Just like Brixton and Notting Hill, Lewisham has experienced its share of racism and fascist uprisings. It was in Lewisham, that British fascism suffered a historic defeat as anti-racist groups pushed back against right-wing extremists in a historic event known as The Battle of Lewisham.
Lead up to the Battle of Lewisham
The National Front
The National Front (NF) is a far-right fascist political party in the UK that was founded in 1967 when the British Union of Fascists and the League of Empire Loyalists merged. They are opposed to a multiracial society believing that Black people, in particular, are a direct threat to White society.
Lewisham proved to be a stronghold for the party when in the elections of February 1974, they secured 1000 votes which increased to over 1100 in the October elections. By 1976, in a by-election for the Borough’s Deptford ward, the fascist parties only missed gaining a seat on the council due to the split of their vote between the National Front and its splinter group National Party. Between them, the parties obtained more votes than the winning Labour candidate.
Their campaigns targeted the Black and Asian communities, promoting the repatriation of non-white residents and seeking to exclude these communities from the British identity.
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 become established across London and affiliated to one All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ARAFCC).
On 30 May 1977, police raided several homes and arrested 21 young Black people. All 21 were charged with involvement in recent muggings in the area, and the Metropolitan Police Service even went so far as to claim they were a gang responsible for a majority of street crime in South London for that year so far. The raids were intended as a publicity stunt to show police awareness of ‘residents’ concerns’
In the end, 21 young residents of Lewisham were handed a dubious charge of ‘loitering and conspiracy to steal’. Believing this to be a case of racial profiling, and citing allegations of police heavy-handedness, the local community formed a defence committee to help fundraise and provide support to the Lewisham 21. The group also organised protests to raise awareness of the case. These protests drew their own counter-protests from the National Front, sparking conflict.
On 2 July 1977, the Defence Committee held a demonstration in New Cross, which was attacked by members of the National Front (NF) who threw rotten fruit and bags of caustic soda at protesters.
NF counter protest
Later that month, the NF keen to exploit the tensions, announced that it would hold an ‘anti-mugging’ march from New Cross, through Lewisham, to Catford on 13 August 1977. Given the multicultural make up of Lewisham, the NF’s plans were seen by many to be extremely provocative. But their support in the Deptford by-election obviously played a part in their decision to march in Lewisham.
Lewisham Council went to the High Court on 11 August to seek a writ forcing the Police Commissioner, David McNee, to ban the march. In his affidavit to the court, Ronald Pepper, Deputy Leader of Lewisham Council, wrote; “The applicants are most concerned that the marches planned for August 13th are a danger to the people of the Borough and that they will cause incitement to racial hatred and discrimination”.
McNee responded, in his affidavit; “Having considered all the circumstances I have no reasonable grounds for apprehending that either of the processions will occasion serious public disorder… and I am satisfied that the police are able to maintain control of the situation and prevent any serious disorder occurring”.
After hearing evidence for four hours, Judge Slynn dismissed the Council’s case.
In response to the march two major counter-demonstrations were planned by anti-fascist groups.
The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) organised a peaceful march from Ladywell Fields to New Cross on the morning of 13 August with the intention of avoiding a direct confrontation with the NF.
Meanwhile, organisations including the Anti-Racist / Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee’ (ARAFCC) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which believed that the NF should be confronted and physically prevented from marching, called for people to assemble on Clifton Rise two hours before the start of the NF march, bringing together some 4,000 people from 80 organisations across the UK.
The Battle of Lewisham
On the morning of 13 August 1977, around 500 National Front supporters answered the call to attend the march, opposed by several thousand anti-fascists.
The NF arrived at their assembly point in Achilles Street in New Cross carrying their banners of “Stop the Muggers” and found it was already the scene of clashes. Though the main counter-demonstration organisers had agreed to stop short of the assembly point, some elements of the protest disagreed and decided to try and occupy the assembly point and block the march. This led to clashes with police as they tried to force the protestors back.
At the same time, thousands of local people and community leaders, including the Mayor of Lewisham and the Bishop of Southwark, came together at Ladywell Fields to hold a peaceful counter-march under the ALCARAF banner.
By midday in New Cross, the crowds had grown in number and police faced vigorous opposition when they attempted to clear Clifton Rise. The protesters were determined to block the NFs intended route. Though the National Front was able to begin their march, anti-fascists broke police lines and managed to split the National Front in two.
In response, the police diverted the march through Pagnell Street and began actively dispersing the anti-fascists, arresting those that resisted. 200 anti-fascists were arrested on the day, with around 40 of them being from the local community.
The National Front were forced to abandon their march and the police escorted them out of the area. However, later that afternoon, violent clashes continued in Lewisham town centre as counter-demonstrators clashed with police and police charged at demonstrators with their horses. It was then for the first time on the British mainland, the police deployed the large rigid-plastic riot shields that would become such a hallmark of law and order in the 1980s.
On the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Lewisham in 2017, a maroon plaque was unveiled by Lewisham council Councillor Joan Millbank at 314 New Cross Road, on the corner of Clifton Rise where the resistance to the National Front march began.
In October 2019, a new public artwork commemorating the Battle of Lewisham was unveiled on Lewisham Way in New Cross. Designed in consultation with local people, it was inspired by 1970s zines and draws heavily on many of the iconic images taken on 13 August 1977. Prominent in the design is the civil liberties campaigner, Darcus Howe, in recognition of his role in the events of 13 August 1977 and his wider impact on UK society.