In the Media

Gloucester: shock and disbelief as sleepy town succumbed to violence

PUBLISHED December 6, 2011

Cathedral city saw looting, a major fire and battles with the police, all of which echoed the disorder in much larger cities

Shock turned to disbelief when it emerged on the night of Tuesday 9 August that sleepy Gloucester, which did not fit the template of the large urban conurbations that were host to most of the rioting, had also succumbed to the wave of violence sweeping England.

The cathedral city saw looting, a major fire and battles with the police, all of which echoed the disorder in much larger cities.

"It was every bit as dramatic as what was happening in other areas," says Gloucestershire's chief constable Tony Melville. "Gloucester is a city with all the good things and the areas of improvement you get in an inner city. It's just in Gloucestershire.

"I don't think you can be certain why it happened here. There doesn't seem to have been any real element of pre-planning. It was relatively spontaneous."

It may not have been planned, but BlackBerry Messenger communications had been circulating for days saying the city would be the next target.

Following the peak of the riots in London, about 50 youngsters ? mostly teenagers ? started congregating in the roads around Eastgate Street and Barton Street, not far from the city centre at 10pm on Tuesday night.

At the same time, a local photographer and city centre resident, Dale Millar, 26, started receiving Facebook messages telling him to head to nearby Gloucester Park.

"I did not expect it at all. I stuck my head out of the window: I could see loads of young people, and I could see the police squeezing them down into Barton Street. I saw their riot gear. And I thought: 'Yeah, I'll get my camera.'"

Tally Giampa, group commander with Gloucestershire fire service, says the authorities were prepared. "A lot of intelligence was coming in to the police about the movement of people in and around Gloucester. What was becoming clear was that something was definitely brewing."

At midnight, a derelict college building on Brunswick Road, off Eastgate Street, was torched. About 80 firefighters and 16 engines were sent, some coming under attack from rioters throwing stones. The whole of the second floor was ablaze. It took crews four hours to control the fire; 70% of the three-storey building was severely damaged.

The severity of the fire, which attracted people from the surrounding area, appeared to spark off the riot. Police funnelled youths down Brunswick Road, with small groups breaking off down Eastgate Street and nearby Tredworth Road and High Street; a group of 50 eventually ended up in Barton Street.

But it is still unclear whether the fire can be considered a part of the riot. Gloucestershire fire service's head of operations, Geoff Sallis, thinks it can. "It was the timing, the relation to the timing of what was happening, where groups were gathering, and how it was working in that area."

Witnesses disagree. "It was an excuse to riot," Millar says. "When the building was set on fire there was no other buildings set on fire. It wasn't to do with the riots. They were two different groups of people."

By about 1.30am the group had grown to over 100 youths, throwing bottles, fireworks and even beer barrels at the police.

Windows were smashed, but looting was limited. In the early hours of the morning as people retreated, a group attempted to force entry to a bookmaker's, and a newsagent's was robbed. A bin was set alight outside the Vauxhall Mart supermarket on Barton Street.

So far, 40 people have been arrested on riot-related charges in Gloucester; of these, a quarter are juveniles; about three quarters are 21 or under. The cost of damages was ?16, 410. There were 122 police on the streets during the riot, with 200 on standby.

Saqib Rasul, the owner of the Vauxhall Mart, says the Barton Street area has been neglected for 20 years, and that the local youngsters need some focus. For him what happened was a "copycat" action fuelled by what was on TV. "What happened in Gloucester was not political, it was just a group of guys thinking: 'Let's have some fun.' It was a cat and mouse game with police."

Millar agrees. "At first I thought it was because of the police. But when I actually sat down and thought about it, it was just because they had seen it happening up and down the country.

"It was just like cops and robbers. It is not like they had a valid reason to riot. If they did they would have been going for the shops. They just wanted to be seen on the news." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds