jailed for a month for chanting "Let's have a riot", while a 17-year-old from Rubery, near Bromsgrove, was sentenced to three months' detention for overturning bins, jostling passers-by and shouting.

One thing we can be certain of is that the events of July 1981 changed Britain forever.

Just as Jerry Dammers' gloomy lyrics had displaced the jaunty upbeat sound of Bucks Fizz, Dixon of Dock Green would be replaced by a new generation of police officers trained in dealing with violent combat, using riot shields, and deploying CS spray.

And Handsworth, the Birmingham suburb "as amiable and peaceful as a rural village fete", would always remember the weekend that law and order broke down.

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