Robert Gore-Langton

What is it with Bristol and rioting?

What is it with Bristol and rioting?
(Getty images)
Text settings

'Bristol riots' has a lengthy section of its own on Wikipedia. In the wake of the ugly scenes that erupted in the city at the weekend, the list of disturbances is now even longer.

Police were injured, a few badly. Vans were set alight and the mindless joy of all that breaking glass became infectious — one young woman found time to skateboard during the mayhem as tires burnt, fireworks flew and bobbies bled. The riot is now being described romantically as the 'the Battle of Bridewell Street' after the street where the police station sits now daubed in graffiti. But in reality it was vicious.

Despite Bristol’s well-heeled student population (said to have the highest ownership of new cars of any British university) the city’s middle-class image hides a long history of irruptions. Keith Waterhouse famously said of Brighton that it’s 'a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries'. Is Bristol going the same way? 

Last June, the slaver Edward Colston’s statue was dumped in the drink to whoops of delirium. The police stood back, for fear the crowd might turn a lot nastier. The city was divided on the issue. Sunday’s riot won’t compare, one hopes, with the far more toxic legacy of the 1980 St Pauls riot in the city’s West Indian heartland — a lively enclave once noted for its herbal remedies and whose character is today sadly under threat from ruthless gentrification.

The most recent riot prior to this week was in what is known locally as the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft — an arty, Bansky-infested sourdough zone near the centre. The cassus belli in 2011 was a police raid on a squat occupied by opponents of the newly opened Tesco Express. Things got heated and scores of unduly grumpy police were shipped in; riot tourism broke out and well-heeled families all over Bristol were terrified their offspring would be seen in the papers hurling things.

The joys of Bristol today are legion — hence the huge current migration from London of thirty somethings. It’s a beautiful city with a relaxed ambience, top nosh and a cloying sherry as its historic tipple. But like all old ports it has rioting in its blood. In 1793, the proposal of an access road (a bane even back then) and a toll on Bristol bridge drove locals puce with rage. The ensuing riot led to 11 deaths, making it perhaps one of the worst British massacres of that uncouth century.

It was upstaged in terms of damage and death toll a generation later. The stunning Queen Square – said to be the largest town square in Europe, now home to sleek corporates and pricey solicitors – became a literal battlefield when the second Reform Bill was rejected by the Lords. 

In 1831 the under-represented city exploded. The Mansion House and many buildings were ignited, the mayor fled in disguise or possibly crawled away over the roof, and the cavalry was sent in. Hundreds were killed, mostly in the fires that were started. The events 'for brutal ferocity and wanton, unprovoked violence may vie with some of the worst scenes of the French Revolution, and may act to damper to our national pride', wrote Charles Greville. Brunel, who was trying to build his wobbly bridge up at the Tory suburb of Clifton, joined up as a special constable. The home secretary Lord Melbourne was utterly terrified by the Bristol affair.

Of the many other riots since, perhaps the most poignant – and sympathy-deserving – was the Park Street riot of 1944. Tens of thousands of black American soldiers were stationed in the West Country before and after D-Day. The British government refused to implement the racial segregation demanded by the US military, which sanctioned the inferior treatment of black troops. They insisted, for example, on separate Red Cross hospitals in Bristol for white and black troops. The riot occurred when the black GIs had enough of their own (white) officers, of the pub fights they never started and of being chased down Bristol’s streets by their own countrymen. There were even said to have been murders of black servicemen which were subsequently hushed up. Eventually a troop of GIs snapped and one was shot dead before order was restored.

Maybe that riot in 1944 provides the answer to a different problem. With Colston gone, the statue of Edmund Burke, the city’s most illustrious MP, now stands on his own. Why not have a statue on Colston’s plinth of a uniformed black American soldier as a mark of gratitude for services rendered and forgotten?