A Nostalgia Trip through 1980s Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

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The UK in 1981

1981 saw the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. There was a summer of unrest with riots in many cities. 

In sport, Aston Villa won the football league, Liverpool won the European Cup and Tottenham Hotspur won the cup. England enjoyed Ashes success and the ZX81 was launched!

Read on to check out the events of 1981 in the UK.

Royal Wedding 1981
Royal Wedding 1981

January 1981

4th: British Leyland workers vote to accept a peace formula in the Longbridge plant strike.

5th: Peter Sutcliffe, a 35-year-old lorry driver from Bradford is charged with being the notorious serial killer known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”, who is believed to have murdered 13 women and attacked seven others across northern England since 1975.

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7th: A parcel bomb addressed to the Prime Minister is intercepted at the sorting office.

8th: A terrorist bomb attack takes place on the RAF base at Uxbridge

14th: The British Nationality Bill is published.

15th: Two soldiers are found guilty of murder in Northern Ireland.

16th: Irish Republican MP Bernadette McAliskey is shot and injured by suspected Loyalist paramilitaries at her home in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

17th: Eric Bristow beats John Lowe 5-3 to win the Darts World Championship.

18th: Ten young black people are killed and thirty are injured in the New Cross fire in New Cross, London. Another victim dies in hospital later.

21st: Sir Norman Stronge and his son, both former Stormont MPs, are killed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

22nd: Australian newspaper owner Rupert Murdoch agrees to buy The Times provided an agreement can be reached with the unions.

25th: Four Labour Members of Parliament, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers and David Owen (the “Gang of Four”), announce the formation of a  separate political party – the Social Democratic Party.

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26th: Nine more Labour MPs declare their support for the new SDP party.

28th: Bill Rodgers resigns from the shadow cabinet following his defection to the new SDP. He is replaced by Tony Benn.

29th: The Government welcomes plans by the Japanese car firm to build Datsun cars in Britain.

30th: David Owen tells his constituency party that he will not stand again as Labour candidate.

February 1981

4th: Margaret Thatcher announces that the government will sell half of its shares in British Aerospace.

6th: The Liverpool-registered coal ship Nellie M is bombed and sunk by an IRA unit driving a hijacked pilot boat in Lough Foyle.

Ian Paisley parades 500 men on a remote mountainside in the middle of the night in a show of Unionist strength.

11th: Closure of the Talbot car plant in Linwood, Scotland, is announced.

12th: Rupert Murdoch’s News International purchases The Times and The Sunday Times from The Thomson Corporation.

Ian Paisley is suspended from the House of Commons for four days after calling the Northern Ireland Secretary a liar.

The National Union of Students calls off a 5-week strike.

13th: The National Coal Board announces widespread pit closures.

15th: The first Sunday games of the Football League take place.

17th: Princess Anne is elected Chancellor of London University.

18th: The government withdraws plans to close 23 mines after negotiations with the National Union of Mineworkers.

20th: Four more MPs announce their intention to leave the Labour Party.

Peter Sutcliffe is charged with the murder of 13 women in the north of England.

21st: 30,000 march in an unemployment protest in Glasgow.

24th: The engagement of Charles, Prince of Wales, and 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer is officially announced.

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25th: Margaret Thatcher arrives in Washington, D.C. for a four-day visit to American president Ronald Reagan.

The Observer newspaper is taken over by “Tiny” Rowland, head of Lonrho.

26th: The English cricket team withdraws from the Second Test after the Guyanan government serves a deportation order on Robin Jackman.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan met in Washington – El Salvador dominated the first day of their talks.

27th: Three British missionaries released from Iran land in Athens.

Sir Harold Wilson announces his retirement from Parliament at the next general election.

The Archbishop of Canterbury advises the church to see homosexuality as a handicap not a sin.

March 1981

3rd: Homebase opens its first DIY and garden centre superstore, at Croydon, Surrey.

5th: The ZX81, a pioneering British home computer, is launched by Sinclair Research, going on to sell over 1.5 million units worldwide.


17th: The Conservative government’s budget is met with uproar due to further public spending cuts.

21st: Home Secretary William Whitelaw allows Wolverhampton council to place a 14-day ban on political marches in the West Midlands town, which has a growing problem of militant race riots and was faced with the threat of a National Front march in two days time.

France complete the Grand Slam with a 16-12 win over England at Twickenham in Rugby Union.

After seven years and the longest time playing the title role, Tom Baker leaves Doctor Who and is replaced by Peter Davison in the final episode of Logopolis.

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Unemployment now stands at 2,400,000 or 10% of the workforce.

Motorcycle racer Mike Hailwood, known as ‘Mike the Bike’ and fourteen times winner of the Isle of Man TT, is seriously injured in a car crash at Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire; he dies of his injuries two days later.

22nd: It is reported that a minority of Conservative MP’s are planning to challenge the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

23rd: Government imposes a ban on animal transportation on the Isle of Wight and southern Hampshire after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in cattle.

24th: Barbados police rescue Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs after his kidnapping in Brazil.

26th: Social Democratic Party formed by the so-called “Gang of Four”: Shirley Williams, William Rodgers, Roy Jenkins, and David Owen, who have all defected from the Labour Party.

28th: Enoch Powell, Ulster Unionist MP (a prominent Conservative until 1974) warns of “racial civil war” in Britain.

29th: The first London Marathon is held.

30th: Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire released.

April 1981

2nd: Midland Red, the  Birmingham-based bus operator, closes down its headquarters in the city with the loss of some 170 jobs. 

4th: Bucks Fizz win the Eurovision Song Contest.

Bob Champion, a 32-year-old cancer survivor, is the popular winner of the Grand National with his horse Aldaniti.

5th: The 1981 U.K. census is conducted.

10th: Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker is elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by election.

11th: More than 300 people (mainly Police) are injured and extensive damage is caused to property in the Brixton riot.

13th: Home Secretary William Whitelaw announces a public inquiry, to be conducted by Lord Scarman, into the disturbances in Brixton.

Further rioting breaks out in Brixton.

20th: Snooker player Steve Davis wins the World Snooker Championship 1981.

More than 100 people are arrested and 15 police officers are injured in clashes with black youths in the Finsbury Park, Forest Green and Ealing areas of London.

24th: Unemployment passes the 2,500,000 mark for the first time in nearly 50 years.

29th: Peter Sutcliffe, “The Yorkshire Ripper” admits to the manslaughter of 13 women on the grounds of diminished responsibility, but the judge rules that a jury should rule on Sutcliffe’s state of mind before deciding whether to accept his plea or find him guilty of murder.

May 1981

1st: Peugeot closes the Talbot car plant at Linwood, Scotland.

2nd: Aston Villa are crowned League Champions despite losing the last game of the season at Arsenal.

Widnes win the Rugby League Challenge Cup, defeating Hull KR 18-9 at Wembley

5th: Bobby Sands, a 27-year-old republican, dies in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison after a 66-day hunger strike.

The trial of Peter Sutcliffe begins at the Old Bailey; he stands charged with 13 murders and seven attempted murders dating back to 1975.

7th: Ken Livingstone becomes leader of the GLC after Labour wins the Greater London Council elections.

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9th: Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur draw 1-1 in the 100th FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.

11th: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats opens at the New London Theatre in the West End.

12th: Francis Hughes (aged 25) becomes the second IRA hunger striker to die in Northern Ireland.

13th: An inquest returns an open verdict on the thirteen people who died as a result of their injuries in the New Cross fire.

14th: Tottenham Hotspur win the FA Cup for the sixth time in their history with a 3–2 win over Manchester City in the final replay at Wembley.

15th: The inquiry into the Brixton riots opens.

19th: Peter Sutcliffe is found guilty of being the Yorkshire Ripper after admitting 13 charges of murder and a further seven of attempted murder.

22nd: The IRA hunger strike death toll reaches four with the deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patrick O’Hara.

Peter Sutcliffe is sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he should serve at least 30 years before parole can be considered.

27th: Liverpool win the European Cup for the third time by defeating Real Madrid of Spain 1–0 in the final at Parc des Princes, Paris, France. Alan Kennedy scores the only goal of the game.

30th: More than 100,000 people from across Britain march to Trafalgar Square in London for the TUC’s March For Jobs.

June 1981

3rd: Shergar wins the Epsom Derby.

9th: King Khaled of Saudi Arabia arrives in Britain on a state visit.

11th: Britain’s first Urban Enterprise Zone is created in Lower Swansea Valley, Wales.

13th: Marcus Sarjeant fires six blank cartridges at the Queen as she enters Horse Guards Parade.

13–14th: More than 80 arrests are made during clashes between white power skinheads and black people in Coventry, where the National Front is planning a march later this month, on the same day as an anti-racist concert by The Specials.

15th: Lord Scarman opens an enquiry into the Brixton riots.

16th: Liberal Party and SDP form an electoral pact – the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

20th: Rioting breaks out in Peckham, South London.

HMS Ark Royal is launched.

21st: A fire at Goodge Street tube station kills one person and injures 16.

Australia win the First Ashes test by 4 wickets.

July 1981

2nd: Four members of an Asian Muslim family (three of them children) are killed by arson at their home in Walthamstow, London; the attack is believed to have been racially motivated.

3rd: Hundreds of Asians and skinheads riot in Southall, London, following disturbances at the Hamborough Tavern public house, which is severely damaged by fire.

Chris Evert Lloyd defeated Hana Mandlíková in the final, 6–2, 6–2 to win the Ladies’ Singles at Wimbledon.

4th: John McEnroe wins his first Wimbledon title, defeating Bjorn Borg 4–6, 7–6(7–1), 7–6(7–4), 6–4

5th: Toxteth riots break out in Liverpool and first use is made of CS gas by British police. Less serious riots occur in the Handsworth district of Birmingham as well as Wolverhampton city centre, parts of Coventry, Leicester and Derby, and also in the Buckinghamshire town High Wycombe.

7th: 43 people are charged with theft and violent disorder following a riot in Wood Green, North London.

8th: Joe McDonnell becomes the fifth IRA hunger striker to die.

Inner-city rioting continues when a riot in Moss Side, Manchester, sees more than 1,000 people besiege the local police station. However, the worst rioting in Toxteth has now ended.

British Leyland ends production of the Austin Maxi, one of its longest-running cars, after 12 years.

9th: Rioting breaks out in Woolwich, London.

10th: Rioting breaks out in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Leicester, Ellesmere Port, Luton, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Preston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Derby, Southampton, Nottingham, High Wycombe, Bedford, Edinburgh, Wolverhampton, Stockport, Blackburn, Huddersfield, Reading, Chester and Aldershot.

Two days of rioting in Moss Side, Manchester, draw to a close, during which there has been extensive looting of shops. Princess Road, the main road through the area, will be closed for several days while adjacent buildings and gas mains damaged by rioting and arson are made safe.

11th: A further wave of rioting breaks out in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

13th: The IRA hunger strike death toll reaches six when Martin Hurson dies.

Margaret Thatcher announces that police will be able to use rubber bullets, water cannons and armoured vehicles against urban rioters. Labour leader Michael Foot blames the recent wave of rioting on the Conservative government’s economic policies,which have seen unemployment rise by more than 70% in the last two years.

15th: Police clash with black youths in Brixton once again, this time after police raid properties in search of petrol bombs which are never found.

16th: Labour narrowly hang on to the Warrington seat in a by-election, fighting off a strong challenge from Roy Jenkins for the Social Democratic Party.

17th: Official opening of the Humber Bridge by the Queen.

20th: Michael Heseltine tours Merseyside to examine the problems in the area, which has been particularly badly hit by the current recession.

21st: England win the Third Ashes test to level the series with Australia on the back of a pair of incredible performances by Bob Willis and Ian Botham.

25th: Around 1,000 motorcyclists clash with police in Keswick, Cumbria.

27th: British Telecommunications Act separates British Telecom from the Royal Mail with effect from 1 October.

28th: Margaret Thatcher blames IRA leaders for the recent IRA hunger striker deaths.

29th: The wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer takes place at St Paul’s Cathedral. More than 30 million viewers watch the wedding on television – the second highest television audience of all time in Britain.

August 1981

1st: Kevin Lynch becomes the seventh IRA hunger striker to die.

2nd: Kieran Doherty becomes the eighth IRA hunger striker to die.

8th: The IRA hunger strike claims its ninth hunger striker so far (and its third in a week) with the death of Thomas McElwee.

9th: Broadmoor Hospital falls under heavy criticism after the escape of a second prisoner in three weeks. The latest absconder is 32-year-old Alan Reeve, a convicted double murderer.

17th: An inquiry opens in the Moss Side riots.

20th: The tenth IRA hunger striker, Michael Devine, dies in prison.

24th: Mark David Chapman is sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for killing John Lennon.

25th: Britain’s largest Enterprise Zone is launched on Tyneside.

27th: Moira Stuart, 29, is appointed the BBC’s first black newsreader.

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September 1981

1st: Filling stations start selling motor fuel by the litre.

8th: Sixteen Islington Labour councillors join the SDP following the defection of Labour MP Michael O’Halloran.

First episode of television sitcom Only Fools and Horses broadcast on BBC One.

Only Fools and Horses

10th: Another Enterprise Zone is launched, the latest being in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

14th: Cecil Parkinson is appointed chairman of the Conservative Party.

16th: Postman Pat was first broadcast on BBC One

17th: A team of divers begins removing gold ingots worth £40 million from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh, sunk off the coast of Norway in 1942.

18th: David Steel tells delegates at the Liberal Party conference to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”, hopes of which are boosted by the fact that most opinion polls now show the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the lead.

21st: Belize is granted independence

25th: Ford announces that its best-selling Cortina nameplate will be discontinued next year, and its replacement will be called the Sierra.

29th: Football mourns the legendary former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who died at the age of 67 after suffering a heart attack.

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October 1981

1st: Bryan Robson, 24-year-old midfielder, becomes Britain’s most expensive footballer in a £1.5million move from West Bromwich Albion to Manchester United.

bryan robson signs for man united

3rd: Hunger strikes at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland end after seven months. The final six hunger strikers have been without food for between 13 and 55 days.

5th: Depeche Mode release their début album Speak and Spell.

7th: British Leyland launches the Triumph Acclaim

10th: Chelsea Barracks bombed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, killing two people.

12th: British Leyland announces the closure of three factories – a move which will cost nearly 3,000 people their jobs.

15th: Norman Tebbit tells fellow Conservative MPs: “I grew up in the thirties with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking until he found it”.

19th: British Telecom announces that the telegram will be discontinued next year after 139 years in use.

24th: CND anti-nuclear march in London attracts over 250,000 people.

26th: Rock band Queen release their Greatest Hits compilation album; it becomes the all-time best-selling album in the United Kingdom.

30th: Nicholas Reed, chief of the Euthanasia charity Exit, is jailed for two-and-a-half years for aiding and abetting suicides.

November 1981

1st: British Leyland’s 58,000-strong workforce begins a strike over pay. 

2nd: The TV licence increases in price from £34 to £46 for a colour TV, and £12 to £15 for black and white.

13th: The Queen opens the final phase of the Telford Shopping Centre, nearly a decade after development began on the first phase of what is now one of the largest indoor shopping centres in Europe in the Shropshire new town.

16th: Production of the Vauxhall Astra commences in Britain at the Ellesmere Port plant.

18th: The England national football team beats Hungary 1–0 at Wembley Stadium to qualify for the World Cup in Spain next summer, with the only goal being scored by Ipswich Town striker Paul Mariner It is the first time they have qualified for the tournament since 1970.

25th: A report into the Brixton Riots, which scarred inner-city London earlier this year, points the finger of blame at the social and economic problems which have been plaguing Brixton and many other inner-city areas across England.

26th: Shirley Williams wins the Crosby by-election for the SDP, overturning a Conservative majority of nearly 20,000 votes.

December 1981

8th: Severe snow storms hit the UK as temperatures plummet to the lowest in any December on record since 1874 and the heaviest snow falls since 1878.

Arthur Scargill becomes leader of the National Union of Mineworkers.

9th: Michael Heseltine announces a £95 million aid package for the inner cities.

11th: Seer Green rail crash: a train crash in Seer Green near Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire kills four people and seriously injures five others. A combination of the severe blizzards and human error were attributed to the crash.

19th: An opinion poll shows that Margaret Thatcher is now the most unpopular postwar British prime minister and that the SDP-Liberal Alliance has the support of up to 50% of the electorate.

20th: Penlee lifeboat disaster: The crew of the MV Union Star and the life-boat Solomon Browne sent to rescue them are all killed in heavy seas off Cornwall; some of the bodies are never found.

Radio Times Cover Christmas1981

Christmas/New Year 1981

James Bond film Dr No was the feature film on ITV.

The Christmas Number one was “Don’t you want me” by The Human League.

TV Times Christmas 1981

31st: The final day on air for the ITV regional stations ATV, Southern and Westward.

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