Early in the morning of 8 July 1981, a small group of young men left the Nile Club which was Manchester’s leading black nightclub. As they walked along Princess Road, they were challenged by two whites, that “there could never be a riot in Manchester”. The taunting that blacks in Manchester knew their place came in the aftermath of five days of rioting in Liverpool which had resulted in some of the most intense urban violence in post-war England. For the youths who had just left the Nile, what made this jeering banter even more provocative was that they believed that the two whites making the insults were plain-clothes police officers.
The Hytner Report into the disturbances found that at the time of this confrontation,
a white man emerged from a parked van and threw a brick through the window of a pawn shop on the corner of Raby Street and Princess Road… A few minutes later shop windows along Princess Road were being smashed by young black men and not long after that the first of a number of fires was started.
Between 3 and 3:30 am, four shops on Princess Road were looted and a petrol bomb set off at a jewellers in the Moss Side Shopping Precinct damaging six other shops. As they arrived, police and fire service have stones thrown at them by group of thirty youths. Although the Hytner inquiry later emphasised that the initial violence had been committed by mixed groups of young black and whites, the following day Chief Constable James Anderton informed the media that
Police vehicles attending and fire tenders arriving at the scene were stoned by large groups of young blacks, and there is no evidence at this moment that any white youths were involved. There is nothing significant in that because of course all the young people in that area are primarily black youngsters.
 Ref. 1114, Manchester Local Studies oral history collection, Tameside Local Studies and Archives Unit.
 Two plain clothes police officers were identified by Greater Manchester Police as being the first to attend the scene – “Latest riot outbreak in Moss Side”, 9 July 1981, LBC / IRN Digitisation Archive.
Five hours before the fires on Princess Road, BBC1 had broadcast Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s response to the “terrible events” in Liverpool. She began by stating
I’d expected tonight to talk wholly about unemployment but events in Liverpool have changed that. What happened there horrified us all. A thousand policemen embattled in one of our great cities. Two-hundred injured. Riot shields and CS gas needed to defend the very men to whom we all turn for protection. Nothing can justify, nothing can excuse and no-one can condone the appalling violence we’ve all seen on television which some of our people have actually experienced and so many fear.
The Prime Minister then defended the government’s policy in the face of rising unemployment, concluding “we won’t turn back“.
In Liverpool, Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford noted that
The single offensive tactic we possessed, the baton charge proved increasingly ineffective… Our principle strategy of containing the rioters by forming lines of police officers behind riot shields, resulted in increasing numbers of police casualties.
On Sunday 5 July, unable to restore order with over 800 police officers, tear gas was used for the first time in England. Amongst the police arriving in Liverpool were reinforcements from Greater Manchester who despite being one of the first police forces to adopt new riot helmets still suffered over a hundred casualties during the Toxteth riots.
In reaction to the evenings fires, a meeting with community representatives was held at the Moss Side Police Station on Platt Lane at 2:30 pm on Wednesday, 8 July. Gabrielle Cox who was Vice-Chair of the Greater Manchester Police Authority described how
A large number of people, including a substantial proportion of young people, attended the meeting. The situation was then totally mishandled in a singularly inept fashion by the police, in that this large and somewhat restive meeting was kept waiting an inordinately long time, with the result that nearly everybody walked out in anger, feeling that although they had come with goodwill at the invitation of the police they were being treated with contempt – a perfect object lesson of the insensitivity of the police in Moss Side of which people constantly complain. Whilst this is a small incident, it illustrates a general point about police relations with the Moss Side community and was certainly a highly unhelpful incident to occur at such a tense time.
The situation was partially redeemed when the Chief Constable, at the instigation of some of those of us present, came down to the meeting, though by this time it was a different meeting since it had only been possible to persuade some of the original participants to return, and other people had come in. Strenuous efforts were then made to deal with identified sources of tension, particularly the status of those who had been arrested the previous night. In this Mr. Anderton and his officers made every attempt to be helpful. During this meeting a number of people asked the Chief Constable what kind of policing the area would have that evening, and he indicated that it would be normal. The consensus view was that all efforts should be directed at lowering the temperature and keeping things as normal as possible, and that large numbers of policemen on the streets would be more likely to provoke than to prevent trouble. At no point did the Chief Constable or any other police officer argue with this point of view or indicate that the police would prefer a different strategy. When asked if the people of Moss Side could be assured of adequate protection, the Chief Constable made it clear that should trouble arise he would take the necessary steps to deal with it.
Many of the youth club members attending the meeting were concerned about the seven young black men arrested on the previous night.
While the meeting at the Moss Side Police Station was taking place the Shopping Precinct was closed early just after 3:00 pm. The precinct had long been a focus for confrontations between large numbers of police and youth, such as in March 1981.
During the late afternoon, large crowds gathered on “the meadow” next to Princess Road. Police estimated their numbers at a thousand by early evening. One reporter from the Guardian noted the vendors selling hot dogs and ice cream, writing
It was almost a carnival atmosphere.
Of the crowd on the grass, about a quarter were white, and they were mostly young. Photographs from the time reveal that the crowds were mixed in age, gender and race.
During the evening of 9 July, as well as the clashes that took place between in Moss Side, there were also fire bombings in Salford, Gorton, and Rusholme. There was some looting in Salford and in Wythenshawe where a police vehicle stoned.
After 10:00 pm a crowd of over a hundred moved along Moss Lane East damaging shops before arriving at Princess Road. After looting and fire-bombing shops on Princess Road they moved up Claremont Road and on to Wilmslow Road.
As one observer noted it seemed like, “All of Princess Road was on fire”. Radio reporter Peter Harrison was covering the fires, and stated
The incredible, remarkable thing about this scene is the total absence of any police presence whatsoever, or at least any official uniformed police presence. This is chaos, this anarchy in the centre of Manchester and nobody seems to be doing anything at all to restore order.
Harrison went on to note that “there are as many white youths as black, taking part in this disturbance”.
For many shop-owners the looting and fires were devastating. John Heath who owned a dry-cleaners on Wilmslow Road told reporters that
What happened apparently, me shop was emptied, the windows were put in around twelve o’clock. It was left till seven o’clock the following morning with the front absolutely open to everybody and they were taking it [the clothes] in armloads out to cars, going to the end of the street, trying it on for size and if they didn’t like the fit coming back for more…
Heath’s business had lost almost all of its stock though he stated that in the wake of the looting “what a lot of people have done is found stuff lying around the place and brought it back and now we’ve got quite a bit back”.
At 10:20 when Moss Side Police Station came under attack there were about 14 officers inside. Fifty to sixty young men stormed the police yard, throwing stones through its windows, chanting and yelling. At the Hytner inquiry, it was argued that the mob attacking the station included members of a local black youth club, white youths from Wythenshawe and “outside agitators” from Liverpool. To the Trinidadian Marxist intellectual, CLR James this cross-racial alliance could be compared with the uprising of the French Revolution which he had studied extensively. James asked after the riots,
Who then are these leaders to whom the people listened? We know some. Nevertheless, as in all the decisive days of the revolution, what we most would like to know is forever out of our reach; we would like to have the diary of the most obscure of these popular leaders; we would then be able to grasp, in the act so to speak, how one of these great revolutionary days began; we do not have it.
One of the black youth workers who observed the attack on the police station described how
The youngsters were throwing bricks through the windows for about ten to fifteen minutes… After about fifteen minutes we saw about six black marias come screaming down the road, travelling at about sixty or seventy miles per hour, and then the youngsters had to scatter because the police officers came out and they had batons, riot shields and the youngsters said ‘we’ll go down to the Princess Road end and we’ll take the shots from there’.
He emphasised the mixed composition of those involved in the siege,
That was the whole thing about it, that you had black and white youngsters just following each other, just running, just rampaging, tramping everything in sight.
Near midnight on the second night of the disturbances, and large contingents of police with riot shields formed a line near the Harp Larger Brewery while other contingents gathered on Denmark Road. After a prolonged stand-off with the large crowd on the meadow of “residents and rioters”, with little warning there was a baton charge by police across Princess Road.
By 1:30 am, several convoys of police vans were used in an attempt to disperse those around the meadow, racing up Quinney Crescent and driving into the crowd. The panda vans rammed at barricade that had been set on fire at Plainsfield Close and vans with searchlights were used to chase and arrest those on the streets.