I found out about this little piece of London history a couple of weeks ago when I came across some old photos, but since the London riots of the last week it’s even more apt than I thought. The Borough of Lewisham in southeast London experienced some of the violence faced by many parts of the city – including my area, Ealing.
On Monday evening in Lewisham, local riots broke out and 15 riot policemen faced down a large group of young people in Lee High Road. Cars were set alight and property vandalised. Many other areas experienced even more ferocious attacks and generally it seems that the majority of rioters acted without motive. However, southeast London has seen riots and violent protest many times before, but with more of a coherent purpose.
In the 1970s, south London became a key area of activity for members of The National Front and the National Party, and support for these neo-Nazi parties was on the increase. Anti-fascist groups were also gaining strength and in 1976 The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism was launched.
In July 1977 the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee held a demonstration against perceived racism in policing and 200 National Front supporters attacked the march, resulting in 80 arrests. This increasing anger on both sides led to even more shocking scenes a month later.
On 13th August 1977 there was a clash between a National Front march and anti-fascist demonstrators in Lewisham, which became known as the Battle of Lewisham. In response to the events of the previous month, The National Front organised a major march of its own from new Cross to Lewisham, with the idea that ‘we believe that the multi-racial society is wrong, is evil and we want to destroy it’ and claiming that 85% of muggers were black whilst 85% of muggers’ victims were white. Many called for the march to be banned, but the Metropolitan Police refused.
On the morning of the march, 5000 supporters of The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism gathered in Ladywell Fields, to hear speeches by prominent anti-fascists. Police tried to keep these demonstrators away from New Cross, where National Front demonstrators were assembling, but clashes broke out and smoke bombs and police horses were used.
The police then escorted the National Front march out of Achilles Street, up Pagnell Street and into the main New Cross Road, but anti-fascist protesters threw bricks and smoke bombs at the marchers, attacked the back of the march and set fire to National Front banners.
The police then took control again. Using road blocks to keep people back, they escorted the National Front marchers with lines of police three deep protecting them on either side. Anti-NF demonstrators then blocked the High Street in Lewisham Town Centre, cutting short the National Front’s march and rally.
The police then led the marchers onto trains to leave the area. Without realising the National Front supporters had left, anti-fascists continued to clash violently with police, resulting in the first use of riot shields in England. 214 people were arrested and at least 111 were injured.