How Brixton became a byword for disorder

The area started out providing artisans with humble housing. It has ended up as a shorthand for strife.

Paul Vallely
Friday 15 December 1995 00:02

The three days of rioting that engulfed Brixton in April 1981 shocked the nation. The police were faced by mobs - throwing petrol bombs and attacking them with crowbars - which they could not control or even contain. It was unlike anything Britain had seen since the 1930s.

Crowds of young rioters - mainly black, though with some white youths involved - attacked police, fire fighters, and even ambulances. Cars were set on fire. Property was destroyed on a large scale. More than 320 people were injured, including more than 200 police officers, in pitched battles along what came to be known as the Railton Road "front-line". Even today those who participated refer to it as "the uprising".

Brixton became a byword for a new disorder. It was not always thus. The first recorded mention of the place was in 1067 when Brixistane, the north- east Hundred of Surrey, was an uninhabited moor. It was undeveloped until the early 19th century, when large suburban housing began to be erected along the country lanes. As the railways came, so the gaps were filled with denser, more humble housing for clerks and artisans.

But by the end of the century Brixton's character began to change in a defining way. The large, older homes became lodging houses, particularly for people working in the theatre. (Brixton was the home of Dan Leno, Fred Karno and the music hall and circus performer Thomas Major-Ball, father of the present prime minister, who spent his early days in a flat there.) The network of rooms for board was the perfect reception for migrant workers and immigrants; first came the Irish, and then, beginning in 1948, the West Indian community.

The process has continued apace. As with all influxes of immigrants, each new group gravitated to the spot where their fellow countrymen had made their home. By the Sixties enough of a sense of community had developed for local people successfully to resist plans by Lambeth Council for a large-scale redevelopment of the area. In the mid-Seventies a number of neighbourhood housing schemes were started instead, and migrants from other countries arrived to replace the departed Irish, who had gone up in the world. In came the Portuguese, Cypriot, Maltese, Chilean and Vietnamese - most of whom remain. Brixton, though popularly categorised as a black ghetto (30 per cent of the population is black) became a patchwork of communities.

The violence that erupted there in 1981 could, therefore, be blamed on any number of factors. The critics were not slow to select their favourites. There was heavy-handed policing. Or the high unemployment and the government policies that produced it. There was the legacy of social and economic neglect of inner cities from previous administrations. Or agitation by outside extremists. There was the weak parental control and home discipline in West Indian families. And there was the whole issue of the incompatibility of the races - the Monday Club immediately called for the repatriation of 50,000 immigrants a year and the repeal of all race relations laws.

There was no denying the problems between the black community and the police. The Metropolitan Police had persistently been accused of harassment. Under the notorious "sus" law, police were allowed to apprehend citizens on the mere suspicion of intent to commit a crime. Only two weeks before, riot police had stopped and searched 3,000 people in central Brixton as part of Operation Swamp against street crime.

But the Brixton riots were a sign of the times rather than the place. Riots followed soon after in Toxteth (where they were even more violent), Manchester, Southall, Reading, Liverpool, Hull and Preston. The Government's response was threefold. The Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, promised better anti-riot gear for the police. The Environment Secretary, Michael Heseltine, went to Toxteth and established an inner-city task force, later promising it would have pounds 90m to spend nationwide. And the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, set up an inquiry into the riots chaired by the distinguished judge Lord Scarman.

Six months later the Scarman report concluded that ethnic minorities had suffered disproportionately from the burdens that afflict all inner- city residents. "Unemployment and poor housing bear on them very heavily," he said. The education system was not well adapted to their needs. They perceived concealed discrimination in many areas. They did not feel politically secure. And some resorted to crime.

"The recipe for a clash with the police is therefore ready-mixed; and it takes little, or nothing, to persuade them that the police, representing an establishment which they see as insensitive to their plight, are their enemies," he reported. And he concluded: "Urgent action is needed if [racial disadvantage] is not to become an endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society."

As a result of his report the "sus" law was suspended; lay visitors were introduced in police stations; the Police Complaints Authority was created; consultative police committees were set up; more officers were put on the beat and attempts were made to attract more ethnic minority recruits.

All this led to more sensitive styles of policing and a new era was ushered in. With the Lawson boom in the mid-Eighties parts of Brixton became gentrified. A number of small black-owned businesses blossomed. Wine bars and restaurants burgeoned. The black community even had its own upwardly mobile role-models who were termed "buppies".

The tensions did not disappear entirely. In 1985, only two weeks after a riot in Handsworth, Birmingham, trouble broke out in Brixton, too. The proximate cause was the accidental shooting of a black woman, Cherry Groce, by police who kicked down the door of her home looking for her son in connection with an armed robbery. Mrs Groce entered the darkened hallway and was shot once, damaging her spine. Around 50 protesters marched to Brixton police station, but before long the peaceful protest turned into all-out assault. It ended with a running street-battle with the police, 55 cars set on fire and two shops gutted.

Even so, by April 1991, 10 years after the first riots, Lord Scarman was able to return to Brixton to see that things had improved. A lot had been done in education and job opportunities. "Black people were no longer thinking in terms of street disorder and having a go at the police," Lord Scarman said. Relationships between blacks and the police improved. Brixton was still a high-crime area but now no different from any other inner- city area, said a local police chief. And most people accepted that things really had changed.

Sir Paul Condon's recent attempt to do some preliminary community work before Operation Eagle Eye revealed as much. He may have bungled it by including in his letter to black community leaders the assertion that most muggers in London are black. But his attempt to bring the community on-side before the exercise began is in stark contrast to the complete lack of consultation before the massive Operation Swamp exercise in 1981.

For all the handsome facelift on the Brixton high streets, however, tensions have grown in recent times. The emerging black middle class, which might have grown as a buffer against unrest, is feeling unsettled, claiming that banks have not been supportive of their attempts as the recession has bitten. That recession has also led to cuts in many of the programmes designed to keep youth off the streets - many of which, with their multicultural and anti-racist rhetoric, laid themselves open to Tory jibes about loony- left councils.

Not that the leftist Lambeth Council has covered itself in glory in handling the deep-seated problems of Brixton. A major collapse of services - in education, housing and street services - has occurred amid accusations of incompetence and corruption. Housing is still poor on the estates where the black population largely lives. Schools' performance is very poor compared with the national average: the Dick Shepherd school, on Brixton's Tulse Hill estate, was closed recently after it achieved only a quarter of the national average in GCSE passes.

The Government seems to have no strategy to handle this. Regeneration programmes - which are short-term, highly focused and quick spending - cannot combat pressures on this scale. The area does not have the people or infrastructure to put regeneration cash to good use - the South Thames Training and Enterprise Council collapsed in bankruptcy. The whole area will continue to sink, many observers believe, until the situation gets out of control.

If it has not done so already. This week's violence was not as intense as that of 1981 but it may be just as serious. It points to the heart of the problem of Britain's inner cities today - and it is not one of race, but of economics.

Brixton today has far more mixed marriages than it had at the time of the 1981 riots. Residents speak of a general lack of racial hostility on the streets. But some 28 per cent of Brixton's blacks are unemployed and - like their white counterparts in Leeds or Luton, or their Asian contemporaries in Bradford - seem increasingly to feel that there is no route out of unemployment. Such perceptions create new realities.

The rhetoric of race may be there - as may the outside agitators, the criminal gangs and the black separatist extremists, all of whom have been mentioned in the media in the quest for scapegoats. Such factors are easy to isolate and to hunt. But the real problem is the young people on the streets who are not engaged in society - through the schools, through the economy, or through the family - and whose disastrous pattern of alienation may only be part of a chain of violent reactions to which society is yet to find an answer.

Lambeth: then and now


1981: 246,000, of which 25% belonged to non-white ethnic groups

Now: 258,500, of which 30% belong to non-white ethnic groups


1981: 10%

Now: 13.6%


1981: 8,250 households lacked one or more basic amenity

Now: 3,529 households lack one or more basic amenity

1981: 22% owner occupied; 33% rented privately; 45% rented from a local authority

Now: 36.2% owner occupied; 26.9% rented privately; 36.9% rented from a local authority

Social services expenditure

1981: pounds 117 per capita

Now: pounds 363 per capita

Source: Lambeth Borough Council; the Scarman report (1981)

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