Protests against Enoch Powell’s visit to Rutherford College of Technology

Event date(s)

15 January 1968

Description/importance

The late 1960s were an era of student protest across the globe, and Newcastle was no exception. One such instance occurred in response to a visit by Enoch Powell in January 1969. The Conservative MP had been invited to speak at Rutherford College of Technology, which later that year became a constituent part of the the new polytechnic. Around seven months before his visit to Tyneside, Powell's had denounced the impact of immigration and rejected the provisions of the Race Relations Bill in his so-called 'Rivers of Blood' speech. His comments had not only led to his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet but also provoked a heated debate among the wider public. Unsurprisingly, then, the event at Rutherford College provoked a divided response. Whereas the Conservative Student Society welcomed the event, the Left Wing Society of Rutherford College and the Socialist Society of Newcastle University tried to block it. It was not the first time that local students protested against a speaker with controversial views on immigration: in December 1968, a speech by Patrick Wall – a Conservative MP and key figure in the right-wing Monday Club – was interrupted by jeers and chants from the Socialist Society, which branded him a 'racialist'.

On the day of Powell's visit, 200 students and some local Labour Party activists staged a sit-in at the lecture theatre where he was due to give his speech. The protesters persisted even after the Rutherford College principal announced that the police would be called unless the protest was terminated. When these threats failed to bear fruit, the protesters were informed that the lecture had been cancelled. This, however, was a trick which, it seems, had been agreed by the College Principal and a group of six Powell-supporting students.

Following this announcement, the students left the lecture theatre under the illusion that they had been victorious, whilst other protesters were forcibly removed from the premises. Only afterwards did they find out that they had been deceived: Powell had indeed made it to Newcastle and had entered Rutherford College via a back entrance. Once the activists had cleared the lecture theatre, he took to the stage and delivered his speech while furious campaigners stood outside, banging on the windows to disrupt his lecture. After the event had ended, they attempted to block his departure, throwing bins in front of his car. The fracas led to fights between students, police and Powell supporters, with some students turning on the media as they attempted to take photos of the situation.

Location/map point

Address

Further reading

'Union Acts As Wall Shouted Out', The Courier, 11 December 1968; 'As Powell Speaks...Protests Flare', The Courier, 22 January 1969; 'Powell Outwits The Hecklers', The Evening Chronicle, 26 January 1969; 'The Six Who "Bounced" The Hippies', The Evening Chronicle, 27 January 1969; Margaret Anne Rooke, Anarchy and Apathy: Student Unrest 1968–70 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971); Sylvia Ellis, 'A Demonstration of British Good Sense? British Student During the Vietnam War' in Gerard DeGroot (ed.); Student Protest: The Sixties and After (London: Longman, 1998).