Life on the hill where Swansea’s riot erupted – by those who live there

It wasn’t only the family coming to terms with the life sentence for murder.

Almost the entire Mayhill community was still reeling from the killing of Helen Bannister last December, at the hands of her partner Jonathan Campbell.

Yet just days after the sentence was handed down at Swansea Crown Court, chaos and anarchy exploded on the very same road where Helen lived and lost her life.

Crowds who had gathered for a vigil to 19-year-old Ethan Powell erupted, sending burning cars rolling down the steep hill, and smashing the windows of innocent people cowering inside.

The horrifying scenes spread across the country and prompted condemnation from, amongst others, the Home Secretary.

Video: The horrifying scenes in Mayhill

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Conversely, it also brought out the best in the community – some residents rushed to help those targeting by boarding up broken windows, some chased rioters away, while others rolled up their sleeves to clean the streets in the aftermath.

A sympathetic Swansea resident even donated a car to a victim whose own was left a burnt out shell.

Was there a reason the area had such a run of bad luck?

Mayhill lies in the Townhill ward of Swansea, both collectively referred to as ‘the hill’.

Houses were first built on the council-owned land in 1914, with plans for hundreds more, until the First World War effectively brought the plans to a halt. When it came to end, building began in earnest.

Today, despite the impact of right-to-buy legislation, levels of owner occupation remain fairly low, with local authority rented housing accounting for 56% of housing stock, compared to the Swansea average of 13%, according to the 2011 census.

Private houses for sale are generally priced well below the Swansea average, and it is an area which has for years been recognised by the Welsh Government as having long-term social and economic disadvantage.

But, for some, the area remains a safe place to live.

Mayhill, Swansea
Mayhill, Swansea
(Image: Mark Lewis)
Shops in Pen y Graig Road
Shops in Pen y Graig Road
(Image: Mark Lewis)

Kyle Wilkins, aged 30, lives on Long Ridge on Mayhill.

He said: “On my street it is a community. We all look after each other.

“I’ve got some problems with rats where I live, but that’s the only issue.

“There’s a barrier on Waun Wen Road where the riot was, because of issues with people on motorbikes and cars, but it didn’t do much good.

“They’ve put blocks there now, but it takes something like this for action to be taken, and the people involved came from all over.

The new barriers on Waun-wen road
The new barriers on Waun-wen road
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
The moment a gang of people smashed up a car before sending it rolling down a hill in Mayhill
The moment a gang of people smashed up a car before sending it rolling down a hill in Mayhill
(Image: Media Wales)

“But on the whole it’s a great place to live. Unfortunately, it only takes the odd person to behave badly and it reflects on everyone”.

Another Long Ridge resident added: “We do have an issue with rats, and down by the old Boys’ Club there are a lot of needles. Heroin addicts use the building to shoot up in, and leave their needles behind.

“It puts you off taking the dogs down there. But on the whole it’s a good communal feeling in this area”.

A convenience store worker, who asked not to be named, added: “You get good and bad people everywhere, but most of our customers are really friendly”.

Tony Roper is a former chairman for of the Townhill and Mayhill Housing Association, and for three years chaired Police and Community Together (PACT) meetings, which gave residents the opportunity to share any policing concerns with officers.

Tony Roper has lived in the area all his life
Tony Roper has lived in the area all his life
(Image: Mark Lewis)
Tony Roper
Tony Roper
(Image: Mark Lewis)

Now aged 75, he said: “I have lived on the hill all my life more or less.

“My family lived on one of the first houses on Gors Avenue. I remember my mother telling me about some of the roads before they were complete being mainly muck.

“It was a brilliant place to be brought up. Everybody knew everybody. You could leave your doors open, or people would leave their keys on a piece of string which they would pull out through the letter box.

“Everyone got on, there was no short fuse between people.

“And the majority of the people on the hill are brilliant, they are friendly.

“But it did start changing for some reason. Houses started getting broken into, which was unheard of in my day.

“Policing on the hill has changed. It used to be you would know the police by name, and they were people you could relate to, and talk to and they could put you on the right road.

“I don’t think the punishment fits the crime these days.

“When I was young if you stepped out of line you would be sent to approved school, and after that people wouldn’t offend again.

“These days, everything seems to be a slap on the wrist. It is only a few kids causing trouble, not the majority, but they know they are almost immune to prosecution.

“That is why there was all that commotion. There was no-one more astounded to see all that than me.

“But most of the residents are salt of the earth.

“The only time I felt intimidated living here was in the eighties, when the area had a huge problem with car crime.

“You would be scared to walk along the pavements in case a car came at you”.

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For two decades, Swansea was the unofficial car crime capital of the UK.

Twocking – taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent – became such a problem that during the 1990s the likelihood of getting your car broken into in Swansea was three times the national average.

It’s no coincidence the fictional Lewis twins in cult classic Twin Town are depicted as joyriders.

By 1992, former Swansea Council leader Tyssul Williams, who represented Townhill as a councillor, declared the community was in ‘chaos’, over which the authority had no control.

Normally a staunch defender of the hill, he lamented the break-down of family life, claiming children were regularly burgling houses, young people were being allowed to ‘run riot’, and ‘the whole fabric of society had broken down.’

Mayhill and Townhill are used to coming under the spot light

Around 400 homes were empty, approximately 10% of the housing stock boarded-up, and used as dangerous playgrounds by bored teenagers.

Arson was twice the problem in Swansea than it was in surrounding areas. Between April and June 2001 there were eighty-four burglaries on the hill.

Mike Durke, these days a councillor for neighbouring Cockett ward, was then a young youth worker.

Councillor Mike Durke at the Phoenix Centre, Townhill, Swansea
Councillor Mike Durke at the Phoenix Centre, Townhill, Swansea
(Image: Mark Lewis)

“I didn’t have locks on my car car doors because it was always broken into,” he said.

“I just had black holes in the side of the car, and no ignition.

“I even got told off by some of those I worked with for not having anything in my car worth stealing.”

Between 1930 and 1960 recorded crime in Swansea went up by 500%. In 1961 the Home Secretary introduced by-laws for Swansea, to quell the concentration of drink-related violent behaviour in dance halls and the like.

Something had to be done.

There had been similar issues in socially deprived hot spots across Europe, and the European Union had launched the Urban Community Initiative pilot to take a bottom-up approach to the knottiest issues – how could local people be engaged with the process of discussing the issues with public services and together finding a way forward?

Swansea’s bid to part of the programme, led by Councillor Lewis, was successful and led to a massive drive to regenerate the Hill communities, including the building of the first economic development centre of its kind in Wales – the Phoenix. The Council match-funded £2.7m of the total £6.3m invested.

Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Phoenix Centre in Townhill

Mike became the CEO of the Hill Community Development Trust, responsible for the centre, which was opened in 2001 by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“Statistics relating to unemployment, anti-social behaviour, crime, education and poor health, were used to identify those communities across Europe with the most challenging issues,” he said.

“They are to be found everywhere, but they have a high concentration on the hill. Townhill and Mayhill were the only parts of Wales to be part of the Urban scheme.

“The Phoenix Centre, and the community owned and run company which continues to run the centre today, was about giving power to people, to help them change their own lives.

“Swansea has an impressive chain of community centres which offer lots of social and recreational activities.

“The Phoenix model was different because it did not do bingo and bowls.

“It was all about creating employment opportunities and offering services to local people. It was about work-related education and skills, getting people closer to the world of work, sport, fitness, and encouraging health awareness.

“The community company is a social enterprise which means it is a business like any other, but any profits must be reinvested for the benefit of the community. The idea was to generate our own income so we would not have to rely too heavily on government grants. There were risks but it worked better than any dared to hope.

“All the business units were let in no time at all. The café was an immediate hit and remains the heart of the Phoenix. Parents were delighted to have a fully registered children’s nursery in their community.

“You had to book well in advance for an hour on the all-weather sports pitch. We had the ambitious target of 12,000 visitors to the new library in the first year. In fact, 36,000 people came along, with no books lost or damaged.

“It showed that people were delighted with the new facilities and revealed a huge amount of community spirit. Given the opportunity, local people stepped up and got involved.”

“Why did this new approach work so well? Vision and innovation from the Council got the ball rolling, but key partners from Job Centre Plus, the police, the universities, the schools, community groups, faith groups and sports clubs, kept the ball rolling.

“Most importantly, we had a board of directors overseeing everything we did and how we did it. These volunteers, led by an extremely experienced banker, had a high level of commercial expertise and community experience. Their constant support, completely free of charge, steered the ship carefully.”

“The Townhill experience from the 1990s on, showed that you have to take a zero-tolerance approach to the worst behaviour.

“You also need to unpick the reasons why a tiny minority of people become so disruptive, create opportunities, and encourage them to take them. If you do not see the issues which lay at the heart of the matter, it is difficult to do anything about them.”

Leanne Dower manager of the Phoenix Centre, Townhill, Swansea
Leanne Dower manager of the Phoenix Centre, Townhill, Swansea
(Image: Mark Lewis)

Leanne Dower started working at the Phoenix Centre when it opened, and now manages the facility.

She said: “The amount of good the Phoenix Centre has done is amazing.

“It has so many good news stories. We’ve got 20 staff, a nursery for 28 kids.

“And during the pandemic we adapted.

“Our doors did not close. If the community needed support, we were here.

“We just had to change direction quickly. The phones were on, we had a foodbank.

“It’s a massive asset, and it shows what sort of community exists up here.

“After the riot, I could not have been more proud of the way people pulled together.

“Within the hour, before police and before the council were here, you had people coming out to help, offering people places to stay.

“It was an horrendous incident, but it was an isolated one.

“That sort of thing does not happen here usually, and the majority were kids looking to see what was going on.

“I probably would have been doing the same at that age.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and I wouldn’t move anywhere else.

“You get good and bad. You can’t help if someone from somewhere else is moved into your area, but its mostly a positive community and the spirit of it diluted what happened.

Burned out cars in Waun-Wen Road following the Mayhill riot on Thursday
Burned out cars in Waun-Wen Road following the Mayhill riot on Thursday
(Image: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures)

“Social media can work for and against you. Although it spread news of what was going on, it was also used to help the community. It helped lead to the arrest of those taking part.

“It is not an excuse, but the pandemic has been difficult for young people. They have not had a lot to do.

“It was like the fighting in the marina earlier this year. There were probably a hardcore of people, but the rest were bystanders.

“When it got out of hand, I think most people would probably have been a bit frightened.

“But it was an isolated incident. I remember when this area was plagued by car crime.

“When I was 13 or 14, and you could watch cars being driven over the bank in front of Pant-y-Celyn, and you’d wait for the emergency services to follow. And it’s not been like that for a long time”.

Footage from the height of the disorder

Long before the Phoenix Centre, Mayhill used to have the Mayhill Boys Club, which opened in the 1920s, and provided physical activities for local youngsters.

Today, the building is a sad shadow of its former self, although there are plans for redevelopment.

But sport remains an important outlet on the hill.

Dave Owens is secretary of West End AFC in the heart of Mayhill.

“The club was started in 1964, and it gives youngsters a real sense of belonging,” he said.

“As well as the senior and youth sides, we have six or seven junior sides.

“You see them walking around in their West End tracksuits, and it gives them a sense of pride.

“We are in a deprived area, and some of the youngsters come from challenging backgrounds.

“We just try to get them to play football for the enjoyment.

“Put a football or some boxing gloves in front of a kid from the hill and they’ll be happy.

“From what I gather the riot was largely people from outside the area.

“You can’t stop them being on the hill, but there was a lot of press and a lot of people would have thought negatively about the area.

“But it is not like that at all. It is about a big community”.

One of Townhill’s current councillors is David Hopkins, who is also deputy leader of Swansea Council.

Despite the horrific riot scenes, he too takes the positives.

“I nearly cried when I saw those scenes, but later it reaffirmed by faith in the community’s ability to bounce back,” he said.

“It was an horrendous incident, but the people in Swansea were so generous in their offers of help.

“You had people offering to board up windows, all sorts of offers.

“We had a supermarket offering to replace burnt out plant pots for a pensioner, and to deliver toy hampers to children.

“It just proved how resilient people are on the hill”.

WalesOnline – Swansea