On This Day: The Battle of Lewisham, 13th August 1977

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.

BoL Right-Left clash

Far-right and left-wing activists clash on the streets of south east London during the Battle of Lewisham (Photo: John Hodder for the Guardian).

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:

  1. ALCARAF organised a peaceful demonstration for the morning of the 13th August.
  2. The 13 August Ad Hoc Committee planned to occupy the National Front’s meeting point at Clifton Rise.
  3. 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.

BoL Police

Police officers attempt to hold back demonstrators (Photo: John Hodder for the Observer).

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.

BoL NF

National Front marchers surrounded by police officers (Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy).

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.

BoL New Cross Road-Lewisham Way

Anti-fascist protesters gather at the junction of New Cross Road and Lewisham Way (Photo: Chris Schwartz).

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

 

 

On Blackheath Festival: A Turbulent Setting

The On Blackheath festival took place on the 12th-13th September 2015, on Blackheath in south east London.

The On Blackheath festival took place on the 12th-13th September 2015, on Blackheath in south east London.

Last weekend, I went with my Mum and sister to the On Blackheath festival which is, funnily enough, on Blackheath in south east London. Shared between the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich, it is one of the largest areas of common land in London today. It is a fantastic setting for a family-oriented festival; when it gets dark you can see the lights of the towers in Canary Wharf glinting from across the river. But Blackheath is ancient, going back at least as far as the Doomsday Book, and it has hosted countless other gatherings of a more turbulent nature.

The festival has a laid back, family friendly atmosphere, but not every gathering on Blackheath has been so pleasant.

The festival has a laid back, family friendly atmosphere, but not every gathering on Blackheath has been so pleasant.

The common land of London has always played a role in the life of turbulent London, hosting many a protest and political meeting. Before the Gordon Riots in 1780 the Protestant Association held a mass meeting in St. George’s Fields, the area of modern day Waterloo and Lambeth. In 1848 the Chartists held a rally on Kennington Common (all that remains of which is the Oval cricket ground) which did not go their way and effectively ended the Chartist movement. The similarity between St. George’s Fields and Kennington Common is that they no longer exist. Blackheath does, and when you go there you can imagine standing in the footsteps of famous radicals.

The Manic Street Preachers performing at the On Blackheath festival 2015.

The Manic Street Preachers performing at the On Blackheath festival 2015.

So when I was standing on Blackheath on Saturday night, listening to the Manic Street Preachers performing “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” which is inspired by the 1936 Spanish Civil War, I got thinking about Blackheath’s radical history. The Manic Street Preachers are not afraid to be political in their performances, and they may not have realised it but they were continuing a strong Blackheath tradition by doing so at On Blackheath. During the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, and the 1450 Kentish Rebellion both used Blackheath as a rallying point. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, is commemorated by Wat Tyler Road, which runs across the heath. After camping on Blackheath, Cornish rebels angry at a war tax imposed by Henry VII were defeated at the Battle of Deptford Bridge (otherwise known as the Battle of Blackheath) in June 1497.

In the middle of Blackheath is a mound of earth called Whitefield’s Mount (or Whitfield’s Mount/Mound), which at one point was known as Wat Tyler’s mound because it was used for making speeches during the Peasant’s Revolt. One of the speakers was John Ball, who uttered that well-known statement of equality:

 When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

He didn’t necessarily make this speech on Whitefield’s Mount, but wouldn’t it be great if he did? It has been speculated that the Mount is the final resting place of some of the 200-2000 Cornishmen killed during the Battle of Deptford Bridge. True or not, Whitefield’s Mount is clearly intimately linked with London’s turbulent past.

Street performers at the On Blackheath festival. The Cornish Rebellion in 1497 was started when King Henry VII raised taxes to fight a war with the Scots.

Street performers at the On Blackheath festival. The Cornish Rebellion in 1497 was started when King Henry VII raised taxes to fight a war with the Scots.

By the 1830s and 40s, radicals were addressing a new set of issues, and the Chartists had began using Blackheath as a location for meetings as part of their campaign for universal male suffrage. Almost a hundred years later, it would also be used for meetings calling for female suffrage. More recently, Blackheath was used in 2009 for a week-long climate camp, complete with compost toilets, and a pedal-powered radio station and TV channel. In 2013, there was a protest against Zippo’s Circus who were set up on Blackheath, one of the few UK circuses that still use animals in their performances. Even the On Blackheath festival itself has been the subject of protest, with anarchist Ian Bone objecting to common land being fenced off for a ‘foodie fest’ that was not accessible to the poor communities in surrounding areas. 

London’s open spaces play a vital role in the city’s life by hosting gatherings of all kinds. From festivals to protests, they are a key part of the social, political and cultural life of the city. London’s 2000+ year history means that almost anywhere you go in London will have been the site of past protest of some sort, but areas of common land have been particularly contentious, and Blackheath is no exception. By performing songs such as “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next,” the Manic Street Preachers were both drawing from and continuing a tradition of dissent on Blackheath that stretches back hundreds of years.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Blackheath, London.” Wikipedia. Last modified 12th September 2015, accessed 13th September 2015. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackheath,_London 

Anon. “Cornish Rebellion of 1497.” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_Rebellion_of_1497

Anon. “Zippos Circus Protest in Blackheath!” The London Animal Rights Meetup Group. No date, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at  http://www.meetup.com/animalrights-202/events/112127872/

Chandler, Mark. “BLACKHEATH: Climate Camp Protest Criticised by Councillors and Police.” News Shopper. Last modified 27th August 2009, accessed 15th September 2009. Available at  http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/4568764.BLACKHEATH__Climate_Camp_protest_criticised_by_councillors_and_police/?ref=rl 

Read, Carly. “I predict a riot! Hell-raising anarchist Ian Bone set to boycott posh On Blackheath music and food festival – and urges The Levellers not to perform.” News Shopper. Last modified 29th July 2014, accessed 15th September 2015. Available at http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/11372522.Hell_raising_anarchist_set_to_boycott_On_Blackheath_festival/

Runner500. “In Search of the Battle of Deptford Bridge.” Running Past. Last modified 2nd January 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at https://runner500.wordpress.com/tag/deptford-bridge/ 

Runner500. “Whitefield’s Mount- A Rallying Point for Protest and Preaching.” Running Past. Last modified 29th October 2014, accessed 14th September 2015. Available at  https://runner500.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/whitefields-mount-a-rallying-point-for-protest-and-preaching/