Toxteth's toxic legacy: Liverpool is still feeling the impact of the Toxteth riots

Thirty years have passed since Liverpool's poverty-fuelled riots destroyed parts of the city. Stephen Kelly, who covered the violence in 1981, reports from a city that still feels its impact

Michael Heseltine, former "Minister for Merseyside" was back in Liverpool last month, to reopen the site that was once home to the International Garden Festival, Heseltine's pet project back in the early 1980s; his answer to the Toxteth riots, when the most serious rioting on mainland Britain highlighted poverty and racism in the city's police.

The politician's visit may have been a time for celebration, but not everybody welcomed him back warmly.

It was a hot, sticky July evening in 1981 when Leroy Cooper was subjected to a 'stop and search' all too familiar in Toxteth. A watching crowd intervened and the incident turned into a fracas with three policemen injured.

Tensions mounted and that night the first wave of serious rioting began.

Over the next nine days Liverpool 8 became a no-go area as pitched battles erupted, echoing rioting that had torn apart Brixton earlier that year.

"We started by bricking the police station and then bricked every police car that came into Liverpool 8," recalls Darrin Rawlins. "Rioting was emancipating. It's on my list of 10 things you should do before you die."

Detective Superintendent Tim Keelan saw it differently. He was a young PC then and was drafted in as the rioting escalated. "It was terrifying," he says. "We had no protective equipment: just these round shields and an ordinary copper's helmet with a flimsy plastic visor. We had no tactical awareness or skills in riot control."

Rawlins says: "The police were lined up in their dozens, banging on their shields and making monkey noises. Our adrenaline was flowing."

As police struggled to stop the riot spilling over into the nearby city centre, CS gas was used for the first time on mainland Britain. In the end police succeeded in containing the riots, but 450 officers were injured, 500 people arrested and extra police drafted in from around the country. One man was killed, though as Rawlins says, it's a wonder more didn't die. Some 70 buildings were demolished. Such was the scale of destruction that it was likened to the Blitz. Hundreds of cars were torched and damage to property was put at over £11m. But the cost to community relations was higher.

Liverpool is not unused to trouble. Multiculturalism has long been a crucial feature of the city. Its Chinatown is the oldest in Britain and the black community can trace its roots back to the 18th century. The city's history is peppered with race riots, political struggles and sectarian skirmishes.

By the late 1970s Liverpool's black population was estimated at 8 per cent with more than half born in the city. But segregation in housing meant they were confined to Toxteth.

However, probably the most crucial element in the mix was unemployment. "The Mersey [used to be] full of ships, waiting for a berth in the docks," recalls Derek Hatton, former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council.

"But then trading patterns changed and Britain turned towards Europe. The docks went idle, with nothing to replace them."

And then came the Tory cutbacks of 1980 with few regions experiencing the effects worse than Merseyside. Between 1974 and 1981 unemployment among whites doubled in Liverpool, but among blacks increased threefold. In Toxteth, one in two men were without work. Black people constituted less than 1 per cent of council employees, while in city centre shops and factories it was even less.

The black population had, after successive confrontations over the years, retreated into Toxteth. It was rare to see black people in city centre shops or at either of the football grounds.

Nor did they frequent the city's clubs, where an unofficial no-entry rule was in force. Instead they set up their own, such as the Somali and the Sierra Leone.

"I think in 1981 many in the city were totally unaware of its black population," says Hatton. "Liverpool's black community was different to most in one important respect. It was not a new immigrant community – it had been there for many years. They wore the same clothes, spoke the same Scouse and many were mixed race."

But to describe the events of 1981 as a race riot would be an easy but misguided judgement. "It was not a race riot," insists Rawlins. "If you saw the numbers of white people involved you could see that race didn't come into it. It was about unemployment, housing, education, equal rights and so on."

Indeed similar rioting also kicked off that weekend in Norris Green, a predominantly white area.

"A sense of worthlessness and anger had been built up," he says. "The SUS laws were just an excuse for the police to go out, stop anyone, give them a going over. All the time we were being picked up. That's why we never went into the city. You knew what would happen."

The political response to the rioting showed distinct signs of panic. Mrs Thatcher crept into Liverpool unannounced at 8.00am one morning and was gone before anyone realised. Environment Minister Michael Heseltine was drafted in as special Minister for Merseyside. He was visibly shocked at what he found – an intransigent Chief Constable, a racist police force, mass unemployment, poverty, poor housing and, above all, despair. But while Heseltine may have been a Tory grandee, he won many over with a seemingly genuine determination to help. Community liaison bodies were established and money was earmarked for development, but as Hatton says, "it didn't come from central government, instead it finished up coming off the city budget".

Reclaimed land in the Dingle was given over for Heseltine's idea of an International Garden Festival. The Albert Dock was also transformed and houses were built.

So, 30 years on what's changed? "Well, we ended up with more cherry trees than anywhere in the country," says local black Labour councillor Anna Rothery. "We did get a law centre, but that's closed and we had a few boys' clubs, but there's been no real continuity of investment. And as for the Garden Festival, well it was left to rot after a couple of years. We got no jobs from it then and I doubt we'll get any with the new venture," she adds.

But she agrees that there have been strides in terms of integration and people do venture out of Toxteth.

"But much more needs to be done," she says. "We are still not a visible community. Liverpool is a tale of two cities."

Walk around the city centre or down the docks and you will see major investment in shopping, housing and construction. But many feel that the developments have done little for the black community. "I get pissed off with people saying: 'Oh yeah, Liverpool's really on the up now," says Rawlins. "But you go into the new Liverpool One shopping centre and you won't see any blacks there. We had the Year of Culture, but it was hardly inclusive. What did we get from it?"

"Look at some of the city's biggest employers," says Rothery. 'They have hardly any Liverpool-born black staff. They may have some who have come into the city, but few from Toxteth.

"The university is filled with black overseas students, who we welcome, but where are the black students from Liverpool 8? And it's the same with the health service."

She also points out that there are just three black councillors out of 90 on the city council and no Chinese councillors.

"Up until a year ago there was only one black councillor and that was me. All the parties still have some way to go to ensure they become inclusive and truly reflective of Liverpool society."

For the police, the riots were a watershed. Attitudes had to change. Black recruitment targets were introduced. "We now have 140 black officers on Merseyside, just above our target level," says Detective Superintendent Tim Keelan.

"In hindsight, yes we did abuse SUS and we were heavy-handed, but we do liaise more with the community nowadays. Then it was a police force, now it's about police support. Things have changed massively."

In 1985 there were further riots and Darrin Rawlins claims there have been skirmishes most years.

Unemployment in the city may not be at 1981 levels, but it is still desperately high at around 8 per cent. Walk around Toxteth and you see youths on the streets, boarded-up houses, drugs, demolition; social deprivation stares you in the face. Rothery is concerned economic forces are aligning dangerously, but: "Despite everything I still remain optimistic," she says.

Rawlins is not convinced.

"As unemployment rises, people will become more politicised. It could kick off at any time and next time it'll be worse. A lot worse," he says.

Stephen Kelly is a writer and broadcaster, who reported on the Toxteth riots for Granada Television

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

    £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

    Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

    £26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen