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30 years since the Hartcliffe riots

Local historian Eugene Byrne explores the role of race, the media and the passage of time in how society views three riots that have taken place in the city.

People's History

Bristol’s official brand nowadays is as a place of creativity, idiosyncrasy and rebellion. Unrest on the streets is a key part of its radical self-image. From the 1831 Queen Square riots (and plenty of others before that) to more recent things like Stokes Croft (2011) or Kill The Bill (2021), we tell ourselves that Bristol has an exceptional tradition of riot. 

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The idea that popular unrest is a particularly Bristolian tradition is now deeply ingrained, but it is also selective. We have riots which are approved elements of the official brand, and then we have riots which are so difficult to hammer into any easy narrative that they are glossed over or forgotten. Other factors – race, class and the wonders of hindsight – also influence how society frames them.

On the 30th anniversary of the Hartcliffe riots, sparked by the tragic deaths of two men still felt by the community today, let’s look at three examples.

The Hartcliffe riots

On 16 July 1992, three nights of disturbances followed the death of two men from Hartcliffe. They were riding a stolen motorcycle belonging to Avon & Somerset Constabulary’s Regional Crime Squad and were killed when they hit a police car.

The detectives had given chase when they should have left the job to uniformed traffic officers trained in safe pursuit. So an unmarked car driven by a detective constable swerved into the road in front of the bike, resulting in the tragedy. 

There was a night of small-scale rioting, followed by a second night of far bigger disturbances and a third which was smaller and eventually rained off.

A number of police and private vehicles were torched or damaged, and several shops were burned or trashed. About 80 arrests were made and 60 people charged. 

The reaction of the local media was uniformly hostile to the rioters. This was the work of a small minority who were in no way representative of the community, they said. A leader column in the Bristol Evening Post on 17 July was fairly typical: “The troubles […] started with a crime. They ended with more crimes – and the whole of Hartcliffe is the victim.

“The rioters, not the police, are the true enemies of the local community. What else do you call people who wreck shops, set buildings on fire and attack libraries?”

Between the lines, the press was dog-whistling “white trash” quite noticeably. One paper noted the semi-literate tribute on a bunch of flowers laid where the men died. The attack on the library seemed particularly nihilistic, even though it was probably targeted because it also housed a police drop-in centre.

The riots severely damaged the community’s relationship with the police. Many were sent to prison, and it was only 18 months after the riots that Detective Constable Wallington, who had been driving the vehicle that killed the two young men, was given a nine month sentence – which was then appealed and overturned.

The St Pauls riot, twelve years earlier

The tone of the press coverage was in striking contrast with the treatment of the unrest in St Pauls in early April of 1980. The local media analysis of the violence, which broke out in response to a police raid in search of contraband alcohol, was rather more nuanced. 

Of course the TV, radio and newspapers did not condone the violence, but once the sensational headlines were out of the way (“Violence rules in nine hours of siege terror”), they sent reporters into the community who came back with a great deal of sympathy for the pressures faced by many there: unemployment, poor housing for some and, in the case of Black residents, overt and institutional racism.

As well as interviews with police, local government, teachers and others, there were interviews with locals. The Western Daily Press on 5 April reported: “The experienced police officers bring green recruits down to this area and teach them how to bully people”. There were interviews with community leaders too: “Some police treated black youths as animals”.

Three volumes of press clippings about St Pauls 1980 at Bristol’s Reference Library are testimony to the broad and detailed analysis in the months afterwards on the part of the local press alone.

What the clippings also tell us is that the template for the coverage of Hartcliffe 1992 was in place by April 1980.

Race, class and the media

The nights following the St Pauls events saw disturbances on the Southmead estate and, to a smaller degree, in Knowle West, but this was condemned outright. From the start, the press conceded that there might be reasons for the St Pauls trouble, but there were no excuses for this. A leader in the Western Daily Press on 7 April said it was mere hooliganism: “The council houses of Southmead and Knowle West cannot be compared with the overcrowded, elderly houses of St Pauls.

“The youths of Southmead and Knowle West have had all the educational opportunities they want; many who are unemployed need not be.”

The consensus seemed to be that while there was no excusing the violence in St Pauls, there were at least understandable reasons why things had flared up – but the same couldn’t be said for events on the predominantly white estates.

The historiography of both the St Pauls and Hartcliffe disturbances continues to evolve. Many will now call the St Pauls events not a “riot” but an “uprising”. Even at the time, the way was being paved for it to be a riot fit for Bristol’s brand. It’ll be some time yet before Hartcliffe moves up to this status.

From a ‘Bad Riot’ to a ‘Good Riot’

For a Bad Riot which faces a long journey to ever becoming a Good Riot, consider events at Broadbury Road in 1998. You won’t find it in any of the academic or newspaper or online articles that big up Bristol’s putative tradition of revolt.

In April 1998, paedophile Sydney Cooke was coming to the end of a prison sentence for the rape and manslaughter of a 14-year-old boy. Rumour had it that he was to be housed for his own safety in a police station somewhere in the West Country. Yeovil, Bridgwater, Minehead and St Pauls in Bristol were mentioned. 

When word spread that he was at Broadbury Road police station in Knowle West (whether he ever was, the police have never said) a peaceful protest outside the station turned violent. Police claimed 42 officers were injured and from the crowd of around 300, some 21 later appeared in court.

So here you have an event which is broadly comparable to Hartcliffe, and in a part of South Bristol with a similar demographic. 

But it’s a Bad Riot: it doesn’t easily fit into the template of rising against the oppressors. It was part and parcel of the summers a couple of years later in which estates up and down the country saw a spate of anti-paedophile vigilantism, partly egged on by a tabloid newspaper. These would culminate famously in inaccurate reports of a paediatrician in Newport, Gwent, being driven from her home by an ignorant mob in need of a dictionary.

Riots happen for a reason

In a 1971 essay, the historian E.P. Thompson wrote of the “moral economy” of the English Crowd in the 18th century, making a point which stands good for all time: riots rarely take place for no reason. The crowd has a grievance which needs redress. So St Pauls was about deprivation, racism and heavy-handed policing. Hartcliffe was the same, only without the racism – unless you want to factor in the very real disdain that some middle class people, liberals and conservatives alike, have for the white working class. 

Broadbury Road was maybe about deprivation, and maybe resentment that the powers-that-be felt it was OK to warehouse a notorious child-killer in their midst. But mostly it was just about that one man, a man who would be jailed again for other similar offences the following year. 

The details of the crimes of Sydney Cooke are very upsetting. Suffice to say nobody would have wanted this man living anywhere near their children; his mere presence in the local police station – if he was ever even there at all – would feel to many like a terrible stain on their community. 

The explanation for the Broadbury Road violence is arguably at least as good as those for the St Pauls and Hartcliffe events. But something that looks like a lynch-mob will never be a Good Riot, will it?

30 years since Hartcliffe

The last five years have seen a few more in-depth examinations of what happened in Hartcliffe in 1992, not least in the Post.

Remove the race factor, and Hartcliffe and St Pauls were both to some degree about social class and resentment of the police on the part of some residents, as well as deprivation. During the Hartcliffe riots, it was revealed that a £37m bid for funding for new homes, leisure facilities and improved transport links under the government’s City Challenge scheme had been turned down. This was the second year running that government investment in the area had been refused.

The coming years would see the arrival of new facilities and a better shopping precinct, but the stereotyping took longer to change. One community leader, interviewed by the Post on the 25th anniversary in 2017, said that the one thing people demanded during workshops in the 1990s and 2000s was to know how to get the Post and the BBC to “stop referring to Hartcliffe as ‘riot-torn'”.

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