1981 riots timeline

The riots, or 'uprisings', of 1981 took place over a period of barely three months, after which they ended almost as suddenly as they had first exploded right across Britain. An expression of years of frustration and anger at racism, discrimination, poverty, powerlessness and, perhaps above all, oppressive policing, as well as being an opportunity for all sorts of petty and not-so-petty crime, at their height they left the authorities baffled. Taken by surprise at both the ferocity and the extent of the violence that sometimes erupted, they struggled to keep a lid on things as the riots spread from one (often unexpected) place to another. 'The ruling class in Britain has lost its competence and its confidence,' declared the Guardian on 8 July.

If so, it didn't take long to get it back. By mid-July, the riots had burnt themselves out. Before the summer was even over, Britain's towns and cities had returned to an uneasy peace. But things would never be quite the same again.

These are the main events of those fateful few months.

13 January  Thirteen young black people die in a fire at a party at 439 New Cross Road, south London. Police dismiss the possibility of a racial motive for what turns out to have been arson, even though other black homes and a black community centre locally have also been attacked recently. The tragedy is followed by a 10-mile march of 15,000 people to central London - the biggest black demonstration yet seen in Britain - in protest against the perceived failure of the police to investigate the fire thoroughly. 'Thirteen dead, nothing said,' state the placards as the demonstrators, who march through Fleet Street, also complain about press indifference to black people's deaths.

28 March  In an echo of his 'rivers of blood speech' 13 years earlier, Enoch Powell, one of prime minister Margaret Thatcher's acknowledged foremost influences, warns of racial 'civil war' in Britain.

March/April  As part of a London-wide campaign against burglary and robbery, the Metropolitan Police launches Operation Swamp 81 in Brixton. In six days, 120 plain-clothes officers stop 943 people, the vast majority of them black, arresting 118. 'It was a resounding success,' says the head of the local CID. Police later justify the operation on the basis that the Brixton area had seen a 138% increase in robberies during 1976-80, compared with 38% across London as a whole. But hundreds of law-abiding black people are among those stopped, and complaints of harassment and racism multiply. Among those arrested are three employees of the Lambeth Community Relations Council. Relations between the black community and the police plumb new depths.

(Operation Swamp 81 took its name from remarks made by Margaret Thatcher in January 1978, when she said: 'People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture ... The British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world, that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.')

2 April  A 600-strong street party is held in the St Paul's district of Bristol one year after a police raid on the Black and White Café triggered the most serious riots on the British mainland since before World War II. The party, which passes off peacefully, is billed as a celebration of 'triumph over an oppressive establishment'. The previous week saw the last four of 16 people charged with riot freed when the jury hearing their cases failed to reach a verdict. Of the other 12, four had the charges against them dropped before they came to trial, three were found not guilty on the judge's instructions and a further five were acquitted by the jury.

6 April  The latest government figures show unemployment rising from 1.5 million to 2.5 million in 12 months. Joblessness among ethnic minorities is rising even faster, up 82% in one year.

10 April  In an indication of the mistrust felt towards the police by the black community, fuelled by Operation Swamp 81, police in Brixton who claim to be treating a black stabbing victim are surrounded by about 50 black youths, who 'rescue' the victim. Police reinforcements are driven back and tension remains high all day with sporadic confrontations between black youths and the police.

11 April  The arrest of a black youth outside a minicab office in Atlantic Road, Brixton, following a scuffle with a plain-clothes police officer, triggers violent clashes with police. At 5pm, a police car is set alight; an hour an a half later, the first petrol bombs are thrown. As clashes escalate between the police and local youths (both black and white), the fire brigade is unable to get through to deal with fires now raging in several locations, including the Windsor Castle public house. A fire engine is hijacked and a turntable burnt out in Railton Road. By the end of the night, 14 properties and 22 vehicles have been destroyed by fire. The Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir David McNee declares: 'I have this message for the people of Brixton. We will uphold and enforce law. Brixton is not a no-go area, nor will it be.'

12 April  Home secretary William Whitelaw tours Brixton with the Metropolitan Police commissioner to taunts of 'Seig heil!' and 'Why haven't you been here before?' That night sees further clashes and looting. In all, 7,300 police are deployed in Brixton before order is finally restored.

13 April  Home secretary William Whitelaw announces the appointment of Lord Scarman to conduct a public enquiry into the disturbances in Brixton. Scarman previously headed an enquiry into the violent clashes at Red Lion Square in 1975, when a student, Kevin Gateley, was killed during protests against a National Front rally.

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher dismisses suggestions that unemployment and racism lie beneath the Brixton disturbances, even though figures show that half of Brixton's black population are without jobs. 'Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened,' she says. Rejecting increased investment in Britain's inner cities, she adds: 'Money cannot buy either trust or racial harmony.' When the local council leader, Ted Knight, complains that the police presence 'amounted to an army of occupation' and provoked the riots, Thatcher responds: 'What absolute nonsense and what an appalling remark ... No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events ... They were criminal, criminal.'

Enoch Powell throws in his three ha'p'orth with a renewed warning that Britain 'has seen nothing yet'.

17 April  On a trip to India, prime minister Margaret Thatcher defends the government's Nationality Bill, which will further limit the rights of people from the black Commonwealth to come to Britain, and will make Britain the only country in the world where being born within its borders does not automatically confer nationality. She says immigration needs to be limited. The Times of India is unimpressed. Thatcher, it declares, 'has done more harm to race relations in Britain than any other post-war leader there'.

20 April  More than 100 people are arrested and 15 police injured in clashes with mainly black youths at fairs in Finsbury Park, Forest Gate and Ealing, all in London. A further 350 are arrested in 'incidents outside London'. Most go unreported by the press, but they offer a hint of how widespread is the potential for violent confrontation.

30 May  The TUC People's March for Jobs arrives in London, where 100,000-plus march to Trafalgar Square.

8 June  The Black Parents Association in Manchester says that Moss Side police station 'has long been regarded by the black community as the operational base of a racist army in occupation'. It accuses the police of 'SAS-style raids' and 'brutality, violence, intimidation and racial abuse'. This follows the use of 16 police vehicles and 28 officers to arrest a youth who had gone into a library carrying a 2 foot (0.6 metre) bamboo cane; he was later released without charge. Local minister, the Reverend Alex Mitchell, says Moss Side is a tinderbox but fears that warnings of a riot could become self-fulfilling.

13-14 June  More than 80 arrests are made during clashes between skinhead racists and black people in Coventry, where the National Front is planning a march later that month - on the same day as an anti-racist concert by local band, The Specials.

15 June  Lord Scarman's enquiry into the Brixton riots opens.

June-July  A wave of far-right attacks on the premises of black, multi-racial and left-wing organisations claims bookshops, the Labour Party, the Runnymede Trust and a north London community centre, burnt out in an arson attack, among its targets. In Walthamstow, four members of the Khan family, including three children, are killed in an arson attack on their home. Between 1976 and 1981 there have been 31 racist murders of black people in Britain. These include, in 1981, a disabled Sikh woman killed in Leeds after a petrol bomb attack on her home, and an elderly Asian woman in Leamington Spa, set alight after racists doused her in petrol.

3 July  The Hamborough Tavern in Southall - the heart of one of Britain's biggest Asian communities - is host to a far-right skinhead concert by The Foreskins. Several hundred skinheads, many of them sporting National Front banners and badges, are bussed in from outside. The pub comes under attack from Asian youths after an Asian woman is assaulted; it is eventually firebombed and burnt out. Barricades go up and the Uxbridge Road is sealed off. The police seem completely unprepared for the trouble that such a concert might cause, even though it was a National Front meeting in Southall in 1979 that led to the death of anti-racist protester Blair Peach after he was struck on the head with a police truncheon. The next day's Guardian comments: 'At the very least this is incompetence on a pretty grand scale.'

4-8 July  Liverpool 8, better known as Toxteth to outsiders, goes up in flames in four nights of what home secretary William Whitelaw describes as 'violence of extraordinary ferocity'. Police are forced to withdraw from a one-mile stretch of the main road through Toxteth as 150 buildings are burnt down and some 781 police officers are put out of action. Only when CS gas is used for the first time on the British mainland do the police regain control of the streets. Contrary to safety instructions, the gas is fired directly at people, resulting in a number of serious injuries.

7 July  Merseyside chief constable Kenneth Oxford attacks 'irresponsible parents' for letting out their children, who then become involved in riots and looting. He accuses around 100 'thieves and vagabonds' living in Toxteth of being ringleaders of the violence, and further inflames local feeling with his description of black Liverpudlians as 'the product of liaisons between white prostitutes and black sailors'.

Meanwhile, Teddy Taylor MP calls for the police to be issued with water cannon, and his fellow Tory Michael Brown demands an end to all immigration. The Liberal leader of Liverpool City Council, Trevor Jones, demands that the army be put on standby, and senior Social Democrat politician Shirley Williams accuses the left-wing Militant Tendency of training people for riots. Others point to police racism and unemployment as underlying what is becoming known among black activists as an 'uprising'. In Toxteth, unemployment has risen to 37%, climbing to 60% among young blacks, with 81,000 people chasing 1,019 jobs in Liverpool as a whole. As the end of the school term approaches, the local careers office has information on just 12 vacancies to offer school leavers throughout the city.

Around 250 youths, black and white, clash with police in Wood Green, north London; 43 are charged with theft and violence.

8 July  More than 1,000 young people besiege the police station at Moss Side, Manchester.

9 July  Three hundred police are required to quell street disturbances in Woolwich, south London.

Manchester chief constable, James Anderton, says he has abandoned the 'gentle touch' after two nights of rioting on Moss Side and will now deal with rioters his way. The police move on the area in force.

10 July  New riots in Brixton are accompanied by a wave of disturbances the length and breadth of Britain. Southall, Battersea, Dalston, Streatham and Walthamstow in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds, Highfields in Leicester, Ellesmere Port, Luton, Leicester, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Preston, Newcastle, Derby, Southampton, Nottingham, High Wycombe, Bedford, Edinburgh, Wolverhampton, Stockport, Blackburn, Huddersfield, Reading, Chester, Aldershot - all these and other towns and cities report 'riots' of varying degrees over the next few days.

Margaret Thatcher cancels a planned visit to Toxteth because her safety cannot be guaranteed. In London, all demonstrations and marches, including one planned by the National Front in Chelsea, are banned for a month. A funeral procession for Mrs Parveen Khan and her three children, killed in an arson attack  at the end of June, is called off due to fears of disorder.

13 July  Having cancelled her earlier planned visit, Margaret Thatcher pays an 8am visit to Toxteth. Merseyside chief constable Kenneth Oxford calls for armoured cars for the police, while government 'insiders' suggest that army camps might be used to detain rioters.

15 July  Early morning raids in search of alleged petrol bombs (none are found) trigger new clashes in Brixton, but the wave of disturbances is fading as fast as it arose. A de facto media blackout is imposed on potential 'flashpoints', to avoid a build-up of large numbers of people and to prevent supposed 'copycat' or media-induced rioting. But with new tactics and huge numbers of police now being deployed to counter any possible disturbances (a total of 7,300 were used to quell the Brixton riots), it seems that the 'uprisings' are, for the time being at least, a spent force.

16 July  Environment secretary Michael Heseltine is appointed 'minister for Liverpool' in a high-profile government attempt to bring new initiatives to bear on the decline and massive unemployment of this once-wealthy slave port. He reiterates, however, that no additional government money will be made available to the riot-hit areas.

25 July  1,000 motorcyclists clash with police in the Lake District town of Keswick, perhaps the last large-scale confrontation of the summer, although isolated clashes between young people and the police continue on a much smaller scale until the autumn.

1981 did not see the end of riots in British towns and cities. In 1985, PC Keith Blakelock was killed in a night of sustained violence at the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, following the death of a black mother during a police raid on her home. Further disturbances, albeit on a much smaller scale, punctuated the 1980s, and in 1993, a massive demonstration against the locating of the headquarters of the far-right British National Party in south-east London, where black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered, ended in serious violence.

The Scarman enquiry findings, when they came, focused on discrimination, unemployment and poverty as the primary underlying causes of the riots. But while accepting that there may be individual cases of racism within the police and other institutions of British society, Scarman rejected the notion of 'institutional racism'. Not until the 1999 McPherson enquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence six years earlier did it become officially accepted that dealing effectively with racism within the police means more than dealing with individual racist attitudes.

However, Scarman also found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police against black people. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which followed Lord Scarman's report, was intended to provide a new code for police behaviour. It also set up an independent Police Complaints Authority, established in 1985, in an attempt to restore public confidence in the police.