Meadow Well riots 25 years on: An estate ravaged by violence shows little sign of its scars

By Sonia Sharma

It was a night of madness that devastated Meadow Well and left the community in tatters for years to come.

The riots of 1991 left a deep scar on the estate and gave it a poor reputation that residents are still trying to shake off 25 years on.

It all started late on September 6, when two lads sped down the Coast Road in a stolen Renault. Colin Atkins, 21, and Dale Robson, 17, were being pursued by police as they hit speeds of up to 125mph.

Go here for more stories about Meadow Well 30 years on

Their vehicle then smashed into a lamppost and burst into flames, killing both.

Rumours spread that the police car had forced the men off the road, though officers said they were travelling half a mile behind.

Friends of the pair blamed officers for their deaths and, three days later, violence erupted in Meadow Well.

Shops were looted and buildings were set on fire. A youth centre, fish and chip shop and electricity sub-station were among the properties targeted, while police and fire crews were pelted with bricks. It was estimated that at its height 400 people were involved.

Robert Mather, a butcher, remembers the event like it was yesterday. His family ran E Hoult pork butchers on Avon Avenue, where the business remains today.

Back in 1991, his mother-in-law Emily Hoult lived above the shop.

Mr Mather, 75, said: “I was at home when Mrs Hoult, who was 76 at the time, rang up saying the electricity had gone and alarms were going off. She was frightened.

“I went down there straightaway. I climbed over a wall and went through the back to make sure she was all right.

“I then went outside - the whole area was in darkness. A sub-station had been set on fire so all the fuses had gone.

“The scene was quite shocking. Stores were being looted and you could see people carrying bin bags with things in them. They were going for cigarettes, alcohol and even presents like toys.

“I stood outside my shop to make sure no-one tried to break-in. I was there from about 9pm till 2am. I did not suffer any violence and nobody tried to get in.

“But during the night, a newsagents, bookies and a clothes shop were all broken into. It was pretty scary.”

The next morning, he found the streets littered with glass and burnt out materials. There were TVs smashed on the pavement.

“It’s been 25 years but it feels like it was five minutes ago,” he added. “It was a life-changing event. From that day onwards our takings went down and we never recovered.

“We were able to continue our business because of two other branches in North Shields and Howdon.”

The estate had already been dogged by problems like unemployment, crime and poor housing before the disturbance broke out.

Coun Margaret Reynolds, who represents the Chirton ward, which includes Meadow Well, believes the riot was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

“The youth club on the estate had been closed due to lack of funding and was lying empty,” she said.

“About a year before the riots, a group of us got together to see how we could support residents and find the funds to re-open the youth club. There were no resources, no money to open it. The young people had nothing to do.

“The riots were waiting to happen, they just needed a trigger. And when it did happen, the youth club was one of the buildings that was set on fire.

“After that we started getting help from outside the estate - it made the country sit up and take action. Millions of pounds were spent here over the following years. People started to listen to what residents were saying.”

Meadow Well - which remains one of the most deprived areas in the region - is fighting hard to rid itself of its poor reputation.

A number of organisations, such as Meadow Well Connected, the Cedarwood Trust and Phoenix Detached Youth Project, have been trying to help improve life and are carrying out vital work in the community.

And while many admit there are still problems in the area, they feel vast improvements have been made and feel it is unfair the estate remains tarnished with the ‘riots’ tag.

Dean Walker, 37, who runs Magpie Chippy, added: “I’ve been here for 13 years and I’ve never had any bother. You get the odd flare up, but that’s about it.

“Everyone is friendly, it’s not a bad estate. But it suffers from a bad reputation.”

Many feel that positive aspects of the community are rarely heard, including Phil McGrath, chief executive of the Cedarwood Trust.

“We have a group of residents who come in every week, cook food and deliver the meals to isolated and housebound people. We also have parents training as play leaders so they can give their children a better start in life,” he said.

“There’s a lot of community spirit and there’s a lot of positivity.

“Yet, if you Google Meadow Well, two things come up - the Metro station and the riots. People here have suffered from that stigma.

“The riots happened over one night - it was one night of madness - and most of the people involved were not even from the estate. Yet the estate has suffered massively from it and that’s what hurts.

“This is not something people want to remember. We have moved on, the estate has moved on. People here deserve better.”

Phil said there were still major challenges in Meadow Well, with families struggling to cope with economic deprivation, the Government’s austerity measures, welfare reforms and bedroom tax. Problems include poverty, poor health and obesity.

“For me, these are the real challenges,” Phil said. “Life expectancy in the area is 11 years lower that the next ward just 1,300 metres away.

“Until six months ago, there were no play areas on the estate. We worked with the residents and raised money to get some very basic play facilities on a grassed area. So, for a population of around 11,000, there is just one play area.

“There are people who don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and rely on food banks. These are the issues that need to be resolved.”

Meadow Well Connected is another charity supporting residents through a raft of initiatives. The centre has an IT suite where people can pick up digital skills, carry out job searches and write CVs. There are also cooking sessions, joinery workshops, energy saving schemes, a cafe, an after-school club and a community garden where fruit and vegetables are grown.

Chief officer Mandi Cresswell is one of those hoping to make a difference.

“This is a very close knit community that has its problems,” she said, “but they are a very proud community and they will stick together.

“Earlier this year, after we had an incident of vandalism in our community garden, we had an incredible response from residents. People were making donations, bringing in plants from their allotments and even posting packets of seeds to us.

“People don’t want that old reputation attached to the riots. We have a positive attitude in this building and we keep our eyes forward - we don’t look to the past.”

Meanwhile, North Tyneside Council has been carrying out regeneration in the Riverside and Chirton wards, as well as the surrounding areas.

A spokesman said: “Included in this regeneration, since 1991 and with help from the community, we have brought about a raft of changes that have significantly improved and rebuilt Riverside and Chirton. This has included building a leisure centre, investing heavily in council housing, creating community centres and developing green open spaces and play sites for families.

“The Royal Quays was also created, complete with a shopping centre, new housing and open spaces and parks.

“Support from local community groups, community-led charities and residents has played a huge part in the improvements in the areas, and continues to do so.

“The ongoing regeneration across the borough includes specific work to tackle pockets of deprivation in different areas of North Tyneside. In December 2015, the mayor and cabinet agreed a different approach to reducing inequalities, and a pilot began in Riverside and Chirton.

“The ongoing project focuses on improving the education at Norham High School, helping people into employment, reducing health inequalities and improving some poor quality private rented housing.”

In terms of employment, the council said fewer people are claiming jobseeker’s allowance and 55 residents, aged 18 to 24, now have jobs after taking part in the Generation North East programme.

Elsewhere, Northumbria Police insists policing has changed greatly in Meadow Well since the riots.

Neighbourhood Insp Neil Armsworth said: “The changes to the Meadow Well estate as well as the role and work of the police has been simply transformational over the past 25 years.

“I have been a neighbourhood inspector in North Tyneside for four years and more recently joined the North Shields area and it’s been a pleasure to work with people on the estate and get feedback on the work we are doing.

“Nowadays we have lots of community links and have officers dedicated to working on the estate and alongside partners including council officers to address any issues of crime and anti-social behaviour.

“This approach has seen a big improvement in the way we now police our neighbourhoods. Our officers are a familiar sight in the area and have built up strong relationships with residents and have good knowledge of what concerns local people.

“We have regular neighbourhood drop-in sessions at church halls and community centres giving residents the opportunity to speak to us informally if they prefer and we meet regularly with community representatives.

“The way we police has led to officers becoming part of the community they serve, which we think is a much better way of giving the public the help they need from their local neighbourhood team.”

Coun Reynolds agrees that things have improved but says there is still work to be done.

“There’s a lot of hope around,” she said. “But we must keep making sure we look after our young people. They are the future.”

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