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What was the 'Battle of Lewisham'?

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The Bishop of Southwark addresses the crowd at Ladywell Fields. Photo: Chris Schwarz

On 13 August 1977, under the pretext of demonstrating against street crime, the far-right National Front (NF) organized a march from New Cross to Catford, passing through multicultural Lewisham.

Attempts to have the march banned in the High Court by the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) had failed. So on the morning of the 13 August 1977, hundreds of NF members began to assemble in Achilles Street in New Cross.

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, huge crowds of local people and members of political organisations had gathered on Clifton Rise to block the NF’s intended route.

Police faced forceful opposition when they attempted to clear Clifton Rise and there were violent confrontations when they tried to reroute the NF through Pagnell Street.

Later that afternoon, violent clashes continued in Lewisham town centre as counter-demonstrators clashed with police after the NF had abandoned their march and been escorted out of the area.

At that point, and 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.

The events of 13 August 1977 became known as the ‘Battle of Lewisham'

Why did the Battle of Lewisham happen?

On 30 May 1977, in reaction to a series of street crimes, police arrested 21 young black men from Lewisham on charges of loitering and conspiracy to steal. In response to the arrests and the heavy-handedness of the police, the ‘Lewisham 21 Defence Committee’ was set up.

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.

Later that month, the NF announced that it would stage a national ‘anti-mugging’ march from New Cross, through Lewisham, to Catford on 13 August 1977.

The NF’s plans were seen by many to be highly provocative, given the multicultural nature of the area. However, significant support for the far-right cannot be ignored and in a 1976 Deptford by-election, the NF and the National Party won 44.5% of the vote. This was undoubtedly a factor in the NF’s decision march in Lewisham.

Many called for the march to be banned, including Lewisham Council, which 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.

Direct opposition to the NF march came through two major counter-demonstrations.

The ‘All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism’ (ALCARAF) organised a peaceful march from Ladywell Fields to New Cross for the morning of the 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.

Who was involved in the Battle of Lewisham

The ‘All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism’ (ALCARAF)

ALCARAF were prominent in calls for the demonstration to be banned and were adamant that counter demonstrations should be peaceful.

ALCARAF was formed in September 1976 when the Deptford and Lewisham Trades Council convened a meeting to discuss the rise of racialism and fascism in the Borough. According to the minutes of that meeting, it was attended by ‘representatives from political parties, immigrant organisations, tenants associations, churches, voluntary organisations, community groups, the co-operative movement and the Lewisham Council for Community Relations’.

 

The ‘Anti Racist / Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee’ (ARAFCC)

ARAFCC members supported both the ALCARAF march and the blockade of Clifton Rise.

Following a National Front march in Wood Green in April 1977, local groups affiliated to one ‘All London Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee’. There were 23 affiliate groups, including Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF). ARAFCC published a newspaper, CARF, which began as a section in the Anti-Fascist magazine Searchlight.

 

The National Front (NF)

The NF organised and led the ‘anti-mugging’ march from Achilles Street to Catford.

The National Front was founded in 1967 as an amalgamation of The League of Empire Loyalists and the British National Party. In the late 1970s, the NF was gaining in popularity, and in 1976, together with the National Party it gained 44.5% of votes in a parliamentary by-election in Deptford.

 

The Metropolitan Police

The Metropolitan Police were responsible for policing and determined the routes taken by the marches.

Appeals were made to the Met to ban the NF march, but the Police Commissioner assured the public that, ‘adequate measures can be taken to preserve the peace’.

2500 police officers were deployed on 13 August 1977. 270 were injured, 57 received hospital treatment and 7 police coaches were damaged. 214 people were arrested with 202 people charged. Critics of the policing of the demonstration included a Southwark Canon who claimed, ‘violence broke out only when the police tied to push their way through demonstrators’.

 

Socialist Workers Party (SWP)

The SWP advocated direct action to oppose the NF and called for, and helped to organise, the counter-demonstration at Clifton Rise. 

The Socialist Workers Party was founded in 1977, having previously been known as the International Socialists and the Socialist Review Group. On the day, many SWP members attended the ALCARAF march in the morning before going on to Clifton Rise and they also distributed leaflets the ALCARAF marchers urging them make their way to New Cross.

Battle of Lewisham Timeline

11:30 | Thousands gather in the rain on Ladywell Fields to take part in the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) demonstration, supported by more than 80 organisations. They hear speeches by, among others, the Mayor of Lewisham, Roger Godsiff, the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, and Colin Winter, the Namibia ‘Bishop-in-Exile’.

 

11:55 | Led by a truck featuring a steel band, the ALCARAF march sets off down Ladywell Road and onto Lewisham High Street.

 

12:10 | Police clash with Socialist Workers Party counter protestors as they are evicted from a derelict shop on New Cross Road facing Clifton Rise.

 

12:45 | Police block the ALCARAF march at the junction of Loampit Vale and Algernon Road. Despite formal appeals from The Mayor of Lewisham to the police commander, the ALCARF march is diverted back to Ladywell Fields via Algernon Road rather than continuing to New Cross.

 

13:00 | As the ALCARAF march is re-routed, hundreds drift away and make their way to New Cross through the many back streets.

 

13:30 | The National Front begin to assemble behind police lines in Achilles Street off New Cross Road, which is thronged with thousands of counter protestors.

 

14:00 | Police attempt to forcibly clear the counter protestors from Clifton Rise. Orange smoke bombs are thrown as the area descends into chaos and violence. Elsewhere, the Bishop of Southwark leads a church service against racism at St Stephen’s Church in Lewisham.

 

14:06 | Counter protestors drive mounted police from New Cross Road with a ferocious bombardment of bottles, cans and half-bricks. Two mounted policemen are dragged from their horses.

 

14:20 | Police armed with truncheons clear New Cross Road and Clifton Rise of counter protestors, with witnesses describing serious injuries.

 

15:00 | With the counter protestors momentarily dispersed, police begin to escort the National Front march out of Achilles Street, up Pagnell Street and onto New Cross Road. Estimates of NF marchers range from 600 to 1000.

The NF march is met with a hail of missiles from counter protestors and local householders overlooking the route. Counter protestors break through the ring of police and clash with the NF.

Police separate the NF march and counter protestors, and mounted police lead the march through empty streets towards Lewisham town centre.

While small groups attack the NF march from side streets, large numbers of counter protestors assemble around Lewisham clock tower intent on preventing the passage of the NF march.

Unable to pass through the town centre, the NF instead hold a rally in a car park in Cressingham Road, before being led by Police through a tunnel in Granville Park and onto waiting trains at Lewisham station.

Still anticipating the arrival of the NF march, counter protestors fortify the entrance to Lewisham High Street by the clock tower. In response, police use riot shields for the very first time in England to disperse the crowd towards Catford.

A police van is attacked and part of the crowd attempts to surround Ladywell Police Station. Shop windows are smashed as a riot breaks out.

 

17:00 | An uneasy calm settles over Lewisham on a day that saw 214 people arrested and at least 111 injured.

 

Below are three podcasts on the Battle of Lewisham commissioned by the project and produced by students on our MA in Radio: