Most people who know anything about the history of protest in London are familiar with the Battle of Cable Street, which is remembered by many as a victory of anti-fascism over the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists in 1936. Less well-known is the Battle of Lewisham, which took place four decades later in South East London. The two events share many similarities; the Battle of Lewisham was also sparked by attempts to prevent a far-right group from promoting a xenophobic message by marching through the streets of London, and it also ended with clashes between demonstrators and police. It is also seen as the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the fascist group involved, the National Front, leading to a significant period of unpopularity for far-right ideologies which has only recently come to an end.
The events known as the Battle of Lewisham were spread out over quite a large area, so I put together this map to help make sense of things:
During the mid-1970s, New Cross in south east London was a focus for the organising activities of the National Front, a far-right fascist group. The National Front was quite popular in the area, and in 1976 the All Lewisham Campaign Against Fascism and Racism (ALCARAF) was set up in order to counter this growing popularity. In 1977, tensions increased further due to the arrest and trial of the ‘Lewisham 21,’ 21 young black people whom the police accused of being part of a gang responsible for 90% of the street crime in south east London. The National Front decided to capitalise on this tension, and announced plans for an ‘anti-mugging’ march in the area on the afternoon of 13th August.
Local church leaders, Lewisham Council and the Liberal Party all called for the march to be banned, but David McNee, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, refused. Anti-fascist groups started planning how to disrupt the march itself, but could not agree on the best response. As a result, 3 separate counter demonstrations were planned by different groups:
- ALCARAF organised a peaceful demonstration for the morning of the 13th August.
- The 13 August Ad Hoc Committee planned to occupy the National Front’s meeting point at Clifton Rise.
- The Anti-Racist/Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ARAFCC) called for support for the ALCARAF march and for a physical attempt to stop the National Front. To confuse matters further, the ALCARAF was a member of the ARAFCC.
At 11:30 on the 13th of August, the ALCARAF demonstration gathered in Ladywell Fields in Lewisham. Around 5000 people listened to speeches by the Mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark and the exiled Bishop of Namibia. After the rally, ALCARAF marched as far as Algernon, where the police turned them back towards Ladywell Fields. After this, however, ARAFCC stewards led people through back streets to New Cross Road, which was part of the National Front’s planned route. As a result, lots of people made it from the ALCARAF demonstration to the afternoon protests.
The first clashes between police and counter-demonstrators happened at about 12:00 pm, when Socialist Worker Party activists were evicted from a derelict shop on New Cross Road near Clifton Rise. There were further clashes when the police tried to force the demonstrators down Clifton Rise, away from Achilles Street, where the National Front started assembling at about 1:30 pm. At 3:00 pm, the police escorted the National Front out of Achilles Street and onto New Cross Road. The police had cleared a route with some difficulty, but the road was still lined with people, and the National Front were pelted with bricks, smoke bombs, bottles and other objects. Some protesters managed to break through the police lines and separate the back of the march from everyone else. National Front banners were captured and burnt before the police managed to separate the two groups. Mounted police were used to clear a path through crowds who were trying to stop the National Front advancing along New Cross Road. The police used roadblocks to keep people out of the area, and officers surrounded the National Front 3 deep.
Anti-fascist protesters went to Lewisham town centre, where the National Front march was supposed to finish, and blocked the High Street. As a result, the National Front had a short rally in a car park on Cressington Road, then were escorted by the police to trains which were waiting at Lewisham Station to take them out of the area. Most counter-demonstrators were not aware that the National Front had left the area, and clashes continued between them and the police for several more hours. At one point, the police briefly lost control of central Lewisham, a period that was later dubbed ‘the People’s Republic of Lewisham Clock Tower.’ Throughout the day, more than 100 people were injured, about half of them police officers, and around 200 were arrested.
The Battle of Lewisham was a humiliation for the National Front. They were vastly outnumbered by counter demonstrators, and what was meant to be a show of strength and legitimacy made them look weak and unpopular. It was also a significant moment in the history of protest policing: it was the first time riot shields were used on the British mainland (many tools used to police protesters were used in northern Ireland first). Baton charges and mounted police were also used to try and disperse protests, a technique which has become familiar to activists in London over the last few decades.
According to the Remembering the Battle of Lewisham project, undertaken by Goldsmiths to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Battle in 2017, very few people know what happened in south east London that day in 1977. On the 40th anniversary of the Battle, a plaque commemorating the protest was installed on 314 New Cross Road. There are also plans for a community memorial to be situated on nearby Batavia Road. Perhaps projects like these will make more people aware of what happened during the Battle of Lewisham. As people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees Mogg continue to gain power and influence, it can only be a good thing for people to know that fascism can be defeated by popular protest.
Sources and Further Reading
Goldsmiths, University of London. “Remembering the Battle of Lewisham 40 Years on.” No date, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at https://www.gold.ac.uk/history/research/battle-of-lewisham/ (There are a lot of great resources on these webpages).
Townsend, Mark. “How the Battle of Lewisham Helped to Halt the Rise of Britain’s Far Right.” The Guardian. Last modified 13 August 2017, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/13/battle-of-lewisham-national-front-1977-far-right-london-police
Whitmore, Greg. “Flares and Fury: The Battle of Lewisham 1977–in Pictures.” The Guardian. Last modified 12 August 2017, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/gallery/2017/aug/12/flares-and-fury-the-battle-of-lewisham-1977
Wikipedia. “Battle of Lewisham.” Last modified 5 January 2018, accessed 8 August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lewisham