Drinking and Public Disorder

Drinking & Public Disorder - download the book in pdf format Dr Peter Marsh & Kate Fox 1992

Click on the accompanying image to download and read the full document using Adobe's Acrobat Reader.


Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research

UK research – Banbury

We selected Banbury as a fieldwork site partly because of the comments by the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, to the effect that previously peaceful rural towns and villages were becoming ‘riot centres’ for ‘lager louts’. Banbury was one of the chief targets of his remarks, and held up as an example of this new and disturbing phenomenon.

We were not entirely surprised to find, from conversations with members of the public and the police, that the events which provoked Douglas Hurd’s comments about the town had been largely misrepresented.

Levels and perceptions

Banbury was seen by most as a parochial market town which inspired a sense of ownership amongst its young people, who use the limited town centre facilities to their maximum on a Friday and Saturday night. A taxi driver we interviewed, who had worked the town centre for ten years, felt that this very loyalty was to blame for some of the trouble:

When there’s trouble here, it’s usually when you get a crowd of visitors who are passing through, like from Coventry or Leicester, or even Oxford. The locals are very protective of their town. So they’ll all get together and chase whoever it is off. Then you’ll get the different estates having a go at each other. Again, it’s ‘cos they’re bored. I’m amazed there’s not more bother really.

Apart from a few pubs and one night club, Banbury has very little to offer young people. There are rival groups, gangs and individuals with grudges to bear on a scale comparable with any other small town, but a centre for rural rioting it is not. The manageress of a Pizza restaurant commented:

There’s one little night club in the town, which is poor feed and certainly not enough to supply the youngsters. They simply have nowhere to go when the pubs close and you’ll see them just wandering around. So the police are wandering around and the kids are wandering around, both bored, so there’s bound to be a few confrontations, isn’t there?

Our taxi driver, along with a large majority of our informants, also blamed lack of facilities for the town’s problems:

With this new motorway, there are loads of houses and industrial sites sprouting up, but I don’t see many new pubs or clubs or anything opening up. I think the town council and the police obviously think there’ll be loads of trouble, so they object to applications for new licences.

The population of Banbury is rapidly expanding as it now falls well within the commuter belt for London and Birmingham. With the recent completion of the M40, the resident drinking population is likely to make greater use of the more extensive leisure facilities provided by surrounding towns and cities. Both Coventry and Oxford were places many young people from Banbury visited in search of entertainment on the grounds that "there isn’t much happening in Banbury". Both in terms of suitable entertainment, and of levels of serious disorder, we are inclined to agree with this verdict. In fact, many of the local people we spoke to wondered why we were in Banbury at all:

There is a certain amount of exaggeration because people make it sound like there are problems every night which clearly is not the case. There are scraps now and again but not all the time. Male ‘punter’

The ‘riot’

The ‘Banbury riot’ took place in early 1988, and attracted a great deal of media attention. The event was held up by the then Home Secretary and others as an example of the worrying trend towards ‘rural rioting’, or in ACPO’s terminology ‘non-metropolitan violence’ – a matter for serious concern and much talk of ‘crackdowns’ on ‘yobs and lager louts’. The Banbury Guardian reported it thus:

About 200 youths battled with police in an hour-long riot in Banbury’s Market Place in the early hours of Saturday morning. Two officers were injured as police from three counties, including horses and dog handlers, arrested 15 people in the town’s second successive weekend of violence. Scuffles broke out between members of the crowd. When officers tried to make arrests they were turned on by the mob … Sixty-nine officers were involved, including two members of the mounted division who were patrolling the High Street at the start of the incident.

From the insiders’ perspective, the picture was very different. We found that the ‘riot’ was not generally viewed as indicative of a new social trend. Indeed, the vast majority of our informants, including the police officers involved, saw it as an unfortunate hiccup where misunderstandings led to an over-reaction from both police and town-centre revellers:

An experienced beat PC from Banbury, said that the presence of horses was due to a training exercise, but that this was misinterpreted:

Some of the people round the town got the wrong idea. They thought there was something already happening and it must have put the thought in their minds that because something’s happening, then perhaps they want to join in and there was a series of circumstances that led up to an over-reaction from both sides. We probably over-reacted to some little fights that were in the Market Place and because of the horse presence everything else went completely overboard.

This view was also shared by a local Police Inspector, who agreed that the mounted horses incensed people and actually inspired them to join in the fighting.
Researcher’s report

Another PC commented:

They still accuse the police horses. It was a training day for them and they wanted to get in some training of going round the town at night, because they tend to be used for shows and things; not really police-orientated things. They wanted to be out and around the town and get the horses used to other areas.

The consensus among our informants was that the police initially became somewhat heavy-handed over a few "normal Friday-night scuffles and small fights" in the Market Place, and that the purely coincidental horse-training exercise was largely to blame for the escalation in both numbers and aggression. According to an experienced beat PC, the original brawls were nothing unusual:

Of course, it was made worse by the Press reaction with Banbury being a "sleepy town" and it got headline news and it was the time that the Press latched on that sort of thing. But you can guarantee that from Wednesday night even to Sunday night there’s going to be a fight somewhere around Banbury. I’ve been here since 1970 and there’s always been a leaning towards a big punch-up on a Friday night.


Inconsistent and heavy-handed policing was felt by many to be the basis of much of the disorder in the town centre. A Youth Worker who runs a drop-in centre for young people told us that there is a great deal of bad feeling between youngsters and the police in Banbury. This animosity was certainly evident among almost all of the youths we interviewed:

At the weekend the police are low profile from 7-10pm and from 10 on there are a lot of police about. This often incites people when they see so many police, they see red. I don’t think this helps much and sometimes the police do go a bit over the top.

I recall one time coming out of C____ when a fight was going on outside. It expanded from one on one to three on three and the police got one of the guys who was cheering them on. When they took him in the van I saw a policeman hit this guy in the stomach. Then you could see arms and legs flying in the back of the van because the light was on. Maybe the guy was causing problems in the van but it looked like the police were going over the top. This was a support group as opposed to the local bobbies.

In Coventry we were singing and shouting on the way home and the police just asked us where we were from and were quite nice whereas we have seen people bundled into the police vans for the same thing in Banbury.

They seem to be older police in Banbury and they cannot relate to the youngsters because of the age difference. They try to combat violence with violence and that doesn’t work although they are not all like that, but a fair few.

Our interviews with police officers confirmed that this mistrust was by no means one-sided:

At the moment they’re taking the piss. They know that if they commit officers to a certain type of incident they know they can get away with something elsewhere.

You think that it’s that organised?

Well, I’ve got a suspicion that it can be.

An ex-policeman, now running a Burger-chain franchise, was able to take a more detached, ‘anthropological’ perspective

It was the same 20 years ago when I used to police this community. If you are a bobby on the beat or a yob on the street you defend your own and this is down to tribalism.

There has been an increase in problems because of extra income and poor policing. Police are out of touch and are more tolerant of the violent behaviour and the tactics have changed to cope with the more violent situations instead of looking to the source of the problem. The bobby on the beat used to deal with the riot situation on his own, but the police now look at their policing tactics in terms of the riot situation.

Unless they get back to the Dixon-of-Dock-Green type of policing, knowing everybody and sorting out problems on a local level. A lot of the problems are made worse by the police responding to the peak and not the foundation. Having a good presence and living in the community and being on the spot is how you tackle the foundations.

To be fair, the police were themselves very much aware of these problems, in particular the inconsistent approaches to policing the town centre. Our researchers reported:

Another problem mentioned by our beat PC (echoing the comments of the Youth Worker) was the varying methods of policing adopted by different shift Inspectors. Some Inspectors aim for a high-profile approach, with a large van on patrol, while others aim for a more subtle approach. This, perhaps, explains why, on the night of the riot, many people assumed that trouble was occurring because they saw more police around than previous weeks. He also suggested that this erratic approach caused problems for the bobby on the beat, who was expected to be high-profile one week and more subtle the next.

Underage drinkers

Everyone we spoke to agreed that Banbury, like many other small towns, has virtually no facilities for the under-18s. The one youth-disco closed some time ago, and there is nothing for them to do in the evenings except hang around the town centre, where they are constantly ‘moved on’ by the police. The young people we interviewed felt very resentful about this, and pointed out that they were not to blame for the lack of alternative entertainment. They saw the police as their enemies, and even those who had never themselves been involved with the police claimed that they "lie in court, beat up innocent bystanders" and so on.

Although the numbers of underage pubgoers are probably no higher in Banbury than in our other research sites, we were fortunate in this case to be accompanied around the ‘circuit’ by an Unattached Youth Worker who knew almost all of the youngsters and could actually identify the under-18s in each venue. In one evening, she pointed out between 5 and 15 underage drinkers in each of the pubs we visited. Many of these were in the 14- to 16-year-old age bracket.

The ‘punters’ we spoke to confirmed this:

There are a few pubs in Banbury where there are a lot of underage drinkers and it is not very tightly controlled. I have never been asked for an ID card. That scheme does not work.

The underage drinkers are not responsible for the trouble, they keep a low profile and keep out of trouble.

The police were no less aware of the difficulties:

[The girls] seem to be getting in the pubs at a very young age. It’s part of their culture to drink and show off. We’ve tried to stamp that out by getting undercover Policemen in and revoking licences in pubs we’ve found. But the Licensees are trying to get on top of it, but it’s very difficult, especially where girls are concerned, because you can’t really tell their ages. They had a policy of I. D. Cards about a year ago, but I don’t think it took off … people were forging them and you could get them anywhere in the town. Young lads if they want to drink might get away with it in some pubs; there are some pubs still possibly infringing. But I’d say they do a fair bit of home drinking from Off-Licences and so on.

We have a system here now where if juveniles come in D and D then they do get interviewed as to where the drink has come from and we’ve got a lot of information out of them. The worst they see is a caution. As I say it is an ongoing problem, I don’t believe it’s that different from ten years ago or twenty years ago it’s just whatever happens, whatever becomes flavour of the month is the problem.

When we questioned the managers of the establishments we received the usual self-contradictory, plaintive response:

We don’t get any underage drinkers in here but it is often difficult to tell.

Fast food and restaurants

A large proportion of the disorder in Banbury had been associated with the town’s fast-food and chain-restaurant outlets. Although this was clearly due in part to the absence of any other late-night entertainment (apart from the one small night club), we found similar problems with these outlets in other towns which boasted numerous alternative late-night venues.

The managers we spoke to in Banbury had been obliged to adopt the rather drastic policy of early closing, thus forfeiting considerable trade:

We used to open from 5 to midnight but now we close at 11. Chain-restaurant manager

After 10pm I think there is another 20% trade out there. Alcohol equals a desire for food and that’s what they want after a few beers. We close early to avoid the problems and it is difficult to get the staff to work later at the weekend. Fast-food outlet operator

All of those we spoke to felt that the ‘trouble’ was simply not worth the extra trade:

We got all the people from the pubs and they did not order much food and then order a load of drinks.

We had a door smashed and the window and the salad bar smashed whilst people were fighting and they had been drinking.

There were groups of lads and girls fighting. They would upset others and then the fight would spread to that table. It was not always intentional but people got involved. Chain-restaurant manager

My wife was seriously assaulted by a drunk in here. He was not a youth. She was stabbed in the eye with a fork by an old tramp really. He had previous for it.

I had a lad who was pissed on drugs and alcohol … we exchanged punches and it took three police officers to hold him down. He head-butted a girl on his way in. Youngsters will go further now than they used to and they are more determined to have the last word in any situation. Burger-chain operator

We used to get them coming in here after eleven and all they really wanted was another drink. The food was chucked around the place most of the time and we ended up losing custom ‘cos of a couple of idiots. Pizza-chain manageress

The managers were very honest about their own limitations in dealing with such problems. They felt that the operating companies showed little interest in their difficulties, and viewed the training they were given in handling aggressive or drunk customers as, to say the least, inadequate.

We don’t get any training in dealing with problems but we are told to just contact the police. We have to use the normal telephone because there is no panic button. Chain-restaurant manager

Greater support from companies operating fast-food and popular restaurant chains, including specialist training of managers and staff in conflict prevention and management, would, they thought, enable such establishments to provide a much-needed service, and increase their profits, by remaining open after pub-closing time.

The role of alcohol

Although many of our informants perceived a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and disorder, most responses were qualified, suggesting that other factors, such as personality or group dynamics could be equally important:

I think the drink gets the better of some of them, but they’re idiots anyway, so I wouldn’t expect them to suddenly be polite ‘cos they started drinking Coke. Restaurant manager

Couple of pints, couple of mates with them and they’ll have a go. Verbally, I mean, ‘cos no one has attacked me. Though one of the other drivers got a nasty cut from a girl, who hit him in the face with a stiletto. Could have taken his eye out and all. Taxi driver

I think to a certain extent drink contributes to violence but the person who goes out on a Friday, Saturday with the intention of getting somebody, then alcohol hasn’t got much to do with it. ‘Male punter’

Boredom and lack of late-night entertainment were also viewed as highly significant factors:

The problems tend to arise when people come out of the pub and don’t have anything to do. They have to cram their drinking in between 7.30 and 11.00pm, they are belting down the drinks instead of staggering them over a period. So by the time they get to the only night club or the fast-food places they are drunk. Male ‘punter’

Banbury doesn’t really offer a great deal, with only one nightclub. Me and my friends often go to Oxford or Coventry, or even Birmingham for a good night out. I do reckon there’s more police about now late at night, but I don’t think there’s that many and then they’re just a target for the prats who’ve nowhere else to go. Barmaid

We used to go down town with some girls and someone makes a comment or throws a drink at you then you fly off the handle and maybe have a scrap. This was not down to drink, it’s just how it is in Banbury. Male ‘punter’

Rivalry between groups of young males, whether connected with allegiance to football teams, estates or schools, was seen as a major cause of trouble - far more so than in our other research sites.

The big pub fight at the A___was not drink related, it was to do with gang rivalry. I think more problems occurred because of the police presence. Again the police came down quite heavily. Male ‘Punter’

I’ve noticed that the types of crime we get through drinking are more violent these days. There’s a new influx of strangers to the town and Banbury’s got a history of reacting strongly against strangers, because of the motorway and really since the riots, they seem to be causing more problems than we’re used to. Beat PC

It is a place to fight; they sort their problems out by fighting. They don’t hold back at kicking once the bloke’s down. There’s an element of gangs; you find they become very "pack" orientated. As they’re going through school, they keep to the same friends and they go out drinking together and stick together. They are the ones you get coming up time and again. They’re a hard core of drinkers and you can rattle off 3 or 4 basic groups who will always come through the door on a Friday night. Beat PC

Others stressed the cultural associations between drinking, fighting and ‘macho’ status:

Drink makes you feel bigger than you are and gives a sense of the macho man. I have been hit for just looking at someone, that resulted in a fight and we were banned from the pub. If you don’t fight back you will get a real beating so you have to retaliate. Male ‘punter’

They become known for their violence in the town and they seem to have to live up to that image. They get recognised for their ability with their fists and they also get recognised for their ability to sink the old pints and people will follow them around the town, because they develop their own little trails of hangers-on. Beat PC

A resigned few felt that fighting among young males was simply ‘human nature’:

18-25s are the group likely to get involved in problems. It has always been the same. If you look back in history then it has always been the same, there has always been fighting. Male ‘punter’