Race Riots Erupt in London

Race riots erupted in London, revealing racial tensions that had been simmering in British cities and establishing race as a significant political issue for the future.

Summary of Event

After World War II, British Commonwealth citizens began to immigrate Immigration;United Kingdom to the British Isles, and because they held British passports, no restriction on their entry was legally possible. Most decided to move for economic reasons, believing that their employment opportunities would be significantly improved in what they had been taught for generations was the home country. Many of these citizens were nonwhite, the largest numbers being from the West Indies, India, and Pakistan. The immigrants, particularly the West Indians, were sincerely shocked to find that they were not welcomed. Racial and ethnic discrimination;United Kingdom
London race riots (1958)
Civil unrest;United Kingdom
[kw]Race Riots Erupt in London (July-Sept., 1958)
[kw]London, Race Riots Erupt in (July-Sept., 1958)
[kw]Riots Erupt in London, Race (July-Sept., 1958)
Racial and ethnic discrimination;United Kingdom
London race riots (1958)
Civil unrest;United Kingdom
[g]Europe;July-Sept., 1958: Race Riots Erupt in London[05860]
[g]United Kingdom;July-Sept., 1958: Race Riots Erupt in London[05860]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July-Sept., 1958: Race Riots Erupt in London[05860]
[c]Social issues and reform;July-Sept., 1958: Race Riots Erupt in London[05860]
Butler, R. A.
Macmillan, Harold
Mosley, Sir Oswald Ernald[Mosley, Oswald Ernald]

In the 1950’s, the numbers of nonwhites in Great Britain grew rapidly but were never large by American standards. In 1951, there were approximately 15,000 West Indians in England and Wales out of a total nonwhite population of 74,500. The latter figure had more than quadrupled to 336,600 by 1961, and the proportion of West Indians in the nonwhite population to about half. In the same period, the total population had grown from 43,759,000 to 46,106,000. Nonwhites were not, then, demographically significant on a national scale, but they were concentrated in particular districts of major cities, especially London, shaping the culture of those cities.

The initial discontent about immigration revolved around the perception of competition for jobs and the drain on the British welfare system, and although some of the unhappiness was certainly racial, prejudice does not seem to have been enormous. An opinion poll of 1956 indicated that only 10 percent of white Englishmen would object to nonwhite neighbors and only 1 percent felt that nonwhites should be kept out of the country. This did not mean, however, that there was no discontent. In 1954, the colonial secretary called immigration a “problem”; in 1956, a Home Office undersecretary said it was a “headache.” Although the terms were guarded, both of these remarks were clearly in the context of nonwhite immigration.

The government leaders, however, were not inclined to think there was any cause for entry restrictions or other controls. Studies in 1955 and 1958 indicated that the immigrants took menial jobs that white Englishmen usually did not want and, despite higher than average unemployment—8 percent of newcomers compared to an overall national rate of 2 percent—they were not a significant drain on the British welfare system. Thus, the trouble of late summer, 1958, was largely unexpected.

The first disturbances occurred in the city of Nottingham’s Chase district in July and August. The result was that eight whites, including a policeman, were hospitalized. Since fighting among white gangs, called Teddy Boys Teddy Boys (street gang)
Juvenile delinquency
Gangs , followed, the authorities dismissed the racial aspect of these disturbances and instead blamed drink and youth. About the same time, a gang of about fifteen Teddy Boys raided a black-owned café in the Shepherd’s Bush district of London. The attackers were gone before the police arrived, and no one was ever charged with the crime. The attack was repeated by a larger group in about two weeks, and this time six youths aged eighteen to twenty-three were arrested, convicted of causing malicious damage, and fined.

The authorities hoped that these were no more than isolated incidents. In late August, however, there was fighting in Nottingham and several London districts. Blacks reported numerous incidents of white drivers, often reputedly older men, trying to run them down. Graffiti such as “Keep Britain White” began to appear. On August 23, there were several attacks on blacks and their homes, and nine youths were arrested for driving around Shepherd’s Bush and surrounding districts with clubs and a knife for, as they put it, “nigger hunting.” They attacked a number of black individuals and couples on the streets. Five of their victims were hospitalized, three seriously hurt, and the youths ultimately were sentenced to four years imprisonment each. Londoners, however, seem to have continued to believe that there was no serious racial problem and little was done to alleviate the situation.

In fact, there was a serious problem, despite the sanguine attitude of the metropolis. On Saturday, August 30, there was much wider violence centered in Bromley Road near Notting Dale, the most overcrowded district in London. Although it was not a particular center of nonwhite residence, several black-owned homes were attacked and one burned. Fighting spread and for several days there were disturbances in much of west London. Black Londoners tended to avoid trouble, but there was some retaliation for white attacks. Teddy Boys used this as provocation for more trouble.

On August 31, a crowd estimated by some at seven hundred called for killing blacks, and rioting resulted in several injuries and damage to two police cars. The climax came on the first two days of September with widespread fighting, Teddy Boy attacks against blacks, and trouble with the police who were trying to control the situation. For several weeks, there were sporadic outbreaks of violence, especially in the Notting Hill, Notting Dale, and Paddington districts, but this tapered off until peace was generally restored by late September.


Opinion polls after the rioting showed that the English were most likely to blame whites or both whites and blacks for the riots. Perhaps more telling, however, some 30 percent of whites now expressed an unwillingness to have black neighbors. R. A. Butler, the British home secretary, was initially concerned about the possibility of violence spreading as it had in the United States in similar situations. He soon calmed, and he decided the proper course was to refer such problems as housing to local authorities, who were, in fact, reluctant to act. He also spoke of the need to restrict immigration, especially from the Caribbean, but talks with governments in that area went nowhere.

Since the economic situation in the British Isles remained better than in most of the Commonwealth states, the flow of immigrants continued, peaking in 1961. The racist party called the National Front became more active, and Fascist Fascist Party, British expatriate Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley returned to England to run for office in the 1959 general election. Although Mosley never regained his prewar prominence, Enoch Powell Powell, Enoch would gain notable support as leader of the National Front National Front, British over the next decade. In 1965, Parliament was controlled by the Labour Party for the first time since the riots, and it passed the Race Relations Act Race Relations Act (1965) , Britain’s first legislation to govern racial interaction. Although it banned overt public acts of racism, the legislation did not address such problems in housing and employment. It was a grudging attempt, but it was at least the beginning of an effort to resolve the questions of race that had so clearly emerged in 1958. Racial and ethnic discrimination;United Kingdom
London race riots (1958)
Civil unrest;United Kingdom

Further Reading

  • Gilroy, Paul. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? New York: Routledge, 2004. Study of Great Britain’s evolution into a multicultural nation after the collapse of its colonial empire.
  • Glass, Ruth, assisted by Harold Pollins. London’s Newcomers: The West Indian Migrants. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. Glass provides a detailed account of the events during the riots along with some insightful comments about the problems of the immigrants.
  • Katznelson, Ira. Black Men, White Cities: Race, Politics, and Migration in the United States 1900-1930, and Britain, 1948-1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. The comparison of the situations in the United States and Britain helps set the situation of 1958 into context. This book also provides information concerning the political responses to the growth of nonwhite population.
  • Layton-Henry, Zig, and Czarina Wilpert, eds. Challenging Racism in Britain and Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Collection of essays discussing racism and race relations in Britain and Germany, both separately and together. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. The People’s Peace: British History, 1945-1989. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Written by one of the best and most prolific of modern British historians, this volume is an excellent analysis of postwar British society and provides the background necessary for an understanding of the racial situation in the late 1950’s.
  • Schaefer, Richard T. The Extent and Content of Racial Prejudice in Great Britain. San Francisco: R. and E. Research Associates, 1976. This volume provides the results of a number of public opinion polls concerning racial attitudes.
  • Van Hartesveldt, Fred R. “Race and Political Parties in Britain, 1954-1965.” Phylon 44 (June, 1983): 126-133. This article provides background to the situation and an analysis of the reaction of the Conservative and Labour Parties to the emerging issue of race in British politics.

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