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1985: 'We walked round the corner into hell'

Jeff Ashcroft was a young police constable serving in Merseyside Police at the time of the Toxteth riots, in which 80 of his colleagues were injured.

Here he relives the first night of rioting in Toxteth, Liverpool, in July 1981.

I was on an afternoon shift, a normal sort of day for a uniformed foot patrol officer.

Then as the day turned to night, a sergeant hurried around in a van, quickly picking up as many officers as possible.

We where told that youths in Liverpool at a place called Toxteth, had started to riot.

At the time, I laughed, thinking this was some sort of joke. I was looking forward to the end of my shift and a nice cold pint of bitter.

I can't describe how it felt when the van arrived in a side street at the bottom of Upper Parliment Street.

We could hear this strange animal-like howling mixed with the sound of breaking glass. In hurried amazement (and fear) we lined up and were quickly given a riot shield, something I'd only seen before on the news from Belfast.


" I grew to like the petrol bombs - at least you could see them coming "

Following a very nervous sergeant, we walked around the corner into hell!

There before us stood row upon row of ambulances, police vehicles and officers rushing towards Upper Parliament Street.

I could see that the vehicles seemed lit by a strange flickering light.

I checked the street lighting at first, but my eyes where quickly drawn instead to a solid wall of uniformed officers and several fires beyond them.

It was then that I saw my first petrol bomb.

Like a small meteorite, I watched in awe as it arced down over the tops of the officers, to fall with a smash and flash of fire onto the street between them and me.

I swallowed hard as my mouth ran dry.

I could literally taste the fear of what was impacting on my senses.

Two ambulance-men carrying a stretcher walked quickly past me towards the ambulances.

My eyes were drawn to an officer lying on the stretcher with his head cut wide open.

I remember my sergeant telling us that we were going to relieve officers on the front line.


" Here were people I didn't know in an area I'd never visited, trying their very best to kill me "

It was a nightmare of fire, noise and hatred the like of which I'd never seen or imagined.

Yes, I'd faced many an angry man (and woman) before and knew that violent confrontation came with the job but not this.

Here were people I didn't know in an area I'd never visited, trying their very best to kill me.

I watched in horror for what seemed like hours as officer after officer fell pole-axed with head injuries from unseen flying missiles.

We'd been issued with a stupid little plastic face guard that fixed to the front of our helmets.

Those old helmets offered no protection at all from flying bricks, stones and bits of iron railings.

You never saw them coming until one hit you.

I jumped every time something thudded against my riot shield. In fact I grew to like the petrol bombs - at least you could see them coming.

As the night progressed, so too did the intensity of hatred towards us.

We were forced to stand there as stationary targets, because senior officers hadn't a clue how to handle the situation.

Towards the morning we started to falter and I remember a very brave inspector (bleeding from a cut over his eye and missing his tie and hat) shouting at us to hold fast.

A mate standing next to me gave me three cigarettes over the next 30 minutes.

Not only was I smoking on duty but it took the three cigarettes before I realised I didn't smoke!

Finally at dawn, we'd had enough. Ignoring orders from above most of us drew our batons and roaring in anger, charged forward, some throwing aside our shields.

Senior officers tried to order us to stand our ground and were promptly told where to go!

We charged the rioters, catching a few, seeing off the rest and that ended the first night of rioting.

When we eventually arrived back at Wallasey, minus ties, faces blackened and dirty, tunics undone and with shocked blank looks on our faces, we where met with total surprise and looks of horror by the morning shift and civilians alike.

The shields we left in the van, hoping that nothing like that would ever happen again. But after a few hours sleep at home, I was telephoned to come in early.

I was heading back to Liverpool and the riots.

I can safely say, I'll remember those few months for the rest of my life.

It's a funny thing, but it's amazing how one can overcome and adapt to any given situation.

A few days after the first day of the riots, I found myself in Lodge Lane, watching it burn down. I stood in a looted shop phoning my mom, telling her I was okay but I had to go as the shop was on fire and the flames were getting a bit close!

In Context
Jeff Ashcroft joined the police as a 17-year-old cadet in 1971. Ten years on, at the time of the Toxteth riots, he was stationed at Manor Road Police Station in Wallasey on the Wirral.

He was presented with a commendation for his actions at the Toxteth riots by the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Kenneth Oxford.

In May 2001, he retired on an ill health pension having been awarded 18 commendations during his service.


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