Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 11:06 UK

Poll tax riots - 20 years after violence shook London

Poll tax protests

By Andrew McFarlane and Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Twenty years ago a protest against what had been dubbed the poll tax erupted in violence and led to rioting that could be heard in nearby Downing Street. Some of those who were there remember the day's events.

The rioting in central London on 31 March, 1990, was not the first demonstration against the so-called poll tax to end in violence. In the weeks beforehand a number of protests around the country had culminated in violent skirmishes.

Protesters and police tend to injured person

But the riot that turned London's Trafalgar Square, a top tourism spot, into a battleground between police and protesters came to be seen by many as the fatal blow for the government's community charge.

A central policy of the Conservative Party's winning 1987 general election manifesto, the charge, which replaced the old rates system, was levied on individuals rather than properties. It was supposed to increase accountability. But its introduction met with fierce resistance among some sections of the public.

In the London poll tax riots, up to 3,000 demonstrators turned on police, attacking them with bricks, bottles and scaffolding poles, and 340 were arrested. Of 113 people injured, 45 were police.

By the end of the year, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been forced to step down. She was replaced by John Major who scrapped the charge in favour of the council tax that continues today.


Insp Tanner was in charge of the 20-strong team of mounted officers whose charge across Trafalgar Square under a hail of missiles became one of the most replayed incidents of the riot.

The officer, now retired, recalls following a mass of demonstrators into the square:

Insp Richard Tanner
Richard Tanner said it was the longest day of his police career

"There was an angry noise. You could sense the tension. A building was on fire and officers on the ground were trying to sort out scuffles, linking arms and looking frightened.

"It was not a good situation."

The order came to clear the Northumberland Avenue side of the square to allow fire crews access to the burning building.

"We weren't cantering all-out, we were trying to push the crowd away," says the 54-year-old, now a web manager from Ashford, Kent.

However, one horse turned sideways and knocked over a demonstrator. TV footage showed her being picked up by fellow protesters and reports suggested she was shocked but not badly harmed.

"We tried to trace her afterwards but never managed," says Mr Tanner.

As the officers advanced, they were pelted with bricks. One injured Mr Tanner's hand, another tore a chunk from the flank of his horse, Keswick.

"I couldn't shake hands for about six months," he recalls, adding that other officers suffered psychologically afterwards.

For six hours after the crowds had dispersed from Trafalgar Square, mounted police "chased incidents" around central London.

"We were exhausted by the end. None of us had ever seen or experienced anything like it," he adds.


For Chris Bambery, 54, the riot was the product of a decade of "cumulative anger" that had built up against Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government.

"There was an immense sense of 'them and us' in the Thatcher years and we felt it was payback time," he says.

Flat-rate tax per adult, replaced old rates system
Proposed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who saw it as a more accountable tax
Introduced in Scotland in 1988-9, England and Wales a year later
38 million were to pay the poll tax against 14 million who paid rates
Controversial and opposed by some 'Thatcherites' like Nigel Lawson
Admin costs shot up and there was widespread non-payment
Tax was abandoned when John Major replaced Thatcher in 1990

"There was a deep sense of injustice about the poll tax at the end of a decade in which there had been a celebration of wealth."

Mr Bambery says the government's use of police against striking miners and during inner-city riots had angered many.

At the start of the march, in Kennington Park, there was a "buzz in the air" and a sense of elation. But that turned to anger when police split the march at Trafalgar Square.

"Riot police turned up at the top of Whitehall and launched into the square. The crowd charged and they ran, dropping their shields," he says. "For four or five hours there was constant fighting and a building site was set on fire."

Police eventually forced rioters into the West End, where people turned their anger on gentlemen's clubs and car dealerships which to them symbolised the ruling elite.

"I haven't seen anything on that scale before or since," says Mr Bambery.


David Waddington walked through the door of his constituency home in Lancashire on 31 March, 1990, to be greeted by the phone ringing.

Lord Waddington in 1990
That moment, the telephone in the car rang and we learned that trouble had broken out in Strangeways Prison in Manchester
Lord Waddington

After being told of the violence in London, the home secretary headed straight back to survey the damage.

"We knew there was going to be a big demonstration but we certainly had no inkling the demonstrators were going to be infiltrated by people out to cause mayhem. We weren't anticipating any great trouble," he says. "There were broken windows all over the place and a mess in the streets. One of the most awful things was the use of scaffolding poles against police.

"The day afterwards, near Trafalgar Square, a little band of very unpleasant customers was still roaming around. They made as if to attack the car and the police insisted I get back in and we hurried away.

"That moment, the telephone in the car rang and we learned that trouble had broken out in Strangeways Prison in Manchester. I thought, 'well, I seem to have a lot of trouble on my hands'."

However, the sight of prisoners "capering around" on the roof, having taken control of the jail, stayed with him much longer than the poll tax trouble, the peer adds.

In a Commons debate after the riot, David Waddington criticised some Labour MPs who he felt had "lent encouragement" to some of the rioters by backing non-payment.

Now, he says the poll tax riots seem less significant after violence at last year's G20 summit left a man dead.


Trade union representative Lizzie Woods was 16 when she led a delegation of 20 school pupils from south-east England to the march.

"We felt that every part of our lives as working class kids was under attack," she recalls. "The government miscalculated because they thought poor people didn't have a voice.

Lizzie Woods
Lizzie Woods then, left, and now

"There were thousands of ordinary people on the march - families, pensioners, black and white people and mothers with pushchairs. I've never seen so many people who didn't deem themselves political on a march. The mood was really upbeat and jubilant and the police were happily chatting to people."

However, the mood changed to "complete chaos in the blink of an eye".

"It was terrifying. I saw people on scaffolding throwing bits of wood at people," she says. "Objects were being thrown around and there were police horses. We got split up for about an hour and were very frightened."

Like many others, she believes the march was infiltrated by those bent on violence.

"It descended into a riot but we won. Poll tax didn't get through."


Roy Hanney, who lived in south London, attended the march as a "family outing" with friends, his sister and three-year-old nephew.

"We were making our voices heard. We felt the poll tax was unfair," says Mr Hanney, 49, who now lives in Portsmouth.

Roy Hanney's arrest
Mr Hanney successfully took his case to court

After reaching Trafalgar Square, he parted company with his friends to head to Soho. On returning to the square an hour later, expecting to hear speeches, he found "all hell had broken loose".

"The police had started driving vans into the crowds. I saw a cavalry charge come up from Whitehall past that building into the crowd and there was a woman who was trampled by these horses. A whole load of people came running out to help her.

"Sights like that just served to further inflame the crowd and make them feel like they were under attack. The police were charging around like lunatics.

"I climbed up onto scaffolding to get off the streets."

After climbing down about an hour later, two police officers ran into a crowd, pushing Mr Hanney to the ground and manhandled him into a van.

He was arrested but a jury stopped his trial, convinced he was innocent. He eventually received £30,000 in compensation.


Standing in shirt sleeves as the sun shone over Hammersmith Bridge, PC Anthony Cooper was "having a lovely time" controlling the genteel crowds watching the varsity boat race.

But instead of returning to their west London base, his 23-strong team was diverted to Trafalgar Square where "all hell had broken loose".

"I'll never forget the extent of the damage," says the 67-year-old, now retired to Somerset.

Rioter smashing window
Rioters took out their aggression on shops and businesses

"We walked up Regent Street from Trafalgar Square and every bank or shop window was smashed, every car had a dustbin thrown through the back windscreen. It was a terrible atmosphere. People had just used the poll tax as an excuse to rampage and wreck things."

PC Steve Wooding, from Essex, watched events unfold on screens at Scotland Yard's Gold Control room, from where he directed officers to trouble spots.

"We had anticipated trouble and you had the usual 'rent-a-mob' who had nothing to do with the demonstration but were there to cause trouble. It all kicked off when some wanted to get into Downing Street."

"Placards were being ripped up and lumps of wood were flying through the air. We deployed horses to try to split the crowd. We had inspectors asking for urgent assistance, saying their men were being stoned from both sides," he says.

"It was frustrating because you could see how frightening it was but you felt like you couldn't do anything about it.

Mr Wooding admits some police were too "heavy-handed" but believes officers did well to control their emotions in the face of such aggression.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I remember walking through Trafalgar Square that Saturday evening after the demonstrators had gone. I was 20 years of age and working in a hi-fi shop in South Kensington, and was trying to reach Charing Cross station for my journey home. I'd been watching the violence unfold on the TV screens in the store, so wasn't surprised later when the Tube driver said we wouldn't be stopping at Embankment. So I hopped off at Westminster and walked up Whitehall. Off its side streets I saw the last remnants of coaches being boarded by those who had demonstrated peacefully, for their journey home to whichever part of the country they had come from.

Entering Trafalgar Square was a surreal sight, like walking through the set of a disaster movie. There was loads of debris lying around, the smouldering remains of the Portakabins that had been set on fire and a burnt-out car. There was a minimum police presence at this point, and the whole eerie experience gave me a small taste of what might happen if there was ever a mass breakdown of in law and order in London. It stills sends a shiver up my spine to this day.
Elliot Willson, Sidcup, Kent

I was living in Holborn to the east of Trafalgar Square at that time. It was a Saturday and I was due to visit my parents which usually meant driving through Trafalgar Square en route. The Strand had been cordoned off to traffic by police but I knew the side roads so found myself as the only car driving westwards down the Strand towards Trafalgar Square. As I got nearer the square I could see smoke coming from it, so thought better and did a U-turn on The Strand. While negotiating another route I got a good look at the "protestors" (rioters) - the usual suspects intent on having a riot who would have evaded most taxes anyway.
Charles Riley, Aylesbury, UK

I stumbled on the protests by accident after spending a pleasant morning in Covent Garden with friends. It seemed like a good idea to hang around and listen to some of the speeches. It appears luck was on our side as we left via the strand just as the police horses charged the protest. It is my recollection that this ignited the trouble as many indignant innocent people were ruthlessly baton charged in police tactics honed during the miners' strikes. Brutality breeds brutality and the police were misguided in their actions and at fault in too may ways to mention. We escaped by diving into a door way and waiting for the horses to pass before scuttling off down the Strand. There was no way out for those who were left. It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.
Dave, York, UK

I remember the chaos of that Saturday afternoon, while working, the police had closed the underground, people were going crazy, they burnt the Renault car dealership include cars near Leicester square. We managed to get to a Regent St branch of shop I worked in, someone threw a bin through the window, people were basically helping themselves.
Safraz Khan, Kent

I was there to demonstrate peacefully. The march had a friendly carnival atmosphere right up until we got to Trafalgar Square. In Trafalgar square the police boxed everyone in, there was nowhere to go, and the police started getting heavy handed. After years of mass unemployment and a divisive right wing government that seemed only to care about the rich, there was a lot of resentment. People had had enough and fought back. Saying it was "rent-a-mob" shows a lack of any understanding of the situation.
Mike, Leeds

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