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Burning into national consciousness: looking back on the Hartcliffe riots


Hartcliffe rioted twenty-three years ago, soon after the last Conservative government was elected. We cast an eye back to dark times and the seeds of hope that emerged.

In discussions of urban unrest, the three days of rioting that took place in Hartcliffe during July 1992 are – if they’re mentioned at all – usually only afforded a brief footnote. This is usually along the lines of, ‘Rioting erupted following the deaths of two men killed in pursuit after stealing a police motorcycle’.

The story is now firmly embedded in the memory of many who grew up in the Hartcliffe area. How a powerful police motorbike was stolen from the regional crime squad. How they attempted to recover it without involving the local police. And how the ill-advised manoeuvre by an officer inexperienced in police pursuit, placing his car directly in the path of a motorcycle travelling at between 80 and 100mph, resulted in two local men losing their lives.

That this then led to three days of rioting is incontestable. But if you speak to many who lived on the Hartcliffe estate at the time, a common response is that an outbreak of violence was inevitable. If the two deaths had not provided the flashpoint, something else would have done.

Credit: Bristol Post (18th July, 1992)

By 16th July 1992, Hartcliffe had endured three years of recession. In 1990, Wills Tobacco’s Hartcliffe cigarette factory – the largest in Europe – closed with the loss of some 5,000 jobs plus another 20,000 in the supply chain.

As the 1989-1992 recession continued, defense cuts saw the loss of almost one in four jobs in the aerospace industry, another major source of jobs for the area, despite it being on the other side of the city. By 1991, average unemployment across the county of Avon had doubled to nearly 10%, but in areas like Hartcliffe it was particularly acute. At the time, Hartcliffe and St Paul’s vied for the unwanted title of ‘Bristol’s most deprived area’.

In May 1991, the Conservative government launched a £75m City Challenge Fund for urban regeneration proposals. Bristol was one of the cities invited to compete for the funding but it had just six weeks to put together a bid. It quickly knocked up a proposal centred on housing improvement in Hartcliffe and Withywood. The bid failed.

The city council, however, was invited to bid for a second round of funding, with the winners set to be announced after the General Election in April 1992. Pollsters predicted a Labour victory. Accordingly, many Hartcliffians were confident that the soon-to-be-elected Labour government would ensure the funding for much needed regeneration of the Hartcliffe and Withywood estates found its way to South Bristol.

In 1991, Hartcliffe and St Paul’s vied for the unwanted title of Bristol’s most deprived area.

For many of us, the prospect of the end of Thatcherism and the dawn of a new era of solid investment in working class areas such as Hartcliffe and Withywood, offered some light at the end of the tunnel. The downturn was gnawing away at a part of the city that had already been hit badly in the Thatcher-induced recession of the early 1980s.

But, just as in 2015, the pollsters in 1992 got it wrong. The ‘shy Tory’ vote swung it for John Major. The Conservative Party that had been in power during a devastating recession had been rewarded with a fourth term of office. To rub salt into the wounds, it was announced that Hartcliffe and Withywood had failed for a second year in a row in their City Challenge bid.

The date of that announcement? That’d be 16th July; the same day the police motorcycle was stolen, leading to two avoidable deaths.

The three days of rioting that followed was probably the final nail in the coffin for the old Symes Avenue shopping precinct. It had been declining for some time – in the same way Filwood Broadway is doing now – largely due to a lack of investment.

If the two deaths had not provided the flashpoint, something else would have done.

Following the riots, Hartcliffe suddenly started getting some attention. In October 1992, the Prince of Wales organised a ‘Seeing is Believing’ visit to Hartcliffe. Soon afterwards Hartcliffe and Withywood Ventures was able to develop the £1.5m Gatehouse Centre to provide training and employment opportunities, childcare, a cafe, shops and workshops. This opened in 1995 with investment coming from several private sector companies and the city council.

Subsequently, following a presentation to the Bristol Regeneration Partnership in October 1998, the community-led Hartcliffe and Withywood Community Partnership (HWCP) submitted a bid for funding to the South West Regional Development Agency. And in July 1999 it was awarded more than £12m toward a £33m regeneration scheme; at the time the largest ever grant to a local community in the southwest of England.

Nearly 20 years later, HWCP is still there and is now based in the @Symes community building – in the supermarket-led development that replaced the old Symes Avenue shopping precinct burned down during the 1992 riots.

Since its creation, HWCP has expanded and its remit now includes community services that cover the whole of South Bristol. As well as managing the @Symes building, which offers meeting rooms and office equipment hire, HWCP also run the CATT community bus service and the local neighbourhood partnership. The building is also home to organisations that offer support for people misusing drugs and alcohol and suffering mental health problems, victims of domestic abuse and those in need of careers advice – as well as the local library.

Buildings may burn down but the community endures, irrespective of rioters or irresponsible governments alike.

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