Remembering Middlesbrough’s race riots

Words: George Walker


At various times in history, institutions of power have constructed imagined renegade ‘outsiders’ in order to justify their own corruption, greed, and acts of violence against the population at large. Those intentional acts of construction continue today, with more and more figures of power in the UK apportioning blame for anything from economic downturn to the price of a loaf of bread to asylum seekers, who arrive on British shores often fleeing war and persecution.

The rhetoric works. One YouGov survey conducted this year found that including 27% of respondents had ‘no sympathy at all’ for asylum seekers, and 22% described themselves as having ‘not much’.

The legacies that these attitudes are part of are tied to British histories of race, immigration, and most importantly, empire. The modern story could be said to begin with end of the British Empire after the Second World War: by 1947 India, the jewel in the colonial crown, had gained independence and split into two new nations; anti-colonial movements were springing up around the globe, and by 1968 Britain had relinquished all of its colonies on the African continent. Avoiding this story, lots of historical accounts instead look inwards and tie the modern British nation state to the defeat of European fascism in 1945 and the subsequent creation of the welfare state, accompanied by the marvels of the NHS. The reality is that, at the same time, Britain was being forced to face up to its inequitable relationships with large swathes of South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific. When the post-war recovery of the British economy demanded more labour to power Britain’s ‘golden age’, these old colonial relationships were ignited anew.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s government actively encouraged migration from the Commonwealth, and South Asian people, along with others, contributed a huge amount to the post-war boom. Immigrant workers allowed Britain’s textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire to thrive, and the same goes for car manufacturing and engineering in the Midlands, and most importantly for me, in Teesside, where my family are from. Large concentrations of Pakistani people lived in Cannon Street, known colloquially as ‘over the border’, in the oldest part of the town. 

But racial tensions rose in the 1950s and 60s, and local South Asian families were subject to cruel portrayals by the popular press and politicians, and to the white violence that accompanied those narratives. Around the country, large-scale violence fed off the post-colonial immigration ‘debate’; in that respect, Middlesbrough very much reflected national trends, and in 1961 tensions ballooned into four long nights of riots against South Asian and Black people in the town. 

The spark that lit the fuse was the murder of a local man named John Hunt by a sailor, Hussain Said, after an altercation in the street on 18th August. That evening the murder made the front pages, and locals looked to attack the Taj Mahal, a local café, as an act of recrimination. As the pubs closed people drifted to Cannon Street sensing the opportunity for violence, and when the first brick smashed through the Taj Mahal’s window, chaos ensued. The riots soon spread beyond the café: people and property were targeted across the Cannon Street area.

The first two nights occurred across the weekend, on the Saturday and Sunday evenings, while on Monday the violence recommenced after the rioters had been taken in and questioned by Middlesbrough’s police court. Crowds again gathered in Cannon Street and random attacks were enacted against journalists and bystanders, resulting in more serious clashes with the police throughout the day. Rioters also moved throughout the town, smashing the windows of a Pakistani family’s house on Russell Street, and on Newport Road chasing three officials of the Pakistani High Commission who were investigating the incident. Trouble broke out again for the fourth and final night two days later, after the funeral of John Hunt, as a group of men smashed the windows of Carlisle Café in Sussex Street.

In Middlesbrough, but beyond the local South Asian and West Indian communities, stood the rough caricature of the subversive outsider. People were welcomed for their labour and then magicked into a social drain, a leech, when it suited.

The events led to £1200 of damage and fifty-five court prosecutions, and caused many South Asian families to flee to relatives elsewhere in Teesside such as Hartlepool and Darlington. Local reactions to the riot denied any significant racial and political influence, preferring instead to stigmatise local youths and the growth of ‘teddy boy’ violence. On Monday 20th, the Evening Gazette led with the headline ‘Hooliganism – no racial conflict’, and the MP for Middlesbrough East, Hilary Marquand, stated boldly that Middlesbrough was ‘not a centre for racial prejudice’.

These denials were part of an avoidance tactic that still affects and hinders productive conversations today. In reality, it was likely that the tensions which led to the riots had been bubbling away for at least a month; at the end of July, when the Taj Mahal café had first opened, a gang of five hundred people had surrounded it, chanting racist slurs. They had eventually been dispersed by police. 

The 60s would prove a difficult decade. It was the decade of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which placed new restrictions on Commonwealth migrants; of Enoch Powell and his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech; and of the creation of the white nationalist National Front as a significant political force. In Middlesbrough, but beyond the local South Asian and West Indian communities, stood the rough caricature of the subversive outsider. People were welcomed for their labour and then magicked into a social drain, a leech, when it suited.

This bleak part of Britain’s history, built on and justified by the ideology of white supremacy, echoes in the dishonest ‘debates’ about asylum seekers, thinly veiled condemnations of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing Windrush and deportation scandals. Only last year the mayor of Middlesbrough, independent Andy Preston, railed against ‘political correctness’ and called recent immigration into Middlesbrough a ‘clash of cultures’ which resulted in ‘large scale anti-social behaviour’ and ‘gang violence’. Preston also caused controversy this year with his comments on BLM. Like those ignorant politicians and journalists of the 60s, he urged people to ignore the ‘careless talk in the media about white privilege’.

To avoid this rhetoric culminating in violence as it did almost 60 years ago, politicians and communities in Middlesbrough and beyond need to come to terms with their histories, not only since the 60s and in Britain, but before and beyond. Without a new and vastly improved perspective on education and the role of race in our national history, we will continue inheriting the worst from our ancestors by allowing innocent people to suffer.

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George Walker is a freelance journalist who writes on politics, culture and philosophy. His work has been published in the Parliamentary Review, the Young Fabians, and the Mancunion. Follow his blog.