Rivers of Blood 50 years on

19 April 2018

History | Politics

Enoch Powell in 1987 by Allan Warren via Wikimedia Commons

50 years ago today, on 20th April 1968, Enoch Powell delivered a speech at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham criticising the then-Labour government's' proposed Race Relations Bill. With charged rhetoric and a strong anti-immigration stance, it became better known as the ‘Rivers of Blood' speech.

The resource Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975 includes a fascinating collection from the Prime Minister's Office which contains a document collating a full transcript of the speech, press releases and correspondence with Prime Minister Harold Wilson regarding both the public and legislative reaction in the year following its delivery (PREM 13/2315 Events Following Speech by Enoch Powell MP on Race Relations and Immigration).

Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Among euphemisms such as "preventable evils" and other uncannily familiar anti-establishment, populist sentiment ("What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking"), examination of the transcript reveals that the speech doesn't contain the phrase 'rivers of blood,' rather this specific reference to the Aeneid: "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'." Powell cites a lack of hospital beds and school places for children as the result of immigration, describing the existing Race Relations legislation as "legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided".

Images © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Following Powell's dismissal from the shadow cabinet, these papers also record the Attorney General's considerations over whether to prosecute the MP for inciting racial hatred, and reports of dock workers and immigration officers striking in support of Powell.

Provoking a huge reaction at the time, the speech continues to be referenced in the media relative to stories of immigration policy change and tightening regulations in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. And with the unfolding story of the treatment of Windrush-era arrivals facing deportation in recent weeks, many of its comments regarding Commonwealth immigration have a stark reflection in current dialogue.

Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975 is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Hannah Phillips

Hannah Phillips

I am an Editor and have been with Adam Matthew Digital since October 2012. I have worked on a range of fascinating projects including American Indian Histories and Cultures, World's Fairs and Medical Services and Warfare.