A Brief History of UK and London Riots

Date post added: 28th May 2024

You may be surprised to learn that the characteristically reserved, polite British people have quite a history as rioters. We may not like to complain, and we love to queue, but we have our limits. And for centuries, Brits have stood up for their beliefs and challenged authority via protests, some of which have escalated into riots.

Whilst everyone has the right to protest and to organise protests – a right protected by the European Convention on Human Rights – when it tips over into a violent breach of the peace, it’s seen as unlawful.

The legal definition of riot is: “Where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.”

In this article, we’ll look at some of the biggest and most significant riots in Britain, starting with London riots.

The Gordon Riots, June 1780

The Gordon Riots in London were motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. What began as an orderly protest over The Papists Act of 1778 (an act intending to reduce discrimination against Catholics), descended into rioting and looting.

Lord George Gordon was head of the Protestant Association. His argument was that this law would enable Catholics to join the British Army (heaven forbid!) and also to plot treason. When he led marches to present a petition to Parliament, the result was several days of rioting. It started as targeted attacks on prominent Catholics’ homes and churches, and then extended to attacks on police officers, Newgate prison and even the Bank of England. Over 200 people died. It’s said that more property was destroyed by The Gordon Riots than the French Revolution.

London is studded with what historians call “sites of memory.” Drummonds Bank in Trafalgar Square is a perfect case in point. Hoary with age – it was founded in 1717 – its clients included King George III, Alexander Pope and Benjamin Disraeli. When the Gordon Riots erupted, the bank armed its employees with blunderbusses, some of which are still on display in its lobby. Remarkable, but that’s London for you – the Gordon Riots in tangible form right there in Trafalgar Square in the third decade of the 21st century. And, yes, London Walks sometimes takes advantage of what’s hidden in plain sight there. David has been known to arrange to take private walks into the bank to see the blunderbusses.

Hyde Park Riots, July 1866

The Hyde Park Riot

The Hyde Park Riot by The Illustrated London News

In March 1866 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, and Prime Minister, Earl Russell, introduced a new reform bill. But they’re “ta-dah!” moment wasn’t met with the praise they’d expected. Some felt it was too extreme, others not extreme enough. Liberal MP, Robert Lowe was definitely not a fan, and opposed it strongly in Parliament.

Meanwhile, The Reform League was gathering momentum with their campaign for “one man, one vote” (don’t even think about women at this stage.) To protest the failure of the Reform Bill, they incited a gathering at Hyde Park on 23rd July 1866. There was a huge procession of Reform Leaguers from Adelphi Terrace to Hyde Park where they were stopped by police officers. Displeased by this, skirmishes ensued. Masses pushed and pulled the park’s railings until they fell, and the protestors stormed the park and remained there for three days.

The Race Riots, 1919

World War I may have been over, but Britain was not a happy place to be. There was severe unemployment and competition for jobs was fierce. Many disgruntled Brits felt that black and minority ethnic groups who’d settled in the UK were ‘stealing their jobs.’ This resulted in so-called ‘race riots’ in port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool, coupled with attacks on the immigrant groups.

Brixton Riots, April 1981

What caused the Brixton riots? Put simply, it was down to race. The predominantly white Met Police, clashed with the local black community, largely over their stop and search procedure. When 13 black youths were killed in a house fire in New Cross in January 1981, the local community weren’t happy with the police investigation. By April of that year, tensions were at an all time high. When a young black man was stabbed, locals believed he was the victim of police brutality and it sparked riots. Over 300 people – both police and civilians – were injured over the two day violent riots.

In July of that year, there was more racial and social unrest in England. Riots took place in Toxteth in Liverpool, Handsworth in Birmingham, Moss Side in Manchester, to name but a few.

Brixton Riots, September 1985

Fast forward four years, and Brixton was again the site of violent race-related riots against the police.

Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, a Jamaican immigrant, was suspected of harbouring her son, Michael. Michael had been involved in street gangs and had been in and out of prison. Suspecting Michael of armed robbery, the Metropolitan Police raided Dorothy’s house in search of her son. She was accidentally shot by Met Police officers during the raid, and left paralysed.

Tensions had been running high for years between the Met Police and the local black community. This incident ignited huge hostility, and street battles and skirmishes erupted in Brixton. These race riots continued for about 48 hours. Cars were burnt out and used as a defensive wall. Petrol bombs were thrown at police and local shops were looted.

In March 2014, the Met police apologised for the wrongful shooting of Cherry Groce.

Tottenham Riots, October 1985

Not long after the shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton, there was a similar event in Tottenham, North London. During a police search on her home on the Broadwater Farm estate, Cynthia Jarrett (a black woman) died of heart failure. Already riled by the events in Brixton a few weeks early, the death of Cynthia Jarrett sparked huge outrage amongst the black community.

What started as a demonstration outside Tottenham police station escalated into violent clashes between young locals and Met police officers. Bricks and petrol bombs were thrown and shots were fired. PC Keith Blakelock died after being stabbed by rioters whilst he assisted crews at a fire in a tower block.

Poll Tax Riots, 1990

Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, imposed an array of unpopular Conservative policies. The Poll Tax was a doozy. It taxed property, regardless of the owner’s wealth. Infuriated by the tax that was seen as hugely unfair, 200,000 protestors descended on Trafalgar Square in Central London. Chaos ensued.

Police tried to manage the overcrowded protest and protestors retaliated with bricks and stones. The violence spilt over into Covent Garden where shops and cars were set alight. By the time it ended, 119 people were injured and over 300 arrests had been made.

It wasn’t the first poll tax riot either. Wat Tyler led a Peasants Revolt in 1381 over similar poll taxes levied by the king.

The England Riots, August 2011

England Riot August 2011

The England Riots of 2011 were the biggest riots in modern British history. Starting in London, they spread to major cities across England.

Mark Duggan was shot dead by Metropolitan Police officers targeting gun crime in Tottenham on 4th August. Incensed by the killing, people protested for justice at Tottenham Police Station on 6th August. The peaceful protest resulted in a full-scale riot. For 12 hours, protestors clashed with riot police. Shops were looted and vehicles (including a double decker bus) were set alight.

On 7th August, the unrest spread across London. Shops across the capital were looted, ransacked and set on fire with millions of pounds worth of damage being caused. As violent protests escalated, the re was a mass deployment of police to tackle the rioters. T

Sentiment spread further still, and over the next few days, riots sprung up in cities across England. Over 20,000 people got involved nationwide, with rioting in Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham, Bristol and Liverpool. Two died in Croydon, and another three were killed in Birmingham.

The father of Haroon Jahan, one of those killed, implored rioters to stop, saying, “Black, white, Asians – we all live in the same community… step forward if you want to lose your son. Otherwise, calm down and go home – please.”

Social media was blamed for inciting hatred and fuelling the violent protests, but others believe that the social situation was a tinder box waiting to light and Mark Duggan’s death ignited it.

The Guardian explores these riots, ten years on, showing how desperate young people fighting for their futures wasn’t solely an English sentiment. It was seen across Europe and into the Middle East too. Their Reading The Riots report with the LSE is an interesting insight into the events, and subsequent police actions.

Riotous London

Watching the people get lairy
It’s not very pretty I tell thee
Walking through town is quite scary….

I predict a riot

sang The Kaiser Chiefs.

Still waters run deep, and seemingly reserved Brits can soon run riot and rampage through the streets to highlight unfairness and injustice.

Our guides have turbulent tales of unrest and discontent across the centuries. Join our walks to learn from the absolute best. Our Seven Deadly Sins tour explores stories of riots, espionage, orgies and excess!

We’ll happily arrange private walks to areas of interest, like the bank involved in the Gordon Riots where you can still see the blunderbusses.

Pippa Jackson

Pippa Jackson

Pippa is a word nerd and content aficionado with a background of working in TV on both sides of the globe. She loves to discover and share the diverse and wonderful stories of her much-loved London. When she’s not writing blogs and articles, you’ll find her walking beside the Thames or even paddleboarding on it (in the finest of conditions only!) or enjoying a coffee in the sunshine with a good book.

Read all articles by Pippa Jackson

David Tucker

David Tucker

David – the Seigneur of this favoured realm – broods over words, breeds enthusiasms and is “unmanageable.”* He’s a balterer, literary historian, university lecturer, journalist, logophile and lifelong thanatophobe. For good measure, he’s the doyen of London guides.

Read all articles by David Tucker