The Brixton Riots. April 1981.


BRIAN WILLIAM BUTLER, better known affectionately as ‘Bill’, was born on the 3rd April in the mid-1930s in the shadow of Brixton Prison. Whilst parts of Brixton reflected the relative affluence of a part of London that spoke of the grandeur of its former Victorian London heyday, with tall spacious terraced houses, wide streets and open spaces, he was raised in a compact backstreet terraced house. His childhood open spaces were those created by Adolf Hitler and his V1 and V2 rockets.

Well-grounded after attending the nearby Clapham Secondary Central School, in his late teens he completed his compulsory National Service having been selected to serve in the Grenadier Guards, first performing pubic duties and then seeing active service in Egypt. At the age of 20 he joined the London Fire Brigade and was trained at Lambeth, the Brigade Headquarters, which was then the Brigade’s Training School.

His first posting was Clapham fire station, serving on the Red Watch. Gifted with an intelligent mind he listened to, and learnt from, the advice offered by the more experienced firemen who had served throughout the Blitz. He then returned to Lambeth and became a member of its emergency tender crew. A gifted athlete he represented the Brigade, internationally, at Volley Ball. As he honed his operational skills he rapidly gained promotion. At the relatively young age of 28, and after only eight years’ operational service (a meteoric rise in the early 1960s) he was promoted to Station Officer in charge of his own watch. Following a brief spell in East London he returned to the newly opened Divisional station at Clapham, frequently attending calls in the Brixton area. His local knowledge, combined with a proven talent as a competent fire officer, proved invaluable in those formative years and it would do so again.

Fireman Butler at the Smithfield Meat Market fire in January 1958.

With over ten years served in Station Officer rank, and as an outstanding operational officer, promotion to senior officer rank was inevitable. It was, however, a steady progression through the senior ranks, and one that saw him gain valuable experience within Fire Prevention, later rebranded Fire Safety, and operational train­ing in London’s A Division, which covered the West End. In 1980 he again returned to Clapham only this time as the Divisional Commander responsible for its eleven fire stations and the Fire Prevention depart­ment. As a Deputy Assistant Chief Officer he had a wider operational role, one that required him taking charge of major fires and other emergency incidents. However, the Brixton Riots, in 1981, were totally unprecedented. There had been skirmishes with stone-throw­ing youths attacking fire engines before, normally on Bonfire Night, but nothing on the scale that was to unfold. There were no published Fire Service rules of engagement or procedures when confronting a riot. Brian Butler was about to change that. This is his story…

The Brixton Riots.

Saturday, April 11, 1981 and late on that fateful Saturday afternoon the Brixton riots started. Their impact would have lasting implications felt across the capital, and beyond. This subsequently brought about both social change and much heated political debate. It certainly changed the public’s perception of the Metropolitan Police and then its pervading culture of racism that had, sadly, been demonstrated so forcibly by the officers involved in dealing with black people in the build-up to the riot.

During that Saturday morning Brixton fire station’s pump had been driving through the very streets that would, all too soon, be illuminated by the many fires that had been deliber­ately started. These would burn out of control, destroying pubs, local shops, houses and numerous overturned cars. To those riding Brixton’s fire engines that morning something was defi­nitely in the air. It was palpable. Lines of police ‘tactical support vehicles’ (transit vans) were parked in the side roads around Railton, Mayall and Effra Roads. A strong presence of uniformed policemen were everywhere. Many just standing on street corners, looking tense, and waiting for something to happen.

A fierce exchange had taken place the previous evening, involving the police and the young black men who frequented the private clubs and backstreet bars of Railton Road. This exchange had resulted in a number of arrests. Whilst the Station Officer at Brixton fire station had tried repeat­edly to speak to the duty officer at Brixton Police Station on that Saturday morning trying to gain an assessment of a clearly tense situ­ation, no information was forthcoming. It had seemed obvious to those local firemen, as they had driven around looking out from the safety of their fire engine, that all it needed was another spark to ignite the blue touch paper. To them the police appeared more than happy to supply the matches.

Having passed on his concerns to the duty senior officer at B Divisional headquarters, the Station Officer suggested that local stations be advised of the potential for trouble around the Railton Road and Mayall Road area. The message came back at 1.30pm saying the police were of the opinion that no flare-ups were likely to occur before nightfall. Clearly someone had spoken to the wrong policemen since those in the locality were planning to get the action going long before then. With Brixton’s Station Officer required to leave the fire station for a meeting in the early afternoon it fell to his deputy, a Sub Officer, to take charge of the station. However, unbeknown to the firemen at Brixton fire station rioting had already broken out in the area of Railton Road and Atlantic Road in central Brixton where police and black youths had clashed on Friday night. That disturbance was soon stamped out but the trouble that Saturday evening, which began after the arrest of a young black man, quickly spiralled out of control.  So when other police officers arrived and tried to make more arrests the ever-increasing crowd started throw­ing bottles and bricks. Despite the strong police presence in the locality reinforcements from other police areas were called in. In the 30 minutes it took for them to arrive the violence had escalated sharply. A charge by about 200 police officers, armed with plastic riot shields and batons, down Atlantic Road misfired. They were forced to retreat under a hail of missiles.

Brixton Road-April 1981.

At 5.30 p.m. Brixton’s fire crews got their first taste of a civil disturbance. (So much for nothing until nightfall!) Ordered to a house fire in Railton Road they never reached the incident. They were prevented from doing so by brick throw­ing mobs involved in street to street fighting with the shield wielding police officers. The mob filled Coldharbour Lane, Atlantic Road and Railton Road. Brixton’s attempt to get a police escort to take their fire engine towards the pall of smoke, clearly visible in the distance, failed. The senior police officer present on the ground was not committing his officers and told Brixton’s Sub Officer to forget it because of the vola­tile crowds and the danger they posed.

During the early stages of the riot West Norwood’s pump-escape had been sent to a blazing car in Railton Road. As they approached the incident from Brockwell Park a policemen waved the appliance through their cordon. However, their route became increasingly congested by people spilling onto the roadway. The Station Officer, Alan Lowles, had to order the driver of that appliance to slow down. The crowd, that had until then been attacking the police with bricks and stones, turned their hostility onto the approaching fire engine. First the wind­screen and side windows were quickly smashed and missiles hit the firemen inside the cab. The driver, Fireman Michael Harding, was concentrating on his driving and was unable to protect himself. He was hit several times by brick-bats. One particular missile, a large lump of concrete, hit him in the chest breaking two of his ribs and rupturing his spleen. Despite his severe pain Harding continued to drive in accordance with the Station Officer’s instructions. Reaching the Atlantic Avenue end of Railton Road, and in the protection of the police again, the Station Officer summoned an ambulance for Fireman Harding whilst his crew dealt with the severe vehicle fire.

Brixton’s pump crew had by now been joined by the crew of West Norwood’s pump-escape who had just made it down Railton Road. What was happening to London Fire Brigade crews was a new and the unprecedented experience. Unable to attend fire calls that some were ordered to they did not know if lives were in danger or not. The situa­tion in, and around, Railton Road was deteriorating rapidly. Both firefighters and police officers alike were in considerable danger from the constant hail of bricks, bottles and sharpened lengths of wood being hurled at them by the hordes now gath­ering in large numbers and charging at the police lines.

Railton Road-Brixton. Saturday night.

Unable to return to the local fire station, lest it be attacked, Brixton and West Norwood crews were ordered to a temporary holding point, a nearby coach station, just outside the immediate danger area. Widespread damage and looting had by now spread as far as central Brixton. Brixton’s crews were ordered by radio to attend further calls, including Burtons, the tailors, where the looters had fired the shop as they left with their arms filled with their spoils. By now other fire station crews were being ordered to the numerous 999 calls that the mobilising control at Croydon was receiving continuously. Fire appliances become a legitimate target for their ferocious attacks.

The disturbance very quickly escalated into major propor­tions. News of the events in Brixton had spread via a cultural grapevine and others joined in the street violence having trav­elled in from surrounding areas. Several hundred members of the local community and the wider society added their weight and acted in an extremely riotous manner. Their number was to swell into the thousands. It was something that police, at this stage, were totally unable to contain. In fact these were the first serious riots of the 20th century and the first entailing substantial destruction of property since the formation of the Metropolitan Police.

Due to the very pressure that the police were put under the level of protection which could be afforded Brigade personnel and their equipment, whilst trying to fight the fires started in this area of Brixton, was minimal. Crews from various parts of London were called into the area and they encountered previ­ously unseen hostility. Hostility that caused the most severe and difficult circumstances in addition to the normal hazards of fighting fire. Fire engines were bombarded with missiles, crews targeted for attack from bricks, masonry and bottles. Brigade equipment was sabotaged and even stolen whilst in operational use!

Brixton fire station. Gresham Road. SW4.

As the evening moved into night the day shift crews were slowly relieved and night watch crews took over. They faced a night of increasing violence, running street battles and having to deal with several major fires that were seriously under-resourced. This was the capital’s most serious public disturbance in modern times. Radicals and extremists from various parts of London were willing, and eager, to join in the violent assault on public order. They were coming out of the ground like rats from Brixton and Stockwell tube stations.

It was into this scene of chaos that Brian Butler, the local B Divisional Commander, found himself projected. He already knew that the mobilising control-room at Croydon was working under the most extreme pressure because of the riots. He had been monitoring the radio traffic on his ‘listening post’ located in his office at Clapham. Booking ‘mobile’ he sped through Clapham’s busy streets towards Brixton. He knew, in addition to the many fire crews already on the ground, he had at his disposal his team of duty senior officers, and he had access to more of each if required, but he soon realised that if ‘normal’ mobilising was maintained then fire engine crews would be sent unwittingly into hostile areas. This would expose them to an extremely dangerous and a volatile environment. On arrival he immediately took overall command of the fire brigade actions and, more importantly, its mobilisation within the area of the civil disorder. This was uncharted terri­tory in Fire Service operational tactics. Because of the number of fire engines in the vicinity the Divisional control unit, based at Clapham, had already been sent into the area and was located at the Effra Road ‘Orange’ coach station, which itself was now in imminent danger of attack.

Despite the smaller riot in the Saint Paul’s district of Bristol, in April 1980, and the attacks on Avon fire engines and their crews, no national fire service advice or guidance had been published in respect of dealing with such disturbances.

Brixton Prison is located on Brixton Hill. Whilst close to Brixton town centre it was not in any immediate danger of attack from the rioters. Access into the prison is via Jebb Avenue, a no through road. Brian Butler choose this location as his forward command post. He set about establishing a safe marshalling area for his appliances and crews. His were new operational tactics and they were being developed on the hoof. It was the first time that the deployment of a forward control point had been used in the British fire service. His vast opera­tional experience as a command officer, his intuitive and decisive decision making, together with an intimate knowl­edge of the affected area served to provide a comprehensive and effective plan of attack that the fluid and rapidly changing situation demanded. He made sorties into the area to make a personal assessment of the situation and ensured the best use was made of his personnel and the resources available.

With the Divisional control unit relocated and designated a “forward mobilising control” a number of appliances were held in readiness under the command of a nominated senior officer who dispatched the appliances into the riot zone. The control room at Croydon had been instructed not to mobilise fire engines into the Brixton area but to refer all calls to the forward mobilising control. Fire engine crews were fully briefed of the prevailing situation and strict observance of the necessary changes to normal firefighting techniques because of the very real threat posed to personnel by the rioters.

Painting a picture in words to anyone not directly involved in this situation, over those prolonged fraught hours, is diffi­cult if not impossible. This would be subsequently deemed a major ‘civil disorder’. It was a breaking news story. It went global. But not in todays terms of our instant 24 hour news coverage. The wider public woke up to graphic images of the street violence, the aftermath of the destruction that had erupted on South London streets. Sunday morning newspapers, the BBC and ITV news bulletins covered the events in great detail.

Brian Butler was not the only one to face severe challenges that night. The acting Station Officer of Brixton’s Green Watch, Chris Giles, had to fight a most serious fire, involving a three storey public house, with only two fire engines and eight firemen. Something which in the normal course of events would have demanded eight fire engines plus special supporting crews. Needless to say the pub, which was well alight when the crews arrived, was a burnt out shell by the early hours of the Sunday morning. However the crews fought hard and successfully prevented the fire spreading to other adjoining property.

Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. A massive police presence was mobilised. Reinforcements, from all over London, arrived in Brixton. Despite their weight in numbers the police tactics remained one of containment. Something that those rioting on the streets took scant regard of as their ferocious ‘hit and run’ attacks kept the police engaged and the fire brigade crews under the ever present threat of serious harm from this wanton violence. However, the plans put into action by Brian Butler were working and to good effect. The fact that injury to fire brigade personnel was restricted to a relatively small number was largely due to his presence of mind and his leadership qualities.

By the early hours of Sunday morning it was possible for Brian Butler to escort the Chief Fire Officer, Ron Bullers, to see for himself the plans Brian Butler had put in place and to view the work of his firemen on the ground. Both Brian Butler and the Chief were impressed, but not surprised, by the highest possible commitment from members of the Brigade who had demonstrated, in so many ways, the finest qualities required of a firemen.

By sunrise there was an uneasy calm. The forward command post was closed down. It was not necessary to reinstate it again. The Metropolitan Police flooded the area. Police officers, with what riot equipment the police had available then maintained a discreet presence, sitting in police vans parked in side streets. It was the traditionally clothed policeman that stood on the street corners and, together with the Brixton locals, surveyed the scene of considerable devasta­tion that surrounded them.

That Sunday evening, and with high risk of more riots, Brian Butler ordered the evacuation of Brixton fire station. It was not something the crews at Brixton were happy about. But it was obvious that this was not an issue for debate as far the Divisional Commander was concerned. Ten minutes later the station was secured and empty! Brixton’s pump and driver headed off to West Norwood fire station whilst the pump-ladder was driving towards Clapham fire station. Brixton’s fire engines would cover its own ground from these adjoining stations.

It was clear that fire engines remained a legitimate target as far as the rioters were concerned. Hostility and aggression had started for a second consecutive night, yet thankfully without the same level of destruction that had taken place only twenty-four hours earlier. Sunday night the tension, and running street battles, were confined to the rioters and the police who now presented a massive presence in the affected area. None of the numerous arson attacks that had materialised Saturday night were repeated.

Monday. Brixton’s night duty watch reported for duty at 6 p.m. They expected the same evacuation drill as nightfall came. None came and they remained at Brixton. Just before supper their first shout of the night was received. It was to a house alight in Mayall Road, the heart of Saturday night’s action. New tactics were now in place to ensure better crew safety in case of a hostile attack. Driving as close to the incident as possible the drivers reversed the fire engines down the cul de sac street to ensure a quick exit if necessary. Working directly from the street hydrant the dere­lict house, which was blazing merrily, was soon extinguished.

At 9.30 p.m both Brixton’s fire engines were ordered to a car alight in Railton Road. They rapidly applied the tactics that Brian Butler had insisted upon. The car was blazing fiercely as they approached. Stopping and turning the appliances around, they reversed the last 150 yards towards the incident. The street was illuminated by the light of the burning car. The air heavy with the acrid smoke of burning rubber and the car’s interior. Water, again used directly from the street hydrant, hit the burning car and the street filled with clouds of steam as it made contact with the white hot metal of the car. It burnt so fiercely that the car lay flat on the road surface, all its tyres’ completely burnt away. There was no police escort despite their strong presence. But these were not local Brixton policemen. They had little or no knowledge of the area. Small groups of stone-throwing black and white youths were playing cat and mouse with the policemen and causing a great deal of confusion as they attacked, waited for the inevitable chase and then disappeared down narrow alleys and pathways leaving the police increasingly frustrated and angry.

That was the last fire attributed to the Brixton riots. However, 14 Brigade personnel sustained injuries from bricks and other missiles and eight fire engines and one staff car were damaged. 299 police were injured, and at least 65 civilians required hospital treatment. The triangular area most affected by the arson attacks at the height of the rioting looked like a war zone. Damage to buildings and property was on an unprecedented scale then for a ‘peacetime’ London.

Some of the fires, that crews were prevented from attending, spread and involved other surrounding premises. In one particular case five build­ings were destroyed after the initial blaze spread out of control. Some 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed, mostly by fire. 28 premises were burned down and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made. Molotov cocktails were thrown for the first time on mainland Britain. There had, until then, been no such event in England in living memory.


  1. In 1981, Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community comprised roughly 25% of its population. It was an area of high unemployment, particu­larly for black men, where rates were as high as 50%. Brixton was also an area of high crime, and in that April the Metropolitan Police initiated ‘Operation Swamp’. Within just six days, a massive police presence on Brixton streets (including plain clothes officers) had led to almost 1,000 people, mostly young black men, being stopped and searched. Police operated then under the ‘sus’ law. In order to stop someone, a police officer need only ‘sus’, or suspect that they might be intending to commit a crime. The police were exempt from the Race Relations Act, and seemed to some to be operating the ‘sus’ laws on the basis of racial prejudice.

Many found that the prevailing attitude of so many police offic­ers swamping the surrounding streets of central Brixton made them feel increasingly uncomfortable. Police officers’ attitude towards the black population was adversely impacting on the very public order task that they were meant to be performing. It would later come to light that very many were racist. They seemed to be itching for a fight with anyone of a skin colour different from their own, which was universally white. This was not just a local problem as they came from all over London, bussed into Brixton to police the area while it slowly reverted to normal.

Black people, especially youths, were more likely to be targeted and challenged in ways that would not be applied to white people. In the days and weeks following the riots much was reported nationally of the causes and implications of this civil unrest and the disturbances in Brixton. But it would take future public inquiries to recognise the ‘pernicious and institutional racism’ that prevailed throughout the Metropolitan Police Force. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry conducted by Sir William MacPherson and published in 1990 highlighted these very attitudes and the ‘institutional’ racism that had been witnessed in 1981.

Following the Brixton riots Brian Butler received many invita­tions to talk and comment on the lessons learned that had tested not only him but those under his command. He spoke far and wide and his actions set a new benchmark in the Fire Service response to civil disturbances. The events of that April were not only unprecedented in the history of the London Fire Brigade but the British Fire Service. It was something that would not be repeated on such a scale for thirty years and the widespread riots that erupted in 2011.

  • At the time of the Brixton riots Fireman Harding had been a Brigade heavy goods driver for only two weeks. Fireman Michael Harding and Station Officer Alan Lowles (West Norwood) were awarded a Chief Officer’s Commendation and a Chief Officer’s Letter of Congratulation respectively.
  • Fireman Michael Harding was subsequently awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
  • Deputy Assistant Chief Officer Brian ‘Bill’ Butler was awarded Membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his actions, leadership and officership during the Brixton riots in April 1981

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