Please note that this article quotes instances of highly offensive racial language


When Enoch Powell stood up at lunchtime on Saturday 20 April 1968, his audience of local Conservative activists at the Midland Hotel, Birmingham could hardly have known that they were about to hear the most inflammatory and divisive speech by a British politician in their lifetimes. Already intensely controversial for his views on economics and immigration, the Wolverhampton MP was the darling of the Tory activists, a brooding, saturnine intellectual whose contempt for his Shadow Cabinet colleagues was legendary. Now he had decided to break with them completely. His speech, he had told a friend a day or two earlier, would “fizz like a rocket, but whereas all rockets fall to earth, this one will stay up”.

From the outset, his eyes burning above his clipped moustache, Powell was in typically uncompromising form. He recounted a meeting with a working-class constituent who talked of plans to emigrate because “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. “I can already hear the chorus of execration,” Powell said sarcastically; but he claimed the man had a point. In Wolverhampton alone, “20 or 30 additional immigrant children” were arriving every week. The result, he predicted, would be disaster. “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad,” he said. “We must be mad, literally mad… to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants… It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

'Like the Roman,' he concluded grimly, 'I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’

Powell then read out a letter from one correspondent describing an alleged incident in Wolverhampton, where an elderly lady had apparently become the only white resident left in her street. “She finds excreta pushed through her letter box,” the letter explained. “When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinned piccaninnies… ‘Racialist’, they chant”. Similar scenes, Powell predicted, would soon be common across the country. And if action were not taken, Britain would face the same race riots that had blazed across the United States of America during the last few years. “Like the Roman,” he concluded grimly, “I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”.

The Empire Windrush arrives in Tilbury, 1948
The Empire Windrush arrives in Tilbury, 1948. (Image by Getty Images)

Even in 1968, the so-called Rivers of Blood speech was extraordinarily controversial. Powell himself was summarily sacked from the Tory front bench, never to return; in liberal circles, he became a pariah. Yet few people now care to remember that the speech made him an enormous folk hero, the tribune of Britain’s silent white majority. Hundreds of dockers marched on Westminster to show their support, workers in Wolverhampton and the Black Country walked out to demand his reinstatement, and opinion polls consistently put support for Powell at more than 70 per cent. Within two weeks of the speech, Powell had been sent more than 43,000 letters, almost all of them praising him, and for years afterwards he was easily the most admired politician in the country.

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What was the reaction to Enoch Powell's 1968 'Rivers of Blood' speech?

As we listened to his relentless words… I knew he had taken the lid off Pandora’s box and that race relations in Britain would never be the same again… I believe he has helped to make a race war, not only in Britain but perhaps in the world, inevitable.

Barbara Castle’s diary, 21 April 1968

Most people in the country will agree with him… We can take no more coloured people. 

To do so, as Mr Powell says, is madness.

News of the World, 21 April 1968

I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife… I don’t believe the great majority of the British people share Mr Powell’s way of putting his views in his speech.

Edward Heath, 22 April 1968

Congratulations from my Mother, myself, and many friends on your speech last Saturday. We admire you for speaking up for us all… We know people cannot help the colour of their skin, but they can change their uncivilised way of life by conforming more to ours.

Anonymous letter to Powell, 23 April 1968

His views might seem abhorrent to modern readers. And yet there is little doubt that, at the time, he spoke for the vast majority of the British public.

One of the ironies of the Rivers of Blood controversy was that it overshadowed the 20th anniversary of that supremely iconic moment in the history of immigration to Britain, the voyage of the SS Empire Windrush from Kingston, Jamaica to Tilbury, where its 492 passengers disembarked on 22 June 1948. Each had paid £28 10s for the chance to escape the poverty and limited horizons of the West Indies, and to build a new life in the imperial mother country.

Hints of the hostility to come

Contemporary press reports treated the newcomers as a diverting oddity, not a threat: the Express described trilby-hatted Jamaicans clapping and cheering on the dock before sitting down and tucking into roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and spotted dick. Yet not everybody welcomed the newcomers to Britain’s shores, and even in 1948 there were hints of the anxiety, hostility and prejudice that would lead to Enoch Powell’s speech two decades later.

As the Windrush approached, some civil servants had talked of moving its passengers on to Kenya, while a group of Labour back-benchers even wrote to Prime Minister Clement Attlee complaining that “an influx of coloured people” would “cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned”. Attlee ignored them; like many politicians of the day, he was attached to the ideals of imperial brotherhood. All Britain’s subjects, he wrote, should be “freely admissible to the United Kingdom”. But it was not a view that found much favour with the general public, and by the late 1950s, when West Indians were arriving in Britain at the rate of around 50,000 a year, the extent of public hostility was becoming ever more apparent.

Was Britain a racist country in the 20 years between the Windrush’s arrival and Powell’s speech? The answer is rather more complicated than a simple yes or no. Polls found that most Britons disapproved of overt colour prejudice, while as late as 1956, two out of three still supported the principle of unrestricted Commonwealth immigration. Yet the unspoken prejudices that had underpinned the British Empire died hard. Children grew up with stories of imperial derring-do against brutal savages; even a progressive politician like the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton could refer to the colonies as “diseased nigger communities”. Many hotels, restaurants, dance halls and landlords operated a colour bar; indeed, as more immigrants arrived, the colour bar often became more severe. In the mid-1950s, more than eight out of ten London landladies said they would refuse to house students who were “very dark Africans or West Indians”, while a survey in Birmingham found just 15 landladies out of a thousand who would let rooms to non-white families. “No Coloureds”, the signs used to read, a sentiment with which millions of people evidently agreed.

Men who had made the journey to Britain aboard the Windrush. Contemporary press reports treated them as a diverting oddity rather than a threat. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Generalising about the immigrant experience is of course extremely difficult. After all, by 1961 the total black and Asian population had risen to 337,000, and ten years later, despite various attempts to curtail it, the immigrant population hit 650,000. Some people clearly thrived in their new homeland, making new friends and progressing rapidly up the career ladder. But they were probably the exceptions. Implicit colour bars in many walks of life, from British Railways platforms to Bristol buses, meant that highly qualified immigrants had to settle for ill-paid, backbreaking jobs: one Pakistani customs inspector, for example, worked as a railways cleaner. “The jobs we got were always the worst, even if we were educated people who could read and write much better than the people who were in charge,” he later remembered. “They knew I had been an inspector of Customs, but that didn’t matter.” Discrimination at work or in housing was bad enough. What was worse, however, was the growing undercurrent of racist violence that finally spilled over in the Nottingham and West London riots of August 1958, when knife-wielding white teenagers, bored in the summer heat, went “nigger hunting” in the dilapidated streets where immigrants had settled. On the worst night of the trouble, some 700 people – among them dozens of women and children – rampaged through the streets of Notting Hill, chanting “Kill the niggers!” One black student, cornered by pursuers, took refuge in the doorway of a greengrocer’s shop; only the intervention of the grocer’s wife saved him from what may have been a savage beating.

Contemporary observers recognised that the fighting was a shocking illustration of the prejudices that bubbled under the apparent civility of British society in the 1950s. In a front page cartoon in the Daily Mirror a few days later, Adolf Hitler’s ghost addresses a “racialist thug” in Teddy Boy regalia. “Go on boy,” the late Führer is saying. “I may have lost that war but my ideas seem to be winning.”

After Notting Hill, “racialism” disappeared from the headlines. But it did not disappear from the streets, or from the hearts and minds of millions of people. And while the prejudices of the 1950s can be explained as a hangover from the days of imperial superiority, or as a historically common reaction to people who seemed “different”, in the years that followed racism fed on the alienation of working-class Britons who felt betrayed by Harold Wilson’s government and were horrified by the nation’s apparent decline into economic penury. Indeed, as the 1960s wore on, and even though immigrants were arriving at a slower rate, the politics of race became more intense. And nowhere was this more apparent than in Enoch Powell’s political heartland, the West Midlands.

Timeline: From Windrush to Rivers of Blood

22 June 1948

To a mixture of bemusement and hostility, the SS Empire Windrush docks at Tilbury, carrying 492 West Indian passengers who have come to Britain in search of a new life.

23 August – 5 September 1958

Race riots break out in St Ann’s, Nottingham, and Notting Hill, West London, as gangs of white teenagers roam the streets attacking immigrant families.

17 May 1959

Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter from Antigua, is stabbed to death by white youths in Notting Hill in Britain’s first high-profile race-motivated murder. 

The police discount his colour as a factor, and his killers are never convicted.

18 April 1962

The Macmillan government passes the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which scraps the principle of free admission for all British subjects and introduces strict controls on immigration from the former colonies.

15 October 1964

Peter Griffiths wins the Smethwick parliamentary seat beating Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker. Posters and stickers carrying racist slogans were used during the election campaign.

22 July 1965

The BBC broadcast the pilot of the sitcom Til Death Us Do Part, introducing millions of viewers to the racist opinions of the East Ender Alf Garnett.

20 April 1968

Enoch Powell delivers his controversial Rivers of Blood speech against immigration at a Conservative meeting in the Midland Hotel, Birmingham, and is summarily sacked from the Shadow Cabinet.

23 April 1968

Hundreds of dockers march on the Houses of Parliament with placards reading “Don’t Knock Enoch”. The protesters force their way into the building to harangue government ministers.

Tough times for scapegoats

The West Midlands became associated with the politics of racism for two reasons. The area had attracted a disproportionate share of black and Asian immigrants in the mid-1950s, when its engineering and manufacturing firms were booming. Ten years later when the economic pendulum had swung against Britain’s exporters, the firms of the West Midlands were particularly hard hit. And in the grimy, derelict industrial towns of the Black Country, the immigrant communities – who had moved into the cheapest and therefore least salubrious parts of town – made perfect scapegoats. “Vote Labour for more nigger-type neighbours” read campaign stickers in the parliamentary election in Smethwick in 1964.

The Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths, a fierce critic of immigration, won the seat, beating Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman Patrick Gordon Walker in one of the century’s most shocking electoral upsets. And although the Smethwick campaign was a rare episode of openly racist electioneering, it exposed the seething, unsettling resentments that lay beneath the froth and bubble of Harold Wilson’s supposedly Swinging Britain.

Smithfield meat porters march in support of Enoch Powell, 1968
Smithfield meat porters march in support of Enoch Powell, 1968.
(Photo by William Lovelace/Daily Express/Getty Images)

Wilson duly took note; as his minister Dick Crossman recorded in his diary, “immigration [could] be the greatest political vote loser for the Labour Party”. And four years later, the Government passed the controversial Commonwealth Immigrants Act to limit the influx of Asian refugees from persecution in Kenya. It was a “shameful” act, said The Times, while The Spectator called it “one of the most immoral pieces of legislation to have emerged from any British Parliament”. Yet polls showed that it had overwhelming public support. In a massive survey of public attitudes at the end of the 1960s, the magazine New Society found that less than one per cent of the population said they were “pleased” with the “immigration of coloured people” into Britain, while almost 75 per cent agreed that “there are too many coloured immigrants in the country now”. And this was not from some aged, conservative minority: for young and old, rich and poor, northern and southern, Tory and Labour, the results were almost identical.

Yet while Britain in 1968 was, in many ways, still Enoch Powell’s country, there is a good case that in the long run the arrival of the Windrush was the more significant moment. Powell was right about one thing. His prediction that immigrants’ descendants would account for six million or so people in 2000 was widely derided at the time as racist scaremongering, but was actually pretty accurate. But he was badly, crucially wrong about the wider question of relations between black and white in modern Britain. His contemporaries were not heaping up their “own funeral pyre”, and neither did the River Thames “foam with much blood” – a tribute, in part, to the good sense of his fellow politicians, most of whom refused to follow his rhetorical example.

The promise of the Windrush, however, was amply fulfilled. As immigrants were progressively assimilated into British society in the last decades of the century, and as black England footballers and Asian cricketers took their places in public life alongside black and Asian government ministers, entrepreneurs, writers, actors, models and pop stars the prejudices of the 1950s and 60s gradually disintegrated. Even 40 years after Powell’s speech, of course, racism still survives. But Powell himself would surely be astonished at the success of today’s multi-racial society. And Britain has come a long way from the days when he was the most admired man in the country.

You can read more about the events and figures that shaped mid-century Britain in Dominic Sandbrook's White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2009, Abacus)


This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine


Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine