How a riot in Southall became a symbol of police corruption

Shortly before 8pm on a wet Monday in April 1979, a police van carrying six officers from Unit 1 of the Metropolitan Police's Special Patrol Group pulled up on Beechcroft Avenue in west London alongside a group of anti-fascist protesters who had been picketing a National Front meeting at Southall Town Hall.

Among the crowd was Clement Blair Peach. Within moments of the police van arriving Mr Peach, a 33-year-old slim, bearded teacher from New Zealand, suffered a blow to the head which fractured his skull and would later kill him.

Bruised but not bleeding, Mr Peach staggered across the road and into a nearby house. When an ambulance called to collect him arrived at 8.12pm, Mr Peach, perhaps not realising the severity of the situation, told paramedics: "My head hurts". Four hours later, at 12.10am, he died at New Ealing hospital.

His case became a cause celebre for campaigners who had often complained about the heavy-handed tactics of the Special Patrol Group (SPG), an elite unit, which came to consider itself as a separate entity within the Met.

It was immediately suspected that a police officer had delivered the blow which killed Mr Peach but it was never proven. A three-decade-long campaign followed, yet, far from secure a prosecution, Mr Peach's family and friends have never even been able to ascertain the exact details of the last moments of his life.

But yesterday a previously unseen police report provided them with closure, of a sort. It revealed that it was almost certainly a policeman who killed Mr Peach and even identifies the officer thought to have delivered the fatal blow.

The release of the documents is bittersweet, however, because, failing a confession, no-one will ever face prosecution over Mr Peach's death.

The report, complied by Commander John Cass, says that his investigation was thwarted by the six officers in the van which pulled into Beechcroft Avenue on that night.

Chief among the culprits was Officer E – the man identified as being most likely to have struck the fatal blow.

Although the report says he was "well thought of with potential for high rank", it adds he was a young officer with "a forceful personality". It was elements of the latter trait which manifested themselves on 23 April 1979. The report paints a picture of an arrogant officer who revelled in the confrontational atmosphere of that night.

One witness said that Officer E got out of the van, waving his truncheon and shouting: "Come on you bastards". It was at this point that 14 witnesses saw an SPG officer hit Mr Peach.

But Commander Cass uses his report to outline the collective amnesia suffered by Officer E and his five colleagues, officers F, G,H,I and J, who found themselves unable to recall any incident that day involving an altercation with Mr Peach – who would have been memorable as one of the only white protesters at the scene. The report describes how, amid the confusion and chaos of a barely-controlled riot, three of the six officers produced suspiciously identical accounts of the day's events, each of them failing to make any mention of the assault on Mr Peach.

Commander Cass wrote: "No officer has admitted striking Clement Blair Peach either deliberately, accidentally, or given an account which would indicate that he may have done so without realising it."

In further interview, Officer E was no more helpful. When it was suggested he must have seen Mr Peach being hit, he replied: "Well I didn't. How much longer have I got to stay?"

Cass also suggested that officers had altered their appearances, growing beards and shaving moustaches, to hamper the investigation by making identity parades more difficult.

Speaking about the actions of the officers with respect to the similar statements and refusal to co-operate, Commander Cass added: "A strong inference that can be drawn from this is that they have conspired together to obstruct police."

The investigation, which was kept from public view for 31 years in the vain hope that a prosecution would materialise, also revealed a worrying culture within the SPG.

An Officer F was suspended after the investigation team found a lead cosh and a whip in his locker. He was also in possession of a stolen driving licence. In an interview he justified possession of the cosh by saying he was a collector of weapons including "Nazi memorabilia" such as bayonets and swords.

Five other officers were found to be in possession of a variety of potential weapons, including a sledge hammer, three knives, wooden staves, a crowbar and three unauthorised truncheons.

Nonetheless, while Commander Cass is critical of the officers who refused to help his investigation, he reveals views which would raise eyebrows if uttered at Scotland Yard today. He suggests that, not withstanding the death of Mr Peach, police can be legally justified in using the most extreme measures in dealing with a riot. Quoting from a legal text, he said: "In case of riot or rebellious assembly the officers endeavouring to disperse the riot are justified in killing them at common law if the riot cannot otherwise be suppressed."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all