Trouble in Toxteth: Representations of the 1981 Riots in Liverpool in the National Press

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By Megan Murphy
I’m a third year History student at the University of Liverpool, a Gale Student Ambassador, and a self-proclaimed Jane Austen fanatic. As a modern historian, my main research interests revolve around the development of Victorian cities – particularly the crime and deviance that took place within them. Outside of my studies, in the rare time I spend without my head in a nineteenth-century newspaper, I specialise in binge-watching Louis Theroux documentaries.

Although Toxteth (an inner-city area of Liverpool) is now a proud and diverse community – one that is home to many independent businesses, local street markets and an urban regeneration project that was awarded the Turner Prize in 2015 – it is an area with a troubled past. In July 1981, four consecutive days of rioting in Toxteth resulted in the hospitalisation of 258 police officers, 160 arrests, 150 buildings being burnt to the ground, and countless businesses looted, with more destruction and injuries in the weeks that followed.[1]

The collection of digitised newspaper archives in Gale Primary Sources gives us the unique opportunity to investigate how the national press reported the 1981 disturbances, and how they made sense of the multitude of political, social and economic factors involved.

In the days immediately following the riots, press coverage was concerned with reporting the ‘facts’. Sensationalised headlines were also common, such as: ‘People in balaclavas were handing out petrol bombs’ and ‘A Week of Anarchy’. Such reports, that claimed the rioting, looting and damage in Toxteth ‘exceeded anything seen in mainland Britain’, undoubtedly provoked shock, outrage and even fear among the British public.

Glover-James, Ian, and John Williams. “‘People in Balaclavas were Handing out Petrol Bombs’.” Daily Telegraph, 7 July 1981, p. 3. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5bJz34. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

The above report also drew attention to the fact that CS gas was used by the police to control the crowds, for the first time outside of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Glover-James, Ian, and John Williams. “‘People in Balaclavas were Handing out Petrol Bombs’.” Daily Telegraph, 7 July 1981, p. 3. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5bJz34. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

Yet it did not take long for the media to become concerned with the array of complex and diverse debates intrinsically connected to the 1981 disturbances – of race relations, unemployment, poor housing conditions and problems with police powers.

Shortly after the riots unfolded, in an article in The Times Digital Archive, Phillip Waller (a modern history fellow at Oxford University) highlighted how categorising the riots purely as a ‘racial’ problem was highly problematic. In his article, entitled ‘Liverpool: why the clue to violence is economic not racial’, Waller states that ‘uneloquent though they may have been, the rioters have something to say, and that is about the intolerable circumstances they have been condemned to endure’. Indeed, many residents of Toxteth were enduring economic hardship. Strikingly, the 1971 census found that 19% of economically active males were unemployed in the Toxteth area, compared to 9.1% in Liverpool, and just 4.2% in Great Britain nationally.[2] These shocking figures make reports like Waller’s all the more important, in keeping with his warning that politicization of the ‘racial’ aspect of the events must be avoided.

Waller, Philip. “Liverpool: why the clue to violence is economic not racial.” Times, 7 July 1981, p. 12. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5bKbc7. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

Similarly, a report found in the Financial Times Historical Archive also highlights disparities in the standard of living experienced by Toxteth residents. The report argues that poor-quality housing was a key factor in causing the 1981 riots, stating that ‘there can be no doubt that sub-standard living conditions do not help to create a stable society’.

Furthermore, newspaper coverage of the riots also highlighted the tense relationship between members of the Toxteth community, particularly black males, and the police force. One report explicitly framed the riots as a ‘Black War on Police’.

“Black War on Police.” Daily Mail, 6 July 1981, p. [1]+. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5bK66X. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

In another report in The Sunday Times Digital Archive entitled ‘Why Riots Flared’, we hear this testimony from an anonymous black male about his experience of the riots:

Jones, Will Ellsworth, et al. “Why riots flared.” Sunday Times, 12 July 1981, p. 16+. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5bRkW4. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

This report exemplifies the extent of the horrifying problems that existed within the police force. The man’s assertions that ‘If you have a car in this town it must be stolen. If you have a white girl she must be a prostitute’, seem to be in line with chilling evidence submitted to a House of Commons Select Committee which suggested Toxteth police were prone to unjustly arresting black men for subjectively evaluated street offences, used racial slurs, threats of physical violence and even planted drugs or weapons on members of the black community.[3]

Overall, despite this small sample of newspapers only touching the surface of the extensive press coverage of the 1981 Toxteth riots, the issues we see the press engaging with give us a sense of the complexities faced when trying to assess the causes of the trouble. All too often, there is a tendency for social disturbances to be blamed simply on racial or cultural tensions – yet upon closer look there is almost always a multitude of contributing factors; in this case the vast array of economic strains, social tensions and political problems that had been simmering in Toxteth for many years.

 

Blog post cover image citation: Figure 1. Bevins, Anthony, Political Correspondent. “More aid for blacks or the riots could spread.” Daily Mail, 7 Aug. 1981, p. 9. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5h8br9. Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.

[1] D. Frost and R. Philips, Liverpool 81: Remembering the Riots (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), p. 2.
[2] B. T. Gideon, Racial disadvantage: minutes of evidence together with appendices, Tuesday 14 October 1980: Liverpool; [taken by the] Home Affairs Committee, Race Relations and Immigration Sub-Committee (London: H.M.S.O, 1980), p. 540.
[3] Ibid., p. 582.