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Kent's biggest news stories from the 1980s


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Ah, the 1980s, a decade filled with excess and hedonism.

Who can forget a time of industrial upheaval and protest with a decent pinch of impending nuclear war just to keep us all on our toes? Good times.

The Rubik's Cube was an essential purchase for those in the 1980s - in the years before mobiles and tablets
The Rubik's Cube was an essential purchase for those in the 1980s - in the years before mobiles and tablets

While Dallas and Dynasty opened our eyes to worlds of fabulous riches, jumbo shoulder pads and some world-class back-stabbing, Faversham's very own Bob Geldof was showing another side of human nature as he spearheaded the Band Aid single in 1984 which raised millions for the starving in Ethiopia and then staged Live Aid in 1985 which raised millions more.

Margaret Thatcher was steamrolling some of the most radical reforms to British life and industry seen in a generation and Liverpool ran away with the Division One title pretty much every year, turning a whole generation of Kent residents into fans. Many of whom have still probably never been inside Anfield.

So what were the main stories in Kent during such a remarkable decade?

We take a look back at a handful of the biggest headlines and what the implications were of each over the years to come.

Great Storm of 1987

A property in Chatham counts the cost of 1987's Great Storm
A property in Chatham counts the cost of 1987's Great Storm

Anyone around during the mid-1980s remembers when Michael Fish infamously promised no hurricane during his post Nine O'Clock News forecast...only for what looked suspiciously like one to rip across the South East pulling up, literally, millions of trees in the process. His reputation was left in similar tatters.

And Kent was right at the heart of the action – or, in this case, the eye of the storm.

Many were woken in the early hours of October 16 to the sound of howling winds – gusts reached up to 110mph – and the sound of roof tiles falling, fences collapsing and, in more serious incidents, cars and homes being crushed by trees.

Strolling around many towns and villages by the time the sunlight dawned was, in many cases, like walking around some post-apocalyptic landscape. Roads and rails were blocked by fallen trees, schools were closed, power cuts were everywhere and the carnage of the heavy winds was all around.

Famously, Sevenoaks saw six of its seven oaks uprooted, while in parts of the county whole swathes of woodland were flattened. The Sealink ferry the Hengist was blown from its moorings and unceremoniously dumped on a beach in Folkestone.

Sealink ferry the Hengist was washed up on a beach near Folkestone as a result of the storm. Picture: Paul Amos
Sealink ferry the Hengist was washed up on a beach near Folkestone as a result of the storm. Picture: Paul Amos

Tragically, four people in the county died and the cost of repairing the damage to property across Kent ran into the many millions.

Aftermath: The storm itself was said to be a one in 200 year event - although, just three years later, another powerful storm hit the UK.

This time during the day, it is an often forgotten event which caused far greater loss of life (some 39 were killed across the country) due to its timing.

Aside from changing the landscape of Kent, the biggest change was the way in which forecasts were made – and it is one of the reasons we now get weather warnings every five minutes.

Animal attacks

The deaths of two keepers at Howletts underlined the danger inherent with keeping such animals
The deaths of two keepers at Howletts underlined the danger inherent with keeping such animals

Port Lympne, near Hythe, and Howletts, near Canterbury have long been established as two of the county's leading visitor attractions. But in the 1980s, three incidents would cast the parks in a rather more sombre light.

In 1980 there were two tragedies which saw keepers at Howletts mauled to death by the same tiger within weeks of one another.

The first was Brian Stocks on August 21. The 29-year-old had entered the enclosure of Siberian tigress Zeya as she tended to her cub. Thought to have perceived a threat to her offspring, Zeya sprung at him as he entered.

Fellow keeper Bob Wilson rushed to his aid, fending the tiger off with a broom as he hauled his colleague's body from the cage. Sadly, however, it was too late to save Mr Stocks.

Then, remarkably, on September 22, Mr Wilson too was attacked by the same tiger – killing him instantly.

John Aspinall was forced to shoot a tiger after it mauled to death two keepers at his animal parks
John Aspinall was forced to shoot a tiger after it mauled to death two keepers at his animal parks

John Aspinall, the park's owner, shot Zeya following the second death. He remarked at the time she had become "a man-killer".

In 1984, at Howletts' sister park, Port Lympne, keeper Mark Aitken, 22, was crushed to death by a bull elephant called Bindu and in 1989 there was a shocking incident involving a toddler.

Two-year-old Matthew McDaid had his arm ripped off after he attempted to stroke a chimpanzee, called Bustah, in its enclosure at Port Lympne. Keepers had to fire a dart to sedate the animal who was refusing to return the severed limb.

Aftermath: In 1994, Matthew McDaid was awarded more than £130,000 in damages. Bustah would, in 1994, also attack a 25-year-old volunteer zoo keeper, ripping off her thumb and index finger. The chimp was not put down.

Channel Tunnel & High-Speed Rail

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Francois Mitterand sign the Channel Tunnel treaty at a special ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral after arriving amid hundreds of protestors
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Francois Mitterand sign the Channel Tunnel treaty at a special ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral after arriving amid hundreds of protestors

While much focus is put on the runaway success of the Channel Tunnel since its opening in 1994, you have to cast your mind back to the late 1980s to remember the impact of its impending arrival.

There was a great deal of discussion over the route of the high-speed rail link – linking the terminal at Cheriton with London – with all options causing plenty of anxiety to those living in the vicinity.

The deal committing both the UK and French governments to building the link was signed at Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and France's President Francois Mitterand in 1986.

They were 'welcomed' by some 200 protestors comprising of environmentalists concerned about the impact on the county, and ferry workers who feared for their jobs.

Despite the heavy police presence, an egg still managed to hit M Mitterand's car.

Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand in Canterbury for the signing of what was known as the Canterbury Treaty, in 1986, which committed both nations to the building of the Channel Tunnel
Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand in Canterbury for the signing of what was known as the Canterbury Treaty, in 1986, which committed both nations to the building of the Channel Tunnel

A few months later, a national poll revealed 46% of the population were opposed to the Chunnel, as it was then nicknamed.

In 1989, a report claimed two-thirds of the rail link would be built underground through the county sparking delight from Kent MPs. The additional £800m cost, however, would prove too big a stumbling block.

Aftermath: The route would finally be determined – the vast majority of it above ground – and the impact on local communities would be significant, with homes subject to compulsory purchase and swathes of landscape changed forever as building of the route finally got under way in the 1990s.

The Channel Tunnel itself, after plenty of financial hiccups, finally opened in 1994 and the first part of the rail link ready for use nine years later. Today, the link dominates the cross-Channel market.

Herald of Free Enterprise

The capsized Herald of Free Enterprise
The capsized Herald of Free Enterprise

The ripples of the sinking of Townsend Thoresen's Herald of Free Enterprise ferry – just minutes after it left Zeebrugge in Belgium, en route to Dover, on March 6, 1987 – continue to be felt today.

It remains a raw wound for many in and around Dover where few were left untouched by the tragedy.

It had left the port with 80 crew and 459 passengers, many of whom had taken advantage of a £1 day-trip promotion run by The Sun newspaper.

But it had left the safety of the port with its bow doors still open. Water rushed in and within moments the boat capsized.

Some 193 people died – 38 of which were crew members.

The Herald of Free Enterprise had been a regular sight crossing the Channel prior to the tragedy
The Herald of Free Enterprise had been a regular sight crossing the Channel prior to the tragedy

The sight of the stricken vessel, lying half-submerged on a sandbank was a shocking scene and, in an era where ferry travel was so popular, the impact was significant.

Aftermath: An inquest levelled charges of corporate manslaughter against the ferry operators and gross negligence manslaughter against a number of staff. However, the case collapsed. Townsend Thoresen rebranded soon after the tragedy into P&O.

An aerial view of the Herald of Free Enterprise after it capsized just outside Zeebrugge
An aerial view of the Herald of Free Enterprise after it capsized just outside Zeebrugge

A number of significant safety measures were introduced as a result, including key indicators as to the doors being closed prior to departure and changes in the design of vessels to ensure there could not be a repeat. The memories of those lost are still recognised each year with a special memorial service in Dover.

Papal visit

The Pope, escorted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, when he visited Canterbury Cathedral in 1982
The Pope, escorted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, when he visited Canterbury Cathedral in 1982

Almost exactly a year after he survived an assassination attempt as he drove around St Peter's Square at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II became the first reigning Pope to make a visit to the UK.

And on his packed agenda, which would see him visit nine cities and address huge audiences across the British Isles during a six-day jaunt, would be a trip to Canterbury.

On May 29, 1982, he arrived in the city amid tight security and thousands of onlookers who lined the route to Canterbury Cathedral to catch a glimpse of him travelling with the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie.

Once arrived, after being applauded in by the congregation, and a service, he and the Archbishop knelt in prayer at the spot of Sir Thomas Beckett's killing.

He also met the Prince of Wales (who had married Diana less than a year beforehand) at the cathedral.

The Pope during his visit to Canterbury in 1982
The Pope during his visit to Canterbury in 1982

Later that day, after leaving the city via helicopter, he addressed a mass of 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium. The song 'He's Got Whole World In His Hands' would become synonymous with the visit – with the crowd singing it to him.

How the Kentish Gazette covered the Papal visit to Canterbury
How the Kentish Gazette covered the Papal visit to Canterbury

Aftermath: The visit was seen as hugely significant as the first since the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church under Henry VIII and sought to bring together the faiths in a common goal of peace and understanding. The trip itself, was applauded by Catholics in the country – and others who simply enjoyed the spectacle – with some two million people flocking to see the Pope.

Chatham Dockyard closure

The road signs pointing to the Navy base at Chatham - which closed in 1984
The road signs pointing to the Navy base at Chatham - which closed in 1984

For four centuries, Chatham's dockyards had been the catalyst around which the Medway towns had grown and flourished.

Generations had worked in the specialist field of shipbuilding and its associated industries and thousands of jobs were dependant upon it.

As one of the Royal Navy's key sites, it defined the area and gave birth to hundreds of ships.

But, in 1981, in the House of Commons, it was announced that it was to close three years later, a result of a streamlining of defence spending and a shift towards the Trident nuclear programme.

Although the redundancies were temporarily put on hold the following year, when the dockyard was required to help ready ships for use in the Falklands conflict, the closure went ahead as planned in 1984.

The impact of the closure of the dockyard had a profound impact on the area
The impact of the closure of the dockyard had a profound impact on the area

Some 7,000 people lost their jobs, with thousands of others who relied on them, also left facing a bleak future.

It ripped the industrial heart of the area out; the impacts of which can still be felt today.

Aftermath: Medway was left with a workforce of specialists who no longer had an outlet for their skills and in an era of mass unemployment, the town struggled to bounce back. It took years before considerable investment and the transformation of land once part of the docks to see it find its feet and become the vibrant, thriving area it is today. It engineering past is a key plank on which it builds its future.

The Historic Dockyard Chatham – showcasing its ship-building past and using many of the original buildings – has become one of the county's most popular tourist attractions not to mention a popular location for TV and films.

IRA bomb

The extent of the devastation caused by the IRA bomb in Deal in 1989 is revealed from above
The extent of the devastation caused by the IRA bomb in Deal in 1989 is revealed from above

The 1980s were pockmarked with atrocities caused by the IRA as part of its long-running battle to rid Northern Ireland of British rule.

High-profile attacks on British soil during the decade included the bombing of the luxury Harrods department store in Knightsbridge in 1983 and the attempt on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's life at Brighton's Grand Hotel in October 1984 during the Conservative Party conference.

And on Friday, September 22, 1989, it detonated a 15lb bomb in the recreation room of the Royal Marines School of Music in Walmer, near Deal.

The blast, which could be heard two miles away, killed 11 bandsmen and injured a further 21 people.

It sparked a huge rescue effort to save survivors trapped in the rubble.

Floral tributes are left to the victims of those killed in the IRA attack
Floral tributes are left to the victims of those killed in the IRA attack

Hours after the explosion the IRA issued a statement saying: "Mrs Thatcher visited Ireland with a message of war at a time when we want peace.

"Now we have visited the Royal Marines in Kent."

Aftermath: A host of dignitaries visited the site of the attack, among them Mrs Thatcher, the Duke of Edinburgh and the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie.

The Duke of Edinburgh visits the bedside of one of those injured in the Deal blast
The Duke of Edinburgh visits the bedside of one of those injured in the Deal blast

There was controversy when it was revealed part of the security at the barracks was handled by a private firm, an issue which sparked a review at all Army bases in the UK. No-one has ever been arrested or charged over the crime.

Bedsit murders

Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce were found dead in 1987 in what became known as the 'Bedsit Murders'
Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce were found dead in 1987 in what became known as the 'Bedsit Murders'

Wendy Knell, was just 25 when she was discovered sexually assaulted and beaten to death at her bedsit in Guildford Road, Tunbridge Wells in June 1987.

Five months later Caroline Pierce, 20, went missing from her bedsit in Grosvenor Park, only for her body to be found weeks later on the Romney Marsh.

The killings were dubbed the Bedsit Murders and sparked a major police investigation. They would go on to become two of the longest-running unsolved murder cases in British history.

Aftermath: In December of last year, David Fuller, a 66-year-old from Heathfield, in East Sussex, was arrested and then charged with the killings. He has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial later this year.

Coal mines close

Snowdown Colliery - it was closed down in 1987
Snowdown Colliery - it was closed down in 1987

The miners' strike was a defining part of the decade.

A bitter struggle to protect the nation's coal industry which raged throughout most of 1984 and into 1985, it pit PM Margaret Thatcher in a long-running battle with miners and the man who represented them, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill.

While much of the dispute was focused on pits in the North, Kent was far from immune to the move to shut down the collieries which ultimately resulted in the Iron Lady claiming victory.

A number of communities had sprung up around the Kent pits when the UK government of the 1920s heralded them as major sources of power. It resulted in a huge influx of people from across the country flocking to find work from pits elsewhere in the county. The likes of Snowdown, Aylesham and Hersden were created to provide homes for them.

But the decision to shut the pits would see all close during the decade.

Snowdown Colliery miners during the strike of 1984
Snowdown Colliery miners during the strike of 1984

Collieries at Snowdown and Tilmanstone closed in 1987 and Betteshanger shut in 1989.

Aftermath: The communities were focused on the mining industries so the loss of the main source of employment hit them hard and fractured their once close-knit bonds.

Today many of the old pits have been repurposed.

Betteshanger Country Park, the site of the former spoil heap, is due to open a Kent Mining Museum.

Marathon success

Mike Gratton proudly ran for the Invicta East Kent Athletic Club
Mike Gratton proudly ran for the Invicta East Kent Athletic Club

The London Marathon was being staged for only the third time when a school teacher from Canterbury crossed the finishing line to win one of the most prestigious of long-distance races.

Mike Gratton was 28 at the time of his triumph and spent his working week teaching at the Archbishop's School. But on April 17, 1983, in a time of two hours and nine minutes, he completed the 26-mile course to become one of a select few to complete the race ahead of the just under 16,000 runners taking part.

The event made him, temporarily at least, a household name and brought great pride to the Invicta East Kent Athletics Club he was representing.

Mike Gratton poses with a picture of him crossing the finishing line
Mike Gratton poses with a picture of him crossing the finishing line

Aftermath: Mike would narrowly miss out on a spot on Team GB at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles but find great success in the field of business with his firm 2:09 Events which continues to organise running events around the world. The London Marathon's last outing, in 2019, saw more than 42,000 runners take part.

Shots fired at the Queen

The Queen during the Trooping of the Colour in the 1980s
The Queen during the Trooping of the Colour in the 1980s

Teenager Marcus Sarjeant fired himself into both the front pages of the national newspapers and the history books in June 1981.

Disillusioned after his hopes of a career in the Royal Marines were dashed, he had travelled to London from his home in Capel-le-Ferne to watch the Trooping of the Colour. And as the Queen rode past where he was standing, he pulled out a gun and fired a number of shots.

Fortunately they were only blanks. The Queen's horse was startled but she quickly brought it under control and continued in the parade.

Police and fellow members of the crowd wrestled Sarjeant to the floor.

He was swiftly charged under the Treason Act of 1842 – creating a little of the history he craved by becoming the last person to be charged under the Act for "wilfully discharging at the person of Her Majesty the Queen a blank cartridge pistol with intent to alarm her".

How the Daily Express reported Marcus Sarjeant's bid for notoriety
How the Daily Express reported Marcus Sarjeant's bid for notoriety

Appearing in court a few months later, he admitted firing the gun at the Queen and apologised for his actions.

He was sentenced to five years.

Aftermath: After he was released, at the age of 20, Sarjeant changed his name and slipped into anonymity. The Queen continued to ride a horse during the annual parade until the horse she had been riding that fateful day was retired – at which point she switched to riding in a carriage.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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