Comet at 50: A look back at 1981

Comet 1981

We take a look back at what made the headlines in 1981 - Credit: Archant

The start of the 80s brought us big hair, and even bigger stories in Stevenage and North Herts. 

A decade after its launch, the Comet was well and truly a staple of the community in 1981, and continued as it meant to go on with a range of engaging and ever-important content. 

January 7, 1981, the Stevenage edition warned of 70 potential redundancies at Taylor Instrument Ltd in Gunnels Wood Road, with management making one last-ditch attempt to save the jobs with an application for a grant.

Although the company was optimistic that the pledge for help would be successful, the Comet's report by Jane Laver warned of a gloomy situation for the job market in Stevenage. 

1981 copy

A front page for the Comet in 1981 tackled job uncertainties and tax rises for Stevenage - Credit: Archant

It was also reported that council rates were set to rise by as much as 75 per cent. Council leader for Stevenage at the time, Brian Hall, believed cutting of central government grants by the Tories could see tax payers scrounging for another £1.50 per week.


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January of '81 also saw the return of Shirley Williams on our pages. Shirley served as MP for Stevenage and Hitchin, and the Stevenage and Hertford from 1964 to 1974, and 1974 to 1979 respectively.

Comet 1981

Shirley Williams did not return to run as an MP for Stevenage, after leaving the Labour party - Credit: Archant

She later helped to form the new Social Democratic Party. A front page splash explaining the possibility that she may return as a candidate for the new party for Stevenage in the next general election.

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However, it was not meant to be, and the upcoming general election in 1983 saw a win for the Conservatives with Timothy Wood, with the SDP being represented by Ben Stoneham. 

Shirley Williams was made Baroness Williams of Crosby in 1993. She sadly died earlier this year.

By March, the job crisis was still making headlines, alongside the story of one man's struggle with a gas meter, news of Stevenage Day and an awareness campaign for people with disabilities. 

Comet 1981

A look back at our stories from 1981 - Credit: Archant

Proposals for a new office block in Ditchmore Lane, which would deliver 100 new jobs, were to be given priority by the planning authority. 

There was exciting news awaiting the people of Stevenage, with wheels in motion the annual Stevenage Day event. The Comet reported that the 1981 event would feature a resident, Don Lindbergh, diving from a 60-foot tower into a tank of water.

And then came the summer.

The July 1, 1981 edition of the Comet advertised the Hitchin and Letchworth Roundtables Carnival, which was all set for the addition of a new float, marking the upcoming Royal Wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles - which took place on July 29 that year. 

The news also broke that Hitchin's licensing magistrates had approve the extension of drinking hours for the day of the much-anticipated wedding. 

Baldock's Hen and Chicken and Hitchin's The George and The Rose and Crown, were all able to open their doors until until 3.30pm, and the 11.30pm for the weekend of the wedding.

hitchin comet 1981

The anticipation of the Royal Wedding, and huge pay outs for the victim of an A1 crash made headlines in 1981 - Credit: Archant

A head-on crash involving a car and a coach on the A1 near Baldock in 1973 made front page news again, as one of the passengers involved was awarded £300,000 compensation by London's High Court.

New signs advertising that Wilbury Hotel in Letchworth was to reopen as a steakhouse was a hot topic for North Herts Council's planning committee. The 'flashy signs' were dubbed a "hideous, offensive eyesore" by councillors.

1981 comet

Reports from a North Herts planning meeting in 1981 - Credit: Archant

On the other hand, planning rules were bent to help a 'bursting business', Otway Stores, expand. Owner, Mr Sucha Singh, was allowed to turn the flat above his shop in Bursland, into a storage room, as his business was "bursting at the seams". 

A dramatic front page report from July 15 told the story of fears that riots would break out in Hitchin, as the national story of riots in major cities across the UK continued to break.

The uneasy feeling in both Hitchin and Stevenage were fuelled by a number of incidents, as well as a spate of "malicious rumours", according to the Comet article. 

27 paraffin bombs made from milk bottles were found by police in the car park behind Ransom's Rec on the morning of Sunday, July 12, 1981. 

The night before, a police car was stoned, before being called to the Gloucester Arms, where around 50 young people were gathered outside. Nightingale Road was sealed off. The pub landlord later confirmed there had been no trouble at all.

hitchin 1981

Police, businesses and residents prepared for riots in Hitchin and Stevenage in 1981 - Credit: Archant

A police inspector told the Comet at the time that the station had received "200 phone calls" from people "convinced there was a national front march through the town". 

Meanwhile, in Stevenage the same weekend, thousands of pounds worth of damage was caused to shops in the High Street. 

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