The Oxford Hotel ‘Riot’

Posted: August 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

Some say ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. None-the-less, there are still times when I feel the need to revisit the past and record some of Wollongong’s hidden history. For a while I’ve wanted to write about the Oxford Hotel ‘Riot’, which occurred on New Year’s Eve 1981. Due to the passage of time, and for reasons that will become clearer below, I cannot vouch for the total accuracy of the recollections in this post. While writing it, I’ve conferred with other people who witnessed the events covered, as well as conducting further research. Some of those present on the night in question remember the events with greater fondness than I do. It’s also important to point out that, in the past, there was a tradition of local youth confronting the police on Crown Street, Wollongong, on New Year’s Eve and some of those consulted about this post found it difficult to distinguish between the events of various years.

New Year’s Eve 1981

For my former partner and I the evening began, as did most evenings, with a session at our flat. A group of our friends sat around the lounge room smoking cones, catching-up on news and making plans for the night ahead. Fresh out of the parental home, I lived with my girlfriend in a small flat conveniently located at the top of Crown Street, just above the city centre. When our friends were on their way into town, they could be fairly certain that if they called into our place there would be a session going on, sometimes with the whole lounge room ringed by people, and bongs moving around the circle in both directions. Punks, mods, trendies, yobbos, bikies, and those not so easily labelled, could all be found sharing space and ‘substance abuse’. If you lived at home with your oldies and wanted to get stoned before a night out, were on acid, or abusing prescription drugs, or just looking for interesting and eclectic company, engaging conversations, and the chance to hear some of the latest alternative music, our place offered a warm welcome.

On New Year’s Eve 1981, one of those who called-in on us was a young man named ‘Stephen’. Only staying briefly, he headed off into town to meet some of his mates. Eventually, we all ambled down Crown Street to the Oxford Hotel. The Oxford, or ‘The Pox’, as we called it, was the underage pub, where kids could go and get drunk without being hassled about their age. It was also a place where drugs were easily accessible, it had an outlaw culture, and at times they’d be alternative bands performing. Many of those at ‘The Pox’ that night were on acid. The potency of this particular batch was indicated by a group of local bikies, possibly the source of that night’s ‘trips’, who were huddled together in the centre of the pub, clearly ‘off their faces’ and feeling unusually vulnerable.

The Oxford had a licence to stay open till 3 a.m. and as midnight approached many of the patrons spilled-out onto Crown Street to celebrate the New Year. Shortly after, they were joined by many others coming from nearby local venues, forced out by the more general 12 o’clock closing time. Soon, any cars attempting to drive along the main street were being slowed, rocked to-and-fro, and occasionally kicked or hit. As the crowd grew, it took over the whole street. With Crown Street now a New Year’s Eve party venue in full-swing, a young man in the middle of the crowd decided to sit crossed legged on the road. A short time later, a car attempted to push through the sea of bodies, initially bobbing from side-to-side and then being more aggressively rocked. The driver, feeling in danger, revved his engine and lurched forward, parting the crowd before him. Carving through the melee, his car struck the young man sitting on the road. The car hurtled on, as the young bloke on the road began having convulsions, violently thrashing about, while the crowd re-took the street around him.

Most of those on the street were very pissed and unable to see the young man’s plight amongst the wild commotion, continued their revelry and street occupation. However, someone called an ambulance. Soon it arrived at the top of the block with its lights flashing. Attempting to get to the accident site, it encountered an unmoving wall of excited people. Unable and unwilling to enter the fray without some protection, the ambos were quickly joined by a couple of police paddy wagons.

By now the crowd numbered in the hundreds and the sight of the approaching police was met by jeers, taunts, and a couple of beer cans thrown in their direction. Rapidly there were more cop cars and paddy wagons on the scene. Determined to advance, the cops inched forward, as the crowd grew and consolidated. While the ambos managed to reach the injured man, there was no avoiding a confrontation between the massing force of police and the increasingly agitated crowd. A sense of expectation grew amongst most of those present, as the face-off intensified.

This was a scene reminiscent of, and popularised by, the Star Hotel riot in Newcastle, which had erupted two years earlier. The Star Hotel riot occurred on the night of that pub’s closure and involved around 4,000 people who fought the police for two hours. Newcastle was in many ways a mirror image of Wollongong, a coal and steel town on the New South Wales coast not far from Sydney. In both cities youth unemployment was growing rapidly, along with the resultant desperation and anger. The young people of Wollongong who had missed TV news, or documentary footage, of the Star Hotel riot, were likely to be familiar with Cold Chisel’s immortalisation of the confrontation in their song ‘Star Hotel’, released in 1981, and had probably seen the song’s film clip featuring scenes of that night’s clashes, including the torching of a police car and paddy wagon.

Star Hotel – Cold Chisel

All last night we were learning
Drank our cheques by the bar
Somewhere bridges were burning
As the walls came down at the Star
Squad cars fanned the insanity
Newsman fought through the crowd
Spent last night under custody
And the sun found me on the road

At the Star Hotel
They better listen cause we’re ringin’ a bell
Ain’t no deals, we got nothing to sell
Just a taste of things to come, at the Star Hotel

Those in charge are getting crazier
Job queues grow through the land
An uncontrolled youth in Asia
Gonna make those fools understand

According to local media reports, at its height the crowd outside the Oxford on New Year’s Eve 1981 numbered 1500. As this was occurring just around the corner from the city’s main police station, and now involved a large number of cops, one of the local police commanders was soon on the scene overseeing operations. He was, no doubt, determined to avoid any replay of the events in Newcastle. Taking charge of his troops, he waved-in the assembled paddy wagons and began advising and organising his men. As he did, a chant of “Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!” grew into a crescendo. We all knew it was about to get ugly.

As the crowd’s chanting, taunting, pushing and shoving grew in intensity, and those at the front became more brazen in their confrontation with the ‘boys in blue’, one of the cops pulled out his pistol and aimed it at the crowd. Holding the gun at arm’s length, he slowly walked across the road in front of the line of police, pointing his revolver at the heads of those in the front lines of the disobedient mob. While his gun held the crowd at bay, the snatch squads began lunging into the throng. Under direction from their boss, small groups of cops targeted the biggest, angriest and most defiant.

Known local ‘toughs’ and ‘trouble makers’ were amongst those snatched. They were quickly bundled into the waiting paddy wagons. But the cops didn’t just throw them in and shut the door. During the Star Hotel riot, many people had escaped and were rescued from the paddy wagons. The Wollongong police weren’t going to let this happen. As they threw those arrested into the wagons, a number of cops got in behind them. It soon became clear that those unfortunate enough to find themselves inside these mobile metal cells were being beaten with fists and weapons. Most of the prisoners offered little resistance, but some, including a young man with a reputation for being ‘Wollongong’s hardest’, refused to be cowed, resulting in more police joining-in to subdue him.

The people arrested were eventually ferried away to the Wollongong police station. Yet, if you were amongst those who the police thought hadn’t been punished enough for that night’s, or past ‘offences’, it was to be a long night. There was to be no replay of the Star Hotel riot outside the Oxford and the police eventually managed to clear the road, close the pub, and herd everyone in different directions, until the centre of town was deserted.

We made our way back up Crown Street and returned to our flat. A little while later ‘Stephen’ was at the door; he had come straight from Wollongong Hospital, a few yards up the road, and his head was terribly swollen and bandaged. He’d been outside the Oxford at midnight, was grabbed by the cops, and had been bludgeoned with a large police torch. To make matters worse he was still tripping on acid.

Two days later, the Illawarra Mercury ran a story headlined 30 New Year’s ‘revellers’ arrested. In the accompanying article they reported that those detained were charged with resisting arrest, assaulting police and malicious injury. The article also quoted the Oxford’s publican who said she “was pleased there were no fights inside the hotel.” Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the police violence or the injuries of those arrested. Nor was there any coverage of reports that one of those taken into custody, and later transported to Wollongong Hospital by the police, had their fingers deliberately broken in the emergency waiting room, after loudly complaining about being bashed by the cops. Soon afterwards, a New South Wales Nurse’s Association meeting at Wollongong Hospital resolved not to accept police violence, to question any police account of incidents they were involved in, and to report any suspicious incidents to the South Coast Labour Council.

Nick Southall

* I consider this post a work in progress. If you witnessed the events covered, or have any information about them that you wish to share, please let me know.

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