How smouldering tension erupted to set Brixton aflame
Archive report from the From the excellent Guardian Century series
Monday April 13, 1981: The timetable of events which turned part of London into a battleground of burning buildings and looted shops.
On Friday afternoon, a police patrol in Brixton stopped to help a black youth who had been stabbed in the back.
The incident marked the beginning of a build-up of police strength and a confrontation began which erupted into violence on Saturday afternoon when a black youth was arrested outside a minicab office.
Police and firemen, called to deal with fires started by Molotov cocktails, came under barrages of missiles.
Cars and buildings burned and shops were looted as the battle raged. Lindsay Mackie and Mike Phillips trace the sequence of events which led to what a Methodist minister described as a "fireball of anger".
The build-up of tension which exploded on Saturday evening in the heart of Brixton began on Friday afternoon, when a police car patrol spotted a young black wandering along Railton Road with a stab wound in his back.
The police officers approached the man, intending to take him to hospital. An ambulance was called and police were bandaging the youth in the car when a group of young blacks attacked it. The ambulance arrived and the injured youth was taken to hospital.
A second police car arrived as a crowd of black youths was building up. Bottles were thrown through the police vehicles' windscreens.
This incident ended when police reinforcements arrived, but the build-up of police patrols in the area continued through the rest of the night and into Saturday.
One white woman who lives in Spenser Road said that when she returned home on Friday evening at 6pm, Dulwich Road, parallel to Railton Road, was "filled with police and sirens and vehicles. There were so many I thought they were on some sort of exercise."
On Saturday, she said "there were no signs of them keeping a low profile." A similar description was given by Mrs May Dan, a black woman who lives in Railton Road.
"At 9am on Saturday morning, I thought there must be some trouble today because the police were in twos all the way down Railton Road, Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane." Groups of young blacks gathered all afternoon and there were tense confrontations.
At 4.45 a young black was arrested outside a minicab office in Atlantic Road after a scuffle with a plain clothes police officer. The young man was taken off in a van by uniformed police and missiles thrown at the van broke some of its windows. Police reinforcements were called and the battle of Brixton had begun.
5pm: An abandoned police car is set on fire in Atlantic Road, jewellery and clothing stores are broken into in the road and several police officers are hurt by flying bricks.
5.30: Fighting continues in Atlantic Road and spreads into Railton Road and Mayall Road. Police get out riot shields and form cordons at the east end of Railton Road.
6.30: The first petrol bombs are thrown, setting fire to police and private cars in Railton and Leeson roads.
6.40: Fire brigade summoned to the area to cope with petrol bomb attacks but are unable to get through because their vehicles are stoned. By the end of the night, eight fire engines had been damaged, four badly. Thirteen firemen are injured by missiles.
7.40: A fire engine turntable set alight in Railton Road. Minutes later, youths commandeered a fire engine which they then drove up and down Railton Road.
7.45: A petrol bomb sets fire to the Windsor Castle pub in Leeson Road which is completely destroyed by 9.30pm. At the same time, the George public house in Railton Road is petrol bombed. An eye witness said: "There were whites as well as blacks doing it. The windows were knocked in and a long-haired white woman was doing a lot."
A white couple with two young children living just off Railton Road in a mixed street have their door kicked in by a group of eight black youths armed with knives who threaten them for money. A black family across the road try to dissuade the youths but fail.
Black crowds drive police down Railton Road towards Atlantic Road with missiles. Police group in Mayall Road and try to push the rioters back. Then a lull occurs. Buildings, including the post office, a car spares business, a plumber's shop, an off-licence and a school in Effra Road all burn during this period. Serious looting begins.
9.30: The Windsor Castle pub collapses and electricity fails along Mayall Road. 10.0: Police begin to regain control of the area but fire brigade unable to resume normal duty until 9.0 yesterday morning. Throughout the night, 14 properties were destroyed or damaged by fire, gas mains were damaged and 22 vehicles were set alight.
Mr Declan Butler, fire brigade Divisional Officer, said yesterday: "When we got our first call at around 5pm on Saturday, we were not able to get beyond Saltoun Road and we then began to get reports of other fires we couldn't attend to.
Every time we tried to attend to a fire we were attacked. We've never had this sort of disturbance before."
The director of the Abeng Centre, a West Indian venue opposite Brixton police station, said yesterday: "It's been coming a long time. I don't think it's a setback for race relations in this area. A lot of us have been saying this would happen for years and no one has been paying attention."
Edward, a black youth, who did not wish to give his full name, said that he saw trouble break out in Kellett Road in the late afternoon. "I was expecting it. Police had been annoying us all day and everybody was getting jumpy. When it started the youths just picked up whatever they could find, bottles and bricks. We were fighting back."
Estimates spoke of 5,000 people being involved - concentrated in Railton Road with forays into Brixton Road to loot stores and the market
Update 2003: The building has now been converted to private flats.
121 archive reports:
121 archive reports, Jun-Aug 1999
121 eviction statement, Aug 1999
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