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.