Drinking and Public Disorder

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

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

UK Research – Preston

Preston seems to have suffered its worst problems in 1989 when three Saturday nights in succession resulted in major street battles, initially between two rival factions and obviously resulting in clashes with the police. This was a period when police fears of serious public order problems were heightened, and indeed when the reputation of the town centre as a violent place was established.

Levels and perceptions

Our experience of the town centre was a different one. The centre has two streets where the majority of the drinking ‘circuit’ pubs, clubs and late-night refreshment houses are to be found. There are a number of other pubs scattered around the centre. It attracts large numbers of young people in the 18- to 25-year-old age bracket at the weekends, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, and although the streets are busy at these times the concentration does not seem as great as in our second Northern research site, Wakefield, simply because of the wider geographical spread of facilities.

Those ‘punters’ with whom we talked felt that, apart from the brief rioting period in 1989, Preston offered a reasonable night out, generally without the fear of becoming involved in disorderly behaviour. According to an experienced town-centre taxi driver, there are certain areas to avoid:

I would never go out with the wife down the Church Street end of town … locals out for a drink know where to go in town for a drink without getting their face kicked in at the same time.

This was confirmed by most of the ‘punters’ we interviewed, who also told us that ‘serious’ disorder, as opposed to ‘normal’ scuffles and scraps, was infrequent, and largely associated with gang rivalry and football fans.

It is a tradition for most to save up during the week and to spend their money at the weekend on drink, food and entertainment. In this sense Preston is no different to any of our other research locations. Another taxi driver commented:

Preston is a nicer town than London where I used to work, but you get problems wherever you are.

As we were keen to observe these problems at first hand, an invitation to accompany two police officers on their Friday evening tour of duty was therefore accepted with alacrity, but proved disappointing, as our researcher reports:

Being in a police car for the evening session enabled us at least to hear what was going on around town. Yet, during the whole night, only one incident came over the radio. This turned out to be one punch thrown at a 21st birthday party; the venue being a Social Club just on the outskirts of the city centre. When we arrived at the ‘incident’ there were 2 Police cars, a dog van, a White Maria and a few on foot. "I nearly started something myself, it’s so bloody quiet." said a bored and somewhat petulant bobby.

Another researcher provided this account of an evening in a town-centre pub:

Met R and P at Venue 2 on the Friday night. The town was very busy, mainly due to the fact that a multiple gypsy wedding took place during the day and attracted about 1,500 guests who were making a weekend of it. This extra influx of people to the town displaced many people from their regular haunts and resulted in many unknown faces frequenting the pubs – Venue 2 in particular.

In the course of the two hours or so in the pub we witnessed a group of about 8 lads in the 18-20 age group dancing on the table in the corner of the pub, which resulted in the door staff being called to have them removed. This was done quietly and the group were allowed to finish their drinks and left without too much protest and certainly without any violence.

The landlady challenged two lads about their age and became involved in a major argument in the pub, mainly due to her rather heavy-handed approach which publicly embarrassed the individuals. One of the lads claimed he came to the bar every week and that he was known to the doormen. As a result, the landlady and the lad went off to sort this out. Meanwhile the other lad was arguing with the landlord and was verbally abusing him and threatening violence. He was ushered to the door and ejected from the pub.

While we would not wish to minimise the problems faced by the police in town centres, it must be said that the above accounts are typical examples from our researchers’ reports from Preston. One or two unusually quiet weekends might be considered unrepresentative, but our research team spent over 30 nights in the pubs, clubs and streets of Preston, deliberately seeking out the ‘tough’ areas identified by the police and others, without witnessing more than a few scraps or scuffles. This is not to say that more serious acts of violence and disorder do not occur, only that such incidents are the exception rather than the rule.


The main difference between Preston and our other research locations – and it is something which now attracts close police interest – is the proliferation of drugs which we noted were openly available and being used in two or three of the town-centre pubs. We feel sure that drugs were available in most of our research towns but nowhere was this as obvious as in Preston. The majority of our informants, from taxi drivers to doormen and pub managers, mentioned drugs as a major contributor to disorderly and criminal behaviour (especially when combined with alcohol). Another evening session spent with police officers yielded this account of an incident at a town-centre pub:

A very seedy joint which has recently requested police advice on how to deal with a group of young lads who persist in smoking cannabis in the pub. Advised by the police not to serve any of the group. On the evening of our tour we heard on the police radio that a group of lads had been refused service and consequently smashed the pub windows. On arrival at the scene one window had been broken and the group moved on. This pub is not considered to be a youngsters’ pub – more an older clientele including ‘criminal elements’.

The pool team

Our discussions with the members of a pub pool team illuminated some of the difficulties previous researchers have experienced in accounting for the behaviour of ‘lager louts’ in ‘sociological’ terms. The members of the pool team were, in terms of age, social class, education, employment and so on, virtually indistinguishable from the members of the ‘Squad’ in Oxford. Their reported alcohol consumption on a Friday or Saturday night out was about the same as that of the ‘Squad’ members we interviewed (despite the probable tendency of the latter group to exaggerate). Yet their attitudes and expectations were radically different, as this researcher’s report shows:

For the males of the group, Friday and Saturday night followed a similar pattern each week. On a Saturday night particularly they would start at the outskirts of Preston and move inwards from pub to pub remaining in each for a maximum of 1 pint, sometimes only a half (although this seemed to arouse jeering from other members of the group). 8 or 9 pubs would be visited on their way to Venue 7, the final location.

At closing time they would move on to a night club having consumed a maximum of 10 pints but sometimes only 6 or 7. When the club shut they would walk home. The aim of the night was to have a good laugh. In their opinion a fight would ruin the night as it was no fun to go home with a broken nose or a blood-stained shirt.

They reported having occasionally been involved in fights but that this was extremely rare and they were unwilling, if not unable, to illustrate this point with examples. One of them who had been hit by a coloured man did not follow the incident up and another, whose girlfriend had been hassled by a white lad looking for trouble, followed it up but only to the extent that if he had found him he was going to ask him what the problem was and wait for an apology (or at least that is what he said).

In general the group showed little/no interest in violence and seemed to try to avoid it or any other sort of trouble. They reported having had no contact with drugs in Preston. They did not consider a night out in the town centre to be threatening although they had witnessed violent scenes. However these seemed to be riots rather than small scuffles. That they did not report small scuffles may mean that these are infrequent and that they have not witnessed any/many, or it may be that such incidents are the norm and therefore go unnoticed.

The ‘three-week riots’

The most violent scenes witnessed by our pool team informants occurred in 1989 during the ‘Preston riots’ which were said to have taken place on three consecutive Saturdays. Our researchers summarised the pool team’s interpretation of these events, which was largely confirmed by other informants:

The reasons behind the rioting were uncertain although it was suggested to have been initiated by a black doorman throwing a white man out of a night club. More white males apparently went back and the trouble started and escalated from there. The reasons for it stopping were also unclear. Police were brought in from outside on the third weekend but on this occasion the town centre was apparently deserted. It was thought that the fighting had been organised elsewhere. It was suggested that the trouble may have been building up for some time, that the police influence had nothing to do with it ending as they were reported only to move in on the relevant nights when it was over. It was felt that the trouble had just "fizzled out". However it was also suggested that once the police presence had been increased there was no longer any point and that there may have been trouble had they not been there. The police presence was reported to have died down again now.


Discussions with police officers indicated that they were less than satisfied with their own handling of these incidents, and that policing strategy in the town centre had subsequently been revised, as our researchers reported:

During our little talk, the officers spoke of a ‘major incident’ that had occurred about 12 months previously. This involved two rival groups – one white, one black. They seemed pretty vague about the exact details, but apparently well over a hundred people were involved. Because of limited numbers of police available at the time, arrests were few. The incident had served to show the police how the town centre could get well out of hand and since then the police presence on the streets at the weekend has always been fairly obvious and substantial.

Many of our informants felt that the policing of Preston town centre was ineffective.

They don’t act on the violence when it happens, they wait for it to die down and then move in and arrest the odd person.

Male ‘punter’

They resented police interference in their own affairs, and seemed to feel that the police avoided the real problems – "always there when they are not needed, never when they are" was a frequent complaint. The police were accused of harassing innocent people as an "easy option", and of inefficiency and lack of motivation in dealing with the actual troublemakers. This last was an unusual accusation: while the police were considered inefficient in their handling of disorder in almost all of the towns we visited, they were rarely seen as cowardly or uninterested – indeed, most criticisms focused on their over-zealous approach.

The police officers we spoke to felt that the town centre problems were now more under control due to the concentration of police resources in the potentially troublesome areas and it is fair to say that, on the whole, Preston struck us as quite unremarkable in terms of the levels of its public order problems and indeed during our many visits at the weekends at the ‘peak times’ we witnessed no serious problems at all. That is not to say that there are no problems, as experiences in the police custody offices clearly confirm (See Appendix A), but there is little about Preston to distinguish it from any of the other research sites in terms of the extent and nature of disorder.