Quotes from: The Records of St. Bartholomew’s Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.)
Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…
In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.
At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].
The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”
A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.
“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.
It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.
At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.
The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).
Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !
BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 o’clock in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.
The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.
Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.
The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.
A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.
Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.
Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…
After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.
The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.
What we should have done?
There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…
Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.
However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.
In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.
There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.
Problems within AFA
Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…
There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.
AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.
AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.
Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.
These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.
Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…
Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…
These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.
Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.
Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.
The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.
Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.
My parachute didn’t open
The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.
The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.
Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.
Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.
As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.
In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.
There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.
AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.
In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.
The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…
As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.
This was a mistake…
The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.
We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.
Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.
The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.
We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.
AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.
We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.
The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…
Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.
The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.
There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.
Every day I learn lesson… less?
As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?
It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.
Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).
Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.
At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.
Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.
It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.
In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.
If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.
Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…
The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.
Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?
Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.
Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.
Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.
Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of the disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.
In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.
Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.
In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.
From 1279 to 1855 Camberwell Fair was held, every August, It is first recorded in 1279. Originally the Fair was probably held in ‘Gods Acre’, the immediate grounds of St Giles Church, now off modern Camberwell Church Street – which used the event to raise funds…
The Fair apparently moved out of church grounds in 1444 (when the Archbishop of Canterbury banned fairs and other manifestations of Mammon in church property) into Church Street itself, opposite the Cock Pub (which was by the corner of Denmark Hill); by 18th century it had moved to Camberwell Green, the open space in the centre of the village.
Originally the event ran for three weeks, from the 9th of August to September 1st (the latter date being feast of patron saint St Giles). By the 1800s the Fair, with it’s catchphrase; ”Rare doings at Camberwell”, was only 3 days long – the 19th, 20th, and 21 August. The village had become more middle class, farming had declined, and the Fair’s traditional rural economic functions had eroded; the Fair became more a place of urban pleasures: illicit sex, debauchery, drink and food, and bizarre circus acts…
It teemed with stalls of food, stuff like oysters, pickled salmon, fried plaice, gingerbread, with ‘pedelerie’ (junk), toys; with exhibitions, weird and performing animals, bizarre deformities, plays, merry go rounds, shies etc…hawkers, pickpockets, jugglers, performers, magicians… All in all a great sprawling rowdy bundle. “All was dust heat smells and bother”.
People from all over South London flocked to the event, with carts, donkeys, old nags, offering rides, often the drivers singing songs or bantering with each other.
But the growing middle class of 18th-19th Century Camberwell hated this plebeian disruption.
“For these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent” …
There were constant attempts to control and restrict the fair and people’s enjoyment of it. Fairs at this time were a major source of moral outrage, asbo material of the day.
Although the 1840 ‘Kalendar of Amusements’ said that “the Camberwell Fair is one of the most amusing and orderly occurring near the Metropolis” , this may be not saying much as many fairs at this time were all out annual riots-cum-orgies.
Nearby Peckham Fair was also held in August annually – for the three days following Camberwell (22nd – 24th August), and was similarly troublesome. Given that both fell in the same parish, costs, planning etc came down to a headache for the same parish officers every year.
Applications were made at Bow Street Magistrates Court in the early 19th century for “12 officers to keep the peace at the Fairs of Camberwell and Peckham, at 5 shillings per day.” The two fairs together were seen by the local authorities and well-to-do as big one 6 day nightmare.
There were certainly serious incidents in 1802 at the end of Peckham Fair; a “numerous and desperate gang of pickpockets” robbed & assaulted respectable folk en masse as they were leaving the Fair. The gentry and middle classes attending the Fairs were seen as fair game (pardon the pun)…
In response to the attempts at repression and control, an interesting letter from ‘an Englishmen of the Old Type’ in the Morning Chronicle in 1806, attacked the magistrates’… it described one of Camberwell Magistrates as “a most zealous and distinguished reformer of the vices of the poor; who is so conscientious he will even sneak into a little shop on a Sunday and purchase a pennyworth of pastry or fruit, in order to punish the vender, and thereby discourage Sabbath-breaking… To the profound legal knowledge of this pious man, the poor fair people were indebted for the enforcement of some obsolete law, by which all the noisy minstrelsy of the Fair… was struck dumb in a moment. Not a blind fiddler was even suffered to exert his dangerous influence…”
In 1807 a Notice was pasted up: “Notice is hereby given that no drinking, booths, unlawful exhibitions or music, will be permitted at Camberwell or Peckham Fairs. That the constables have strict orders to prevent all gaming, or seize and carry away all implements used or employed therein, and to apprehend all the offenders, and that no dancing or music will be permitted at public houses, which are required to be close shut at eleven o’clock at night.
By order of the magistrates.”
Apparently “officers from union Hall Police Office and the Patrole from Bow St, attended… some trifling incidents occurred, but none of serious importance.”
There were several concerted attempts during the early 19th Century to shut the Fair down. In 1823, a Camberwell Vestry meeting was held to see what authority there was, in the form of an old grant or charter, to hold the Fair, This backfired, as evidence was produced in a Petty Session case to support its right to be held. Another attempt was made in 1825; in 1827, the Vestry managed to ban Peckham Fair for good.
They had another try at Camberwell Fair in 1832: “such institutions were Intended to be marts for trade and not sources of Dissipation and Riot” … The Fair was called a “Universally admitted evil.” Well, not universal – the poor loved it. It was a source of income for many of the poor and working classes, both legally, and through crime and the conning of fairgoers; there’s no doubt that it also brightened up people’s lives, an explosion of wild relief of the daily grind of poverty in a huge party. Lots of the rising middle classes emerging, as rampant British capitalism created all sorts of administrative and order-giving jobs, were moving out from the city to places like camberwell, and as the middle class like to do, whining about the people who lived there already and trying to change them/move them on. Which is a popular pastime today too!
By 1855, the Fair’s days were numbered: a local Committee for the Abolition of Camberwell Fair was set up by leading residents, who pressurised the parish authorities into buying the Green, and closing down the fair, with the help of the police.
The Green, said before then to be a Waste, was bought from the Lord of the Manor, landscaped, turned into a proper park… the Fair was no more, to the glee of one middle class historian: the Green was “encumbered for the last time with its horde of nomadic thieves, its coarse and lewd men and women and this concentrated essence of vice, folly and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents.”
The closing down of Camberwell Fair should be seen in the context of a widespread campaign in the early 19th Century, to impose social and moral control over the growing working classes. National government, local vestries and parish authorities, officials of most churches, and various bourgeois organisations such as the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, were broadly united in attempting to control and ‘reform’ the ‘immoral’ behaviour of the working classes, especially the poor, through encouraging/them forcing them into hard work, proper respect for authority and religion, and by attacking ‘vice’, disorder and immoral behaviour. This meant repression of ‘vice’ in the forms of pubs, prostitution, those who radically challenged religion or the political establishment.
Fairs, widely viewed as hotspots of immorality, disorder and in many cases satirical political plays and speeches, were a prime target. Not only this, but in an era of political upheaval and widespread radical agitation among the working class, any gathering of the poor was seen as dangerous. The open spaces where Fairs traditionally took place were also under attack, through the enclosure of commons, Greens and the increasing landscaping into parks, or development into housing. The physical alteration of space was seen as having a moral effect on the disorderly behaviour of the poor: proper ordered open space replacing ‘waste’ and common was believed to encourage respectability…
For local Vestries, the high cost of policing the Fairs and cleaning up afterwards were also a factor…
But the Green’s tradition as a place of entertainment and hedonism has continued. It has long been a site of public meetings, rowdiness, rallies, protests, and parties.
Not only in terms of its continuing use by street drinkers, who, as in many other parks have gradually reclaimed open space in defiance of those who would keep them socially cleansed and invisible.
Festivals and parties have also taken place on the Green over the years.
For instance: in June 1998, during Camberwell Arts Week, a Summer Solstice party was held, featuring a three-quarter size model of Stonehenge, made of fibre-glass. Several hundred urban pagans reproduced their own Stonehenge Festival… during which a slightly inebriated reveller fell against one of the stones and, as they were all roped together) nearly dominoed the whole lot! We all got pissed and then went into the hermits Cave to watch Argentina beat Jamaica 5-0 in the world cup.
Most recently between 2006 and 2008, ‘Bonkersfest’ was held on the Green annually, celebrating madness and creativity, two of the main traditional aspects of Camberwell life.
Interestingly in the 1990s a junk/boot fair revived in the grounds of St Giles Church where the Fair began, held every Saturday – the local skint and desperate selling scrap crap and tat to make a thin living. Since also deceased.
Camberwell Fair has now been revived as an arts and cultural event, and was held on the Green in 2018, though is set to move to Burgess Park in 2019…
More on this blog on fairs – next week…
An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online
In August 1794, during the war against revolutionary France, crowds over several days attempted to destroy ‘Crimp Houses’, which served as privately run army recruiting offices, in various parts of London. ‘Crimpers’ were widely suspected of stooping to kidnapping and buying up men’s debts to ensnare debtors, and other shady practices; in practice crimping was supported by London magistrates, with the tacit backing of the government. Many crimping houses were based in brothels, whose pimps and madams were suspected of enticing men in, getting them drunk, then selling them while insensible to the press gang. Other ‘houses of rendezvous’ were accused of forcibly imprisoning eligible men till the recruiting sergeants could collect them.
At this time, two years into the war with revolutionary France, the army and navy were suffering a severe shortage of manpower. The navy alone was increased from 16,613 in 1787 to 87,331 in 1794; the army aimed at recruiting another 100,000 into the militia that year. As a result the military offered bounties to the ‘crimpers’ (recruiters) of up to £30 per recruit. Meanwhile, the City of London was in the process of ballotting for the City Militia – any citizen selected would be forced to serve in the Militia or pay for someone to take his place. Despite much opposition, the ballot lists were being compiled in mid-August, as the Crimp House Riots erupted.
These riots saw the most alarming (for the authorities) mob violence since the Gordon Riots of 1780: crowds of hundreds of people, gathered, chanting ‘No War No Soldiers’, and proceeded to pull down five or six crimping Houses and attack a number of others.
The initial flashpoint was a number of crimping houses, in Johnson’s Court, Charing Cross, belonging to a Mrs Hanna; most notably the Turks Head, an inn and brothel. There has been rumours for years that men were kidnapped from here and forcibly impressed; in July 1794 there was a mini-riot after a local journeyman bake vanished into the Turks Head and was supposed to have been ‘pressed’. Shouts for help were allegedly heard from some of the neighbouring houses for the following weeks.
A few weeks later, on 15th August, rumours spread that a young man named George Howe had leapt to his death from a window of a crimp house:
“August 15th. About two o’clock, a melancholy accident happened in Johnson’s court, Charing-cross. George Howe, a genteel young man, was taken to a recruiting-office there belonging to the East-India company to be enlisted; and, upon attempting to make his escape, his hands were tied behind his back, and in that situation he was put into a garret, where he was not many minutes before he jumped from the window, and was killed upon the spot. This circumstance very naturally attracted the attention of passengers, and presently a crowd was collected, who, fired by indignation, pulled down the house. A detachment of the Guards was called in, and with difficulty the mob was dispersed.”
A magistrate ordered a search of another suspected crimp house – a man was found dying of smallpox in a locked room. The crowds dispersed, but regrouped in the evening, and had to be driven off by horseguards.
The violence continued into the next day, Saturday morning:
“August 16th. The populace seemed inclined to attack some other recruiting-houses in the neighbourhood of Charing-cross.”
Several of Mrs Hanna’s houses were stormed, and bedding thrown out of the windows.
Later 50-100 people also attacked the nearby King’s Arms, according to its proprietor:
“a very great quantity of people assembled at the door, and some of them unhinged the front of the door… very riotously throwing stones, and insisted on having some recruits out belonging to the Norwich regiment, that I had there; I suppose there was a hundred people there. I have a middle door, which I barricadoed with a water butt, after they had taken off the hinges of the door at the end of the passage; the door of the house was a very weak door. After they had taken the passage door off the hinges, they took it out into the street, and they had a great difficulty to get it to pieces, and that diverted them some time, they broke it to pieces; after that they had the sign taken down, which they broke also; there was an application then made to the police office, to get the assistance of the military. I remained in the house all the while, I durst not get out for my life myself; I dispatched a man for the military; before the military did come, they came up the passage and brought the pieces of the outer door, and threw it over the middle door, at the windows, and broke the windows and the fashes, and swore they would get in; I had a military officer with me in the house, we threatened to fire at them…”
The crowd broke into a swordmakers/cutlers shop when attacked by soldiers.
“The foot guards had remained upon the spot; and a detachment of the horse guards was added to them who patroled during the night round Charing cross, St. Martin’s lane, and their vicinity. The coroner’s inquest re turned this evening, after a deliberation of eight hours, was, that George Howe, the deceased, had come by his death in consequence of endeavouring to escape from illegal confinement in a house of bad fame.”
On the 17th, more crimp houses attacked in Charing Cross.
On the 18th, a large demonstration took place outside the Guildhall, in the City, as a petition was presented against the Provisions of the Militia Bill.
The authorities were forced to make some show of action over the deaths in the crimping houses:
“August 18th. Mrs. Hanau, the mistress of the house in Johnson’s court, was brought to the public-office, Queen square; but as no evidence was produced to incriminate her, she was consequently discharged. John Jacques, who kept a recruiting office in the next house to that of Mr. Hanau, was also examined relative to a person found sick of the small-pox in his house, who, on the recommendation of Mr. Reynolds, a surgeon, had been subsequently removed to the work-house of St. Martin’s parish, where he died the next morning. He also was discharged.”
Possibly if harsher measures had been taken against the crimpers, the riots would have died away – instead, they continued:
“August 19th. The White-horse public house, Whitcombe-street, Charing cross, a recruiting-house, wherein Edward Barrat, a mariner, had been ill-treated, was saved this evening Tom destruction by the intervention of the military.” Crimping houses in nearby Hedge Lane were also attacked.
The riots spread to other parts of town, including Drury lane, Fleet Street, Holborn, Bride Lane (near St Pauls) Mutton Lane (at the foot of Clerkenwell Green), Shoe Lane (off Saffron Hill), Hatton Garden, Moorfields, Whitechapel, Grays Inn Lane, and Smithfield… Crowds paraded Fleet Street, to cries of ‘No War, No Soldiers!’ and ‘Liberty and no Crimps!’
Dispersed in one area, the crowd would regroup and assemble to attack elsewhere. The riots peaked on the night of the 20th-21st, when at least three crimping houses were destroyed.
Soldiers, including horse guards, were called in to disperse the crowds several times in the course of the week; the Riot Act was also read in Shoe Lane, “to the groans and hisses of the mob”.
The Lord Mayor of London ordered posters to be put up denouncing the rioters:
“August 22d. On this and the preceding days some riots took place in the city, in consequence of which the following hand-bill was posted up and circulated in the city next morning: “The lord mayor sees, with inexpressible concern, that notwithstanding all the caution which has been given, and the endeavours of the good citizens to preserve peace and good order, that the same daring attempts to overpower the civil officers of this city, which were made on Wednesday night, were last might renewed in Shoe-lane. The inhabitants of this city must be convinced that the authors and actors in these tumults have no other view than that of overturning and destroying our laws, our constitution, and the liberties which through them we enjoy, in order to introduce among us the same bloody and ferocious government which France now groans under,
The lord mayor, therefore, gives notice, that, if any farther riots or tumults shall be attempted, he shall feel himself obliged to use the most effortual means to suppress the same, and therefore enjoins you to keep your lodgers, servants, and all others of your family within doors as soon as it is dark, as you will answer for the consequences which may arise from any breach of the peace.
Mansion house, Aug. 22, 1794.”
The radical reformers of the London Corresponding Society (who had opposed the war with France) were accused by some of instigating the riots. Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, who had played a central part in repressing the riots, wrote to the Home Secretary that he had ‘strong grounds to believe that these riots have been excited by the leaders of the seditious societies whose views extend very far beyond the recruiting houses… a deliberate system originating with the corresponding societies for the purpose of overthrowing the government.” (Colquhoun, frustrated with the widespread resistance to authority and crime in the capital, would shortly go on to found the Thames River Police, an important step on the road to the founding of the Metropolitan Police…)
A number of newspaper echoed the view that the reformers were behind the riots.
Inflammatory leaflets were indeed handed out during the rioting, the language of which was seized on as evidence that there was a ‘hidden hand’ at work stirring up trouble. One read:
“Beware Britons of the hordes of crimps and kidnappers that infest the metropolis and its environs, who rot and imprison its peaceful inhabitants. Oh! Think of the number of parents that are made wretched, in having their blooming sons torn from them by these monsters – Would such atrocious acts have been suffered in the days of Alfred? If you bring the Demons before the magistrates you cannot get redress, they will screen them in defiance of the law. Is this the land so famed for liberty? Did Sydney and Russell bleed for this? – Oh my poor country!”
Whatever the suspicions of the authorities, the disturbances clearly arose from the widespread suspicion of the pressgang and the brothelkeepers and other publicans prepared to sell men into the forces. Resistance to the pressgang was part of the street culture of London and other cities – pressmen could expect a violent reaction if caught enlisting men against their will, unless they were able to ensure their success by superior force.
Twenty-three people were arrested for taking part in the riots. On 17th September 1794, Joseph Strutt was found guilty of riot for the attack on the King’s Arms on 17th August and sentenced to death. The same day, Anthony Warnbeck and Richard Purchase, received the same sentence, having been found guilty of attacking Robert Layzell’s house and recruiting office in Holborn; finally Thomas Biggett was found guilty of leading an attack on the Black Raven in Golden Lane, Cripplegate, and also sentenced to death.
An account of their trials can be read here
However, the trouble impressed the City of London authorities enough to lead to the withdrawal of the Militia Act, with the City authorities deciding to raise money instead to pay recruits rather than implement the ballot lists.
Riots against recruitment were however revived in 1795. In January 18 men were freed by a crowd from a crimping house in Southwark. In April a thousand people were involved in an attack on a crimper in Westminster who had tried to trick a fifteen-year old into signing up. And in July, following a sustained campaign of impressment in the riverside districts the previous month (which had seen much resistance), further crimp house riots took place in Charing Cross, leading to a huge march on Whitehall, and an attack on the Prime Minister’s house…
On 13 August 1977, the far-right National Front (NF) attempted to march from New Cross to Lewisham in South East London. Thousands of local people and anti-racists from all over London and beyond mobilised to oppose them, and the NF were humiliated as their march was disrupted and banners seized. Instead of the intended show of white supremacy, only a few hundred bedraggled NF activists made it through to a car park in Lewisham with the help of a huge police operation. The day became known as ‘The Battle of Lewisham’ and has been seen as a turning point in the fortunes of the NF and the 1970s anti-fascist movement as well as in policing – riot shields were used for the first time in England.
As capitalist austerity bites… producing poverty, rage and Brexit… the right will try to channel that anger into racism, division, fascist ‘solutions’. Anti-fascism remains as crucial as ever: organised racism must be challenged physically, on the streets, just as racist and fascist ideas must be confronted ideologically. It’s also vital to remember the history of resistance that has always sprung up, and often beaten the extreme right back, when they appear to be gaining strength. From Cable Street, to Brick Lane, to the Jewish partisans of World War 2, to Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage – They Shall Not Pass.
Below we have reproduced here accounts of the events that led up to the 13th August, a varied series of personal accounts of the day itself, and opinions on its historical significance. These were collected by a group who organised a commemoration of the events for the 30th anniversary in 2007, under the banner of ‘Lewisham ’77, including a history walk covering the route of the NF march and resistance, with speakers who had been present in 1977, and a one-day conference which discussed Lewisham events in context and related them to the development of fascism and racism, and opposition to them, in the decades that followed. Past Tense played a small part in that collective.
Much more can be found on the Lewisham ’77 blog
In 1977, the National Front’s influence was growing; from their origins as a merger of three small far right groups in 1967, run by men with long histories in neo-nazi organising, the NF had played populist nationalism to the max. In an era where full employment and the hopes of the 60s were giving way to recession, unemployment and increased industrial action by workers, the NF whipped up fears that migrants were threatening the ‘British Way of Life’, taking white workers jobs etc. Ably abetted by tory and some Labour politicians and many a media front page… Refugees arriving in the UK, like the Ugandan Asians were hysterically held up as scapegoats; workers fighting for better wages and conditions were also painted as a threat to order.
Rightwing violence, racist attacks were on the rise. NF candidates were winning larger shares of the vote in elections. But many on the left were determined to oppose the Front. Already, in April ’77, there had been a sizeable anti-fascist response to an NF march through Wood Green in North London, where events panned out in many ways as a dress rehearsal for a larger confrontation on 13th August.
The build up
The Battle of Lewisham did not come out of nowhere; it was one moment in a longer history of racism and resistance in this part of South East London.
18 July 1949: racist mob besieges Carrington House in Brookmill Road, Deptford, the home of African seamen who have complained of racist treatment including being banned from pubs. ‘800 whites and 50 police battled outside… Unsurprisingly the frightened occupants armed themselves with knives, for which act they not the rioters were arrested’.
1954: Anglo-Caribbean Club in Greenwich threatened with attack by the fascist Union Movement
1958: the Robin Hood and Little John Pub in Deptford Church Street imposes ‘no drinks for coloureds’ rule. The landlady Mrs Sparkes told the Kentish Mercury: ‘We found that when coloured people walked in to the bar everything went quiet. We asked our regular customers if they minded coloured people drinking in the pub. They preferred it without them’. The paper also reports that the landlord feared ‘trouble from local hooligans who beat up coloured men in a recent racial flair-up in Tanners Hill’.
June 1959: Chicago After Midnight Club, Telfourd Road, Peckham, attacked by white men throwing three petrol bombs.
April 1962: British National Party holds torchlight parades in Deptford as it contested Council elections.
1965: Deptford Union Movement, followers of fascist leader Oswald Mosley, hold a public meeting in the area.
3 January 1971: three petrol bombs thrown into a black people’s party in a house in Sunderland Road, Ladywell, injuring 22l people, several of them seriously. Two white racists later jailed for the attack. In the week after the attack, eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party are arrested after being hassled by police on their way back from visiting the injured in Lewisham Hospital. This leads to a march by 150 people to Ladywell Police Station a few weeks later, and more arrests.
1975: Moonshot Club (also know at times as Pagnell Street Community Centre), a social centre for black youths in New Cross, is raided by police who damage sound system and make several arrests.
1976: National Front and the National Party achieve a combined vote of 44.5% in a Deptford Council by-election.
April 1977: Moonshot Club occupied by young people who accused youth workers of having prior knowledge of police raids on people’s homes.
May 1977: in the Greater London Council elections, the far right fail to sustain their share of the vote in Deptford compared with the previous year. The results are Labour 9336 votes, Conservative 7217, National Party (L.Dixon) 1496, National Front (R.Edmonds) 1463, Liberal 843.
May 30 1977: police stage dawn raids on 30 homes in New Cross and Lewisham and arrest 21 young black people accusing them of being involved in street robberies. (Times 31.5.77) The Lewisham 21 Defence Committee is set up to support those arrested, as well as three others arrested in a subsequent scuffle with police. The police refer leaflets produced by the Committee to the Director of Public Prosecutions, accusing them of libel (Kentish Mercury (KM), 16.6.77).
15 June 1977: Prince Charles visits Pagnell Street Centre in New Cross (‘The Moonshot’). The Defence Committee stages a demonstration outside with about 20 people and a banner saying ‘Defend Lewisham 24. Who will the police mug next?’ (KM 16.6.77)
Saturday 18 June 1977: fighting between National Front and Socialist Workers Party activists by the Clock Tower in Lewisham Town Centre, where both groups were selling papers. A socialist teacher from Deptford is knocked unconscious (KM 23.6.77).
Friday 24 June 1977: at a meeting of Lewisham Council for Community Relations, the police arrests of 21 youths are condemned by Sybil Phoenix (of Pagnell Street Centre) and Alderman Russell Profitt, the latter describing the raids as ‘scandalous and disgusting – a vicious attack on the black community’ (KM 30.6.77).
Saturday 25 June 1977: 70 socialists and 50 National Front supporters turn out for rival paper sales in Lewisham town centre but are kept apart by the police. 17 members of the National Party (another far-right faction) stage a pro-police demonstration at Lewisham police station (KM 30.6.77).
Saturday 2 July 1977: Lewisham 21 Defence Committee demonstration in New Cross in support of local black youths arrested in police operation: ‘300 demonstrators marched through Lewisham and New Cross’; more than 100 National Front supporters turn out to attack it: ‘Shoppers rushed for cover as racialists stormed down New Cross Road’ (KM 7.7.77). NF throw bottles, ‘rotten fruit and bags of caustic soda at marchers’ (South London Press [SLP] 5.7.77). More than 60 people, fascists and anti-fascists, are arrested in clashes in New Cross Road and Clifton Rise.
Monday 4 July 1977: Lewisham National Front organiser Richard Edmunds complains about police arrests of NF supporters at the weekend and announces plans for a National Front demonstration in Deptford in August, promising its ‘biggest-ever rally… Everybody will know that the Front is marching. Where we had a couple of hundred people in New Cross on Saturday, we will be talking of thousands for our march’ (SLP 5.7.77). The march is billed as a demonstration against ‘mugging’.
Monday 4 July and Tuesday 6 1977: 56 people appear at Camberwell Magistrates Court on charges relating to the clashes on the previous Saturday. 35 NF supporters and 17 anti-fascists are remanded on bail. A 29 year old mother of five from New Cross is given an absolute discharge after admitting ‘threatening behaviour’: she told the court ‘I was called a nigger lover in front of my children which I objected to’ (KM 7.7.77)
Week beginning 4 July 1977: All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) call for peaceful demonstration on same day as NF march. ALCARAF and the neighbouring SCARF (Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism) had been set up in the previous year in response to the rise of the far-right. Along with other London anti-fascist groups they were affiliated to the Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee.
15 July 1977: fire at headquarters of West Indian League, 36 Nunhead Lane, SE15, an organisation providing advice and activities for black youth. Fire brigade suggests that the fire may have been started by a petrol bomb (SLP).
23 or 24 July (?) 1977 – 600 people attend a public meeting in Lewisham Concert Hall called by Lewisham 21 Defence Committee. The meeting passes a motion calling ‘for a united mobilisation to stop the Nazis… We call for all black people, socialists, and trade unionists, to assemble at 1 pm on August 13 at Clifton Rise, New Cross, so that ‘They shall not pass” (KM 28.7.77).
Lewisham Council turns down NF request to use the Lewisham Concert Hall on August 13th. The Council’s Amenities chair, Gareth Hughes, states: ‘The NF is a racialist organisation, and the hall belongs to the community which is multi-racial’ (KM 28.7.77).
Saturday 23 July 1977 – Lewisham 21 Defence Committee march from Lewisham railway station to Catford (SLP 29.7.77).
Friday 29 July: A deputation of eight local church leaders hand in a 1500 strong petition to Police Commissioner David McNee calling for the NF march to be banned. The leader of the deputation, Rev. Barry Naylor (St John’s, Catford and also a leading member of ALCARAF) meets McNee who tells him there will be no ban (SLP 2.8.77).
Week beginning 1 August: members of the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee take over an empty shop in New Cross Road, to be used as a campaign headquarters in preparation for the anti-NF mobilisation (KM 4.8.77). The shop is at 318 New Cross Road (now the Alcohol Recovery Project), next to the New Cross House (now the Goldsmiths Tavern).
Monday 1 August: The August 13 Ad Hoc Organising Committee issues statement calling for a ‘They Shall Not Pass’ rally to assemble at Clifton Rise in New Cross at 12 on the day of the NF demonstration (the NF were planning to assemble at Clifton Rise at 2 pm). The statement also ‘welcomed the decision of the ALCARAF to route their march to reach New Cross by 1 pm. We urge that full support be given to that march and call on everyone to stay on to occupy Clifton Rise to prevent the Nazis occupying there’. The Committee spokesperson is Ted Parker, South East London Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SLP 5.8.77).
Tuesday 2 August: Lewisham police chiefs meet with National Front organisers to discuss plans for march. Martin Webster, NF national organiser, tells press: ‘The Reds have had it all their own way and the only way you can fight Communism is to confront it. We believe that the multi-racial society is wrong, is evil and we want to destroy it’ (SLP 5.8.1977).
Tuesday 9 August: Lewisham Mayor, Councillor Roger Godsiff, and 3 other Labour councillors hand in resolution to Home Secretary calling for NF march to be banned. Metropolitan Police commissioner David McNee issues statement opposing ban, saying that it ‘would not only defer to mob rule but encourage it’ (SLP 12.8.77).
Wednesday 10 August: ALCARAF press conference announces policy that ‘if the police cordon off the road from Algernon Road to Clifton Rise, then the marchers will disperse. But if there is no police opposition the march will continue to Clifton Rise’ (SLP 12.8.77).
Thursday 11 August 1977: High Court Judge Slynn rejects a request by Lewisham Council to issues a ‘writ of mandamus’ compelling the Police Commissioner to ban all marches in the borough for three months. Lewisham are represented in court by John Mortimer QC. NF organiser Richard Edmunds tells the press that ‘We are deliberately going into the black areas of Deptford because these are also the areas where we have a lot of support’ (SLP 12.8.77).
Friday 12 August 1977: final plans for demonstration: ‘At least 2000 police will be in the borough… and in reserve the police will have about 200 shields and helmets… Lewisham council has moved old and disabled people away from potential trouble spots, and public buildings, shops and public houses on the routes have been closed or boarded up’ (Times, 13.8.77).
Saturday 13th August 1977
3 am – two bricks thrown through the bedroom window of Mike Power, Chief Steward for ALCARAF, at his home in Ardgowan Road, Hither Green. He said that ‘It was quite clearly an attempt by the National Front to intimidate me’ (KM 18.8.77).
11:00 am: 200 police arrive at Clifton Rise. First anti-fascists also start to gather there.
11:30 am – All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) demonstration gathers in the rain in Ladywell Fields. ‘Over 5000 people from more than 80 organisations congregate in Ladywell Fields to hear speeches by the Mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark, the exiled Bishop of Namibia and others’ (South London Press 16.8.1977).
11:55 am: ALCARAF march sets off down Ladywell Road and into Lewisham High Street, taking at least half an hour to leave the park. ‘Those taking part in the ALCARAF march included members of the Young Liberals, Lewisham Councillors, Young Socialists, Communists and Young Communists, and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality’ plus ‘banners from GEC Elliot’s factory, the Electrical Trades Union, Christian Aid, the Indian Workers Association and many more’. The march is led by a lorry ‘with the Steel and Skin playing’ (KM 16.8.77).
12:10: First clash between police and anti-fascists in New Cross: ‘The SWP were occupying the derelict shop next to the New Cross House pub. Police broke down a door and evicted the squatters, arresting 7 and taking a quantity of propaganda and banners’ (KM, 18.8.1977). ‘The first clash came… when police ousted Socialist Workers Party members from the New Cross Road shop they were squatting in, overlooking Clifton Rise’ (SLP 16.8.77).
12:45: A wall of police prevent ALCARAF march reaching New Cross. ‘Police block the way to New Cross at the junction of Loampit Hill and Algernon Road. As the lorry leading the march turns in Algernon Road, march stewards try and stop it. Commander Randall shouts ‘Keep that lorry on the move’ (SLP 16.8.1977). The police want marchers ‘to go along Algernon Road back to Ladywell’. The Mayor of Lewisham, Councillor Roger Godsiff, formally appeals to police Commander Douglas Randall to ‘allow the march to go on the original route that was agreed’ (i.e. on to New Cross) – this is refused.
1:00: Mike Power of ALCARAF tells the crowd ‘ALCARAF is not prepared to be directed away from Deptford’ and appeals ‘for the march to disband peacefully there and then’ (KM 16.8.77). Although the march as such is halted, many of the demonstrators managed to get to New Cross via other routes. ‘The order is given to disperse [the ALCARAF march]. The police allow hundreds of people to pass on to New Cross’ (SLP 16.8.77).
1:30: National Front begin to assemble behind police lines in Achilles Street. New Cross Road is closed with at thousands of anti-NF protestors in Clifton Rise and New Cross Road (KM 18.8.77). Estimates of anti-NF crowd vary from 2000 (KM) to up to 4000 (Times).
2:00 pm ‘Police in two wedges – one from Clifton Rise the other from New Cross Road – moved into the crowd to eject them from Clifton Rise’. Two orange smoke bombs are thrown, and a tin of red paint. Clifton Rise and New Cross Road ‘became a seething mass of demonstrators and police. Police helmets were knocked off as arrests were made’ (KM 18.8.77).
2:00 pm: As fighting rages in New Cross, the Bishop of Southwark leads a church service against racism and for peace at St Stephens Church, Lewisham High Street. 200 people attend, with a banner outside with the words ‘Justice, love and peace’ (SLP 16.8.77)
2:06 pm ’10 mounted police moved into the crowd from New Cross Road to be greeted by a sustained bombardment of bottles, cans, and attacks with poles. The ferocity of the attack drove the horsemen back. Youths began to gather bricks from a builders yard in Laurie Grove and pelt police’ (KM 18.8.77). ‘Running battles broke out at the top of Clifton Rise and, after, a smoke bomb exploded, mounted police moved in to drive the crowd back into New Cross Road’ (SLP 16.8.77). Two mounted police are dragged from their horses.
2:10 pm ‘The police line on foot at Clifton Rise broke, but reformed. A youth attacked a policeman with a stick’ (KM 18.8.77).
2:20 pm: ‘Police drew truncheons and used them against the crowd. Most of Clifton Rise and New Cross Road was cleared of demonstrators. The battle for control of Clifton Rise was over. A man lay unmoving outside the New Cross Inn and was taken off in an ambulance. Another stretcher case lay in New Cross Road’ (KM 18.8.77).
3:00 pm – Police escort National Front marchers out of Achilles Street, up Pagnell Street and into New Cross Road, behind a large ‘Stop the Muggers’ banner. Estimates of NF marchers range from 600 (SLP) to 1000 (KM). ‘Suddenly the air was filled with orange smoke, and a hail of bricks, bottles and pieces of wood fell onto the Front from demonstrators and householders leaning out of their windows… At one point the Front marchers stopped. Half the marchers remained in Pagnell Street, afraid to walk into the hail of missiles’ (KM 18.8.77).
Anti-fascists break through police lines and attack back of NF march, ‘separating them from the main body’ (SLP 16.8.77). There is hand to hand fighting in New Cross Road, and NF marchers are forced off the road onto the pavement.
‘One young man, perhaps 16 years old, rushed into the Front ranks and grabbed a flagpole from one of them, broke it in half and held the pieces up while the crowd cheered. Others hurled dustbins and fence stakes into the Front column from close range’ (KM 18.8.77). ‘The protestors then burnt captured NF banners’ (SLP 16.8.77).
Police separate NF and anti-fascists, and mounted police clear a path through crowd attempting to block progress of march towards Deptford Broadway. For part of the route the NF are forced off the road onto the pavement.
Police lead the march ‘through deserted streets of Lewisham’ with crowds held back by ‘by road blocks over the whole area’ (KM). Marchers are flanked by three deep police on either side, with 24 mounted police in front. The march route goes down Deptford Broadway/Blackheath Road, Lewisham Road and Cressingham Road, where ‘more missiles were hurled at the marchers’ (SLP 16.8.77).
While small groups attack the march from side streets, large numbers of anti-fascists head East along Lewisham Way. They reach Lewisham Town Centre and block the High Street.
The NF approach the town centre. ‘The fighting intensified as the Front members were escorted from Cressingham Road to their rally in Conington Road’ (SLP 16.8.77).
Unable to meet in the town centre proper, the NF hold a short rally in a car park in Conington Road, addressed by NF Chairman John Tyndall, police usher NF ‘through a tunnel in Granville Park and then into Lewisham station, where trains were waiting to take them away’ (Times, 15.8.77).
Clashes continue between the police and crowd, the latter largely unaware that the NF have already left the area. Anti-fascists occupy the area by the Clock Tower. ‘A road barrier was dragged across the High Street by demonstrators’ (KM, 18.8.77).
Police bring out riot shields for the first time in England, and attempt to disperse crowd south down Lewisham High Street towards Catford. Bricks and bottles are thrown. ‘On the corner of Molesworth Street, mounted police prepared to charge. Beside them were police on foot, truncheons drawn. Police came racing down the street. One officer shouted ‘get out of the way’ and as he ran a man was hit. The officer then apparently collided with an elderly woman. She went sprawling on the pavement’ (KM, 18.8.77).
A police Special Patrol Group van is surrounded and its windows smashed, and part of the crowd attempts to surround Lewisham Police Station in Ladywell Road. A press photographer’s BMW motorbike is set on fire near Ladywell Baths. Several shop windows are smashed in Lewisham High Street, including Currys (no.131), Kendall & Co. (no.256) and Caesars’ fancy goods (no.230).
4:40 pm; ‘the riot in Lewisham High Street had been quashed, but there were continuing outbreaks in side streets. It was not until after 5 pm that the fighting ceased and an uneasy calm settled over Lewisham’ (SLP 16.8.77). 214 people have been arrested and at least 111 injured (Times, 15.8.77).
First hand accounts and personal recollections:
Posting these accounts does not imply endorsement of the past, or present, politics of any of the following (especially Peter Hain)…
Martin Lux: Anti-fascist
An account of the Battle of Lewisham, written by Martin Lux and taken from his book Anti-Fascist. Martin spoke at the Lewisham 77 commemorative conference in 2007.
A chilly damp grey day greeted us as we travelled down to Lewisham. Only a couple of us diehards were making the morning journey to the trade union, soft left counter-demonstration, hoping somehow that we might succeed in diverting a few people to New Cross. That’s where we’d need thousands to block the road, hold back the cops, then launch an all out attack on the Front. Halfway to Lewisham the streets appeared remarkably empty, the omnipresent police vehicles aside. Miserable weather seemed to have dampened people’s enthusiasm, the usual crackling tension was strangely absent. Still, it was early, any action would be later in the day. So we walked briskly to the park where the counter-demo was assembling, its stewards busily plotting the most direct route away from the nazi gathering and any worthwhile action. A small bottle of brandy had been acquired, just a little something to banish the morning chill, to help energise. I usually adhered to a strict rule of never going into aggro unless completely straight, no blur; adrenaline providing me with buzz enough. And anyhow, you can get as pissed or zonked as you like later. But on so cold a morning, a couple of neat gulps didn’t go amiss.
A reasonable number had assembled for the counter-demo. Our instincts told us that a fair few of these were out for confrontation, and had come here mistakenly thinking that the demo would be heading up to New Cross. We hastily conferred, arriving at a decision to join the demo if necessary, and try to divert it up to New Cross. With five thousand police on duty we’d need as many bodies as possible. A determined group of about fifty of us gathered, most of whom I’d met on previous occasions, including some from the SWP who’d sensibly dumped their comics to keep their hands free for action. Gauging the reactions of those we’d already agitated, we concluded that substantial sections of the crowd were up for major aggro. The idea developed to seize the initiative as soon as the demo left the park. We’d split off, taking a sizeable chunk with us. Lacking a loudhailer for communication, it became a case of circulate, mingle, verbalise, persuade. Not that we needed to do much of that. The mood of most, party and union hacks aside, was business-like: this was the opportunity to finally get to grips with the nazis rather than echo empty chants down empty streets, to really do it in a set-piece confrontation. “We’re gonna ‘ave ‘em, and now!” was a fair summary of the general feeling.
Finally the demo, now several thousand strong, left the park, headed by local notables in suits and, leading his flock, an ecclesiastical gentleman in all his gear, mitre included. “It’s da bishop!” joked one character, drawing laughter from our subversive throng. As soon as we hit the road we swung into action urging people up to New Cross. “The time for marches is over! Let’s go occupy the road up at New Cross!” “Nazi scum this way!” pointing in a general direction up the hill. Most responded immediately, whilst only a couple of years earlier we’d have been rebuffed by the vast majority. But things had now changed, people were eager to get stuck in. The demo was poorly policed – they obviously hadn’t expected trouble from this quarter – whilst stewards were virtually non-existent. An ideal scenario. Pavements and road were crowded with people ready for the journey to New Cross, so without further dawdling, off we moved. We probably numbered well over a thousand. Still, no cops, except for a handful in the distance, frantically radioing-in reports of the unexpected mob headed for New Cross. Inevitably a hastily formed line of uniforms appeared, impeding progress. Us instigators halted. Some wanted to smash straight through, and although there were only about a hundred cops it would have damaged our momentum. So we decided to ignore them, swerving right down a side street, a slight diversion. The police, orders not forthcoming, couldn’t up sticks and pursue us, so discipline in order they stood like a row of dummies as we all vanished elsewhere. Over the heads of the reception committee a police helicopter clattered impotently as we surged through the streets, ready for anything. Apart from anti-fascists, the streets were deserted. We’d outmanoeuvred the authorities so far and it looked like we’d be able to occupy New Cross Road with or without reinforcements. We took a short cut, running full pelt to the meeting point. A couple of thousand had already gathered, surrounded by police, but not to heavily to discourage an occupation of the road. I rushed up to my mob, which was now about three hundred strong. Breathless, gasping for air, I spluttered, “I know it sounds like bullshit, but…”
“Where the fuck have you been?” someone from the previous evening demanded.
True, I had solemnly promised to arrive early. “But,” I continued after a well-earned swig from the brandy bottle, pointing up to the chopper, “There’s well over a thousand on their way to occupy the road.” Then, with some sarcasm, “And what are you lot doing standing around here on the pavement? Why aren’t you on the road, blocking it?”
A moment later, right on cue, the cavalry arrived, filling the road. Some had mysteriously acquired weapons; chunks of wood ripped from fences, iron bars from demolished gates, even dustbin lids. The pavement protesters needed no further cajoling, brushing aside disintegrating police lines to take the road, merging with the arriving mob. Rain steadily drizzled but no-one cared. The cops, fearful of being surrounded and attacked withdrew, forming a larger cordon outside the mass. We were all buzzing now, elated that we’d taken the street with such minimal effort. But this was only a beginning. The real work lay ahead. Holding our ground, then kicking, bricking and fighting our way through police lines to give the nazis what was coming to them.
Folk were pouring into New Cross including many black people and youngsters. The crowd in the road swelled as the pavements overflowed. The three hundred or so anarchists with their black flags and banners lent the scene particular visual appeal for me. Most of them were up for real aggro, as were the majority of the crowd who struggled with the lines of police now several deep who fought in turn to contain the still growing crowd. Placards flew through the air, raining down on the police without causing any damage. With a couple of trusted mates I weaved my way up to the front line armed with a thick lump of wood. The crowds were now dense and movement was slow. Truncheons were out, the cops giving as good as they got. One of the bastards tried to crack me over the head, he hadn’t seen I was tooled up. I lashed out at him, catching him on the side of the head. As he staggered back, more surprised than hurt, I felt a surge of pure joy and satisfaction. A couple of enraged cops tried to haul me out, but couldn’t make any progress due to the sheer pressure of the crowd. They weren’t too pleased though, so one struck a man on the noggin as recompense. Just someone who was trapped there, unable to move. I was close enough to hear the truncheon make contact, a distinctive sound like a wooden ball hitting a coconut at the fun fair. Reason deserted me for a few blind moments as I tried to lunge forward, have it out with the filth. Very stupid of me, considering the day’s entertainment was only just beginning and I was intending to see it through to its final curtain. In the event, it proved impossible to brawl with the cops as the ebb and flow of the crowd pushed me sideways. So I returned to the horde, most of whom were well prepared for the fray. Stout clubs made of chair legs, broken banner poles, bits of fencing, bottles, the odd half brick or two. It was the revival of a great British tradition, all the implements of a Saturday afternoon riot. And we were well hyped up, certainly this was the biggun. The whole crowd was now raring to go as even more filth appeared in a vain attempt to contain the mob. City of London cops with their distinctive helmets joined the throng, struggling to hold us back with their hard-pressed colleagues. Rain began to fall again, but spirits weren’t going to be so easily dampened, the grey skies now adding to the drama, set off by a backdrop of crumbling cinemas, dance venues, grimy pubs, boarded-up shop fronts and tower blocks looming in the distance. Rumours spread like wildfire amidst the chaos and din: thousands were marching up from Brixton to join us; the fascists had bottled it, hadn’t shown up; a thousand nazis were assembled just a couple of streets away; there’d been an anti-asian pogrom on the Isle of Dogs; and that hardy perennial, someone had been killed by the police. All totally impossible to verify one way or another.
In a final effort to clear the road, mounted police were deployed. They trotted their animals, nostrils flaring, right to the edge of the mob who stood solid, resisting all attempts to budge them. Foolishly they succeeded only in pushing most of the crowd close to the point where the nazis were assembling. So far I hadn’t actually seen a single fascist. It was impossible now to gauge crowd numbers. Four, five, six thousand. More? Who knows? With a couple of hundred people, all of us brandishing weapons, I moved to the right of the heaving masses, towards the point where the nazis were long overdue to emerge. Progress was painfully slow until a great roar went up and I could see, surrounded by a thick cordon of police, the pointed flagpoles of the Front moving like masts in the distance. The party was on.
The entire crowd surged forwards and the police lines broke. People just swept by, pushing hundreds of filth aside. The human tide advanced remorselessly, heads bobbing up and down. In the distance, the air became thick with missiles flying into the Front march. Now we’d broken free and were running. Ahead, more police tried in vain to stem the flow. They lashed out at random with their batons, occasionally dragging away some hapless soul plucked from the fringes of the action. Four or five would escort each arrestee: the cops by now probably figuring it better to arrest someone and fuck off back to the station, away from the action than be trampled by the mob. This was no Grunwicks, and they were shitting themselves. We were now right up, parallel to the Front, their police cordon having disintegrated, the pigs thinking now of their own skin. No slogans, no chanting, just thousands of yelling voices, the sound of bottles crashing into nazi ranks, bricks crunching as they thudded into the road, off the sides of buildings, advertising hoardings, boarded up shops. Whole garden walls were demolished in seconds. We charged the Front, this was the long awaited opportunity and we weren’t reluctant to get stuck in. Bricks and bottles raining all around, it was bloody, no holds barred, hand to hand fighting. Although the Fronters looked just like us down to the long hair and combat jackets, some even sporting flares, it was obvious who was who. Flying kicks, punches and the clashing of improvised weaponry filled the space around me.
A nazi leapt out yelling, “COME ON THEN, YOU RED BASTARD!” We struggled, me slamming him with a lump of wood. He relaxed his grip, someone had bashed him on the side of the skull with a brick. He caught many a boot as he hit the deck, my own included. I had that glorious novocaine feeling above my upper lip. Pure adrenaline, pure violence. A punk grabbed my club and disappeared into the nazis wreaking havoc. Everyone without exception was brawling toe to toe, the road strewn with broken glass, bricks, bits of timber. I joined the general mêlée in the centre of the road, propelled by the sheer momentum of it all, from one punch up to another, cutting my fists, getting kicked, booting back. I was struck on the side of my face, a small trickle of blood ran from somewhere near my ear, I didn’t feel a thing however amidst the brick dust and confusion. The police had regrouped, running, batons drawn, to the epicentre of the tempest. Some of us pulled back to the opposite pavement, bombarding those nazis who’d sought shelter in the shop fronts. The deadly hail, mixed with fumes pouring from smoke grenades, ripped into the bastards. There seemed to be plenty of them but they were outnumbered, outclassed, outgunned and outmanoeuvred. We were heaving whole metal dustbins into the Master Race, taking no small pleasure as they clattered into their midst. Many of these Fronters were tough cunts, they stood their ground and traded blows. I was surprised though at how many of these fuckers were middle aged, there didn’t appear to be many youngsters left in their now thinning ranks. By this time most of the nazis had run off to preserve their worthless hides. And after ten more minutes that flashed by like seconds, the Front had dispersed, their tattered remnants heading down Deptford Broadway, bound for Lewisham. The cops too had ceded our portion of New Cross road to the mob, and we were jubilant, celebrating by tearing and burning captured banners. After some whooping and merriment I came to my senses. I’d been punched, kicked and pounded, although after I’d dabbed some of the blood away from my ear I felt fresh and ready for more. Some of us started haranguing the crowd: “Come on, let’s get down to Lewisham! Let’s finish the bastards off!”
So we left the revellers, picking up discarded weapons. Thankfully, I’d retained my brandy bottle and gulped back a refreshing swig. After all, it looked like being a long, exhausting afternoon. The Front had vanished by now, save for a few nursing wounds, and a couple laying sprawled in the gutter where they belonged. Fighting continued to rage on the edges of the impromptu carnival, truncheons were still out as knots of young blacks and asians fought the cops. Normally this would have been an exciting conclusion to the day, well worth getting stuck in, but I felt this was a mere diversion, there was still fun to be had. Not worth getting embroiled. So picking up a few stragglers who were up for more, I by-passed the drama at New Cross, dashing towards Lewisham Way, hoping to make it to the High Street. Others were of a like mind, a steady stream of us drifting downhill. No more police impeded our relentless progress. We were all mega-hyped, armed and dangerous. It’s a steep descent down to the High Street and the panorama unfolded below as we progressed downhill. I pressed ahead, noticing that most of the folk with us now were black and not all of them youngsters. On the other side of the road a dozen beefy middle aged blacks emerged from a minicab firm, some wearing crash helmets, others carrying bin lids like shields. All were tooled up. Things were getting more interesting by the minute.
Arriving at Lewisham High Street, we joined a mob at the clock tower. Despite this being a busy shopping area, apart from anti-nazis the streets were deserted. Only a handful of police could be glimpsed in the distance, leading me to suspect they were concentrating their efforts on protecting the Front march. Possibly the Front were holding their rally, it had been rumoured that their final destination was somewhere in the vicinity. I didn’t fancy standing about all afternoon waiting for the nazis to arrive, so we had to take the initiative before some bright spark lefties decided on another march away from our quarry. In response to the red hot rumour that the Front were holding their rally in a nearby bowling alley, we moved as a body. The mob now consisted of black and white in equal measure, and we were in a mean mood. We swept past stationary police buses, cops seated inside and standing on the pavements helpless as we marched towards our goal. Around the side street adjacent to the bowling alley dozens of police linked arms, keeping us from the exits. Maybe the Front were inside or in the car park. A young black kid threw a brick at a few yards range, he couldn’t miss. A fat sergeant was hit, square on the knee. He crumpled, his leg unable to support his ugly bulk. Middle aged heavy blacks started slapping the youngster down: “Don’t waste ammunition!” I was flush with excitement, remarking, “These guys really mean business!” Armed with half bricks, bottles, assorted offensive weapons, we surged forwards further up, only to run into a blank wall. Shouts went up, “Watch out! Pigs are regrouping! They’re going to trap us!” Sure enough, the uniforms were concentrating near their buses. We had no choice but to retreat the way we came. This meant fighting our way through, and everybody steamed in, bombarding the filth with great gusto. Goodbye brandy bottle as I drained the final drop, lobbing it at the cops. Smoke bombs, flares, bricks, bottles fell amongst police ranks. Some cops went down, most retreated, others picked up flares and returned fire. We had to move before they gained advantage, so we pushed forward throwing bricks at close range. Cops lashed out blindly through the now swirling smoke, everyone a target as though we were all guilty of violent behaviour, which doubtless most of us were. Some unlucky individuals were arrested if they hesitated. The smoke was choking and I’d already masked up, using a souvenir torn from a banner captured from the Edinburgh NF – and they have the nerve to bang on about ‘outsiders’. I took a few blows as I rushed through the police lines, but it was all perfunctory really as they bounced off my padded jacket. I was soon out of the turmoil, back at the clock tower. What to do now? Most were up for more aggro, and the police – virtually an arm of the Front rather than “workers in blue” as some lefty morons called them – were as good a target as any miserable, stinking nazi. Maybe better. I’d long wanted to take the bastards on properly, like they did everywhere else on the planet. No more of this push-and-shove that the left went in for on their boring, predictable, within-the-bounds demos.
More rumours flew. A mob was attacking the police station. Where was it? Further down the High Street, beyond the bridge. “Well let’s fuckin’ go! Let’s find it and burn it!” We all struck up a chorus of approval, moving off. Wilder elements were bricking vehicles, putting through the odd shop window. No one bothered looting, we had other things on our minds. By chance, or more likely propelled by the logic of my attitude, I found myself with various uncontrollable rogue elements, veterans of previous brawls. We’d connected at the right place, right time. The gang was all here. We streamed down to the railway bridge bricking and trashing en route. We halted just before the bridge to regroup, collect a larger mob. Smoke rose in the distance, probably a blazing vehicle. Good, we’d gone far beyond anything the British mainland had witnessed during a political event for decades. Instinctively we knew it, digging it all the way. Time to press on and kill the Bill. Suddenly, cries of alarm. “Watch out!” “Behind you!” A strange sight, never seen before, another first for the record books. Down from where we’d just come, across the wide road, slowly advancing, a line of police with riot shields. It looked spooky, fascinating even, the whole scene made menacing by blackened skies and the distant plume of smoke. I was with a couple of hardcases who’d moved over from Ulster, so I asked them what they thought of it all as the mob stood momentarily frozen, gawping at this unique sight. “Aww, you get this every Saturday back home when the pubs and betting shops close for the afternoon.”
“What do you think’ll happen next?” I enquired.
Already a steady stream of missiles were being hurled by the more athletic who were edging towards the shield line. “Shall we join ‘em or what?”
“No,” came the voice of experience, “They might open up with baton rounds, rubber bullets; Belfast dildoes.”
“Fuck me,” I said, “Never thought of that… What about gas? Look…” pulling out my improvised facemask. “Am I supposed to soak it in something? Maybe we should all be moving off to attack the cop shop.”
But our discussion came to a sudden close. The shield wall parted, the centre evaporating as the cops formed two defensive shells on opposite sides of the road, back up against shop fronts. They’d been attacked from behind, by another mob who swept past in a hail of bricks, joining us. The cops who’d formerly looked like a shapeless black mass, crouched behind their shields, were now all of a sudden to be far thinner on the ground than we’d anticipated. So we held our ground, gathering reinforcements before seeking out the police station. Without warning, a police bus drove through the reforming shield wall, heading straight towards us. Without hesitation we bombarded it with bricks and bottles. It kept coming as we fell back under the bridge. Although there were only around two hundred of us, we were effectively obscured from the cops’ view, and it was impossible for them gauge our numbers. And what with the din and echoes emanating from beneath the bridge, the cops must have been having kittens, we sounded like a thousand. The bus halted before us, it appeared empty, only a driver, but he wasn’t going any further. Another vehicle, another empty bus drove towards us. We lobbed from the sides and middle of the road, straight ahead, at the windscreen. The driver swerved, windows badly dented, not stopping, trying to mow us down. Somehow he got through, speeding onwards to safety. We were rather disappointed as a police bus, burning under the bridge would have made for a heart-warming sight. Then another vehicle, an SPG van full of pigs. This time success. The windscreen shattered as several bricks landed simultaneously. The van drew to a halt, the driver’s head buried in the steering wheel, out for the count, setting off the hooter in a long, continuous wail amplified under the bridge. The SPG didn’t jump out to attack us as they usually did. They couldn’t as the hail of bricks and stones smashed the windows, denting the bodywork. The back door of the van was yanked open, revealing a heap of semi-conscious pigs. Lucky for them we hadn’t graduated to petrol bombs yet. We all pulled back, leaving the bridge and wreckage. None of us knew the exact location of the police station, but we felt it was close.
At the base of a steep hill there stood a crowd of black kids. Beside them a heap of bricks and stones from a road works and a small barricade of traffic cones and planks. We waved over to them, “Where’s the police station? We’re gonna burn it down!”
“Over there,” they gestured, “Keep going.”
As if by magic, a group of cops appeared, yelling their heads off. Batons drawn, they ran down the hill to the barricade. From where I was standing they looked quite young, maybe hurried in straight from Hendon. They also appeared leaderless, no portly sergeant or pinch-faced inspector. The kids didn’t bottle it, lobbing bricks with great determination. The police charge halted as rapidly as it had materialised, the cowardly bastards turning on their trotters and fleeing back up the hill. Morale it seemed, had collapsed, along with their coordination. But not everywhere. More shouts went up. “Watch out! They’re coming through in a convoy of buses!” Sure enough, in the distance, a phalanx of vans spread across the road, creeping forwards, no doubt jam-packed with angry SPG, just aching to wreak vengeance after they’d discovered the carnage under the bridge. Rumours flashed. Some nutter had gained entry to the trashed van, stabbing coppers to death. We were getting thin on the ground and with the massed vans advancing, we melted away, not wishing to be overwhelmed, trapped. We’d have been up for a right old battering and worse, with heavy charges to boot. No point persisting once you’ve lost momentum. We were miles ahead and it was time to quit.
So we drifted to the nearest train station, whence we hoped we’d find some übermenschen. Waiting around for the customary age we were still animated, finest day ever, the universal sentiment. Didn’t know what was best, the nazis or the police getting a hiding.
Our noses glued to the windows, the train departed for the centre of town, the streets below seeming deserted, quite unlike the scenes as we pulled into the next station. Knots of people were slugging it out on the embankments, tracks and adjacent waste ground. Great cheers arose as some of our fellow passengers disembarked, eager to rejoin the fun and games. The next station was entirely populated with battered Fronters who didn’t dare board the train. So aside from some shouting and catcalls between carriage and platform, and a few half-hearted missiles bouncing off the side of the train, that was the end of the day’s dramatic events. As the train pulled out, we jeered, reminding them one last time of their comprehensive defeat. “And your mates, the pigs got what was coming to ‘em n’all!”
Back at Charing Cross, hyped to the nth degree I bade farewell to the Lewisham veterans, convinced we’d given more than a minor jolt to the smug, complacent British body politic. Hopefully we’d set a precedent for the future. Anything would be better than the apathetic crap we’d had to endure up till then. Alighting from the train, an overwhelming racket swamped my senses. I fully expected to be walking into another riot, but instead it was the usual bustle of thousands of shoppers and day-trippers.
The next day’s papers were full of the usual hysterical garbage. The pigs, of course, were heroes, hundreds of them having been injured by the mob. So fucking what! A few days later in the centre of Birmingham, the Front held an election meeting. It came as no great surprise when the good citizens of Brum took a leaf out of our book, pelting the police protection with bricks and bottles. Having no riot shields themselves, the police were forced to deploy hastily issued army numbers. Certainly the introduction of riot shields proved we’d raised the stakes a notch or two. Who knew where things could go from here? Much further I hoped.
Other personal recollections
Here are some personal recollections sent to the Lewisham ’77 collective. You can look at our map to get a picture of where this is happening. Stephen’s story cuts across some of the triumphalist political accounts, and brings out the complexity of the local experience, especially for young people.
“I stumbled onto your site having a half-drunken reminiscence – anyway I used to live in Elverson Road (Deptford / Lewisham border) and I was about 17 at the time. The Police set up a base camp at the top of Elverson Road (near where the Underground Station is now) arriving in a number of coaches. The NF actually marched down Elverson Road from the East end (Station) I guess from Conington Road, right past my house towards ‘Liitle Elverson’ headed for New Cross / Brockley.
The most bizarre thing was, at some stage in their journey (which was unopposed in our street at least) a little black boy had tagged onto the march and was skipping behind the ‘racists’ having a great time. Just about summed them up – too busy being scary racists to notice the black kid in their midst.
I can recall the police sitting in a number of coaches parked on and near the little hill that ran up the side of the ‘Ravensbourne Arms’ (the old Victorian Pub – now unused & empty – incidentally it featured in one of the ‘Courage Bitter’ ads featuring Chas & Dave……..) We saw them all eating their sandwiches and getting out flasks of coffee etc…… hours later they were armed with riot shields & batons. Just makes the whole charade seem just that little bit sillier now I reckon!
As I understand it the main body of the march was diverted from the original route, and thinking about it I reckon those who came up Elverson Road (East to West, away from the current underground Station) were just part of the march who may have been separated from the others…. there wasn’t a huge number as I recall. The little black kid is the most prominent memory I’m afraid
In my opinion these marches, as with the Brixton Riots in the 80’s, were just part of growing-up in post-war London. Like all ‘kids’ we made friends and fell out more often than we care to remember, and tension between blacks & whites & English & Pakistanis & Indians & Sedgehill & Brockley County Grammar schools….. fluctuated throughout the 70’s – One minute they were your sworn enemy, and the next day reggae was cool, and so life goes on. I’m sure its the same with the Asian / Oriental influence that has grown in SE London since I lived there. The kids, me included, could always cope with change, but it seems someone else always wanted to tell us how to feel about it – the NF are just a political party so what’s so surprising about that?”
“Yes I was there, I was then 19 at the time, I saw it all, yes the police, had no protection, THE NAZI FRONT, as we called it, had Confederate Flags, I mean K.K.K flags. [We had] banners saying, “It’s a racist front”. We came out on Saturday. Even the school leavers. And the hiders as well, people who do any old work to get by). Police came under attack . Later I ended up at Ladywell. I went along this alley, ran past a policeman, I saw a Meat wagon get stoned with police on board. I saw smoke rising in the background. First I thought a car was set alight. Then I met up with about 12 others, who survived the demonstration. We went to Catford. We held a speech. Then I went back, I walked along the route, of that march. What I thought was a car, was in fact a journalist’s motorbike that had been set [alight].
Once I was back at I was asked, “What Happened at Lewisham”. And I told them everything. I even showed a copy of Socialist Worker: “We Stopped The Nazis, They did not pass” was the heading. Also, while I was in Lewisham, at the time, every shop had a sign saying “Due to circumstances beyond our control, please do not come.”
Also shields were used for the first time on the British mainland… ”
Mick Woods: “I was present at the first part of the “Battle of Lewisham” and remember it as one of the really significant events of the 1970s. I was an active member of Workers’ Action at that time and was working on the railways in Sheffield. WA had called a national mobilisation for the demo, as had many other left groups. I must’ve been on day-shift or taken the day off because I came down to Bow early Friday evening to stop with some comrades at their squat, and probably had an evening in the pub first.
Next day a small group of us made our way to New Cross via London Bridge Station (I think), there were a large group of NF in the buffet which outnumbered us- we avoided them. Getting to Clifton Rise there was already a big crowd assembled and people making speeches. We found our friends and comrades in the crowd and got into groups with people we knew and trusted. Happily one of my group had a half bottle of rum with him which we shared. I’m sure the bottle was also used to good effect later.
I’d been on plenty of anti-fascist demos before but there were both the numbers and the mood for something a bit more decisive than the usual pushing and name-calling. I’d not been totally following the situation in Lewisham but was aware that it was ugly with an escalating pattern of racial attacks and police harassment of black youth. Many of the crowd were Black and Asian youth, more than usual on such dos and you could feel the tension. I remember Phil Piratin the former Communist MP spoke and really whipped the crowd up- no soggy pacifism from him! At some point a load of people joined us from the “official” march- there was a deal of applause and a great sense of unity and determination. Of course we chanted, “The workers united will never be defeated!” which was also the favourite slogan at Grunwick.
Suddenly the IS’er with the microphone (Paul Holborrow or Jerry Fitzgerald?) yelled out that the fascists were moving- I looked down the hill and could just about make out a few Union Jacks in the distance. The crowd surged down the hill, some off us had our arms linked, straight into and through a very thin police cordon given the situation. I was in amongst the back of the NF march.
The order of what happened in the next 5-10 minutes is a bit vague in my recollection, probably a mixture of adrenalin and Captain Morgan’s- either I was grabbed by a cop from behind who I shook off and then grabbed and burnt an NF banner (their Epsom branch if I recall correctly) or vice-versa. I think it was in that order…. What I can clearly remember is that initially very few of us seemed to be in amongst the NF, that there was a hail of missiles landing in the area, many of the NF were bleeding from head wounds and all were clearly terrified. They made no attempt to defend themselves at all. I think the hail of missiles also encouraged the cop to let go of me.
The next clear memory was we had taken the road and were burning NF banners, celebrating etc, trouble was we didn’t seem to be so many anymore and then the police sent a mounted charge down the road from the direction of Lewisham. A group of us ducked into the gardens of some derelict houses on our right (south-side of the road) and chucked a few missiles at them which had little effect.
It was clear to me by then that our little group had gotten cut-off as the majority of the demonstration followed the march. There seemed to be little chance of rejoining the rest and we seemed too few to achieve much where we were. I also didn’t know the area and was with nobody I knew. Time to call it a day!
I successfully “retired without further loss” and went to visit family- it was only later that evening when I watched the news that I discovered how big the NF’s defeat had been. They were never able to mobilise the same kind of numbers again on the streets, from then on they could only get their hardcore and skinhead elements out.
To end on a question I’ve asked myself again and again since, “Why the hell did the met bring the NF out so close to us when they were patently incapable of defending them and maintaining “public order”?” There are 3 possibilities I can see;
A) They set them up for a kicking because they were getting sick of defending their provocative marches.
B) They overestimated their own capacities or underestimated us.
C) They suffered a catastrophic collapse of “command and control” on the day.”
Darcus Howe in the New Statesman:
“The crowd, black and white, pounced on this vanguard of racism and inflicted on those reactionaries a merciless hiding. And how they ran away!
Early on Sunday morning, 14 October, the writer Farrukh Dhondy, my friend of more than three and a half decades, phoned and invited me to turn to page 75 of the Sunday Times Magazine. Tucked away at the bottom of the page was a photo of a group of young black people assembled as part of a mighty throng. It was part of a six-page spread taken by the photojournalist Don McCullin, described in the piece as “the Charles Dickens of photography”.
The caption of the photograph read: “New Cross 1977: anti-fascists address the crowd at the battle of Lewisham in south London.” “They were excited because they realised that they’d defeated the National Front,” McCullin notes.
Only one person on the platform was holding a loudhailer. It was me. I cannot remember being excited that August afternoon in 1977. Passionate? Yes. Pleasantly victorious? That, too.”
That was 30 years ago…”
You can read the piece on McCullin here, unfortunately without the photos. Here’s the bit that mentions Lewisham:
Of course, McCullin being McCullin, among his photographs of England are scenes of conflict and strife. He witnessed the posturing of Sir Oswald Mosley and his supporters in the 1960s, and saw right-wing extremism rear its head again at the Battle of Lewisham on Saturday, August 13, 1977, when the National Front took a battering from its opponents in south London. “I went right into the lion’s jaw that day,” he remembers, “which suited me fine. I always used to like photographing confrontation. If I didn’t do it in somebody else’s country, I’d look forward to doing it here.”
Jenny Bourne’s account of Lewisham 77 is reproduced from the Institute of Race Relations website:
“The decision by the National Front (NF) to hold a march through Lewisham in August 1977 divided the opposition as to tactics, like no other issue had done to date. Lewisham was an area in which many Black people lived, the NF had been campaigning there on the basis of high levels of black crime the police had recently carried out raids on homes of supposed street criminals and arrested twenty-one people. A demonstration in support of the Lewisham 21 had been attacked by the NF and a prominent Black activist had been chased and beaten up by racists in a public lavatory just weeks before.
After the NF’s march through Wood Green in April 1977, which was met by a large but disorganised mass opposition, local anti-racist/anti-fascist groups had become established across London and affiliated to one All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ARAFCC). In addition to locally-based groups, there were also groups formed on the basis of being gay and being women – Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF, of which I was a member).
All these groups were essentially broad fronts opposed to racism and fascism which drew their members from a whole cross section of local organisations – from trades councils and tenants associations to local churches and even, on occasion, the local police. In that sense, the local groups had to adopt strategies and tactics which could command the support of the majority – despite political and other allegiances. Some groups were more militant than others. When it came to the Lewisham NF march, the local group, All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, decided on its tactics. Basically, it did not want a showdown with the fascists, it simply wanted to publicly demonstrate its opposition. Guided by the police, who also did not want a street confrontation, the local group decided to hold a protest march on the morning off the NF’s afternoon march, taking a different route, though still in Lewisham. This march would be led by dignitaries such as the mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark and prominent politicians. On the other hand, left groups, especially the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), took a different view. The fascists must not be allowed to march, they had to be confronted.
ARAFCC decided to support both events. In the morning to march shoulder to shoulder with one of its twenty-three affiliates and then (though this was not publicly declared) to regroup in New Cross to try to stop the National Front, which was to assemble behind Clifton Rise, from being able to march.
Because of the many unknowns on the day – the tactics of the police and what they would and
would not let us do, the plans of the SWP and the tactics of the NF – all the groups in ARAFCC prepared thoroughly. Each affiliated group had appointed its own stewards and we had two chief stewards to make decision for the whole committee on the day. WARF, hundreds of us and many more women turned up for this event than were actually members, met up at London Bridge to take the train to Ladywell. I remember the atmosphere – slightly nervous, slightly hysterical, lots of bravado and showing off as to who was wearing the hardest boots. (I was as apprehensive as the rest. I have to admit doing something I had never done before or since. I had gone to Lewisham the previous night, just to work out where everything was. Up till then all our protests and marches had been in east and north London, Lewisham felt like an unknown quantity. And as stewards we had the job of getting our contingent from the morning protest, down the hill, to the afternoon one with the knowledge that the police would be out to stop us.)
It has to be remembered that the march in Lewisham had been part of press speculation for days. Some people, especially Lewisham councillors, had called for a ban on the NF march, but this was refused by the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Commissioner. From then on, fascists and anti-fascists were depicted as trouble-makers – equally. Both sets were deemed to be disturbing British peace. A plague on both your houses was the media message. Lewisham was deemed a no-go area for the normal world. Police leave had been cancelled. Businesses and shops were warned to board up for the maniacs were coming. If we were a little hyped-up that day, it was nothing compared with the media hysteria.
The morning passed as planned. We, some 2,000 members of anti-racist, anti-fascist groups, assembled at Ladywell Fields where we all had our allotted places. We marched, WARF chanting its own slogans, ‘The Women united will never be defeated’, and ‘the women’s army is marching …’ (already honed on the Grunwick support pickets). And then it was a mad scramble to move everyone from ARAFCC up Loampit Hill to New Cross. I do not remember any attempts to stop us. But when we got there, the area was already heaving with anti-fascists and local young Black people.
It may look a bit invidious to make the last distinction. But it is important. Though the ‘professional’ anti-fascists tried to claim the local youth as their supporters, as it were, the truth of the matter was that these Black youths – mostly male – would never have stood for having white racists on their patch in any event and, they hated the police. Now there were 5,000 of them on their doorstep. And they weren’t in cars, but on the streets. The reaction was to be something similar to what had happened in Notting Hill at the carnival a year before.
Maybe because we had the largest contingent, maybe because we were well stewarded and therefore our troops were biddable, maybe it was just bad luck. But the WARF group was asked to sit down in New Cross Road blocking the way from Clifton Rise where the NF were assembling. That’s what we did. The police tried to get through on foot, to clear a path for the fascists. They could not. So they sent in mounted police, who from horseback, with long batons drawn, rained down blows on head after head – scattering us, beating us as they went, drawing blood and creating mayhem. The NF, with hundreds of police shielding them on either side, were escorted down Pagnell Street and through the anti-fascist ranks.
We got separated from our mates – no mobiles in those days – no one quite knew what to do, some were so upset by the police tactics they decided to get out while they could, and went home. Suddenly the cry went up to get down the hill, get to Lewisham before the NF and stop their rally. The next thing I remember is being part of a band being told by Kim Gordon (of SWP’s Flame) to hold hands fast across the road – as the police charged from the other direction.
Now the police were panicking. With thousands of anti-fascists loose on the roads, no longer in marching formation, but hell-bent on finding the fascists, with belligerent Black youths finding bricks, stones, paving slabs, anything to lob into police ranks, and the fascists themselves, whom they were there to protect, trying to leave a car park where they had been forced to hold the
most fleeting of impromptu rallies.
The NF have gone, we were told. But no one believed the police. And then, absolute chaos. Someone senior somewhere must have given the order to clear the streets. The huge transparent riots shields came out – this was the first time they and the long batons were used in mainland Britain. Police were charging us with the shields. As I stopped to help someone on the pavement who was injured, I felt myself being lifted by a shield, thrown through the air and come cracking down on the pavement kerb. We were being ordered to leave the area, but whichever way we went, we were met by more officers, also in charge mode. I sought refuge in a shop doorway, only to find myself joined by a Guardian reporter, also fleeing the random violence.
It was a weird sensation to be somewhere that was totally unfamiliar, with no sane people on the street that one could ask help from. We found that all the local stations had been closed – for security. We had no idea how we could actually leave. Eventually a group of us, all women, got together and someone decided to phone a friend for a lift. But all the phone boxes were vandalised. We went to Lewisham hospital to use the phone. The hospital was ringed by police, we were forbidden entry. Eventually someone stopped and gave us a lift to central London – a car-full of shell-shocked women.
At home, I got straight in the bath to find that I could not sit; it was absolute agony – the base of my spine had been hurt when I hit the pavement. The phone rang, it was my friend to say that she was being violently sick. She thought it was from that blow to the head from the baton. The most frightening thing on that Saturday was not the NF, but a police force completely out of control. That level of violence was unknown outside Northern Ireland. But it was to be surpassed just two years later in Southall and with more devastating consequences.
On the Monday, when I read the Guardian, I could not believe my eyes. That same journalist who had cowered with me in the shop doorway had filed a story in which all anti-fascists were depicted as violent extremists and the rout of the NF as a riot in which police had suffered heavy casualties. I rang her to remonstrate, to remind her of what she had witnessed. But she was adamant, the Left was to blame, it was all the fault of outsiders who had descended on Lewisham to play out their own political agendas.
Incensed, we put out a press statement from ARAFCC, stressing the broad nature of support for the anti-racist and anti-fascist cause, emphasising just how many local people and groups from all over the country, which were not affiliated to the SWP, had felt strongly enough about the NF to take to south London’s streets. But to no avail.
The media had a field-day. Anti-fascism was vilified – with NF supporters and their opponents equated as thugs who wanted no part of democracy. That anti-racism and anti-fascism were essential moral (if not political) positions never got aired in the discussion.
We might have won the battle of Lewisham, but we lost the propaganda war.”
Jim Kelly’s account
Jim Kelly’s account of Lewisham ’77 comes from a pamphlet called Anti Nazi League: A Critical Examination published by the Colin Roach Centre in 1995:
“The NF strategy was to create an illusion of political respectability, whilst their activists attempted to take control of the streets by smashing any political opposition. In Bethnal Green and Lewisham they began to attack socialist paper sales and meetings. They also attacked individuals, once attempting to smash in the front door of a prominent SWP member’s flat in Broadway Market, with sledgehammers. Fortunately the door held up…
The first major setback for the NF came at Lewisham in Southeast London. The SWP had been systematically attacked on their paper sales. John Deason, a SWP Central Committee member, organised stewards groups to defend local activities. This led to a partial retreat by the NF. This was the beginning of the infamous “squads”.”Squadists”, as they were to be affectionately known, were groups of party members organised to protect SWP activities. The success of this specialisation was later to become one of the most controversial issues within the Party.
The acknowledged leader within Inner East London was a PE teacher from Hackney John W. Mickey Fenn, a TGWU shop steward from the Royal Group of Docks led the Outer East London squad, whose core was a group of fellow dockers. Mickey Fenn stood out, he was an excellent organiser and a wonderful public speaker totally committed to the struggle. I first met him shortly after joining the Party. A decision was made to paint out NF graffiti on the Railway Bridge by Bow Road station. The problem was that the bridge was only a few yards away from the local police station. As we held a comrade over the side we not only had to worry about the passing trains but we also had to keep an eye on the police, who were sitting at the Police Station window, within spitting distance.
The NF tried to retake the initiative by organising an “anti-black muggers” march from New Cross to Lewisham. The SWP put all it’s energy into organising a counter demo. The East London district of the SWP was to be the spearhead of the counter demo. This was seen as a real opportunity to stop the fascists from intimidating working class areas. I can still remember the mixture of tension and determination that comrades felt that Saturday morning, there was a growing feeling within East London SWP that events were beginning to move in our favour.
Lewisham was to become the largest violent political event in many years. Many thousands of people had turned out to oppose the fascists. This was despite an earlier march that took people away from the fascists assembly point. The CP was part of that march, as were the official labour movement. However the SWP were able to lead a significant part of the march to Clifton Rise, the starting point for the NF march.
Large numbers of police were mobilised to protect the march. As the march turned out of Clifton Rise a hail of bricks and bottles met it, but it still managed to continue on its route. There’s no doubt in my mind that, despite the artillery raining down on them, the police were still in control and disciplined enough to drag the cowering nazi’s to their destination.
It was at this point that the whole situation was transformed by one act of individual courage by Peter Chapel, a leading member of the ‘George Davis is innocent’ campaign. Peter, I believe, had recently joined the SWP. He launched himself into the front of the march. The sight of the Union Jacks shooting into the air and Nazi’s scattering broke the impasse. Chapel was quickly followed by a group of his friends and counter demonstrators.
Within seconds our group of SWP members linked arms (a form of ritual left wing bonding much loved by the generation influenced by the events in Paris in 1968), and moved across the road. The march was breached just behind the so-called ‘Honour Guard’, a phalanx of nazi thugs. This was followed by a few minutes of vicious fighting, not with arms still linked I hasten to add. The Nazi’s were physically hammered. Many were clearly terrified of what had just taken place. The NF march disintegrated, with fascists running around in blind panic. Most ran away, a few stood their ground and got overwhelmed by the sheer weight of anti-fascists, including many local Afro-Caribbean residents who had turned out.
This victory changed the momentum of the struggle at both local and national level and it produced a tremendous feeling of elation on the part of the anti-fascists involved. The NF strategy was to win control of the streets, this was to be their first major setback.”
Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks
After Lewisham ’77 organisers speculated publicly that Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod was present in Lewisham in 1977, (as he mentions it in his novel The Cassini Division), Ken confirmed that he was and kindly sent his recollection of the day:
“I went to Lewisham in the back of a big van rented for the day by the local branch of the left group I was in at the time. That group had decided to send one lot of members to Clifton Rise and the other to the march, with the intention of encouraging as many marchers as possible to go to Clifton Rise after the march officially ended – which they did. Our little squad went to Clifton Rise. Not all of us were in the left group but we all knew each other very well and had a good natural leader, an experienced bloke called Joe.
When we got there I was surprised by the size of the crowd. There was a fair while of standing around, and then the fascist march came up the road, the sticks and stones started flying, and the police rode horses into the crowd. I remember quite vividly the fury and fear and the sense that it was a case of fight or be trampled. After that I remember a sort of running battle, pushing up against lines of police, and seeing the fascists cowering under the pelting. After we had them on the run I urged people around me not to go chasing after them and getting into fights with the police.
A belated salute to Joe, who managed to keep us together all through the riot and got us safely home.”
Ken also confirmed that he came down to Lewisham with his friend, the late Iain Banks (Wasp Factory, Crow Road, the science fiction ‘Culture’ series etc.): ‘I remember Iain Banks turning up at the place where I lived with a bunch of other lefties in Hayes, Middx. He’d come down specifically for the demo and went there with us in a big van’.
Iain Banks also recalled:
“I was there, though all I can recall is the general feeling of prevailing unexpectedly, the sight of the fascists squeezed into a corridor going round a street corridor with half bricks and bits of car exhausts raining down on them and the cops protecting them and the motorbike on fire (which later turned out to belong to the Sunday Times photographer).”
Ted Parker, later the principal of Barking College, was one of the activists involved in the anti-fascist mobilisation). Here, he gives his account of the events and their significance:
“Lewisham 1977 has to go down as one of the decisive political battles of post-war Britain – and one which, for once, was won by the right side.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were characterised by bitter trade union struggles, perhaps best represented by dockers and miners, fighting for trade union rights and the survival of their industries, often in large hard-fought clashes with the police.
This movement by organised trade unionists was countered by right wing racists, notably Enoch Powell whose inflammatory speeches succeeded in mobilising large numbers of dockers and meat porters among others in 1968. Racism was given organised political expression by the National Front (NF) which grew steadily during the 1970’s with provocative marches, violent attacks on ethnic minorities and anti-racists and increasing votes in local and national elections.
These were classic Nazi tactics and by 1976 and 1977 things were reaching alarming proportions. In June and July 1977 NF attacks on socialist newspaper sellers in Lewisham were a weekly occurrence and in July the NF launched a violent attack on a local anti-racist march.
The NF then called a demonstration for August 13 1977 to show that they could march with impunity (protected by the police as usual, of course) from New Cross with its sizeable black community, through Lewisham town centre and on to Catford town centre, which they liked to think of as something of an NF stronghold with its nearby largely white low rise council estates.
In the event, it was the anti-racists, involving for the first time large numbers of the local black youth, who came out on top in a day of bitter street fighting. The NF march was partially blocked at New Cross when it set off in the early afternoon, only getting through after repeated police charges against the anti-racist demonstrators. The battered remnants of the NF were then shepherded by the police towards Deptford, marching north of the New Cross-Lewisham railway line. They were then led towards Lewisham town centre, only to find it completely blocked by thousands of anti-racists, many of whom had moved rapidly from New Cross to Lewisham by the more direct route down Lewisham Way, south of the railway line, sweeping aside the occasional police cordon as they did so.
At this point the police diverted the NF under a railway bridge towards an isolated section of Blackheath Common to which the NF coaches has been redirected prior to a speedy and ignominious departure. Sometime later in the afternoon the police used riot shields for the first time in mainland Britain to disperse the anti-racists from Lewisham High Street and then to press them back into a network of sidestreets. Hand to hand fighting continued for some hours as young black people and anti-racist demonstrators sought to extricate themselves in some kind of order from what had, by then, become a confused and bitter battle.
Thereafter the NF never again posed a serious political threat. Lewisham led directly to the formation of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which, together with Rock Against Racism (RAR) mobilised hundreds of thousands in collective expressions of solidarity between those of differing cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
Organised racism was marginalised for the next quarter of a century. It is therefore correct to call Lewisham a decisive battle – though in a war that remains far from won.”
No Retreat – Steve Tilzey’s account
The following account of Lewisham ’77 comes from the book No Retreat by Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey, describing their involvement in militant anti-fascism. According to Tilzey, he had originally been planning to come down to London that day to watch Manchester United play in the Charity Shield, but had inadvertently got caught up in an anti-fascist attack on a coach booked to bring National Front supporters to London. Travelling on to London, he ended up in New Cross:
“The police obviously wanted to break up the gathering and moved in to disperse the crowd. There was a lot of confusion and the police seemed to lose it. Quite a few people got hurt and a number of arrests were made. The police backed off, then made another charge, this time with horses, causing all sorts of injuries and mayhem. All this and not a single NF supporter in sight.
…along with the other anti-racists, I pushed and shoved against the police lines. I was not actually doing much more than that when I got whacked on the shoulder with a truncheon. I went down on my knees, the wind completely knocked out of me. A couple of the lads dragged me up and took me over to a shop doorway to get my breath back. The police were attempting to clear a path for the NF march but were struggling against huge numbers of counter-demonstrators, and had begun to lash out with their truncheons. Some of the demonstrators were also trying to break through police lines in an attempt to get to where the NF were assembling. I managed to get my breath back, and although my shoulder was still very painful, I wasn’t at all put off, and threw myself back into the middle of the action.
The NF had gathered and under heavy police protection were readying themselves to march up Clifton Rise. Some people had managed to break through the police lines and as the march started the NF came under a hail of bricks and bottles. At the head of the march, I could see about twenty-five very heavy-looking guys. These, I later learned, were the NF’s Honour Guard, essentially a hand-picked protection squad for the Front’s leader, John Tyndall. A few yards behind them were the Colour Party, which consisted of about fifteen blokes carrying Union Jacks on metal-tipped flagpoles. The Colour Party marched in front of the main body of the NF supporters, which was surrounded by hundreds of policemen.
Several attempts were made to attack the march, which slowed its progress as the police struggled to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators. I threw a few bricks and stones at them, and also aimed a few kicks at one group who had broken away from the march to attack the anti-nazis. This lot were pummelled to the ground by fists and boots as superior numbers of counter-demonstrators piled into them. All along the route of the march the NF were getting serious problems as fighting and skirmishing broke out between the two sides. At one point the march was smashed completely in half as hundreds of anti-nazis broke through the ranks of police and engaged the Front in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.
On Lewisham Way, anti-racists and local people attacked the front of the march, and waded into the Honour Guard and Colour Party. The NF were now getting it from all sides…The Front did put up some resistance, and gave a good account of themselves at times, but they were completely outnumbered, and didn’t have the weapons to hand that we did. Fighting was still going on in several areas, with a lot of the NF supporters now looking the worse for wear, but even with police protection the march was eventually stopped on Lewisham High Street. Fronters were running around in a blind panic, and the march just seemed to disintegrate as wave after wave of attacks hit them from all sides. Shortly afterwards the police put them on coaches and trains in a bid to stop all the violence. However, small-scale skirmishing continued. NF coaches were bricked as they left the area and the police again attacked the counter-demonstrators. Fighting went on under the clock tower for quite a while after the NF had left Lewisham, with the police now armed with riot shields. I found out later that this was the first time that they had been used in England.”
Lewisham ’77 in literature (2): Tony Parsons
Writer Tony Parsons took part in the anti-National Front demonstrations in Lewisham in 1977. In his semi-autobiographical novel Stories We Could Tell (2005), Parsons tells the story of three young music journalists working in the summer of 1977 on The Paper – a music paper not unlike the New Musical Express which the young Tony Parsons worked on in this period. The Battle of Lewisham features heavily in the opening chapter, with one of the main characters (Leon Peck) taking part:
“And then – finally! – at the bottom of page 11, jostled into a corner by a massive ad for Aerosmith at Reading and a world exclusive on the break-up of Steeleye Span, there were a few brief paragraphs that held Leon’s interest and made his heart start pumping. The piece had his by-line.
The National Front plan to parade through a black neighbourhood this coming weekend. Hiding their racist views behind an anti-mugging campaign and countless Union Jacks, the NF plan to leave from Clifton Rise, New Cross. Their route and the time of the march remain undisclosed. A peaceful counter demonstration planned by local umbrella group the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) will assemble in Ladywell Fields, next to the British Rail Ladywell Station, at 11 a. m. Be there or be square.
The magazine had appeared on newsstands nationwide the previous Thursday, and in London as far back as last Wednesday. A lifetime away, thought Leon. Because last Saturday the march and the counter demonstration had combined to produce the biggest riot London had seen since the war. And Leon Peck had been there.
I was there, he thought, touching the bruise on his cheekbone where he had been clipped by the knee of a policeman on horseback. I saw it happen. While many of his peers were dreaming of seeing Aerosmith at Reading, Leon had been in the middle of the riot at Lewisham, crushed in with the protesters being forced back by the police and their horses, and he had felt as if the world was ending.
Flags waving, bricks flying, policemen on horses riding into the crowds, the battle lines ebbing and flowing – screaming, righteous chaos all around. Orange smoke bombs on Lewisham High Street, the air full of masonry, dustbins, bottles and screams, taunts, chanting. The sound of plate-glass windows collapsing.
What he remembered most was the physical sensation of the riot, the way he experienced it in his blood and bones. His legs turning to water with terror as the air filled with missiles and the police spurred their horses into the crowd, his heart pumping at the sight of the loathing on the faces of the marchers, and the raging anger he felt at the sight of these bigots parading their racist views through a neighbourhood where almost everyone was black. He had never felt so scared in his life. And yet there was never a place where he was so glad to be…
Later that sunny Saturday, just when the riot was starting to feel like one of those visions he’d had when he was dropping acid in the lecture halls of the London School of Economics, Leon had stopped outside an electrical shop on Oxford Street and watched the news on a dozen different TV sets. The riot was the first story. The only story. A quarter of the Metropolitan Police Force had been there, and they couldn’t stop it…
The memory of Lewisham still made him shake with fear. The rocks showering down on the marchers. The faces twisted with hatred. The police lashing out with truncheon, boot or knee. The sudden eruption of hand-to-hand fighting as marcher or demonstrator broke through the police lines, fists and feet flying. And the horses, shitting themselves with terror as they were driven into the protesters. Lean knew how those horses felt. Lewisham had been the first violence that he had been involved in since a fight in the playground at junior school. And he lost that one. Mind you, Leon thought, she was a very big girl for nine…
It seemed to Leon that everyone he knew was living in some old Sixties dream. The people he worked with at The Paper, all of the readers, his father – especially his father,- a man who had belonged to CND for a few years but who now belonged to a golf club. What was wrong with them? Didn’t they realise it was time to take a stand? What did they think the National Front was doing marching in South London? He touched the bruise on his cheek again, and wished it could stay there for ever.
This wasn’t about some little style option – the choice between long hair or spiky, flared trousers or straight, Elvis or Johnny Rotten. It was about a more fundamental choice – not between the NF and the SWP, who were daubing their rival slogans all over the city, like the Sharks and Jets of political extremism – but the choice between evil, hatred, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and everything that was their opposite.”
The Women’s Contingent
David Landau, who was present on the 13th August 1977, sent this to the Lewisham ’77 collective regarding a large women’s section of the anti-fascist mobilisation:
“I am surprised that there is no mention so far of the huge Women’s Contingent. Yes there was a big Lesbian and Gay contingent of a couple of hundred which is featured on the blog, but this stayed close to a specifically women’s contingent of about a thousand strong. This leads to my abiding memory from the day.
There was a contingent of Militant supporters on the corner of the high road and one of the side streets. A steward from the Women’s Contingent shouted “Women this way”. One of the Militant ‘comrades’ responded, “Really, can I have one”. There was a moment of silence and apprehension when a thousand women turned to the Militant contingent, thinking as one woman I imagine, whether to set upon the Militants. The moment was probably only half-a-second, but it seemed much longer. Then a number of women shouted things like “Later for you” and they moved off to form to take up their positions for the battle against the NF and the Police protecting them. Later, John Tyndale, then Fuhrer of the National Front, wrote about this contingent referring to them as having ‘rocks in their lead lined hand bags’.”
According to the police:
– 2500 police were deployed on Saturday 13th August 1977;
– 270 police officers were injured, with 57 receiving hospital treatment;
– 57 members of the public were treated for injuries (the number of people injured but not receiving hospital treatment is unknown);
– seven police coaches were damaged (mostly with smashed windows);
– 214 people were arrested, of whom 202 were charged.
Source: Times 15.8.77 and 20.8.77.
The following day, Sunday 14th August 1977 : there were clashes near Speedwell House in Deptford (NB: This was a large council block, then run down and largely squatted; it was demolished a few years later).
Monday 15th August: 14 people appear in Court in Greenwich and Camberwell on charges arising from Saturday’s events, the first of 202 people charged. Three are remanded in custody accused of causing grievous bodily harm to policemen.
Of course racist and fascist activity continued in the area, as did resistance: just a few events that mark that:
On 18 December 1977: the Moonshot youth Club was gutted in a firebomb attack, shortly after a newspaper reports that burning down the Club was discussed at a National Front meeting.
14 July 1978: Fire at the Albany centre in Deptford (then at 47 Creek Road), which had hosted Rock Against Racism gigs. A note was pushed through the door the following day saying ‘Got you’.
18 January 1981: 13 young black people, aged between 15 and 20, are killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road. Police reported initially that fire was caused by a fire bomb, leading many to believe that it was a racist attack.
25 January 1981: mass meeting at the rebuilt Moonshot Club, followed by a demonstration of over 1000 people to the scene of the fire, blocking New Cross Road for several hours.
2 March 1981: Black People’s Day of Action called by New Cross Massacre Action Committee, 20,000 people march from Fordham Park in New Cross to Hyde Park with slogans including ’13 dead and nothing said’.
Sources: Kentish Mercury (KM), South London Press (SLP), Times.
Policing in Lewisham ’77
The approach taken by the Metropolitan Police at Lewisham was controversial at the time. In this extract from a book edited by former Anti-Nazi League founder Peter Hain (later of course a Labour MP and cabinet minister), it is suggested that the head of the Met, David McNee, pursued a course of deliberate confrontation:
“… in August 1977, there was a major battle on the streets of Lewisham in South East London, caused chiefly by the policies that McNee had adopted in ‘dealing’ with the Grunwick pickets – a strategy of confronting opposition directly and with the necessary force to break it up. The issue here was whether or not the National Front should be allowed to march through an area of London with a high proportion of West Indian residents. Although they denied it at the time the police had in the past taken the initiative in re-routing such marches to avoid confrontation. For instance, in Leicester in 1974 the police banned the Front from going anywhere near the main Asian Communities. Yet at Lewisham they ignored calls made by most of the national press, the local press, the local council, the TUC and the Labour Party for the march to be re routed or banned altogether.
What McNee and his senior officers had effectively set up was a confrontation with the black community, in particular black youth, and anti-National Front demonstrators. The NF march was tiny, demoralized, and was repeatedly attacked by demonstrators breaking through the police line until the police were forced to re-route it, and finally to bring it to an abrupt end. But it was only after the demonstration was over that the police attack was launched, with riot shields and Special Patrol Group vans driving at top speed towards groups of demonstrators, and repeated charges on foot and horseback. The violence of those clashes caused a national furore; that and the use of riot shields led some commentators to speculate on the need for a paramilitary force. The riot shields appeared again at the Notting Hill Carnival later that month.
After Lewisham the Police Federation called for a ban on all demonstrations ‘likely to lead to public disorder’. McNee opposed this with the equivocal logic that it would draw the police into ‘making political judgments outside the framework of the law’ since ‘My powers under the Public Order Act are limited to imposing controls on, or banning processions’, and ‘They do not extend to banning other forms of public demonstrations at which widespread disorder could be deliberately provoked’. This was an extraordinary interpretation of the Act, under which McNee was fully equipped with the power to ban any demonstration likely to lead to ‘serious public disorder’ (See 5.3(1) of the Act).
This tends to give credence to the theory that the police explicitly decided upon a confrontation strategy at Lewisham, the consequence of a political decision by the police, as McNee put it ‘to uphold the rule of law on the streets of London – by the use of lawful force if necessary …’. It is significant that the Association of Chief Police Officers stated, in September 1977, that ‘the police can no longer prevent public disorder in the streets’ and called for a ‘new Public Order Act giving the police stronger power to control marches and demonstrations, similar to police powers in Ulster.’ It seems that McNee felt some pressure to quash speculation over the role of the police that followed Lewisham. When his first annual report was published, he told the Press ‘that the shortcomings of the traditional helmet were evident during the disturbances’ (at Lewisham and Notting Hill). Defensive equipment was used reluctantly ‘and I stress that it does not mean we have foresaken traditional methods of policing demonstrations.’
Yet the police went to Lewisham fully prepared for a riot. Nearly two years later they adopted the same strategy in Southall. In both Lewisham and Southall the black community, West Indian and Asian, took to the streets in opposition to the National Front and found themselves confronted by an aggressive police operation, with the SPG at its centre. It would be naive to accept at face value the police’s explanation of why the National Front are permitted to carry out such activities as marches and meetings in the very heart of communities they consistently and viciously insult and attack. The police were fully aware of the level of opposition the National Front would meet in Lewisham and Southall. Were confrontations like these deliberately planned or prepared for in order to train the riot police of the future; and to train them on the most alienated section of society — black youth?
Back in May 1971 the Special Patrol Group raided the Metro, a black youth club in Notting Hill, on the pretext that a ‘wanted’ youth had entered the premises. In the course of the raid sixteen youths were arrested, charged with affray, and all subsequently acquitted. The raid provoked this response from Rudy Nayaran, Vice-Chairman of the Lambeth Council for Community Relations:
‘The Special Patrol Group, of course, are the nomad commandos of the Met and move into an area, anywhere, anytime, with no relationship of loyalty themselves to the local community – they therefore descend in a cloud of smoke, do their worst with as much arrogance and contempt as they think fit and leave in their wake the local officers to pick up the pieces. In the Metro Case the SPG descended to seek out, find and destroy one black boy with one piece of stick! The fact that there were no armoured cars or flame throwers owes more to the lack of supplies, than to lack of desire to smoke out the Blacks in what, for waste of police time and manpower and sheer hooligan destruction of community goodwill, must rank in the Met’s history as the greatest monument to arrogance and racialism of all time. The new Commissioner of Police clearly has a role to play in immediately reviewing the function and operational role of the SPG’.
The Metro raid followed the pattern of police raids on black clubs and restaurants since the mid-sixties in Notting Hill. In 1972 the National Council for Civil Liberties stated in its evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations:
‘We would be failing in our duty if we omitted to convey our considered opinion that the worsening situation between the police and the black community is very serious indeed … A significant and vocal section of the black community feels it is being harshly treated by the police and that there is little justice when their cases come to court. It feels that more violence is used against black people by policemen than would be used against white people. It feels that their homes are walked into by policemen with a temerity which would not be tried on the white community. It feels that charges preferred against them when they are in trouble are usually of a more serious nature than a white person would receive … Even if the black community is wrong in these beliefs they are nevertheless widely and sincerely held. Our view is that there is some justification for them’ .”
Source: Joanna Rollo, ‘The Special Patrol Group’ in Policing the Police, volume two, edited by Peter Hain (London: John Calder, 1980), p.184-187 .
The Lewisham 77 walk on film
Paolo Cardullo, who edited a film of the 2007 Lewisham 77 walk, has embedded the video on his website here. The film features Red Saunders, Hari Kunzru, Balwinder Rana, Amina Mangara, Neil Transpontine, and many others.
John Lockwood on the significance of the Battle of Lewisham
John Lockwood was one of the speakers at the Lewisham ’77 commemorative event. at Goldsmiths in November 2007 (see below). He was active in the local anti-racist movement while a postgraduate student at Goldsmiths in the late 1970s. Here we print his personal reflections on the politics of the Battle of Lewisham.
“The events of Lewisham were a great victory for the myriad forces of anti racism in Britain. This was an historic victory in the sense that it changed the balance of forces between the left / liberal masses and the fascist / racist alliance that had underpinned the N.F. project and in the end…changed the course of history.
On both sides of this divide there were “broad churches”. The hardcore nazis were, then as now, very few in number, perhaps a few hundred. They needed to deploy the tens of thousands of young, poor and disaffected white youth who, whilst being violently racist were not (or not yet) fully fledged fascists. Drawing on the teachings of their master, Adolf Hitler, they sought to deliver
“great demonstrations and mass rallies [through which] we instil in the minds of the little man that although he is a worm he is part of a mighty dragon.”
On our side of the divide there was a broad alliance between socialists (revolutionary and other) and “small l” liberals. Broadly speaking the socialists, informed by the above rationale, and inspired by recent successes at Wood Lane, wanted to physically confront and, by force of numbers, prevent the nazi march.. The liberals wanted to avoid any confrontation and simply display their condemnation of racism and fascism.
Personally, I never doubted the anti-racist conviction of the liberal camp but between us there was a massive gulf. We believed that if we could win the majority of non-aligned anti-racists to our position, we could break the back of the National Front. If, however, we failed to win that argument and Lewisham had been just another in the long line of anti fascist skirmishes, then nothing would have been put in the way of the fastest growing political force in Europe.
It is perhaps ironic that the most vociferous voices in the “liberal” camp were those of the C.P.G.B [Communist Party of Great Britain] whilst others who might have been expected to be card carrying (small l) liberals defied expectations… At a key stage in the bitter debates within A.L.C.R.A.F., the Communist Party proposed (as an alternative to the counter demo) an anti-racist music and poetry event involving socialist folk songs and Christian hymns, humanist poetry and prayer… but it wasn’t the far left who demolished this idea. It was a priest who declared:
“prayers: what the hell is the point of that… we need to be in Clifton Rise [the N.F. assembly point]”
…although we are frequently accused of such manoeuvres, I swear he was not a Trotskyist entryist within the clergy.
A second major contention dividing socialist and liberal ideas concerned the absolute right to free speech… many decent ant-racist people felt very troubled by the call to deny the streets to Nazis citing free speech rights. The events following the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall (1976) illustrate the absurdity of this position.
Following this murder, N.F. chairman, John Kingsley Reed, declared
“that’s one down, one million to go”
…this incitement to mass murder was contrary to new race laws… He was charged and brought to court but rather than finding himself banged up he was told by the judge:
“I wish you well in your project”
…the judge didn’t clarify if the project in question was that of genocide.
After this fiasco the absolute right of free speech seemed indefensible. If John Kingsley Reed’s freedom to campaign for genocide is absolute. And if the right of black people to walk our streets unmolested is absolute. And if these two absolute freedoms are mutually exclusive then are we not entitled to pose the question: Which of these two freedoms is the higher freedom? No sane person could be troubled by this choice.
As history records, August 13 1977, was not just another in a long list of anti-fascist skirmishes, it was the day that the Nazis were dealt a blow from which they have never, to this day, recovered.”
The November 10 Lewisham ’77 event at Goldsmiths
The following report of this event is extracted from an article that appeared in the CUCR magazine Street Signs in early 2008.
In November 2007, around 140 people came to an event at Goldsmiths about the Battle of Lewisham. We opened the day by screening the Rock Against Racism documentary, I Shot the Sheriff. Both Lewisham ’77 and the local branch of Unite Against Fascism brought exhibitions on the story of racism locally.
The first session explored different memories of 1977. Ted Parker, then an SWP organiser and now principal of Barking College, told the story of the organisation of the anti-fascist mobilisation, powerfully evoking the extraordinary passion and commitment of rank and file leftists. Balwinder Rana, still an SWP activist, told the story of the routine attacks by the National Front in the 1970s in Kent and South London on Asian and leftist targets, and of the defence organised by the Asian Youth Movement and SWP. The anarchist Martin Lux contextualised the events of 1977 against a longer story of mounting conflict between fascists and anti-fascists through the 1970s. Lez Henry, formerly of Goldsmiths Sociology, described the routine harassment of black youth in the area by white adults influenced by the NF, and by the police. He also described how resistance to this was informed by mounting political consciousness, exemplified by the black history teaching black youth organised locally. John Lockwood, a teacher who was imprisoned and banned from teaching South of the river for his participation in the Battle of Lewisham, told the story of the Deptford Anti-Racist Committee (DARC) and its involvement in the planning of the August 13 demonstrations. The session was concluded by chair Malcolm Ball, who reflected on the way that the events of that day changed the lives of so many of the local people.
This session was followed by a screening of five films commissioned for Lewisham ’77. Local collaborative film-making project Deptford.TV have agreed to help film and archive the Lewisham ’77 process. A number of Deptford TV film-makers filmed the September walk, which CUCR PhD student Paulo Cardullo edited into a ten-minute film. Students from the Goldsmiths Screen Documentary MA made a number of short films with veterans of 1977.
A second session moved from commemorating the day to thinking through its contemporary significance. Paul Gilroy, formerly of CUCR and Goldsmiths Sociology, gave a powerful list of some of the things that stood out about that day in 1977 (such as the “masculinism” and “smashism” of much of the left, but also the presence of large contingents of women there as women), and some of the things that have changed today (such as the presence of guns on the streets of South London now). Les Back of Goldsmiths Sociology made a moving and thoughtful intervention, reflecting on the parasitical nature of racist ideology – which now speaks a language of “identity” co-opted from multiculturalism – and of the “nervous system” of today’s fear-driven and security-obsessed racist imaginary. Dave Landau of No One is Illegal made a strong case for the relationship of far right organising and state anti-immigration laws, and made a plea for the anti-racist movement to seriously reckon with the politics of immigration. Finally, Jarman Parmar of the Lewisham Anti-Racist Action Group, made the connection to the on-going struggle against racism locally.
The day confirmed the central principle of the Lewisham ’77 project: that there is no single correct version of history, but instead history is something to be contested and discussed. Rather than simply romanticising the events of 1977 (although it is right to see them as heroic), the event made it clear that there are a number of competing narratives into which it fits. Exemplified by a disagreement over whether the soundtrack to the event – blasted out of the window of a flat on Clifton Rise from speakers set up between pots of geraniums – was Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” or Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” – no single memory can claim a monopoly. Was the Anti-Nazi League, which arose out of the day, the culmination of a vibrant tradition of militant anti-fascism, or a diversion away from it? Which was more significant, the presence of the “white” left or of local black youth? Was the black presence in the confrontation the result of spontaneous anger at racism, or part of a conscious and sophisticated analysis of the political situation?
A second point of contention was over to what extent the Battle of Lewisham model can be imposed today. This was exemplified by the heated debate over whether calling the NF then (and particularly the BNP now) “Nazis” is an effective anti-racist strategy or whether it plays into a Little England patriotic WWII narrative. It was also exemplified by the debate over the continued relevance of the “no platform for fascists” policy and, for example, whether it should be applied to the handful of NF hands who then marched through Bermondsey every year.
PS: In memory of Paul Hendrich
The lovely Paul Hendrich played a central part in the Lewisham ’77 collective and was crucial to the commemoration passing off with what we generally thought as relative success. Only a few months later, Paul was tragically killed in a bicycle accident in New Cross, on Wednesday 16th January.
A colleague wrote at the time of his death: “Paul was a very special person with some extremely rare qualities. His life was committed to engaging an everyday struggle against racism. His dissertation for the MA Applied Anthropology and Community and Youth Work, ‘Charting a new course for Deptford Town Hall’ (2006), developed through a campaign he initiated with the student union and led to further work
commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, including the Sankofa Reconciliation Walk in chains to Deptford Town Hall that he organised. He was then part of a
group that hosted a conference at Goldsmiths to commemorate the Battle of Lewisham. Just before he died, he began a refugee health drop-in service in South London. Paul held a passionate belief that anthropology could and should be used for, and rethought through, the struggle against racism and
it is this that guided his engagement with academia and his commitment to youth work. He deeply touched the lives of the staff and students at Goldsmiths as well as community activists by his commitment to this cause through campaigns, talks and conferences that he organised and participated in.
Paul completed his Masters with a distinction, a fact that he was quietly proud of, especially since he was the first person in his family to go to university. His brilliant dissertation will be published in the April
issue of Anthropology Matters with an editorial from Alpa Shah. Goldsmiths Anthropology was particularly fortunate that Paul decided to pursue a PhD with us. At the time of his death, he was preparing to sail
to Arizona, USA to research the various forms of activism that have taken shape around undocumented cross-border migration of Mexicans into the US.
Paul’s enthusiasm, generosity, kindness and inclusiveness drew everyone he met into the broader issues that he was thinking about and working on and those who were fortunate to know him could appreciate what a great youth worker he was and what a great field researcher he would have been. Paul’s research would have continued to make us rethink the theoretical and practical issues of engaging anthropology as praxis, and his death will be deeply mourned throughout Goldsmiths.
Paul was 36 years old; he was married to Sasha and had a one-year old daughter, Agatha, at the time of his death.
Rest In Power, Paul.
It was twenty years ago today…
… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…
Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on your the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…
After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999, when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.
One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.
The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.
Olive Morris, who had been a member of the UK Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.
“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”
In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…
“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”
Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton.
Liz Obi relates: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.
We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out.”
The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.
“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).
Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory
Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.
Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.
Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)
After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).
Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.
So the building was empty again, but not for long.
Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.
Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121, notably the occupation of Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.
During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).
Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.
As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. “3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).
Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.
Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).
Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…
But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being
- Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
- the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/other class struggle prisoners;
- the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London, then to the US),
- South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
- the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
- South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
- Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…)
- anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe…
Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the London end of radical internet pioneers the European Counter Network… the list goes on.
And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).
And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…
As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The first Queeruption was held here…
The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk supposed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters!). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (“I came from Sweden and you were closed” etc), calls to revolt and general abuse.
Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.
In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…
In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived: “TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.
At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement and up to the roof
Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of 121, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”
Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…
It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…
The 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)
The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999…
We know the police took an overt interest in 121. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…
There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).
121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…
In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…
Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.
“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”
The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?
Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.
One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.
As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.
All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.
There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.
The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.
The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…
1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.
For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)
In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.
Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…
We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)
In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.
A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.
Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.
Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all
no longer with us, and we miss them all.
Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.
Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015
The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 came after several years of conflict between king Charles I and a growing number of his subjects, over numerous disputes – freedom religion versus increasing state centralisation or worship; the king’s personal autocracy; royal methods of fundraising including heavier and heavier taxation; economic diversity against monopolies being only some of the leading issues. The slide into war was gradual amidst social unrest, an explosion of propaganda and religious ferment. In the two years before the war began crowds had regularly besieged Parliament or gathered to protest, petition and demand. Street politics flourished; collective complaint became a daily occurrence.
The privation, violence and disruption of war soon began to tell on people’s lives.
On 8 August 1643, several hundred women, wearing white ribbons in their hats and pinned to their breasts, some said to be carrying babies and children, surrounded Parliament, demanding an end to the civil war, which they proclaimed was causing untold deaths and ruining the livelihoods of thousands… The previous night, the House of Commons had voted against accepting the House of Lords six proposals for a peace settlement. This week has been identified by some as a crucial crossroads in the Civil War: militarily the king had the upper hand, the moderates in Parliament were wavering and royalist sympathising Lords and MPs were pressing for peace negotiations. (The vote on the 7th August was in fact only narrowly defeated, allegedly with some underhand procedural shenanigans, while a riotous crowd outside cried ‘No Peace!’)
The morning of the 8th saw an organised demonstration to the Commons, with the stated intention of meeting with Parliamentary leaders, such as John Pym, to present them formally with ‘The Petition of Many Civilly Disposed Women’. MP and diarist Sir Simonds d’Ewes allegedly overheard some threatening violence to any member who was a an ‘enemy to peace’…
At one point in the demonstration they surged to the door of the House of Commons, pushing up the staircase, until soldiers forced them out, beating them with the flats of their swords.
The newspaper Certain Informations reported the event with a heavy dose of misogynistic bile:
‘Yesterday in the afternoon two or three hundred oyster wives, and other dirty and tattered sluts, took upon them the impudency to come to the honourable House of Commons, and cried for Peace and Propositions, and they so filled the stairs that no man could pass up or down, whereupon a man upon the top of the stairs drew his sword and with the flat side struck some of them upon the heads, which so affrighted them that they presently made way and ran down.’
Many of the women were said by others to be the wives of men away fighting.
Walter Yonge, M.P. for Honiton, reported that
‘they woulde not bee satisfied, but kepte knocking and beatinge of the outwarde door before the Parliament House, and would have violently forced the same open, and required Mr. Pym, Mr. Strode, and some other members . . . and threatened to take the round heades of the Parliament whome they saide they would caste into the Thames.’
The women retreated, but promised to be back…
… which they were, the next day, in greater numbers, estimated at anywhere from 500 to 6000 strong. Hostile observers judged them to be mostly ‘whores, bawds, oyster-women, kitchenstuff women, beggar women, and the very scum of the suburbs, besides abundance of Irish women’…
The newsbook Mercurius Civicus reprinted the petition carried to the Commons that day:
‘Shewing unto your Honours, hat your poore Petitioners (though the weaker Sex) doe too sensibly perceive the ensuing desolation of this Kingdome, unlesse by some timely meanes your Honours provide for the speedy recovery thereof; Your Honours are the Physitians that can by God’s speciall and miraculous blessing, (which we humbly implore) restore this languishing Nation, and our Bleeding Sister the Kingdome of Ireland, which hath now almost breathed her last gaspe; We need not dictate to your Eagle Ey’d Judgments the way; Our onley desire is, That God’s glory in the true reformed Protestant Religion may be preserved, the just Prerogatives and Priviledges of King and Parliament maintained, the true Liberties and Properties of the Subject according to the known Lawes of the Land restored, and all Honourable waies and meanes for a speedy peace endeavoured.
May it therefore please your Honours to conceive that some speedy course may be taken for the settlement of the true reformed Protestant Religion for the glory o God, and the renovation of Trade for the benefit of the Subject, they being the soule and body of the Kingdome.
And they with many Millions of afflicted soules groaning under the burthen of these times of distresse (as bound), shall pray, &c.’
‘Six members carried the answer that the house were not enemies to peace, and would consider the petition, and, according to Rushworth, desired them to return to their habitations.’
This day’s protest was cunningly planned or co-ordinated. Some women arrived at Parliament in boats, evading the riverside guards. Others beat up the sentinels on the other side of the House and swarmed in again. They occupied parts of Parliament for two hours, preventing any MPs leaving or entering. When men of the Trained bands (volunteer militia) fired blanks at them they laughed it off, crying ‘Nothing But Powder!’, and pelting the men with bricks. It took a charge by the mounted men of General Waller’s Horse to disperse them.
As the women were returning home they were reportedly met in the Strand by a troop of horse on its way to the house. ‘It fell upon and rode down some of the women, whereof four are said to be killed.’
Several women received serious injuries despite the soldiers again using the flats of their swords; one woman had her nose sliced off and was said to have died later. Sir Thomas Knyvett wrote of ‘diverse men and women being slain’. The Venetian Secretary in England reported ‘ten persons being killed and more than a hundred injured, mostly women.’
Others were arrested and marched off to the Bridewell. Again, the women shouted out that they would come back the next day, with guns and swords this time… In the event, the 10th August was quiet.
The protests led to a crackdown on suspected dissidents in London: ‘Many of the women who went to implore peace have been imprisoned, as well as their husbands, the mere suspicion of desiring it being considered the last degree of criminality. For this reason they have made a fresh general search in the houses, and taken away arms of every sort, even swords, from those not actually serving the parliament. Many have been arrested without any evidence about their sympathies save the indiscretion of soldiers, who permit themselves every liberty, without any reason, and even carry off anything they take a fancy to.’ (Gerolamo Agostini, Venetian Secretary in England, writing to the Doge and Senate of Venice.)
Commentators were outraged by the demonstrations. Women of any sort were not supposed to have political opinions let alone voice them, still less collectively claim any sort of public space to make political demands. The demonstrations were an outrage against the heart of the social order – male power over women, domination of the public and private sphere on every level. The Parliamentary Scout lamented the times: ‘Thus we see, to permit absurdities, is the way to encourage them: tumults are dangerous, swords in women’s hands do desperate things; this is begotten in the distraction of the Civil Wars’. The demonstrations were yet another sign of ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, the proper way of things inverted, complaints of which were increasing as the floodgates of opinion, thought and belief opened wider… The Parliamentarians had made a rod for their own backs to some extent, in their rebelling against the king, trumpeting the ideas of freedom of religion and enlisting mass support in the streets, they gave licence, had tolerated women’s petitioning en masse earlier in the 1640s when the cause was closer to their own… But now the streets, and much more, were opened up to people the MPs had never intended should think and act for themselves. Not only women – but women of ‘the inferior sort’! Working women! Sticking their noses into men’s business, and roughing up men who were properly appointed (by God) to rule over the lower orders and especially females.
The early 1640s were filled with men’s fear of women getting above themselves (as opposed to, er, pretty much every era you can name…). Women were even preaching, in some parts of London – an abomination to virtually anyone who was anyone, on both sides of the war. The virulently hostile reaction to the ‘peace women’, in print and from the soldiers, was the expression of fury – rage that females were usurping man’s rights and position.
At the time, the ‘peace women’ were accused of being opposed to the parliamentary cause and of supporting king Charles. Observers claimed to have overheard shouts of ‘we will have Peace presently and our King’. This may have been true, or the demonstrations may have been manipulated by ‘cavalier’ sympathisers; although that the women would be labelled as royalists was inevitable under the circumstances.
Rumours abounded that these women were ‘sett on and backed by some men of rank and quality.’ Four days after the protests, Mistress Jordan, a citizen of London, petitioned the commons to be allowed to go to Holland, ‘for that she went in great jeoperdy of her life here amongst her own neighbours in that she refused to joyn with them in their tumultuous rising against the parliament.’ Being questioned at the House of Commons, she repeated a statement made by one Master Knowles in Chancery Lane to the effect that many of the women had been with a great earl, ‘who encouraged them to make the disturbance, saying that the lords with one exception and all the commons except four or five were in favour of peace, and that if they came down for three or four days in that manner the peace proposals would pass.’ It was suggested this was the earl of Holland, who had already fled to join the king after the defeat of the Lords’ peace proposals…
Hardly a cast-iron case… To some extent the idea that (male) royalists were the brains behind the protests again represents the total incomprehension of the idea that women could be and were acting for themselves.
Royalist manipulation or not, many folk at the time were disturbed by the rebellion against the king, against a social hierarchy previously stated to have been ordained by God, and blamed the ‘rebels’, Parliamentary leaders, for a fatal breaking of this status quo. Even London, a parliamentary stronghold, was deeply divided.
But the women’s cries of mourning for ‘slain and imprisoned husbands’ told its own tale – a straightforward hatred of war and the death, hardship and destruction it brought. It is not recorded that any of the women pointed out that men, on both sides of the conflict, made war and played soldiers, and women paid the price as much as men, but without any voice in the decision-making… but the thought is bound to have occurred to some… Did any of the women see their demo as a female counterpoint to the largely anti-peace ‘mob’ who had gathered to denounce the peace proposals on the 7th (a crowd said to have been whipped up by the puritan lord mayor of London)? Did it seem to them that their intervention in what has (in hindsight) been viewed as a crucial nexus in the conflict might have derailed the war?
In the event this didn’t happen. The protests subsided, the war continued, and Parliament eventually gained the upper hand. But women’s demonstrations continued, in a wider context of an increased participation of women in ‘public life’. Some of the most notable demonstrations in support of the Levellers were organised by women, who played a major part in the movement. Female preachers and prophets, women quakers and ranters… The world continued to be turned on its head…
A really great book on women in the English Revolution is Unbridled Spirits, by Stevie Davies.
An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online
“Before this time the inhabitants of the towns about London, ‘Iseldon’, Hoxton, Shoresditch, and others, had so inclosed the common fields with hedges and ditches, that neither the young men of the city might shoot, nor the antient persons walke for their pleasures in those fields…This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddainly this yeere a great number of the City assembled themselves in a morning: and a turner, in a foole’s coate, came crying thorough the City, ‘shovels and spades shovels and spades’. So many of the people followed, that it was a wonder to behold; and within a short space all the hedges about the City were cast down, and the ditches filled up…”
On 4th August 1549, some boisterous Londoners went out en masse to gardens built by rich folk on the ‘suburban common fields’ outside the walls of the City, to the north. This was probably on Moorfields or Finsbury Fields, open spaces with a tradition of such demolitions, in the context of a longer history of disorder and immorality. Below we will recount some of the activity around ‘encroachments’ on the Fields, often linked to the mass practice of archery, (together with some of the fields’ wider unruly history).
Straddling what is now the southernmost tip of the Borough of Islington and the north edge of the City, Moorfields was an open stretch of ground, which held a legendary place in the lives of medieval Londoners. Just outside the City’s walls, and hard to control for its authorities, for centuries the fields were a traditional place of bawdy recreation, outdoor sex and banned games, as well as a meeting ground for rebel or radical crowds. The disorderly and rebellious spirit of the fields spread to the streets which were gradually built around it, which became known for political and religious dissent, muckraking journalism and DIY publishing.
“This Fen or Moor Field,” says Stow, “stretching from the wall of the City betwixt Bishopsgate and the postern called Cripplesgate, to Finsbury, and to Holywell, continued a waste and unprofitable ground a long time, so that the same was all letten for four marks the year in the reign of Edward II; but in the year 1415, the 3rd of Henry V., Thomas Falconer, Mayor, caused the wall of the City to be broken toward the said moor, and built the postern called Moorgate, for the ease of the citizens to walk that way upon causeys towards Iseldon and Hoxton.” ‘Iseldon’ is Islington.
Fitzstephen the monk, who wrote an account of London in the reign of Henry II, describes Moorfields as the general place of amusement for London youth. Especially, he says, was the Fen frequented for sliding in winter-time, when it was frozen. According to his account, locals whizzed across the ponds on a kind of primitive cross between ice skates or skis: “Others there are, still more expert in these amusements; they place certain bones-the leg-bones of animals-under the soles of their feet, by tying them round their ankles, and then taking a pole shod with iron into their hands, they push themselves forward by striking it against the ice, and are carried on with a velocity equal to the flight of a bird, or a bolt discharged from a cross-bow.” The piece of water on which the citizens of London performed their pastimes is spoken of by Fitzstephen as “the great Fen or Moor which watereth the walls of the City on the north side.” (possibly a pool on the now long lost river Walbrook).
Moorfields became especially popular for gatherings during holidays, particularly among the London apprentices. Young, footloose, often unpaid and socially oppressed and badly treated at work, apprentices usually played a central role in disorder, riots, and street politics throughout the middle ages and up to the eighteenth century. Moorfields and open spaces were especially popular on holidays, May Day, Shrove Tuesday, saints’ days etc – all occasions well-known for rowdy entertainment and outbreaks of political violence – leading to such regular trouble every year that in 1578, for instance, assemblies were banned on the traditional apprentice holiday of Shrove Tuesday.
It has been suggested that the Moorfields could have been where the city’s youth played the earliest football games, first recorded around 1170-83. Football was a great passion of the young, again especially apprentices; correspondingly it grew to be a headache for the authorities, as it often led to trouble: obstruction, damage, fights and sometimes riots. In medieval times it was no enclosed spectator sport, but often played through the streets, or in open spaces; hundreds sometimes took part – not so much silky skills as violence and disorder.
In 1314, there was “great uproar in the city… through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public”. This led to a law making the game illegal; a ban repeated in 1331, 1365, 1388, 1410, 1414, 1477 and so on (in fact it was only really legalised in the 19th century.) In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, crowds would use football matches as a cover to gather for riots against landlords enclosing common land. In 1615 there were ‘great disorders & tumults’ in the city over a mass football game…
Part of the reason for the banning of football, apart from the trouble it caused, was that it was blamed for taking young men away from what were seen as more important pursuits – primarily archery. In the middle ages archery training was compulsory for men of fighting age; since there was no standing army, in times of war, citizen archers were vital for England’s war effort. Moorfields was one of the spaces where archery was practiced, for several centuries.
Another was Finsbury Fields, the medieval name for the open lands between what are now Old Street and Angel, stretching as far north as the modern St Paul’s Road/Balls Pond Road. The 1578 ban on London apprentices gathering on Moorfields on Shrove Tuesday was implemented here as well.
Like most open spaces, Finsbury Fields was also a place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution and general immorality.
As Finsbury Fields was gradually built over, one of its fringes, later known as Islington Common, remained open, around what’s now Arlington Square, (west of New North Road, north of the canal). The Common was preserved from enclosure for years due to its use for archery practice since medieval times. But Finsbury Fields’ reputation as a place of dubious sports and outdoor sex was also preserved here.
Shovels and Spades, Shovels and Spades
Moorfields had already seen conflict as early as 1141-3, when ‘walls and curtileges’ erected on Moorfields outside the City wall were destroyed by Londoners apparently annoyed at the obstruction to their enjoyment of the space.
Both Finsbury Fields and Moorfields lay between the City and the outlying villages to the north, and they became the scene of conflict between the two. Partly this arose from the City-dwellers’ need for space for recreation and archery, and the villagers need for farming land, but this was also complicated by the actions of richer inhabitants of both the villages, and the City itself, who would often attempt to privatise some of this land for their own exclusive use.
Around 1513-1514, the conflicting demands on Moorfields and Finsbury Fields led to riotous scenes.
“… concerning the inclosures of common grounds about this cittie, whereof I mind not much to argue, Edwarde Hall setteth downe a note of his time, to wit in the fift or sixte of Henry the eight: before this time sayth hee, the inhabitantes of the Townes aboute London, as Iseldone, Hoxton, Shorsditch and others, had so inclosed the common fieldes with hedges, and ditches, that neyther the yong men of the City might shoote, nor the auncient persons walke for theyr pleasures in those fieldes, but that either their bowes and arrowes were taken away or broken, or the honest persons arrested or indighted: saying, that no Londoner ought to goe out of the City, but in the high Waies.” (Chronicle of the Greyfriars)
This suggests that either wealthier village dwellers, or even the authorities in those parts, attempted to exclude Londoners from the Fields by force, (whether with some form of sanction of law or not). In any case, this did not go unchallenged:
“This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddainlie this yeare a great number of the Citie assembled themselves in a morning, and a Turner in a fooles coate came crying through the Citty, ‘shovelles and spades, shovelles and spades’: so many of the people followed that it was a wonder to behold, and within a short space all the hedges about the City were cast down, and the diches filled vp, and every thing made plaine, such was the diligence of these workmen: the kinges councell hearing of this assembly came to the gray Fryers, & sent for the Mayor and councell of the city to know the cause, which declared to them the injurie and annoying done to the citizens, and to their liberties, which though they wold not seeke disorderly to redresse, yet the comminalty & yong persons could not be stayed thus to remedy the same. When the kings councell had heard their answere, they dissimuled the matter & commanded the Mayor to see that no other thing were attempted, but that they should forthwith call home the younger sort: who having speedily achieved their desire, returned home before the Kings Councell, and the Mayor departed without more harme: after which time (sayeth Hall) these fieldes were never hedged…”
It seems from this account that preserving space for archery was partly a cover – the approved, even enforced sport; but other motivations existed, to keep the land free for more pleasurable purposes for all.
The process of encroachment onto the Fields outside the City was obviously ongoing, however, as the chronicler continues:
“but now wee see the thing in worse case than ever, by meanes of inclosure for Gardens, wherein are builded many fayre summer houses, and as in other places of the Suburbes, some of them like Midsommer Pageantes, with Towers, Turrets, and Chimney tops, not so much for vse or profite, as for shewe and pleasure, bewraying the vanity of mens mindes, much unlike to the disposition of the ancient Citizens, who delighted in the building of Hospitals, and Almes houses for the poore, and therein both imployed their wits, and spent their wealthes in preferment of the common commoditie of this our Citie.”
Resistance against the mini-enclosures also continued though, as in 1549, as the Chronicle of the Grey Friars records, on “The fourth day of August, of wych was Sonday, much people met and set to work from Newgate all along by the City walls to pull down the gardens that was made along by the walls of the City with houses, and so all along unto [Bishopsgate].”
It may be significant that this took place when it did – 1548-9 saw mass revolt against enclosures across eastern and southern England, (most notably Kett’s Rebellion), but also nearer to London, at Northaw Common, Ruislip, and Enfield – which may have inspired this action in August…
For want of roome to shoote abroad
The importance of archery, and the laws enforcing its practice, were a formative part of this anti-enclosure riot; ironically archery was even at this time beginning its decline, as more modern weaponry was replacing it. By 1570, the City trades that depended on archery (the Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead-makers) were suffering as a result, petitioning the Queen and the Lord Treasurer, complaining of the poverty many of their number were falling into. As with many groups facing obsolescence, they confused causes and symptoms, technological and economic change and morality; archery was declining, they maintained, because of the official toleration of unlawful games, the loss of traditional spaces where it was practised, as well as individual neglect. Stow in his Survey of London, concurs: archery had become “almost cleane left off and forsaken; for by means of the closing in of common grounds, our archers, for want of roome to shoote abroad, creepe into bowling alleys, and ordinary dicing houses, neerer home, where they have roome enough to hazzard their money at unlawful games.”
Enclosures historically are often seen in simple terms, with the rich as enclosers and the poor as victims and losers out. While this is broadly true, things were not always so clear-cut. Many landowners profited by fencing off land and preventing others from using it; often the local poor might be banned from collecting wood or other fuel for burning, or residents might be stopped from grazing their animals in woods or common fields. These and other practices had gathered tradition and ritual around them, as well as strong emotional and political overtones, and were widely seen as ‘rights’ or customs that people were entitled to. In reality, these rights were almost always at the discretion of the lord of the manor. But, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was also a current among the rich and land owning classes that opposed enclosure; sometimes because they genuinely charitably believed in allowing poorer folk to subsist, sometimes because they themselves put some store by tradition, the traditional order and long-established social relations. But also out of pure self-interest, as with Finsbury Fields and Moorfields, because of the military needs of the state, or because some feared that making life harder for the lower classes would provoke disorder, disruption of the status quo, for instance by forcing people into moving around, uprooting, pushing them into begging and crime… In the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, the powers that be were much exercised by the increasing numbers of homeless, displaced persons, forced into travelling by enclosure, and by the destruction of the traditional welfare system (the confiscation and abolition of most of the abbeys and monasteries dating from the 1530s.)
This conflict within the upper classes, about the wisdom of enclosures, can in fact be observed for centuries, though it was the enclosing ‘faction’ that kept the upper hand for much of that time.
In the case of ‘the suburban common fields’, however, the well-to-do enclosers incurred the enmity of the highest authorities.
Both king James I and his son Charles I issued edicts preventing any enclosure of the Fields, which would “interrupt the necessary and profitable exercise of shooting.” James’ instruction to the Lord Mayor of London and the Lord Chancellor (among others) echo the petitions of the distressed archery trades; “divers persons about the City, possessing lands, &c, had taken away from the archers the exercise of shooting in such fields and closes, as time out of mind, had been allowed to be shot in, by making banks, hedges, and plucking up the old marks, and making ditches so broad, without bridges &c.;” he ordered that the land two miles around the City be surveyed and any land traditionally used for archery be restored to its former state. Ironically while the Stuart kings may have opposed enclosures here (and elsewhere), they were notable enclosers themselves elsewhere, for instance Charles seized a huge tract of land from several parishes and forced many smaller landowners to sell to him, for the enclosing of Richmond Park in Surrey.
Actions against enclosure, at least when carried out by archers, and targeted against particular obstructions on their old rights, seem then to have had some official sanction, and continued for two and a half centuries after the riot of 1513/14. The Artillers Company of London, representing the archers of the City, were accustomed to marching round the Fields, demolishing anything that they claimed prevented them from practicing their craft (similar to the old parish custom of Beating the Bounds). So as late as 1782 it was reported that “they found the gate of a large field, in which stood one of their stone marks, near Ball’s Pond” both locked and chained, and four men placed to prevent their entrance. The adjutant ordered it to be forced; after which they marched across and opened another gate.” Three years later “the Company marched to Finsbury Fields to view their stone marks [targets]… they removed several obstructions.” And in 1786, “considerable encroachments having been made upon the antient marks belonging to the Company, the Court ordered notice to be given to all occupiers of lands in Baumes and Finsbury Fields, between Peerless Pool South, Baumes-Pond North, Hoxton East, and Islington West, wherein any of their marks were placed, to remove any obstruction to the Company’s rights.”
[The Peerless Pool mentioned above was a pond lying immediately behind St Luke’s Hospital, off old Street, to the east of the parish church. Originally nicknamed the ‘Perilous Pond’, after several bathers were drowned there, it was later transformed into a swimming bath in 1743. Local jeweller William Kemp had it enlarged to a length of sixty yards by thirty. The pool became a popular resort, especially in summer evenings, until it was built over around 1860.]
In August 1786, Company archers pulled down several parts of a fence erected by one Samuel Pitt for gardens and summer-houses, and were only prevented from knocking down a wall built by Messrs Walker, Ward and Co (owners of the local lead mill) after one of the leadmill partners assuring them their needs would be accommodated. As with Beating the Bounds, the ritual nature of their march is seen in this latter dispute: “One of the archers’ division was then ordered to shoot an arrow over the said enclosure, as an assertion of the Company’s right…” The military importance of archery had long since become been outmoded, and it remained solely as a recreational pastime, but the traditions were fully maintained.
Of course, the Company’s actions may well have also benefited other ordinary users of the open fields, and no doubt the archers took a mischievous pride in imposing their will on richer residents of a nominally higher class in this way, which in most walks of life would not have been permitted. This kind of licensed disorder, allowed within certain limits and for certain ends only, contains some echoes of the social control functions of medieval carnivals and festivals, where a short, temporary, relaxation of tight disciplines and hierarchies helped to keep a lid on social tensions and class antagonisms for the rest of the year.
Again in 1791, when digging for gravel destroyed several archery butts on Islington Common, “A detachment marched to the spot pursuant to a previous notice to the occupiers and commissioners of the roads to remove any obstruction, and to replace the marks. These objects were obtained.”
It’s also possible that young men joined the Artillers Company either because it gave them some small power in life – or, speculating here – given that the Company may have been invested with a certain traditional role as guardians of the common fields by City dwellers, that some men joined it with an eye to keeping a watch on the ‘encroachments’ by the well-to-do. Elsewhere, certain families, social groups, workers in particular trades, residents of notable streets or villages, came to see themselves and be seen as traditional guardians of the ‘common rights’ on local commons or woods – perhaps the riot of 1514 played a part in the Artillers Company adopting that role for Moorfields and Finsbury Fields. Another factor might be the reputation that some of the City suburbs adjoining the Fields – Shoreditch, Bishopsgate and Spitalfields – had for disorder and disrepute themselves – many of their residents were generally up for a bit of agro…
It is however interesting that, although the open spaces around the village of Islington and between it and the City later became places of disorder, gathering spots for rowdy, often radical crowds, that Finsbury Fields and Moorfields are the only ones where any form of struggle seems to have taken place around enclosure – though possibly this simply means they were the only ones where a memory has survived.
Moorfields’ central role as a meeting point and recreation ground led to its’ being one of main the gathering places for crowds of rebellious apprentices. Public holidays were a popular time for crowds to gather, and when they got together, social or economic grievances often sparked demonstrations and riots. Mayday and Shrove Tuesday were two of the main traditional holidays, especially know for outbreaks of disorder. For instance, during the Shrove Tuesday riots of 1617, when crowds of apprentices met on Moorfields, as well as in Wapping, and marched off to attack prisoners and free their inmates, pull down brothels, and fight with the sheriffs and militia.
This kind of upsurge of rebelliousness stepped up a gear in the English Civil War years.
For instance, on Whit Sunday (4 May) 1639, Katherine Hadley distributed pamphlets to holidaying apprentices, appealing for them to support a campaign demanding the release of the imprisoned puritan activist, and future Leveller leader, John Lilburne (who was also then an apprentice)… the apprentices held a mass meeting, then headed off to riot at Lambeth Palace. Katharine was arrested & sent to the Bridewell (the workhouse-cum-prison by the river at Blackfriars).
Open fields were also used for clandestine meetings. During the almost schizophrenic religious turmoil of the mid-Tudor era, when protestant and catholic regimes succeeded each other in rapid succession, several hundred of each were executed for adhering to the wrong beliefs (depending on who was in power), as well as various smaller sects like Anabaptists being persecuted by both. Many were burned alive at Smithfield, as recounted below. In April 1558, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison; thirteen refused to attend catholic mass, and seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.
It’s very likely that the earlier reforming dissenters, the Lollards, who flourished in the fifteenth century, would also have met in Islington’s open countryside. We know they had many sympathisers in the area, for example around Smithfield, and that Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard insurrectionary leader, was a Clerkenwell landowner, who hid out in what’s now Farringdon Road are, while on the run around 1413-14. As Lollardy became increasingly persecuted, secret congregations gathering away from urban areas to avoid arrest became their preferred, even the only safe, method of meeting.
A Walk for thieves and lovers
The barren region of Moorfields and Finsbury was first drained (no doubt to the great indignation of the London apprentices) in 1527, laid out in pleasant walks in the reign of James I., and first built on after the Great Fire, when all the City was turned topsy-turvy. Moorfields before this was described as “a place for cudgel-players and train-band musters, for its madhouse (one of the lions of London), and for its wrestlers, pedestrians, bookstall-keepers, and ballad-sellers”, featuring “raised paths and refuse-heaps”, deep black smelly ditches and open sewers; “a walk for thieves and lovers, suicides and philosophers, and as Howes (1631) says, ‘held impossible to be reformed.’ ”
Moorfields was also a traditional location for pre-arranged or spontaneous rumbles between groups of London workers (rivalries often derived from the old medieval guild jealousies). For example, in 1664, mobs of the butchers and weavers fought there: “26th July, 1664. Great discourse yesterday of the fray in Moorfields; how the butchers at first did beat the weavers, between whom there hath been ever an old competition for mastery, but at last the weavers rallied, and beat them. At first the butchers knocked down all for weavers that had green or blue aprons, till they were fain to pull them off and put them in their breeches. At last the butchers were fain to pull off their sleeves, that they might not be known, and were soundly beaten out of the field, and some deeply wounded and bruised; till at last the weavers went out triumphing, calling, ‘£100 for a butcher!’”
The cheap bookstalls of Moorfields were famous; Gray refers in a letter to Warton to “a penny history that hangs upon the rails in Moorfields;” while Tom Brown (1709, Queen Anne), to illustrate the insolence and forgetfulness of prosperity, describes how “a well-grown Paul’s Churchyard bookseller, [despises] one of the trade that sells second-hand books under the trees in Moorfields.”
Parks and open fields were also popular for outdoor sex; more so for gay men than with female prostitutes (because they had to be more discreet, given that ‘sodomy’ could well be a hanging offence). Moorfields was well known by the eighteenth century as a gay cruising ground, or ‘molly market’. The path that ran across the middle of these fields was known as the Sodomites’ Walk. This was used so regularly by gay men, that it’s obvious that their main aim was to make contact with one another, rather than simply to pick up passing straight errand boys. The basic technique was to stand up against the wall alongside the path and pretend to be taking a piss, and to wait until someone struck up a conversation about the weather. For example, a man named William Brown was entrapped along the Sodomites’ Walk in 1726, by a hustler who worked for the police in order to get immunity from prosecution as a sodomite. The constable told the judge that when he asked Brown why he had taken such indecent liberties, Brown “was not ashamed to answer, I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”
This very modern-sounding defence was apparently not uncommon… Rictor Norton identifies is as arising from the “Enlightenment philosophy that sexual pleasure was a personal area that the law had no business meddling with.” There was even a serious public debate in the newspapers in 1772, when a number of respectable people argued that sexual relations between men should be legalized as long as they take place between consenting partners over the age of 14, the age at which a boy became an adult.
In August 1726 a ‘gang of sodomites’ was chased by Constables across Moorfields but escaped. The streets that grew up around Moorfields also became well-known for this gay subculture – a molly house in Christopher Alley, off Moorfields, was kept by John Towleton, whose nickname was Mary Magdalen.
Moorfields was landscaped in the 1590s in an attempt to bring order to all of the above infamous ‘uncontrollable’ area. This may represent the earliest known use in London of altering public space as a means of social control. Its notorious immorality may have also contributed to Moorfields’ popularity for open air religious meetings – non-conforming groups spoke regularly there from the seventeenth centuries, no doubt partly in an attempt to save the souls of the field’s immoral frequenters… However, the Fields also accommodated a part of the huge tent city that sheltered Londoners displaced and made homeless by the Great Fire of 1666 (many others moved off to the north-east, some ending up roaming Epping Forest and Enfield in search of shelter and food.)
In the middle ages, Neat House Fields was an open space, lying to the rear of and around modern Victoria Station. In medieval times the land had belonged to the nearby Abbey of Westminster; as the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the land was confiscated, and then granted to one of Henry VIII’s courtiers.
Down to the time of Henry VIII, the local parish of St. Martin’s had over 500 acres of common land, said to be very fertile land.
These consisted of
“Eubury Farm, containing 430 Acres.
The Neat, containing 108 Acres.
St James’s Farm, containing 100 Acres.
Divers Parcels of the Possession of Burton St John Lazarus of Jerusalem, containing 50 Acres…”
Around 1572, Neat House Fields were enclosed, along with other areas of the local parishes.
“Within this Parish of St Martin’s, and that of St Margaret’s Westminster, formerly was large Commoning for the Benefit of those Parishes, of Lands laid open, according to ancient Custom, from Lammas Day; which were, in Q. Elizabeth’s Reign, enclosed with Gates and Hedges, so that the Inhabitants were deprived of that Benefit, which occasioned their Complaint, in the year 1592, to the Lord Burghley, High Steward of Westminster, and a petition to him in that Behalf…”
Many local labourers lost rights of grazing and arable use, which they claimed to have enjoyed for some centuries.
Enclosures had been causing friction in the parish of St Martins in the Fields for several decades. A 1549 Enclosure Survey complained of various individuals enclosing common land, which was identified not only as a threat to tradition and custom but to pubic order (unsurprisingly, given the widespread revolt against enclosures taking place from Norfolk to Devon that year…) A further survey in 1575 re-iterated the complaint.
St Martins as a parish was known to be particularly sensitive regarding enclosure. In the early 16th century, the parish boundaries had been re-drawn, as part of which the parish lost a substantial part of its land to ‘imparkment’, the creation of parkland. The parish worthies sorely resented this, and were keen to prevent the further loss of communally available land. Part of the motivation for this, as elsewhere, was pragmatic – poor parishioners who partly subsisted from access to common land for grazing etc could theoretically become more dependent on parish relief if they lost access to commons. Another complaint St Martins raised was that the hedges and ditches erected to enclose land were themselves exploited by unruly and immoral elements (by which they seem to have meant thieves and prostitutes) to conceal themselves…
Parishioners of St. Margaret’s Westminster and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, claimed that Ebury Farm, the Neat, St. James’s Farm, etc., had, according to ancient custom, been laid open for their benefit, from Lammas Day (1 August), till Plough Monday, (the first Monday in January after Epiphany). The Elizabethan sub-tenants who had leased the lands had enclosed their fields with fences and gates, and deprived the parishioners of immemorial rights.
” And where there were hedges and ditches and ponds of water
Now we have nothing but bricks and mortar.”
The parishioners appealed to Lord Burleigh, High Steward of Westminster, who ordered an enquiry, “he gave an order to Mr Tenche, his Under-Steward, to impanel an Inquest for Enquiry into this Matter…”
Whatever Burghley’s intention, ordering the Inquiry may have encouraged the parishioners to think Burghley was on board with the action they took next.
Before any Inquiry could be held, on Lammas Day, 1st August 1592, a body of complainants arrived “with Pickaxes and such like Instruments, pulled down the Fences, and brake the Gates, having with them the Bailiffs and Constables, to keep the Peace” on which the tenants made “grievous complaint” to Lord Burleigh.
Enclosure fences were at first demolished not on Neat House Fields but further north, ‘half a mile to the west of St Giles Fields’, possibly around Piccadilly.
Peter Dod, citizen and grocer of London, later gave evidence, that he “being near unto the City’s Conduit-heads in Middlesex, about half a Mile Westward from St Giles in the Fields, attending upon certain of the City’s Works, touching conveying of Water from thence to London, saw, betwixt five and six o’Clock in the Afternoon the same Day, the Number of 40 Persons at least… in a Close there… And they divided themselves: And some of them , with Pickaxes and shovels, brake open the fence of that Close, and other some of them passed to the next Close Westward, and brake open the Fence of that Close: And he, with some of the Citizens Workmen, went unto them, seeing ome of them to be Men that carried a Shew of some Countenance, and talked with them, demanding of them whence they were and one of them answered, That they were of St. Martin’s Parish, and St. Margaret’s as Westminster. And he, the said Dod, said unto them, “Why do ye this?” It was answered,
” It is Lammas-tide; and we throw it down for Common. And if we take here any Cattle of any other Men’s than theirs of the Parishes of St. Martin’s or St. Margaret’s, after this day, we will carry them to the Pound.” “I never saw the like of this,” said Dod. ” If you may do this by Authority it is well, otherwise it is not well.” It was answered, ” We have here the Bailiff of Westminster, and the Officers of St. Martin’s; and we have our Authority from the Queen’s Majesty and the Council, granted by King Henry, confirmed by Her
Majesty, and named the Lord Treasurer to be one, from whom they had their Authority.” And it was also added, that the next Day there would be two hundred there,and they must break open up to Knights-bridge and Chelsea.
And Dod said farther, that that Evening they threw down one gate in one Close, which the City holds, and abated the Banks, and in another Close threw open another Gate and pulled down a Rail, and broke open the Fences in three other Places beside, and in the morning, the Herdsmen brought in about 30 beasts into one of the Closes, and kept them there feeding in one of the Closes which the City holds.”
The destruction was revived the following day, the crowd moving onto Neat House Fields:
“Another testified, viz. one Rd Wood of St St Giles in the Fields, Yeoman and Constable, That the 2nd of August, he going to look to his Fields, and save his Gates from breaking, found a Number of them near to a Place called Aubery-Farm, towards Chlesea (ie: Ebury), to the Number of 105, as he told them, where they were breaking open Fences; and so they crossed from thence to a Field called Crow-Field, at the upper End of Hide-park, where they found the Gate opened before they came; and yet they would not be satisfied, but broke upon the Fence beside the Gate, and from thence they passed to the Highway, where they broke open the Fences into four Fields (of divers Persons, that had held Land there) many of them said, That they had no Authority to do so, but their Purpose was to lay all Common; but they generally said, We have my Lord Treasurer’s Warrant, and we have my Lord Treasurer’s Bailiff that keeps Tibbalds, and one Jones, his Lordship’s Man, being then present, said, he would drive the Commons within this seven-night, as soon as they had charged a Jury; and many of them said, They had the Council’s Letter. There were present Mr. Cole, Westminster High Constable the last Year… Cole lad them the Way from Field to Field, with a written Roll in his Hand.”
The Farmers whose fences had been demolished petitioned the Lord High Treasurer, “shewing how they had enjoyed [these Lands and closes] time out of mind, and at all Times of the Year till the 1st of August; at what Time certain Persons of the City of Westminster, and the Liberties of the same, to the Number of 60 Persons, or more, in forcible Manner arrayed, brake down all the Hedges of the said grounds, &c, giving out that they had his Honour’s Content and Warrant. That if it were so, all her Majesty’s poor Tenants and Farmers were utterly undone. That it might stand with his Honour’s good liking to commit the riot to the Star Chamber…”
The parishioners involved in the destruction, however, stuck to their Plea, “That Aubery-farm, containing 430 Acres, Meadow and Pasture, which was holden of her Majesty by Lease, was granted to one Whashe, who paid 21 pounds per Annum. And the same was let to divers persons who, for their private Commodity, did enclose had made Pastures of Arrable Land ; thereby not only annoying Her Majesty in her walks and Passages, but to the Hindrance of her Game, and great injury to the Common, which at Lammas was wot to be laid open, for the most part; as by antient Precedents thereof made, do more particularly appear, both in the Time of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary: And by the Grant made from her Majesty to the new Tenants, it appeareth, that they are to enjoy the new Lands in such Sort as their Predecessors did, which was than always Lammas Ground, and now enclosed about 20 years past.
St. James’s Farm, containing about an 100 Acres, is holden of her Majesty, renting per Annum 7 pounds 16 shillings. The Ground is held by Pulteney, enclosed after Lammas; whereas, in the Time of his Predecessor, that, and divers other Parts were laid open, as Sandpit-close, and Pennyless-bench. And now he threateneth Death to any that that shall presume to open the same; altho’ it pleaseth Her Majesty to grant the same to him none otherwise than they have been granted before, that is Lammas-ground.”
There is belonging to the Neat the Quantity of 108 Acres, or thereabouts, which is her Majesty’s, and is now in Lease to one Linde and Turner, who keep the same enclosed, converting the same to Pasture, with Divisions and new Hedges; whereas the most Part thereof ought to be Common and hath been always Common at Lammas until within these 19 years.
There be also divers others Parcels of Land, some the Inheritance of Wilson, a Brewer, &c. And others, whereof some are laid open at Lammas, according to Custom, and some ought to be, which are now kept enclosed.
And of these Enclosures, it may please your good Lordship (the plea proceeded), to be informed, that at her Majesty’s last being at St. James’s, she greatly misliked, and said she had for them but 8d. an Acre, and that the Inhabitants abused her greatly therein; whereupon she commanded some of the Tenants to be by the Lord Chamberlain committed to the Marshalsea; which was done: And yet, notwithstanding, they have proceeded to a farther Enclosure.”
The inhabitants claimed “they did this only, presuming upon an antient Custom…” adding “That some of them thus assembled, ere of the best and most antient of the parishes; that they carried with them no Weapons, and had only four or five Shovels and Pickaxes; and had divers Constables with them to keep her Majesty’s Peace. And having thus laid open such Grounds, as they challenged to be their Commons, they quietly returned, to their Houses, without any farther Hurt doing.”
The Inquest that Burghley had ordered before the August action eventually took place in December that year (beginning, I think, on the 12th, and ending in a ruling on the 21st). The anti-enclosure parishioners prepared a lengthy presentation, detailing all the lands they claimed should be accessible as commons from St Martins and St Margaret’s parishes,and pointing out that St Martins parish had asserted common rights in enclosure surveys in 1549 and 1575, as well as at “divers times since by laying open the said enclosures at the accustomed times”. They cunningly portrayed the Crown (owner of many of the disputed lands) as also being wronged by the enclosers. They claimed that the conversion of ground from arable land and common to pasture and meadow had ‘spoyled and defaced’ the Queens’ walks, and impacted on game for her to hunt…
These arguments played a part in the Inquest ruling in favour of the opponents of enclosure; the enclosers were ordered to lay open the lands in question, on pain of a fine of 12 pence for every acre not opened up. The following year a law was passed prohibiting enclosures within three miles of London. More research is needed on how this law was applied and how broadly. In 1630, some prosecutions against enclosers of land in Chelsea were apparently made under this act.
What is interesting, however, is that this was not simply a conflict between locals, parishioners opposed to enclosure, and enclosers from outside the parish leasing land and fencing it off. Many of those enclosing the lands in question were also established residents of St Martins parish.
Also interesting is the presence among the demolishers of the fences of parish officials, the bailiff etc… Enclosure was an issue that did not simply pit rich against poor (although overwhelmingly it benefitted the wealthy and the aspirational) – local authorities often objected, citing defence of ancient custom, and enforcement of traditional boundaries; if also concerned with social peace. Ratepayers in the parish were worried about the poor deprived of livelihoods by enclosure: some out of genuine feeling, others concerned about the poor rate or disorder arising.
If the enclosure of Neat House Fields and other lands in Westminster was for a while defeated, this was an early victory in what would be largely a history of defeat. Enclosure across the country would, over the next 300 years, utterly alter the economic and social use of land in Britain. But the 1592 resistance in two small parishes would be echoed in the struggles of thousands down the centuries…