Remembering Lewisham

Forty years ago, British fascism suffered a historic defeat, as several hundred members of the fascist National Front (NF) were successfully beaten back by thousands of socialists and local residents, despite a huge deployment of police in defence of the NF. The confrontation became known as the Battle of Lewisham. As racism and support for fascism undergo another rise across much of the Western world, two rs21 members who were present at Lewisham reflect on the day’s events and the broader social context surrounding them.

anti-fascism Britain UK

Rock Against Racism, 1978 | © Sarah Wyld / WikiCommons

Sybil Gertraud Cock was at Lewisham as an anti-racist activist. Here she reflects on the broader climate of racism and intolerance gripping Britain in the late 1970s.

I was 25 in 1977 and in my first year of teaching at a London FE College – part-time and pretty precarious work. I had been a member of the International Socialists (IS) and then the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) since 1974, in the Tower Hamlets Branch. Before that, I’d been in Brighton, and had had quite a few run-ins with the Nazis, including several arrests in Hastings in 1973.

A bunch of us lived in squats in Whitechapel and Stepney, lots of printshop people among us. The squats were big mansion blocks, inhabited by people like me and an increasing number of Bangladeshi families. The buildings were safe for them – there was rampant racism in the streets. Attacks on Bengalis were common and we would defend people’s flats from stone throwers and worse. Bangladeshi families did not stand a chance of getting council housing, and the squatter movement provided an alternative. (The Tory-run Greater London Council (GLC) had planned to demolish the blocks but in the end we got GLC money to do them up really well, in the Ken Livingstone era. Sadly, they are all privatised now.)

Not all of the white squatters (there were probably 250 of us in the immediate area) were sympathetic, and there were endless issues around who would get which squat as the original occupants moved out. We were helped by the neighbouring squat known as ‘the East London Gay Centre’ and we organised minibuses to the Grunwick picket line once a week.

My memory of those days is very patchy. The media was full of racially charged talk about ‘muggers’ and I remember selling SWP pamphlets at work, and having fierce arguments with liberal colleagues. I can’t say if I raised these issues in the union (NATFHE) – I probably did, but the demo was during the holidays (I would have been signing on).

As to Lewisham itself, I went with a girlfriend (Sue Cockerill) and we stuck together, basically both terrified. I was impressed by the bravery of some of the other comrades, but I got nowhere near the front.

They were very scary days. I got hate mail from the National Front (NF) as the Spitalfields Anti-Nazi League secretary. My picture was published (as ‘degenerate of the month’) in NF news.  We were constantly in court defending people who had been arrested.

Mitch Mitchell is a long-time activist and organiser who was involved in the conflict at Lewisham and subsequently served a prison sentence for his defensive actions.

In the 1970s, my wife and I (and after 1976, my son) lived on Sydenham Hill which is in the London Borough of Lewisham, although quite a long way from where the NF was planning to march.

However, partly because I had a Jewish mother and partly because I had spent many of my formative years in a place in Croydon called “The International Language Club” which provided a home for people from all over the world, many of whom had become my good friends, it felt natural to oppose Nazis and racists. Also, there were relatives of mine who I would never see because they perished in Hitler’s camps. (My mother’s family had escaped Tsarist pogroms in the 1880s and come to Britain from Lithuania).

I was not, at the time, a member of any political party or group. However, in 1968 I had ‘cut my political teeth’ at the anti-Vietnam War demo at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. There I had made several friends as we rolled marbles under the hooves of police horses.

A couple of these friends contacted me to see if I would join them against the Front. We first joined the ALCARAF (All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism) at Ladywell Fields to hear the great and the good making speeches. ALCARAF intended that their demonstration was to be peaceful and had agreed with the police not to physically confront the fascists. This march ended at Loampit Vale.

However, my friends and I then, at the behest of the stewards from the Anti-Racist/Anti-Fascist Co-Ordinating Committee (ARAFCO), cut through the back streets (away from the filth) to get to New Cross Road where the Nazis were planning to march from. The other contingent of demonstrators, who I found out at the time were from the SWP, had been kettled (in those days it was called ‘contained’) by the plods in Clifton Rise, which was very near the start of the Nazis’ planned route.

It should be mentioned here that ARAFCO had been largely instrumental in involving young people who lived locally, both black and white, and that this was one of the first (if not the first) times that an anti-fascist demo had not just been the preserve of the far left. Also, the demo came on top of a trial of 21 young black people, including a 24-year-old woman, for suspected muggings in the area. The cops made statements that “this ‘gang’ is responsible for 90% of street crime in Lewisham.”

When their cases came before Camberwell Magistrates’ Court in May 1977, some of the accused fought with the police while people in the public gallery tried to invade the court. Shortly afterwards, The Lewisham 21 Defence Committee (L21DC) was set up and heavily criticised the police and their tactics. The L21DC held a march and protest at which around 200 NF members turned up to jeer, throw rotten fruit, eggs and bags of caustic soda at the marchers.

In August, at the Lewisham showdown itself, we managed by sheer weight of numbers to break through the police’s protective line – as ever, the cops protected the Nazis – at the back of the march, and separated and ‘dealt with’ several of the racist scum. As they marched they were subjected to a hail of bricks, bits of wood and shit parcels. Eventually they made Lewisham Town Centre where many more anti-fascists had gathered.

The fascists were then escorted to Lewisham station and the fighting continued between anti-fascists, cops and those NF skinheads who lived in the area.

I was cutting back towards Ladywell where I had left my car when a group of 4 skinheads came rushing around the corner, shouting and pointing at me. I thought I was going to get slaughtered, so I picked up half a brick and smacked the nearest one full in the face whilst holding it. He went down and the others began yelling ‘You’ve fucking killed him.” (I hadn’t, but did make rather a mess of his nose).

Unknown to me, the one I hit was not an actual fascist, but an undercover cop who was trying to infiltrate them and ‘win his spurs’ by leading a charge against an anti-fascist (me). Also unknown to me, I was photographed by a cop with a Polaroid camera. Although I disappeared up the back streets, about a year later I was stopped by police who had set up a road block to check drivers’ licenses and insurance, and, as my bad luck would have it, one of the cops on this road block was the one who took the photograph. I was nicked and bailed, finally appearing in court on August 16, 1979, and sentenced to 21 months for Grievous Bodily Harm. Being the summer, the court they had intended to use (Old Bailey) was closed for redecoration and I was weighed off at the Royal Courts of Justice. The judge said that if I had just punched him, he might have accepted my mitigation of self-defence, but using a brick was, in his view ‘too much force’.

As people who know me will know, it didn’t stop me demonstrating, but I do avoid bricks now!

There are 2 comments

  1. Ian Crosson

    Thanks very much Sybil and Mitch for these reflections.

    Sybil-I found your comments on the squatters movement particularly interesting. The fact that Bangladeshi families at that time could not get council housing is truly shocking and shows how right wing and racist the local Labour council must have been at that time.

    I would be interested to know when didthe council start changing its council housing policy?

    Obviously we know there was a deep level of disillusionmrnt and some racism that lingered after thr mid to late 70s when we saw the election of the BNP councillor Derek Beackon in the Isle of Dogs in 1993.

    Mitch- what bad luck to have got nicked that way! And how sneaky of the police. I know about 212 people were arrested by the police on the day and 202 were charged but the only ones I know of who were jailed were you and John Lockwood. Were there any others? How many? What sentences did they receive? Why were so many charged but presumably not jailed?

  2. Dr Brian Philip Parkin

    For many of us on the anti-fascist left, Lewisham seemed like an overdue culmination of years of grinding, nerve-wracking and often bloody struggle. Ever since Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 we had seen a rising tide of organised racism. In West Yorkshire- particularly in the economically declining ‘woolen districts’ of Bradford, Huddersfield and smaller surrounding townships, frequent assaults, attacks of Asian shops, homes and places of worship had been augmented on occasion with actual murders. The left had also become the target for Nazis with trade union and Labour clubs daubed with racist graffiti, windows broken and attempted petrol-bombings. In Leeds, in particular, the town-centre distribution of leaflets and the selling of socialist papers had descended into frequent fights, often resulting in the arrest of socialists engaged in self-defence whilst the police would usually let the racist perpetrators go free.

    In Leeds, a particularly harrowing event would be the frequent attacks on the Jewish cemetery near Morley with gravestones toppled, smashed and daubed with swastika’s. Then almost systematically, the National Front from 1975 onwards began to declare its intention to demonstrate on the May Day Saturdays in order to invoke public order bans and so thwart the local labour movement from holding its traditional solidarity city-centre march.
    However, for much of the ‘official’ left- including many union district secretaries- the answer lay in working with the police, community ‘leaders’ and the church in order not to ‘provoke’ the racists and thus provide them with a ‘platform’ from which they could spread their ‘misguided’ influence.
    Yet despite this official inertia, it was becoming increasingly possible to get shop stewards committees and union branches to support demonstrations and contribute towards the cost of leaflets, posters and placards. And the a turning point in 1977 when the NF announced that they would hold a counter-demonstration to the local TUC’s May day march and rally. And despite some initial wobbles, the Leeds TUC official leadership- who were almost entirely CP members or ‘broad left’ sympathisers- after considerable lobbying from left union branches and workplaces- insisted that despite the imposition of a Home Office public order ban- the May Day march would go ahead on an outright anti-racist theme and in defiance of the law.

    The subsequent en masse arrest of the Trades Council executive on Woodhouse Moor as the march set off, allowed the more impetuous and imaginative younger lefts to then regroup the demonstration onto the pavements to then march off the highway and into the city centre to confront the Nazis head-on. And despite a tongue-in-cheek reprimand at the subsequent Trades Council, the occasion effectively cemented ongoing anti-racist work with the local labour movement.
    But by then the degree of anti-racist work was eclipsing much of what else the SWP should have been doing as a revolutionary organisation; and whats more, that work was having to be done in increasingly dangerous circumstances. Homes were attacked, assaults in the streets became more frequent, the NF were gaining ground among the more lumpen Leeds United ‘Service Crew’ football supporters- which in turn was giving them the capacity to rampage at will in the city centre as well as in area’s where migrants were present but more isolated from their communities. In short- the situation locally was becoming intolerable- and pending the necessary break-through into a proper united front, something had to be done.

    And so it was. And for legal reasons to this day, the least said in detail, the better. But somehow what appeared to be a small-sized Saturday Socialist Worker sale one morning became a bloody ambush resulting in the hospitalisation of most of the NF’s West Yorkshire leadership. Due to careful planning and diversionary ‘events’ that kept the police elsewhere engaged for just long enough, the anti-Nazis got away- just in time for some confused police officers to arrive and listen to horrified accounts from ‘bystanders’ how the injured NF members lying on the ground had begun an unprovoked attack- for which, despite their injuries- they were arrested.
    But nobody thought that that event had achieved little other than buy time. A united front was urgently needed and in Leeds- which for some strange reason- had always retained a small core of primarily anti-Semitic Mosleyites- had spawned two distinct but equally dangerous fascist groups. In addition to the NF, another grouping calling itself at different times, was a British National party (on occasion the British Movement) who were even more rabidly Nazi; but given their fetishisms for uniform style dress, were even too much for the local police to stomach.

    By early 1977 a Leeds local anti-fascist alliance had come into being. However, it was drawn mainly from a disparate range of left grouplets as well as some self-appointed and well meaning but often eccentric community ‘representatives’. A front of sorts, it might have been, but regarding united with its competing definitions of what was or wasn’t fascism, it wasn’t. Yet another ant-fascist demonstration in Bradford revealed how tactically cumbersome and useless this organisation was- problems all too clearly demonstrated with a post-demo post mortem that saw the main body of pacifists condemning a minority of highly moralistic squadists for a particularly violent counter-demonstration which had resulted in a higher than usual number of arrests and injuries.

    The mood on the left by mid-1977 was mixed. A realisation that the fight had to continue combined with a growing sense of reality that both resources and nerves were being worn thin. So it was with a feeling of relief when the the NF announcement that they were planning a demonstration in Lewisham was met with the outright defiance of ‘they shall not pass’. But then the misgivings informed by so many experiences of score draws and not a few failures kicked in. How to generate the numbers sufficient for a demonstration that could defy a Home Office ban then still fight its way through to the Nazis?

    But then through local briefings more information began to come through. If the Labour Home Secretary (and Leeds MP) Merlyn Rees did call a ban, then a demonstration of sorts would go ahead. But if, as seemed likely, there would be no ban and the police would be used to ensure that the NF could march, then there would be a battle; not a counter-demonstration, but an outright confrontation through an early occupation of a major road junction by anti-Nazis. Also a realistion this time that stewards rather than maintain order, would in fact encouraging the maximum disorder and mayhem at the appropriate time.

    And the the rumour that in anticipation of massive police protection around the head of the Nazi column, a number of volunteers would be deploying tactics in order to make the breakthrough. And pigs might fly.

    And so to Lewisham with our three coaches from Leeds at dawn- about one third students and more or less a gender balance. But before departure, names and addresses to be left with our group solicitor. Everyone with sound foot-ware. As little money as possible- and to be left in the keeping of the coach driver. And nothing that in any way that could be taken to be a weapon. Among our delegation to the ensuing fray, three student nurses and a second year trainee doctor with first aid packs and pain-killers and bottled water. And no bravado- just an uneasy feeling that this time it would be different.

    The Leeds coaches parked up about one mile from the New Cross rendezvous we were told to head towards. And for a navigational aid we just marched towards to throb of the sound systems. Then miraculously through to the road junction- about half a mile from the station- and with thousands already assembled on a hot and sweltering afternoon with the smell of food and the deafening sound of reggae and anti-fascist chanting.

    Then a calm amid murmurs of speculation. The road momentarily sealed by a phalanx of police then opens and the martial sounds and the furled union jacks of the National Front are released into a cauldron of anger and action. Away to my left a group of London Women Against the Fascists is beginning to maul the police line. Our crowd pushes forwards, a barrage of smoke flares flies into the Honour Guard- largely made up of Leeds Nazi street-fighters now looking decidedly apprehensive. Then from behind as I feel myself asphyxiating from the crush, a shout of ‘move aside’ followed by a forward surge of bodies making up a wedge to burst through the police cordons.

    Then police command appears to beak down, police horses and riders untrained for such mayhem, begin to lose control, the police lines break and within seconds and without the protection of the state, the Nazis at first show panic- before then turning with screams of fear to break ranks and run. They run to nearby houses bellowing for refuge, into the arms of panicking police officers more concerned with saving their own skin. And then some, consumed by a fear of those they had been told were puny, decadent, inferior or too cowardly to resist, rush in desperation towards the station- and in some cases- dispensing with the stairs- jump headlong over the parapet of the bridge and onto live conductor lines.

    And then the aftermath with Met police officers instructed to go back and retrieve at least some honour, begin to lose control further as hand to hand fighting runs along the high road and with most of the Leeds contingent forced into a rearguard into the campus of Goldsmith’s college; where bricks from a partially completed annexe fly into the ramshackle ranks of the police.

    And now 40 years later, was it worth it? Yes. And would I do it again if necessary? Absolutely.

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