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Why Liverpool 8 exploded - and what happened next

Updated Tuesday, 26th July 2011

Thirty years after the centre of Liverpool was the site of sustained rioting, a new book explores the causes, and finds out what happened next. Laurie Taylor talks to the authors.

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Laurie Taylor:
Almost thirty years ago to the day I sat with my two student lodgers in front of a tiny television set in the back kitchen of my terraced house in York and watched as the roads and shops and buildings that I’d known from childhood were transformed into a battle ground.

News archive:
More than a hundred white and coloured youths fought a pitched battle against the police. Some were as young as twelve, the oldest no more than twenty. It lasted for eight hours. The worst of the rioting came just after dawn when police faced a hail of stones and bottles, iron bars and petrol bombs.

The missiles were hurled from behind barricades of upturned and burning cars. At daylight the police began a series of charges to break up the gangs massed in front of them. But as the rioters fell back they set fire to more buildings. And sporadic looting which had been going on all night now spread.

And still the bricks, stones and lumps of iron were thrown, worst of all the petrol bombs. The trouble started about midnight when gangs of black youths began stoning cars in the street. One owner said his windscreen was smashed and he was dragged from his car at gunpoint.

Police had been standing by for trouble since Friday night when two officers were attacked as they tried to arrest a motorcyclist. And tonight police are on full alert in case the rioting breaks out again.

Laurie Taylor:
BBC Television News reporting on the 1981 Liverpool riots. But how are those days now remembered by the people who lived through them, by the police, the rioters, the residents? And how has our understanding of the reasons behind those dramatic disturbances changed over time?

Well, just some of the question which are addressedin a new book called Liverpool 81 - Remembering the riots and the co-editors are Diane Frost: who’s lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool and Richard Phillips who’s reader in Geography,,also at the University of Liverpool. They’re now with me.

Richard, we know that there were riots going on in other parts of the country in that summer of eighty one – Bristol, Brixton in South London. Just tell me about what was distinctive about the Liverpool riots in terms of their scale, their extent, their duration?

Richard Phillips:
Well the first riots that happened, happened the year before in St Paul’s in Bristol, in 1980, the first of that wave.

Brixton erupted in April 1981, and they were significant in a sense that petrol bombs that we’ve just heard mentioned are thrown for the first time in mainland Britain.

But in Liverpool,riots erupt in July which run for a weekend, [and] there’s riots taking place in other parts of the country as well. What happens in Liverpool, though, is distinctive in terms of how long this goes on. We’ve got six weeks of riots.

By the end of them 150 buildings have been destroyed, 780 police have been injured, one rioter, at least one man on the street has been killed, countless others have been hurt but those are not recorded; and countless members of the community have been put in prison - many, many held without charge.

Laurie Taylor:
I think people listening to this will perhaps be reminded of that if I say "Toxteth Riots". But you want to query the use of that appellation? Voelas Street, Liverpool 8 Creative commons image Icon John S Turner under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Liverpool 8 in early 2011

Richard Phillips:
“Toxteth” is an interesting word because it’s a word that the national media use. The national media use it to label a place. It’s not, a word that’s recognisable in Liverpool.

In Liverpool the riots are very much identified by people with “Liverpool Eight”. You might think that’s a technicality and, and it’s a pedantic difference but what it really symbolises is the way that people in Liverpool feel that they’ve been described and labelled by a national press and that’s a symbol of that.

So Liverpool Eight to people in Liverpool, Toxteth to the national media.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me turn to you, Diane, because we heard just at the very end of that report the reference to the idea that the specific catalyst was the arrest of one young black motorcyclist. Why should that particular arrest trigger such an extraordinary chain of events?

Diane Frost:
I think the arrest of Leroy Cooper was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because what we found from the oral testimonies, when we spoke to people, was the overwhelming consensus that this arrest was really the last straw; and that this was indicative of months and even years of young people, both black and white, but particularly young black people [feeling harassed]. Black males within the Liverpool Eight area had said that they had been intimidated, that they’d been stopped and searched, that there was a lot of police harassment, police brutality and that nobody was listening to their voices

Laurie Taylor:
[People have suggested that unemployment and economic deprivation was] what lay behind it, particularly those people who tried to think about economic regeneration of Liverpool afterwards, but you appear in your answer to be concentrating upon the ways in which the police were involved in arresting, stopping, searching, harassing in general?

Diane Frost:
I think there’s a recognition within the oral testimonies from the people that we interviewed ,that of course there was high unemployment, that there was a lot of social inequality and deprivation, multiple deprivation, and that is the wider context.

But of course it was this day to day, routine, stopping, searching, harassing, beatings that most of the oral testimonies would argue was the main factor.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeah and you’ve gone out of your way to get police perspectives on this. To what extent are these police perspectives, when you get them, confirm[ing] this?

Richard Phillips:
Well, John Murphy who was, a policeman on the beat at the time, and was involved in policing the riots – he’s now the Chief Constable in Liverpool – and he acknowledges that though there were some efforts on the part of some police to be even-handed, and to try to do things differently, he acknowledges that there was discrimination and that things weren’t as good as they could have been.

So it’s really great to have a policeman reflecting back on that and saying that. But I think that there’s a journey which was needed to take place, is acknowledged by that policeman.

Diane Frost:
Yeah, I think John Murphy concedes that the police were not as sensitive towards the black community at that particular time as much as they could have been; or that they weren’t really aware and that there were problems between the police and the community with the police targeting particularly young black males. Michael Heseltine Creative commons image Icon E G Focus under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license Michael Heseltine, on a more recent visit to Liverpool

Laurie Taylor:
If we look at some of the testimony which has been provided to you, some of the rioters’ memories, some of those who participated were very, very young weren’t they?

Tell me about, for example, Michael Simon who was around about thirteen in 1981. You make specific mention of him, don’t you?

Diane Frost:
Yeah. Michael grew up in the Liverpool Eight area, part of a larger mixed race family. And Michael was out for something like three days during the disturbances because he couldn’t get back home.

And he relates in the book his experiences of being, he uses the term “battered”, a colloquial, north western, northern term.

He was battered endlessly by the police in the back of police vans whilst he was arrested and put in prison.

Richard Phillips:
And all at the age of thirteen.

Diane Frost:
All at the age of thirteen.

Laurie Taylor:
We see a great deal of escalation going on during the days of the riot. Was this because there were a lot of people coming in from outside the area? One often finds that attracts other people from outside the area.

Richard Phillips:
Yeah we hear the word “spontaneous” used by many people to describe the first day or two. It was a release, a moment where no one had really planned these riots. They happened.

And it’s a great outpouring of pent up frustration. What happens after that though is that people do come into the area from outside and there’s a little bit of irritation inside that this local demonstration [has] become appropriated by who knows who.

But then again there’s also a sense I think that the anger inside continues to be felt and and the death of David Moore doesn’t happen for some time after the first weekend; and then there’s a demonstration,against the police that August.

So, there is a local strength of feeling which is built upon, but there’s also a sense of the outsiders, and this is a story we get every time there are riots.

Laurie Taylor:
I can still remember some of the pictures. And it was frightening. Must have been very frightening for the police as well, what was going on.

Richard Phillips:
That’s right, yes.

Laurie Taylor:
Javelins were being thrown, petrol bombs being thrown at them. The idea, of course, was also put around that this was just an anarchic, unfocused protest but there are some sort of indications from your research that people had some targets in mind.

I think Diane, Dave, a sixteen year old rioter was talking about this club Racquets. Tell me about why this was an appropriate target.

Diane Frost:
I think for David and perhaps many other young people I think the Racquets Club was a private members club for the local elite, for judges and, and other such people ,and it was based right in the heart of Liverpool Eight.

But of course people within the community were were excluded from going in there, so there was a sense for, for David and others, that this was a kind of target, based on class, social class because of the privileges and those people who used the club.

Laurie Taylor:
I think that also people will remember that what happened after the riots: Heseltine’s famous arrival in the area, with the idea of introducing a whole series of initiatives which might improve the situation.

Can you pick up the story on that Richard? Exactly what happened?

Richard Phillips:
Well Heseltine basically arrived and sets up a government in Liverpool. He’s identified by the media as "the Minister for Merseyside". What he tries to do is to shift the agenda back away from policing, toward economic regeneration.

He sets up a whole series of projects, none of which it’s easy to object to, projects for improving environment, projects for attracting private investment.

They’re al,l I think, seen as quite welcome but they’re not focused on Toxteth, Liverpool Eight. They’re not focused on the real issues.

Lord Scarman is running an enquiry at the same time, bringing policing into, into focus but Heseltine is focused on economy. So I think, all very well and good nd quite well received but not really the issue that people locally want him to address. The Liverpool Garden Festival Creative commons image Icon Pete Chapman under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license The Liverpool Garden Festival, part of a response to the riots

Laurie Taylor:
So as you say there are these economic initiatives, all these reports and enquiries – Gifford and Scarman and Faith in the City -the churches were involved in Liverpool weren’t they as well?

Richard Phillips:
That’s right. So as soon as the riots are taking place, we see both of the bishops in Liverpool essentially joining hands and going out onto the streets.

They’re asked by the media to condemn the riots, condemn the rioters. And they don’t do that. They don’t condemn the riots. They try to ask why the riots are taking place.

But they followed that up with a whole Anglican Church Faith in the City agenda where they identify urban priority areas and they produce a report which is illustrated entirely [with] pictures from Toxteth, so Toxteth – and I think this is the important thing – Toxteth is used to create an agenda which is not just local but it’s national.

So out of this place of deprivation, out of a place where people really haven’t got much cultural capital they’re able to actually set a national agenda in terms of thinking about inner cities, in terms of changing police community relations.

Laurie Taylor:
And therefore, Diane ,when you speak to people, do they want to say with reference to some of the things that Richard’s talking about that it was worthwhile; the rioters feel that they got something of what they wanted out of it?

Diane Frost:
I think it was a mixed picture. I think the so-called rioters felt that they had little choice. Lady Margaret Simey had said that, she, she thoughtthat the riots were inevitable because of what had been building up, because of the economic deprivation.

Laurie Taylor:
But when you talk to the people they say 'yes, conditions have improved, things are better now, policing is now better'?

Diane Frost:
I think there’s a mixed picture. Most of the oral testimonies talk about welcoming the changes but many of them are consistent in saying that the changes didn’t go far enough, that many of these changes benefited business rather than local communities; you know, 'the garden festival was very nice but then again it didn’t employ local labour, it used labour from outside'. Policing has shifted. I think Wally Brown, one of the community leaders talked ten years after the riots about policing having moved on but today, people will argue that policing is still a problem within the community.

Laurie Taylor:
Last quick word. Can we talk about multiculturalism of the city now?

Richard Phillips:
Yes. When, when Liverpool promotes itself as capital of culture 2008 using the strap line to do that “The world in one city”, to me that’s embracing the things that Liverpool was afraid of thirty years ago.

This debate was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 13th July 2011.

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