Livelihoods destroyed as looters roam streets

Stores emptied and set ablaze as violence spreads across capital

The House of Reeves furniture store survived the Great Depression and Hitler's bombs but last night the rioters came and razed it to the ground.

It was set up in Croydon in 1867 by Edwin Reeves and four generations of his descendants carried on after him but the store is now little more than blackened walls, smouldering ashes and rubble.

Trevor Reeves, the owner, said: "It's just completely destroyed. Words fail me. It's just gone, it's five generations. My father is distraught at the moment. It's just mindless thuggery." Mr Reeves employs up to 20 people.

It was so much part of the local landscape that part of the town, Reeves Corner, was named after it, but it wasn't the only part of the Croydon to go up in flames. In Surrey Street, a few hundred yards away, a woman was trapped in one of the burning buildings and had to leap for her life from the first floor. In one of the most striking images of the night she was seen silhouetted against flames as she leapt into the arms of people standing below to break her fall.

The day's violence started in earnest in Hackney where police repeatedly came under attack from rioters throwing sticks, bricks and bins. A Tesco store was raided by laughing and joking looters who walked off with crates of Diet Coke, Ribena and bottled water. When police charged in to clear them they responded by throwing cans of drink that had just been stolen.

Much of the unrest was devoted to looting. In New Cross Gate, up to 100 youths raided an electrical superstore. One was later seen brazenly knocking on doors trying to sell stolen televisions.

In Whitechapel looters attempted to break into the Islamic Bank but were chased off by incensed worshippers who saw what was going on as they left evening prayers at the East London Mosque. Muslim youths were last night guarding the bank.

As the unrest spread to fresh parts of London, workers were left wondering whether it was safe to go home. One man in Bethnal Green was heard warning a friend by mobile phone: "It's a war zone. Wherever you are, stay there."

Commuters leaving Clapham Junction railway stations reacted with bemusement and then fear as they stepped out into a scene of chaos, realising that the objects landing at their feet were bricks and hunks of rock.

In St John's Road there was barely a shop that had escaped their attentions and the road was littered with broken glass, brand new mobile phones and a computer console. A passer-by was astonished at seeing the mobiles strewn in the street, and promptly helped himself.

Many residents were later told to evacuate their homes after a fancy dress shop went up in flames – looters had broken in to steal masks to cover their faces – and Debenhams, Subway, Wimpy and JD Sports were among the shops and restaurants to be damaged on Lavender Hill. Several hundred people were still in the area at midnight.

Unrest also continued to break out in fresh places. Soon after midnight police in Camden set up cordons to seal off streets and a little earlier rioting erupted in Ealing where gangs of youths rampaged through the area setting fires, smashing windows and breaking into shops. At least 30 masked rioters were involved. Christian Potts, a local resident, described what he had seen: "There were about 25 to 30 masked youths on Haven Green and they just started tearing into a florist with bricks.It's a local family-run business so I can't see why they are doing this."

Four looters had to be rescued by firefighters from a branch of PC World on an industrial estate at Colliers Wood. One is thought to have been trapped underneath steel shutters.

And the violence wasn't restricted just to London. In Birmingham at least nine arrests were made as 200 youths rampaged. The city's Bullring shopping centre was closed but scores of shop windows and doors – including sportswear and mobile phone stores – were smashed by gangs as shoppers and workers looked on. Some bystanders sobbed as rioters, their faces covered with hats, scarves and hoods, attacked jewellery and computer stores on the High Street. Shops and fast food outlets on Corporation Street, Temple Row, High Street and New Street appeared to bear the brunt of the violence.

A spokesman for West Midlands Police said a number of arrests had been made but could not give a precise figure, adding that officers were continuing to make new arrests as they cleared the city. He said: "Things do seem to have calmed down a little bit now. There are a small number of groups who are still causing trouble in the city centre and officers and public order teams are working to arrest them."

In Leeds, a man was shot and suffered facial injuries in the Chapeltown area. Up to 100 youths were reported to have confronted police.