The Chapeltown Uprising of 1981 – commemorating and investigating.

This week sees the 40th anniversary of the uprising in Chapeltown, where the weekend of 11/12th of July saw social unrest around Roundhay Road and Chapeltown Road. This coincided with other protests that year in Brixton, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham as well as smaller uprisings in Bradford, Halifax and Hull. Leeds Libraries, West Yorkshire Archives, UK Parliamentary Archives and Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum are working together to commemorate these events.

This week we hear from guest author Catherine Ross, Founder Director, Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum, who looks at the anniversary and how it can be commemorated.

Commemorations can be contentious and controversial particularly where the original event was occasioned by violence or social unrest of some magnitude. However, the events, the acts of defiance, whether spontaneous or designed, drew attention to neighbourhood needs and pointed to policies that were not working for a community or for sectors of society. Job done many would say.

Actions by community activists, and grassroots protestors have been a feature of British society from the late 1600s, used when people have wanted Government and their agencies to take note and listen to them. Some of these disturbances since 1948 have involved the Windrush generation and their descendants, in their bid to get recognition for their contribution to British society and to be treated equally and fairly as they settled into it.  In July 1981, although society was multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic, Black people were marginalised by it and riots, uprisings, and protests ensued in response.

40 years on, the events of July 1981 are being commemorated as the acts of defiance brought about some economic progress in many cities up and down the country including Leeds. The deprivations that caused the outburst of residents in Leeds, and particularly so in Chapeltown, are a matter of public record, as are the actions and thoughts of the protestors who were experiencing the debilitations of Government policy that triggered their response.

Yorkshire Evening Post, 13 July 19811, showing locations of social unrest.

In a recent survey it was found that not many people in Leeds were aware of the 1981 riots and their significance. A visit to libraries and archives is a good place to change that. Spending some quality time there will instil pride in local achievements and people who played their part in the summer of defiance. The library and archives are great sources of local and national information about these heritage matters that are packed with import. Looking through these archival records, many of which are formal or official, but some are records that contain nuggets of observations and experiences of those who have made their home in the region could well be life-changing and community-informing.

Familiarity with these resources may well be an educational experience then but it may also be inspirational too, stimulating action to play a part in ensuring fairness, justice and equality through community roles, political activism, and regional networks.

Why not use the archives and get a map of where the action took place? Why not visit Chapeltown itself? Experience the place where for a few nights, residents and their supporters acted, full of hope and wanting those in their community to succeed and access a better quality of life.

Following your visit there why not create your own piece of commemorative history. Record your thoughts on whether protest pays. Share them with the archives so in another 40 years, another generation will learn about their local heritage including the toll it took on individuals and their families in trying to ensure government and their agencies listen to the voice of the people, in the events that were dubbed the “Chapeltown Riots”. 

Local and Family History Library Resources

Librarian, Helen Skilbeck, now highlights some items of stock in the Local and Family History Library that would help a resident or researcher understand the events in Chapeltown in the summer of 1981.

One of the quickest ways to gain an understanding of the events of that July weekend is to look to the local newspapers and see what was reported. The Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post both carried multiple articles on the uprising with many photographs published of damaged properties as well as a map showing where the disturbances took place. The Local and Family History Library’s newspaper collection begins in 1719 and continues to present day – contact us for a full list.

Yorkshire Evening Post, Monday 13 July 1981.

A different perspective was reported in the Leeds Other Paper, which was a more radical, left wing newspaper. This focused more on the effects on the community both before and after the protests. The library holds copies of this newspaper from 1974 until 1991 when it became the Northern Star magazine. This ceased publication in 1994. 

Leeds Other Paper, 17 July 1981

Over 300 images of the Chapeltown area over the years can be found on our photographic archive Leodis. Select Chapeltown from the location menu and choose a decade.

Chapeltown Road, Newton Parade 1981. Copyright Leeds Libraries, Leodis

To gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing Chapeltown residents in the early 1980s, the library has annual reports from the Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre and the Chapeltown Citizens Advice Bureau. Both these publications give an overview of challenges surrounding employment, housing and new welfare legislation and use examples to highlight their work. The Law Centre reports cover the years 1978 – 1992 but are incomplete and the Citizen Advice Bureau reports cover 1976 – 1985 and 1998-99.

Harehills & Chapeltown Law Centre Annual Report 1982-83

The library also holds the Children’s Community Centre annual reports for 1978 and 1982 – both before and after the uprisings. These look at the provision of childcare in the area, who uses the facilities, an overview of the local area and hopes for the future of childcare in Chapeltown.

Max Farrar has published extensively on the history of Chapeltown and Black communities in Leeds. Examples include ‘Constructing and de-constructing ‘community: A case study of a multi-cultural inner city area: Chapeltown, Leeds, 1972-1997’ (1999); ‘Chapeltown: A slice of the Empire In Leeds‘ (1986) and, most relevant to the events in Chapeltown in 1981, – ‘Riot and revolution: The politics of an Inner City‘ (1981-82).

Riot and Revolution: The Politics of an Inner City, Max Farrar, 1981-82

The library also holds some volumes of ‘The Voice’, an independent Chapeltown newsletter with information about training, education and local news and events. Only a few editions from 1981 and 1982 can be found in the library.

The Voice: Chapeltown’s Own Independent Newspaper

The Chapeltown Local Plan: Draft Report 1975 gives an overview on the social and educational facilities in the area, the traffic levels, housing conditions and the environment, as well as highlighting existing problems and identifying needs.

Keep on Moving’: Black Responses to Racism and Government Policy in Chapeltown during the 1980s‘ (2016) is a recent BA History dissertation that used many of the above mentioned resources and provides an excellent bibliography for further study.

Finally an item full of personal memories of Chapeltown, published in 1992 by Yorkshire Art Circus – When Our Ship Comes In: Black Women Talk by Chapeltown Black Women’s Writers Group. This book is full of reflections and poetry on their arrival in Leeds, first impressions of Chapeltown, family, community, work and the racism they faced. Covering the period from the 1950s onwards it showcases voices from the local community and their hopes and fears.

When Our Ship Comes In: Black Women Talk by Chapeltown Black Women Writers’ Group (1992)

Catherine Ross is founder and director of Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum. They can be found on social media @museumand

The West Yorkshire Archive Service have also written a blog highlighting items in their collections concerning the events in Chapeltown in July 1981. Find them online @wyorksarchives

A previous blog post, by guest author Miriam White, examines the Chapeltown uprising in 1981 in greater depth.

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