On the night of August 8, 2011, Maurice Reeves had been dining in central London with his wife Anne to celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary.

After returning home to South Croydon, he switched on the news - and watched his life's work going up in flames.

"I put the television on and saw what I thought was a burning building," he recalls this week. "And I said, 'That looks like my store.'“

Opened in 1867 by Mr Reeve's great-grandfather Edwin, the House of Reeves furniture store in Croydon town centre had survived two world wars and the Great Depression. It had lent its name to the road junction on which it sat, and the nearby Reeves Corner tram stop.

But on that hot August night, as the wave of public disorder sweeping over London and across the country reached a devastating peak on the streets of Croydon, Mr Reeves watched in horror as the store that had stood firm for 154 years burnt to the ground before his eyes.

Your Local Guardian: House of Reeves in Croydon, south London, was set on fire during the riots last year

Firefighters tackling the flames at London Road at the junction with St James’s Road

He remembers: "My doctor rang me and said, 'Be careful, you will have a heart attack over this'.

"My feelings were complete and utter shock."

Over the course of that destructive night, rioters inflicted millions of pounds of damage across the borough, from New Addington to Norbury.

Businesses were destroyed, families were left homeless; the next morning, as, the sun rose on streets that resembled a “warzone”, many wondered how Croydon would ever recover.

'No warning'

The unrest had begun two days earlier following the death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by armed police as he travelled in a taxi through the streets of his native Tottenham.

The officers involved claimed Mr Duggan had pulled out a gun when they tried to arrest him — accusations strongly denied by the dead man’s family (and later proven to be false).

On Saturday, August 6, two days after the killing, a peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station by people demanding answers about Mr Duggan’s death erupted into violence and looting. It soon spread to other areas of London including Hackney and Brixton, and by Monday afternoon, it looked as though Croydon would be next.

"I think the first time we knew it was here when we saw people [looters] walking down the street with guitars,” says Bushra Ahmed, who owned Crystal Clean launderette in London Road, West Croydon.

"We were listening to what was going on everywhere else, and you just think: 'that's happening somewhere.' But then for it to actually happen here...”

RELATED: Croydon's riots five years on: 'It could happen again', warn victims

Police monitoring social networks including Blackberry Messenger were confident rioters were planning to converge on Croydon town centre at 4pm.

Businesses in North End and the Whitgift Centre beefed up security after receiving warnings about the possible disturbance through a subscription-based police alerts system.

As pockets of unrest broke out and were quickly contained in the town centre, senior officers made assurances that there was “an appropriate policing plan” in place to deal with any trouble.

But then the rioters headed for London Road.

"The town centre had had warning, because they were part of the BID [business improvement district],” Ms Ahmed says. “But they hadn't bothered to come down here and tell us something was going on.

"The businesses had no warning.”

'A warzone'

By 7pm, as hordes of hooded looters continued to pour out of West Croydon station, police formed a line at the end of London Road, blocking off access to North End.

Ms Ahmed, who watched the carnage unfold from a nearby window, recalls: "I was terrified. It was like being in a warzone.

"The terrifying thing was that it was happening on the street you lived in for so many years, in an ordinary street - and you were worried for your life.”

In one shocking video that captured the chaos in West Croydon, a moped driver can be seen trying to weave his way through the mob in London Road, only to be brutally ripped off his bike and hurled to the ground as rioters tussle over the vehicle.

Ms Ahmed says she felt "absolute relief" when police arrived and formed a line at entrance to North End.

But then, she says, “they did nothing”: the officers held their line and did not advance on the rioters, allowing the mob to ransack shops further down London Road unchallenged.

"It was a feeing that the police are here, and [the rioters] are still going to burn down our shop,” she remembers.

Hours later, they did exactly that. Powerless to intervene, Ms Ahmed watched in horror as rioters torched a nearby Londis, before the flames slowly spread to her businesses and the flats above it.

She says: "We saw it really explode before our eyes… we just stood at the window and watched it burn.”

'The sky turned red'

As the night wore on, rioting erupted across much the borough as emergency services struggled to cope. Several buildings were torched, and by the early hours even the well-protected Whitgift Centre had succumbed to looting.

As well as livelihoods, the violence claimed a life: 26-year-old Trevor Ellis was shot in the head while sitting in a car with friends in Duppas Hill Road, in what is believed to have been an attack carried out by rioters.

RELATED: Croydons riots five years on: Sister of riots murder victim Trevor Ellis begs public to break the ‘wall of silence’ over his death

His murder has never been solved.

Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell recalls driving home from a residents' association meeting in South Norwood and seeing a “huge plume of smoke” in the direction of the town centre.

"It's a night I will never forget," he says.

Your Local Guardian:

Buildings across the borough were torched

The Conservative MP remembers how, caught up in the emotion of events, he lost his temper during a radio phone interview that night after being asked about what was happening in his “constituency”.

Mr Barwell, who has lived most of his life in Croydon, angrily replied: "It's not my constituency, it's my home.”

Tony Newman, now the Labour leader of Croydon Council, was holidaying in Italy when someone phoned him and told him to switch on the television.

He says: “I turned on the news and the first thing I saw was a picture of Croydon burning. It was a horrible and appalling moment; it was literally a sit down and gasp moment.

Cllr Newman, who in August 2011 was the shadow cabinet leader, decided almost immediately to fly back to London the following day.

He says: "To see your own town literally leading the global news, it’s grim.

"People here on the night had the awful experience of watching on the news and then looking out the window to see the sky turning red."


One of those people was Bushra Ahmed.

After the trauma of seeing her business destroyed before her eyes, she somehow managed to snatch an hour or so of fitful sleep, before stepping outside at 6am to inspect the destruction.

She “wandered around in a state of shock" among the rubble and smouldering ruins on London Road, she recalls, being approached by TV crews and insurance agents who swarmed to the area following the previous night’s mayhem.

"It was a very surreal type of environment," Ms Ahmed says.

The cost of the damage inflicted in London Road alone was estimated in the days after the riots to have totalled £14m.

Your Local Guardian:

The aftermath of the riots in London Road

But before thoughts could to turn to recovery, the worry for many people was that looters might return when darkness fell for a second night of carnage – and tensions were running high.

At 9am on August 9, Mr Barwell received a phone call from Prime Minister David Cameron, who soon afterwards travelled from Westminster to Croydon to see first-hand the devastation on the streets.

At a public meeting at Croydon fire station in Roman Way, the Prime Minister's attempts to reassure those in attendance that additional police would be deployed on the streets that evening were met with raw emotion.

"This guy shouted to him, I don't want your bloody police, I want the army on the street,” says Mr Barwell, who describes the scenes in Croydon that morning as “heartbreaking”.

After Mr Cameron tried to reason that having soldiers on the streets firing plastic bullets might send a worrying message to the rest of the world, the man shouted back: "I don't want f***ing plastic bullets, I want live ammunition.”

Shops 'sacrificed'

Cllr Newman, having flown back from Italy on the morning of August 9, says he recalls “walking down London Road after the riots and all I can remember is the smell of burning in the air that was still there.

“As I walked through there was rubble, burning buildings, semi-demolished buildings and an awful smell of steel burning and smoke in the air.

“It is not too dramatic to say that parts of it looked like a warzone… it was a truly shocking thing to see.”

In the hours following Monday night’s carnage, the Conservative-led council faced accusations that West Croydon and London Road had been “sacrificed” to protect North End.

These were denied then leader of the council, Mike Fisher, while Mr Barwell says he “never believed [police] formed the line to protect the town centre”.

But Ms Ahmed believes that, even after the destruction, businesses in London Road struggled to get their voices heard as the clean-up operation got underway.

"The BID stopped at North End. Shops down here were being ignored, when that was the main area of destruction,” she says.

In the wake of the riots Croydon Council offered interest-free loans and business rate relief to those affected.

But many felt abandoned by the Government when they began the arduous process of trying to claim compensation for the damage that had been caused.

Ms Ahmed says: “It was a struggle. They didn't want us to give us anything.”

At the time of the riots, Croydon North MP Steve Reed was the Labour leader of Lambeth Council, and saw the impact of the disorder on his doorstep in Brixton.

He admits the recovery in his present constituency, to which he was elected in 2012, has been slow.

He adds: "The promise to help people who were affected, a lot of that compensation came through very, very slowly. I think the majority of people who put in claims feel they were under-compensated.”

Your Local Guardian:

A firefighter surveys the damage caused by the riots

The 19th century legislation governing payouts for riot victims in August 2011 was “defective” and woefully inadequate to compensate those affected, according to Mr Barwell.

Along with Mr Reed, the Conservative MP welcomed in March the passage of the Riot Compensation Act 2016, which is intended to simplify and speed up the process of claimants affected by civil disorder.

It took more than three years for Ms Ahmed and Maurice Reeves to receive compensation payouts for the rioting damage.

Mr Barwell acknowledges that “to this day some people don't feel they got fair compensation”, while also admitting that Croydon Council “took too long to spend” the £23m it received from the Mayor of London’s Regeneration Fund in the wake of the riots.

When it emerged a year after the riots that only £1.3m of this money had been spent, council leader Mike Fisher said: “We could have spent £23m on business recovery straight away - some will say we should have, but that would have been short and medium term.

"We want to use this money to best serve the town in the future.”

‘We have to carry on with our lives’

Five years on from one of the darkest nights in Croydon’s history, most businesses have received at least some compensation for the damage suffered during the riots, and the borough is attempting to throw off its down-at-heel reputation with a slew of new developments and regeneration projects.

But for some, the wounds still run deep.

“You can't keep moaning about it - we have to carry on with our lives. There's enough problems in the world,” says Maurice Reeves. “[But] it was such a traumatic experience, that five years is just the same as 18 months. It's still fresh.”

Days after the riots, 33-year-old Gordon Thompson was arrested in Croydon and charged with burning down the House of Reeves store. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison.

Yesterday, vicar Father Lee Taylor from Croydon Minster led his congregation to Reeves Corner and said prayers with the Reeves family, before blessing the site.

Your Local Guardian: Maurice Reeves outside his store which was destroyed during last summer's riots

Maurice Reeves outside the burned out House of Reeves store

Mr Reeves, now 85, continues to co-own House of Reeves with his sons Trevor and Graham.

He says the business managed to survive because of its second store on the other side of the street - and, perversely, the publicity that followed in the wake of the riots.

But he cannot help but turn over in his mind the events of August 8, 2011 — a date he only wanted to remember as his 21st wedding anniversary.

"We have got flats above the building. If [the tenants] were in, they could have been burnt alive,” he says.

"When we got back we were saying, that was a nice evening. Then we turned on the TV, and it's destroyed half your life.”