Archives capture a moment in time and give us a glimpse into fragments of lives that otherwise might get lost amongst the maelstrom of broader history. They are memories passed down from often now silent ancestors that allow us to create our own memories and to briefly resituate ourselves in their world.
2021 is the 40th anniversary of an uprising in Leeds dubbed the ‘Chapeltown Riots’, a moment in history still within the living memory of many. When we use archives to view historic acts of defiance, rebellion or conflict it can be challenging to find first-hand accounts of those involved. So often the records left to us show only the reaction to the events, rather than the frustrations and tensions that led to them. The names of those involved have often not been recorded which leaves us with only fragmentary evidence from which we can piece together a narrative of what happened. We would love to hear from anyone who can remember the events at Chapeltown and, hopefully, fill in some of the gaps left by the records at the time. Together we can ensure a series of events that shaped the City of Leeds and brought civil frustrations and racial conflicts to the headlines can be preserved.
Disturbances broke out across the country in the second week of July 1981 and for West Yorkshire it was the areas of Bradford, Halifax and Chapeltown in Leeds which were most affected. Whilst 1981 is relatively recent, in archival terms, there are already a vast number of original sources preserved in our collections which can be used to research the events of that summer. Here, we hope to highlight some of those sources which relate to the Chapeltown area but we recognise that these records do not tell a full and complete story.
Thanks to a collection deposited by Dr Max Farrar we hold a series of local community publications covering the 1970s and 1980s which were produced in the Chapeltown area. Copies of the Chapeltown News, covering 1972-1977, show the issues facing individuals and communities residing in Chapeltown at that time. Also in the collection are copies of The Palace Youth Paper, later renamed The Chapeltown Youth Paper from 1980-1981; written by young people from the area the Spring 1982 issue in particular contains reflections on the “riots” of the previous year. We hold several issues of Come-Unity News, a community paper for Harehills, Chapeltown and Little London produced by the Come-Unity Collective (CUC). The purpose of the CUC was to increase people’s awareness of the social, economic and political factors which affect people’s lives, to promote racial and cultural tolerance and understanding and to bring about a greater sense of unity. The December 1981 issue reports on the seven Chapeltown residents who were, at that time, awaiting trial following their arrest.
In a collection of papers deposited by the Minister of Roscoe Methodist Church are the minutes of the Leeds Council for Community Relations which cover the period leading up to the summer of 1981 and report on the events of July in great detail. A speech given at their annual general meeting in June of 1982 reflects on the events of the previous year and the subsequent impact of local initiatives in race relations (reference WYL2562).
Minutes of Leeds City Council and its departments can be used to research the local government’s response to the events in Chapeltown. In the immediate aftermath, the papers of Councillor John Gunnell, leader of West Yorkshire County Council at that time, show how the council dealt with the financial impact of the damage caused to local properties, estimated at £1,750,000 (reference WYL2453/box 28). Police and fire brigade reports outline the incidents they responded to over the course of that week and the numbers of people affected. Council minutes record the reflections of the local authority on the causes of the disturbance as well as their proposals on how to prevent similar unrest in the future.
Used together, and in conjunction with records held at Leeds Local and Family History Library The Chapeltown Uprising of 1981 – commemorating and investigating. – The Secret Library | Leeds Libraries Heritage Blog (secretlibraryleeds.net), these records can be used to explore the events in Chapeltown in 1981 and set that summer in the wider political, economic and social context of Leeds in the 1980s.
For more information on any of these sources please contact the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds at email@example.com