Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Mobs riot in West End' - 25 years since the London Poll Tax Riot

The big London Poll Tax riot was 25 years ago today -31 March 1990. Here's a few contemporary newspaper reports (click to enlarge).

'Mobs riot in West End' (Independent on Sunday, 1 April 1990)

'Central London experienced its worst riot this century yesterday as the biggest demonstration against the poll tax turned to violence. At least 113 people, including 45 police were injured... There were at least 300 arrests.... In the heart of London's West End, cars were overturned and set on fire, dozens of shop windows were smashed and their contents looted' 

'Tonight the anarchists are celebrating "Our Time"(Evening Standard, 2 April 1990)

One of a number of press reports seeking to blame the riots on 'Left wing activists who march beneath the black banner... For more than a decade a small and disparate grouping of punks, misfits, thugs, hardline politicos and animal liberationists have pledged a violent revolution. Under their black flag banners at the weekend they saw themselves firing the first shot'. 'Class War and its Brixton-based counterpart Black Flag' are mentioned the formed linked to squats in 'Hackney and Clapton' ('London's East End is still Class War's heartland'). Much of this is pure invention, such as the claim that rioters on the day carried 'small, easily concealed "mollies" - firebombs'. I don't recall any petrol bombs being thrown on this day.

'£20 if you join Army of Envy' (Today, April 2 1990)

Another ludicrous piece of misinformation - 'Agitators toured pubs offering £20 to anyone willing to join their army of envy'. Considering hundreds of thousands of people had made the effort to travel from all over the country to be there, it was hardly necessary to pay anybody else to join in!  The report itself says that 60 coaches came from Bristol, 40 from South Wales, 30 from Weymouth etc.

'Battle of Trafalgar: Burning with Hate the Fire Bombers Sabotage Symbols of Wealth' (Today, 2 April 1990)

The angle of this piece is that decent theatre goers were terrorised by the 'howling mob' - no doubt some were frightened by the scenes, but the riot did not include attacks on random members of the public. Tourists wandered around in the middle of it. Again there is the myth here of the 'fire bombers' - it is true that a small number of cars were set on fire, but not I believe with petrol bombs. Still the looting and rage against 'symbols of wealth' was real enough: 'the riot against the poll tax turned into open warfare against the wealthy and all the symbols of affluence... Garrards, the royal jewellers, was a favourite target. Thugs wearing punk clothes uprooted bins and hurled them against the windows. West End fashion shops were next in line. Some grabbed £400 suits from gents clothes shops while women dressed in rags robbed other stores'. 

The story does include the fantastic line 'The great English public is rioting, sir' reported as being said by a policeman in reply to an American tourist asking what was going on.

Note to clarify (3 April 2015): in the image above I have blurred out the faces, they are clearly shown in he original and indeed I believe that they were all subsequently arrested. The guy with the white t-shirt was jailed and the guy leaning in to the porsche was acquitted in a trial that made headlines because the judge dismissed police evidence as lies (I believe a policeman claimed to have witnessed it but couldn't have done because of his location). I decided to blur the faces because they are still recognisable from these photos today and for work or other reasons might not want people to know about what they may or may not have been up to in 1990.

See also:

1990 Trafalgar Square Memories;
Brixton poll tax demo (Transpontine)


Anonymous said...

What's fascinating to me is how, in the third clipping, they blur the faces of rioters, which is a very long way from the "name and shame these thugs" type approach I'd expect. Was it a tradition that the press would protect the identities of people filmed breaking the law, and if so when did it die out?

History is Made at Night said...

No, I have now added a note to clarify that I blurred out the faces - they are shown clearly in original. The 'name and shame' in the papers was actually a big feature of the poll tax riot coverage, lots of people were arrested in the following weeks as a result of pictures like these.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see... yeah, that's much more in line with what I would have expected.

Paul Turner said...

My wife and I arrived in London that night on the first night of our honeymoon having been married earlier that day in our home city of Belfast. After having checked into our hotel, the long gone Regent Palace, we went out for a walk. We walked against the flow of several hundred people being herded down Gerard Street. Once we reached the rear of the crowd a female police officer asked of us "Are you mad, walking through a riot?" to which my wife calmly replied "We come from Belfast. That's not a riot, love. That's a picnic".

Twenty five years later we're still happily married.

Transpontine said...

Happy silver anniversary Paul!