London of the 1980s may seem like a gritty and grey place when portrayed in media, full of “Greed is good”-businessmen, loud music, and protests against Margaret Thatcher’s government. However, amidst the big shoulder pads and even bigger hair of the decade, the period between 1981 and 1990 produced some events that would help change London for the better. To highlight these events, we’ve organized ten of them below, one for each year, that we think were important to London’s development. If you think we left out something important, you can let us know in the comments.
1981 – First London Marathon
While it began officially in 1981, the London Marathon wasn’t the first long-distance race in London, preceded by the Polytechnic Marathon, which had been held near London since 1909. Chris Brasher and John Disley started the race that sees its course go through the heart of the city due to their own love for long-distance races. The first marathon had 20,000 applicants and just over 7,000 participants.
1982 – Barbican Center Opens
Barbican Center is one of the largest performing arts centers in London. It opened in 1982 on the Barbican Estate and plays host to all manner of the arts, including art exhibits, plays, musicals, concerts, film screenings, classes, and lectures. It also has an incredible library that is worth visiting even when there isn’t a show you wish to see.
1983 – Chelsea Physic Garden Opens
The Chelsea Physic Garden has been around a lot longer than it’s been available to visit. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries began the garden in 1673 as a place to grow medicinal plants. The garden opened to the public for the first time in 1983 after it became a registered charity. As of 2017, it contains over 5,000 different plants.
1984 – Churchill War Rooms Opens
Once the headquarters of the British Government during WWII, when the rooms closed in 1946, they were essentially left abandoned until they opened in 1984 as part of the Imperial War Museums. Here visitors can see how the government conducted itself during the war and see authentic exhibits and items as well as some of Winston Churchill’s personal effects.
1985 – Mohammed Al-Fayed Purchases Harrods
The great department store that Charles Henry Harrod founded in 1849 changed hands first in 1959 when House of Frasier purchased it and then again in 1985 when the Fayed Brothers became the new owners. Mohammed Al-Fayed certainly put his own touches on the store, including memorials to his son Dodi and Lady Diana Spencer after their deaths in 1997. Al-Fayed sold the chain to Qatar Holdings in 2010.
1986 – Greater London Council Abolished
After Ken Livingstone became head of the GLC in 1981, the GLC’s more socialist policies directly ran afoul of the conservativeness of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Parliament began debating the abolition of the GLC beginning in 1983 and succeeded with the Local Government Act 1985, which was passed by a narrow majority and had the effect of turning the GLC’s responsibilities over to local councils and other government agencies. This lasted until Tony Blair’s Labour government came into power in the late-90s, leading to the creation of the Greater London Authority in 2000 (for which Livingstone was elected as its first Mayor).
1987 – Westminster Cemeteries Scandal
During a time at which the Westminster City Council was controlled by the Conservative Party, the WCC Conservative Leader Shelley Porter ordered the sale of three cemeteries, a crematorium, a flat, and other council-owned parcels to a developer for a shockingly-low five pence each. While done to save the council money on the upkeep, the extremely questionable ethics of the deal caused such a public outcry that the WCC was forced to buy them back in 1992 at a loss of £4.25 million.
1988 – Thameslink Rail Services Introduced
Prior to the existence of Thameslink, the Snow Hill Tunnel regularly carried trains through to London from the Victorian period to World War I. It didn’t reopen after the war for another 72 years when British Rail began running new passenger services in 1988. The Thameslink services have expanded into multiple lines ever since and carry tens of thousands of passengers each year.
1989 – Truman Brewery Closes
Truman’s Brewery was founded in 1666, and by the 19th Century, it was the largest brewery in the world. However, its dominance of the market was not to last, and after Grand Metropolitan purchased it in 1971, it made several changes that proved to be unpopular over the years. The original brewery finally shut in 1989 and is now a multi-use building with shops, restaurants, bars, art galleries, music venues, and more.
1990 – Poll Tax Riot
Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced a new taxation rate system in 1990 known as the Community Charge, but more popularly known as the Poll Tax. Protests against the tax had been ongoing since it was announced in 1989, but the largest of these protests in London took place on March 31, 1990, before the tax was due to go into effect. Estimates of the crowd that gathered at Kennington Park were between 180,000 and 250,000. As protestors marched towards Whitehall, it didn’t take long for the protest to turn into a riot, leading to injuries, damages, and arrests. Just an example of the large public anger towards the Poll Tax scheme, it was eventually abolished under John Major’s government in 1991.