BRICK LANE, a long East End street which runs from Whitechapel to Bethnal Green, was one of the earliest parts of the East End to be built up. Being just outside the walls of the old city or London, many who came to live here over the centuries were migrants, from other parts of Britain and Ireland, and later from further afield. Successive waves of migrants built communities here – from the Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, through French protestants expelled from France, Jews fleeing persecution and murderous pogroms in Russian ruled eastern Europe in the late 1800s.
All of these communities faced distrust, discrimination and violence as the grew and out down roots… And when Asians began to congregate in the Brick Lane are in the 196s and 70s, things were no different… Bengali migration into the area began on a large scale in the 1950s. The men came first, arriving in the fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance as those before them, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…
As Asians arrived in Brick Lane after the Second World War, the majority of the old Jewish community had moved out – though often continuing to run ragtrade businesses there. There was no dramatic increase in immigration from Pakistan (or later Bangladesh) until the mid-60s; though Brick Lane was already being described as an Asian ghetto. The highest ratios of Asian-born people were around parts of Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane); Princelet Street, which is still the most densely populated; and Old Montague Street.
In 1963 the Graces’ Alley Compulsory Purchase Order had initiated the gradual demolition of the old seameds and brothel district in Cable Street, a mile south of Brick Lane. For more than 20 years it had been a centre for seamen from north, east and west Africa, and then for immigrants from India and Pakistan. Much of the Cable Street community moved northwards – to Brick Lane.
Politics in the Indian sub-continent also played an important part. With the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1974 and its subsequent crises, Brick Lane became the centre of a new community.
From the 1960s, racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.
In early 1970: “Paki-bashing” was first recorded, on when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26, 1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.
Brick Lane had a long history of anti-immigrant, fascist and far right groups organising. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green, and in the 1940s, Mosley’s Union Movement used to meet in Kerbela St, off Cheshire Street.
The Cheshire Street/Brick Lane corner was later a meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed E London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This group later merged into original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.
This BNP was one of the three groups that merged in 1967 to become the national Front, which was to exploit racism and anti-migrant feeling like no group before it, and rise in strength and influence in the 1970s. The NF originated in hardline nazi groups, but adopted a veneer or patriotism and British iconography; amidst widespread migration from both Asia and the West Indies, increased racism across the UK provided a fertile recruiting ground for such filth. Through the 1970s the Front achieved wider influence, and won large numbers of votes in local elections. NF marches, meetings and actions were opposed in strength, leading to mass confrontations like the Lewisham 1977 events…
The smaller, more explicitly neo-nazi British Movement was also active in the East End, especially Bethnal Green and Hoxton.
The National Front and the British Movement both organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims, as well as exploiting the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change among mainly working class populations, and encouraging blame for poverty and lack of opportunity in ‘foreigners’. They undoubtedly took advantage of a vacuum left by the collapse of once powerful local socialist movements, the cynicism bred of the lack of principle of local politicians…
It was during 1976 also that the increase in National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased. attempts of the National Front to gain a base in East London, and provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”
The NF later (1978) had its HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.
But as old as the tradition of racism and fascism, was the pattern of migrant communities getting together to fight back, and organising for themselves when the authorities ignored or abandoned them. In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.
On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets. Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to the government.
Police in the area responded to complaints about racist attacks with apathy or blatant collusion with racists. Cops tended to arrest anyone defending themselves against racist attack, or anyone opposing racists, and would escort racists around on demos etc. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months after being painted on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station. The organisation of self-defence groups among the Bengali community around brick Lane did had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.
1977, though, saw more attacks, carried out by gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates.
In 1978, events stepped up further: began with murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London. 7000 marched in protest from Whitechapel to Downing Street.
On June 11th, a day which followed considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”, 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars. A week later, June 18, an anti-racist march was held, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.
During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups had been actively involved in occupying the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur. The first mass blockade of this site took place on July 16th 1978.
On September 24, 1978, while 100,000 people took part in an Anti-Nazi league-organised Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton carnival, miles away from Brick Lane.
The Anti-Nazi League, formed by the Socialist Workers party and others, had certainly helped build a cultural anti-racism which contributed to a nexus in opposition to NF violence… But it was seen by some militant anti-fascsists as posturing and bottling the direct physical confrontations needed to beat the NF and other rightists off the street. Organising a carnival the other side of London while the NF threatened to march in the Brick Lane area did not help this perception.
The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee, while it did not explicitly attack the ANL, insisted that the defence of Brick Lane was the “top priority”. In their bulletin, issued before the demonstration, the Committee noted:
‘Far fewer racist attacks have taken place in Brick Lane over the last few months which the local people attribute not to the increased police pressure but to the active defence which is being carried out by black people and anti-racists.”
Other groups were less kind to the ANL. One group accused them of “an organised betrayal of the fight against fascism”. It was a confusing but critical day. An ANL spokesman commented that “the NFs feeble attempt to disrupt the carnival and invade Brick Lane was completely defeated”. On the other hand, the purpose of the NF march was to announce the establishment of their new national headquarters in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane. The headquarters was later to become the subject of a government inquiry after Hackney Council had refused planning permission.
The National Front and other hard-right ‘fringe parties’ lost much of the support they had built up in the 1970, after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979, going on to nicked their racist thunder and institutionalise racism and anti-migrant sentiment on state action. Around Brick lane and other parts of he East End, a lot of work done over 10 years to prevent both racist attacks and defuse self-organised self-defence, had physically frustrated street-based fascism, but it was never completely driven off. Through the 1980s the remnant of the NF and its offshoot, a revived British National Party, were constantly being faced down by anti-fascists; in the early 1990s, a renewed struggle saw stand-offs and pitched battles with BNL papersellers in Brick Lane, usually with Anti-Fascist Action and other grassroots anti-racist groups at it heart. The tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence also continued, in the form of groups like Youth Connection, the Tower Hamlets 9 Defence Committee and more…
But if local racial aggro calmed down, nazi propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane; in April 1999, 7 people were slightly hurt in a bombing by nazi nutter David Copeland, who had already planted a bomb in Brixton and would kill 3 people with a third bomb in a gay pub in Soho a week later.
Brick Lane is a very different place these days – the Bengali community remains, less threatened by racist violence. Gentrification and the hipsterisation of Spitalfields and neighbouring areas has altered the rundown and working class nature of the Lane; many residents, white and Bengali, may yet end up being replaced by white trendies, as the shops and cafes have increasingly been…
An entry in the
2016 London Rebel History Calendar