Bristol Riots (2)

American G.I.s: 1944

On 26th July 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Orders 9980 which created a Fair Employment Board to eliminate racial discrimination in federal employment and 9981 which created the President?s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. Between them these Executive Orders ended discrimination and segregation in the US armed services, but it wasn't until 30th September 1954 that the last all-black unit had been assimilated.

Until then, the segregation led to problems for the US army and that didn't stop when the G.I.s arrived in Britain during WWII and there were disturbances and even some murders between black and white troops in various places in Britain.

One incident happened in Old Market. The "Spread Eagle" in Old Market Street was a "black" G.I. haunt but white American paratroopers would often go into the area looking for fight with them. One night the fighting place along Old Market Street and into West Street.

There were several reasons that that there was trouble between the white and black G.I.s. White G.I.s didn't like black G.I.s fraternising with the women of Bristol and the more racist of the American troops seemed to end up in Bristol. Another problem was the complexity of the American leave pass system which many blacks felt were discriminatory as they were often confined to the less salubrious parts of Bristol. John Keith of the Colonial Office on a visit to Bristol noted that the blacks were said to be "kept in barracks and only allowed out to be marched to work on the pretext that they may interfere with women." He also prophetically said that "this confinement of the troops was just the way to bring about undesirable incidents."

A reporter from the Bristol Evening Post, in October 1942, said about drunk black American soldiers leaving a pub "As they were marshalled out and told their carriage was waiting, each at the door received a tap on the head from a very businesslike-looking truncheon."

A more serious disturbance occurred on Saturday, 15th July 1944. On 10th July, white paratroops arrived at the black barracks at the Miller Orphanage in Ashley Down. The blacks claimed that two of their men were beaten up without provocation. This was followed by several incidents involving blacks and whites in Bristol over the next few days. What happened on the 15th is best told by Graham A. Smith from his book "When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain" (Tauris 1987)...

On Thursday 13 July, the discontent spread. Men from the 545th Port Company, based at Sea Mills Camp, tough city blacks mainly from Detroit and New York, mutinied by staying in their billets and refusing to turn out for reveille even when the Articles of War were read to them.

The eruption finally occurred on 15 July around Park and Great George Streets. A large number of black GIs had gathered there on that Saturday evening and brawling had broken out. Extra MPs were drafted in and some calm was restored. The black troops were then marched off to the Tram Centre where trucks were to take them back to their camps. This procedure in itself must have been an awesome sight for the onlooker: Great George Street comes down from Brandon Hill and runs into Park Street, one of the city's main arteries. Both streets slope quite steeply and the 'march' down to the Tram Centre about a quarter of a mile away (now simply called the Centre) may well have induced some panic in the GIs. Some of them had knives and while they were being disarmed a black soldier, who was stabbing an MP, was shot by another MP. Not surprisingly, a "mob spirit" prevailed among the black GIs with MPs shooting people in the legs. Buses were drawn across some of the roads to confine the incident, while some of the wounded were dealt with by members of the St John Ambulance Brigade, who took the more seriously hurt off to Bristol Infirmary. The disturbance had involved 400 black and white troops and it had taken 120 military policemen and many arrests to bring the situation back under control. One black GI was killed and dozens may have been wounded. Bristol remained under military curfew for several days.

The population of Bristol was largely sympathetic to the blacks with one Bristol woman was fined for assaulting a military policeman who she saw hitting a black G.I. during the fight.

St. Paul's Riot: 1980

The 1824 Vagrancy Act made it "illegal for a suspected person or reputed thief to frequent or loiter in a public place with intent to commit an arrestable offence". In the 1970's, this was still law and was the basis for the "sus" laws. These made it possible for the police to stop and search anyone they chose, purely on the basis of suspicion. What happened was that many constabularies used these laws to target young black males on suspicion of drug offences, which, needless to say, caused a lot of resentment.

At the same time there were social and political changes in Britain. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party came to power in 1979 and the age of the yuppy (young urban professional) was soon to arrive bringing with it the "devil take the hindmost" attitude that disaffected many working class people. I can remember one of Thatcher's economic advisors appearing on television explaining some of the policies that Thatcher used that he and others had devised. One demonstration was a water driven "economics machine". This machine needed a constant and renewable reservoir of water for it to work - in real terms that reservoir were the unemployed who would supposedly take poor paying employment to make Britain, or rather, certain sections of it, rich.

On 2nd April 1980, the police carried out a drugs and illegal drinking raid on the Black and White Cafe in Grosvenor Road, St. Pauls. The trouble began after a customer was searched and his trousers were ripped. The customer demanded that he be compensated and the police refused. A crowd of around fifty people gathered outside the Black and White Cafe, stating that they would not allow the police to leave until the man had been promised redress. The police refused to concede and threatened to arrest anyone who tried to prevent them leaving.

The situation escalated and the officers involved were pinned against the side of the cafe. The police requested back up, who on arrival, were welcomed with a barrage of missiles, as bricks, bottles and tiles were thrown at the policemen. Shops, Lloyds Bank and the post office were set on fire, as well as several police cars and looting began in an off-license, a bicycle shop and motorcycle shop. Nineteen policemen and six other people were taken to hospital, including a cameraman and the photographer from the Western Daily Press. One hundred and thirty people were arrested, ninety of which came before Bristol magistrates on charges relating to the incident.

Burned out police cars - St. Paul's, Bristol, 1980

Damaged police cars - St. Paul's, Bristol, 1980
Image from PortCities - Photo by David Kirkpatrick

Although often called a race riot there were smaller disturbances, burning and looting in several districts of Bristol. These were the mostly white working class estates of Southmead, Knowle and Hartcliffe, but it's hard to say whether these were genuine grievances or merely copycats of the riot in St. Paul's. Whatever happened in Bristol, there were riots later that same year and for the next five in several British towns and cities such as Handsworth (Birmingham), Dudley, West Bromwich, Moseley, Liverpool and Brixton, Peckham and Tottenham in London and in St. Paul's, Bristol again in 1985, mostly because of race but for other social and economic reasons such as decaying housing, high unemployment rates and underdevelopment.

In 1981 the Scarman Report led to the introduction of many measures to improve trust and understanding between the police and ethnic minority communities including reforming the law, community relations and policing practices to help tackle the central problems which caused the civil disorders. The "sus" laws were abolished the same year.

As for the Black and White Cafe, that was closed in the summer of 2004 under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act and bought by the council under a compulsory purchase order. The cafe and other houses in the terrace were demolished and replaced by six three-bedroomed family homes built by the Knightstone Housing Association.

Links and Sources

Bristol, England: City of a Thousand Years by H. G. Brown and P. J. Harris (Burleigh Press, 7th Edition, 1979, ISBN 0902780050)
Civic Treasures of Bristol by Mary E. Williams (City of Bristol, 1984, ISBN 0900199245)
Hotheads and Heroes by Peter Macdonald (Petmac Publications, 1995, ISBN 0952700956)
PortCities: Bristol
Riot - The 1831 Reform Riot
Riots - Up to the Bristol Bridge riot
Shocking history of Bristol by Derek Robinson (Abson Books, 3rd Edition, 1987, ISBN 090292012X)
When Jim Crow Met John Bull - American troops in Britain during WWII.

Riots - Page 1

This page created 19th February 2006, last modified 18th August 2018