Monday 15 August 2011

The 'riot' in Woolwich ... one week on

I moved to the Woolwich area in 1975 when I took up a teaching post at the Woolwich Polytechnic Boys School. The building was situated in Macbean Street, just off the main shopping street, Powis Street.

At the time Woolwich was a still a thriving town (it may be in London, but it has always been a little apart form the rest of inner London because of its poor transport links into the centre), with two department stores and lots of little specialist shops. Unemployment was not very high, but there were already signs that the area was beginning to decline after the closure of the Woolwich Arsenal, which had been the largest employer in the area for many years.

In 1975 Woolwich had a thriving retail area and was the headquarters of the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society, one of the largest cooperative retail organisations in the UK, it was also the site of the headquarters of the Woolwich Equitable Building Society (which was one of the top five mortgage providers in the UK before it became part of the Barclays Bank Group) and there were significant numbers of factories and distribution warehouse along the edge of the River Thames. These major sources of employment have all now gone … but few new businesses – other than retailing – have replaced them. Even the Army presence has been downgraded to being a station rather than a garrison, and the Royal Artillery – which was founded in Woolwich – has moved its regimental headquarters elsewhere and only maintains a small presence in the town.

I still live within a mile of the centre of Woolwich, but I rarely go there any more. Despite the efforts of the local council, the town centre has continued to decline. It cannot compete with other local retail areas, and other than the council itself, there seem to be very few opportunities for non-service industry employment in the area.

This is the background to the events that unfolded in Woolwich last week. Today I visited the centre of Woolwich to visit the local branch of the NatWest bank and to see for myself how badly the centre of Woolwich has been effected by the ‘riots’ … although confronting the police, looting and arson would be a better description of what happened. Riots implies that there was a political element to what happened, but as the following photographs will show, no government or local government buildings were attacked; all the damage was done to local businesses.

The actual area affected by the events is quite small; it was mainly confined to Woolwich New Road, Thomas Street, and Powis Street (although I understand that there was also some damage to shops in Hare Street which branches off northwards from Powis Street) and these can easily be identified on the following map.

Woolwich New Road looking north east from Love Lane towards Woolwich Arsenal Station. Several buildings were badly damaged by fire, including a branch of Wilkinsons.

Woolwich New Road looking south west from the corner with Wilmount Street. Barclays Bank seems to have been unaffected by the fire that swept through the rest of the block, but the branch was shut when I went there today and I was unable to discover when it will reopen.

The branch of Costa Coffee located at the entrance to Woolwich Arsenal Docklands Light Railway station did not escape damage, but was open for business today.

Thomas Street looking north west from the corner of Thomas Street and Love Lane. Thomas Street was the scene of a major confrontation between the 'rioters' and the police. It is interesting to note that the shop front of the estate agents was damaged during the 'riot', but that the funeral director next door seems to have escaped untouched.

The Wimpy on the corner of Thomas Street and Wellington Street/General Gordon Place was boarded up and shut, and showed evidence of extensive smoke damage. The pawnbrokers next door (The Money Shop) was also attacked and damaged during the 'riot'.

Thomas Street looking north west. The Earl of Chatham public house was left alone during the 'riot' (it can be identified by the baskets of flowers hanging up outside) but the jewellery store opposite it was completely ransacked and most of its contents stolen.

Unlike the Earl of Chatham, The Great Harry (a Witherspoons public house) was completely gutted by an arson attack. It employed nearly forty full and part-time staff ... all of whom must now be out of work.

The boarding outside The Great Harry has now become a wall where locals can write what they think about the 'riot' and the 'rioters'. The comments on it reflect the anger that many local people feel about what has happened.

Some of the other shops in Thomas Street that were damaged ... a pawnbrokers and a hair salon. The latter seems to have been an unlikely target for the 'rioters' to choose to attack.

Powis Street looking south east from the corner of Powis Street and Calderwood Street. The safety fencing currently runs right across the street, and prevents pedestrians from walking from one end of the Powis Street to the other.

At the other (south easterly/Greens End) end of Powis Street, the local amusement arcade was attacked and its windows broken.

Further along the same side of Powis Street, several shops (including Phones 4 U, Broadway Shoes, and JD Sports) were all targets of the rioters.

On the opposite of Powis Street, the local branch of Priceless Shoes was also targeted. The shop next door – Blue Inc – was the subject of an arson attack that damaged the building so badly that it has had to be demolished.

Warren James (a jewellery shop) was another target of the 'rioters' that was extensively damaged and had its stock stolen.

The Woolwich branch of McDonalds is also located in Powis Street. It has a very significant site as it was the very first branch of McDonalds opened in the UK. Woolwich was chosen by McDonalds because it was regarded as being a typical example of a traditional British high street; I doubt if they would come to the same conclusion about Woolwich today.

Another view of the site formerly occupied by Blue Inc. It is worth noting that the branch of T Mobile next door was also targeted by the 'rioters'.

One can hope that Woolwich will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the 'riot' ... but until the attitudes and criminality of a small group of people within the community change, there is every likelihood that such events will reoccur in the future.


  1. Living in the rural N.W. we can only look on in horror - mystified on what the solution is . The fact that no bookshops were ransacked is a comment on some segments of modern society .

  2. Mosstrooper,

    I think that there are no short-term solutions. It has taken a long time for the country to get into the state that it has ... and it will take an equally long time to solve the problem.

    All the best,


  3. One thing people forget or fail to realise is that rioting is a criminal offence (as is assault on Police) of itself that requires no political context or background. So whether or not the 'events' included criminal damage, arson, theft/looting is to me a moot point it is/was all criminal activity.

    The comments to media of some of those involved of whatever social background were mind boggling !

  4. It's much the same story here in Manchester. The rioters... no let's call them what they are... the looters targeted phone shops, electrical retailers and fashion clothing stores.

    Western Civilisation may be crumbling around our ears under the weight of "entitlement culture", but you have to look on the bright side. Did you hear that the Ghaddafi regime in Libya officially recognised the "protesters" as the rightful government of Great Britain, and called on the UN to investigate their brutal repression?

  5. So, your police can't shoot or TASER the criminals as they riot?


  6. Sgt Steiner,

    You are quite right. Riot and assault are criminal activities, as are looting, theft, and arson ... and anyone charged with any or all of these offences should be prosecuted and if found guilty, punished.

    As to media comment ... well all I saw whilst on my cruise was the coverage by Sky News and BBC World News. The former seemed to be contributing to the problem with its real-time, on-the-street coverage. As to some of the talking heads that were featured ...

    All the best,


  7. Brigadier Dundas,

    In the UK only specially trained firearms officers are allowed to use firearms, and then only in very specific circumstances ... and that does not - as yet - include riots or looting.

    Tazers are available, but again they can only be used by officers who have been trained to use them, and the regulations regarding their use are very stringent.

    The only weapons available to most UK police officers facing rioters/looters are their batons. They will be wearing protective fire-proof clothing, boots, gloves, helmets with visors, and will carry either small shields (for snatch squads) or long shields (for crowd control and containment). Each officer must also display an individual code letter and number so that they can be identified should the need arise.

    Not quite like things are done in the USA ... yet!

    All the best,


  8. Dr Vesuvius,

    I had not heard about Colonel Ghaddafi`s latest pronouncement! It made me smile to think that he might actually believe what he has said (or what has been said on his behalf).

    All the best,


  9. Bob,

    The pain and dismay you feel is evident in your comments. You have my sympathies. When our inner cities ignited in the 1960s much of the violence undoubtedly arose from the effects of widespread and pervasive racial discrimination; but as is happening now in the UK, the "protesters" seemed to vent an unusual amount of "rage" against television retailers and other sources of material goodies. Worst of all, most of the small shops were owned by minorities, thus wiping out the very progress that was the basis of much of the rioting.

    I have to make one observation--except for one photo, all showed the streets and sidewalks as being AMAZINGLY neat and tidy! Clearly you folks treasure orderliness a lot more than we do (I regret to say). Psychologically, if for no other reason, quickly cleaning up helps the community begin to heal, as it demonstrates a desire to get things back in order.

    Best regards,


  10. Chris,

    I have 'invested' over thirty years of my working life in and around some of the areas that have been affected by the recent 'unrest'. I have always tried to show my students that respect (a much overused word these days) was earned and not given freely, and that one had to work to achieve goals and not to expect things to be given to them on a plate. I think that I have had a level of success, and I do know that the vast majority of those whom I have taught were and are decent, law-abiding, honourable people who are as equally horrified by what has happened as I am.

    But an underclass does exist in UK society, and they were probably at the forefront of events last week. I have come across them during the course of my working life, and their attitude can be summed up as being 'its not fair; they've got something that I haven't got; you can't tell me what to do; I've got rights; You're picking on me because I'm ...'

    The UK has become a very materialistic society, where envy of what others have seems to be very important to some people. Celebrities who are celebrities for winning reality TV shows or for playing soccer or for being in a TV soap opera fill that pages of our newspapers and magazines ... and a lot of people think that that is the lifestyle that that should have. They do not aspire to achieve it; they think that it should be theirs by right!

    This did not happen overnight. It took a long time to develop. It will not be fixed overnight as it requires a complete sea-change in UK society. What we need is leadership that is willing to think more than a year or two in advance; we need leaders who will think about where we will be in 25 or 50 years time. After all, if you change the school curriculum now, in 2011, the pupils who are just starting school aged 5 will not be leaving education much before 2024 ... and will probably be working until 2075 or thereabouts. That is a very long time ahead to think about ... but if we want to fundamentally change society, that is the sort of thinking that needs to be done.

    On a separate topic, the streets in Woolwich are kept fairly clean and well-tended, and as far as I know this seems to be the norm rather than the exception. You are right, however, about clearing up the mess so that things can get back tot normal as soon as possible. It is well-known that if grafitti is cleaned off as soon possible after it has been done, the problem is easier to control; if it is left - even for a couple of days - it attracts more and more grafitti, and then you have a major clean-up operation on your hands.

    All the best (and sorry for the political comments made above),


  11. Bob,

    Don't apologize, I agree with everything you said. What began in the U.S. as legitimate protest over being treated as second-class citizens has in many cases been replaced by whining over a frustrated sense of entitlement.

    The really scary thing about unrest like this is the realization that much if not most "law and order" is a matter of cooperation and voluntary respect for the law; there will never be enough police officers to "maintain order", except in places like Nazi Germany. And once the lawless elemnts realize that--uh oh. The REALLY scary thing is the willingness on the part of many people to forego their rights in order to establish "order".

    And now that we're both depressed...


  12. Chris,

    What you have written is as true for the UK as it is for the USA. Luckily most Brits are law-abiding (and I assume that the same is true in the USA) and there has already been a positive reaction by many communities. For example, Sikhs in Southall formed a human ring around their temple and Turkish shopkeepers in other areas were on the streets outside their shops prepared to defend their property.

    In Birmingham three young men who were protecting the area where they lived were killed by a car that deliberately ran them down. The father of one of the young men made a very dignified statement that helped to defuse a lot of the tension that was building up. I think that a copy of the statement is available on YouTube, and if you can find it, it is well worth watching.

    All the best,



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