The Battle of Lewisham took place on 13 August 1977, when 500 members of the far-right National Front (NF) attempted to march from New Cross to Lewisham in southeast London and various counter-demonstrations by approximately 4,000 people led to violent clashes between the two groups and between the anti-NF demonstrators and police. 5,000 police officers were present and 56 officers were injured, 11 of whom were hospitalised. 214 people were arrested. Later disturbances in Lewisham town centre saw the first use of police riot shields on the UK mainland.
In the mid-1970s, New Cross and surrounding areas of South London became the focus of intense and sometimes violent political activity by neo-Nazis and members of the National Front, led by John Tyndall, and a breakaway faction: the National Party led by John Kingsley Read. In 1976 the two organisations between them polled more votes in a local ward election to Lewisham London Borough Council than the Labour Party. In response to this, the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) was launched with the support of local trade unions, anti-racist and anti-fascist groups.
On 30 May 1977, the police staged dawn raids in south-east London and arrested twenty-one young black people including a 24-year-old woman, in connection with a series of muggings. Following the arrests, the police said that they believed the "gang" were responsible "for 90 per cent of the street crime in south London over the past six months." They appeared at Camberwell Green Magistrates' Court on 1 June 1977, charged with various offences of "conspiracy to rob." During the hearings, some of the defendants fought with the police while spectators in the public gallery attempted to invade the court. The Lewisham 21 Defence Committee was set up soon after. They heavily criticised police tactics.
On Saturday, 2 July 1977, the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee held a demonstration in New Cross. Up to 200 National Front supporters turned out to oppose it, throwing "rotten fruit and bags of caustic soda at marchers". More than 80 people were arrested.
National Front march
In the following weeks, the National Front (NF) announced plans for a march from New Cross to Lewisham. The NF national organiser, Martin Webster, told the press: 'We believe that the multi-racial society is wrong, is evil and we want to destroy it'. Local church leaders, Lewisham Council and the Liberal Party all called for the march to be banned, but Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee declined to make an application to the Home Secretary for a ban to be imposed. McNee reasoned that if a ban were imposed, then this would lead to "increasing pressure" to ban similar events and would be "abdicating his responsibility in the face of groups who threaten to achieve their ends by violent means." Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Helm asked the NF to voluntarily abandon the march, which they refused to do. Helm also asked how they would respond if the march was banned, and was told that they would simply march elsewhere. This meant that any ban would have to be imposed, manned and enforced across the entire Metropolitan Police district, which would still not prevent the NF from marching outside of the proscribed area. A ban on marching would also not prevent the NF instead holding a static public meeting "perhaps in provocative circumstances", which would still attract a counter-demonstration. The police dilemma was further compounded by the limitations of the Public Order Act 1936, which granted no powers of arrest in the event that a ban was ignored.
There were political differences between anti-fascists about how best to respond, and as a result there were three distinct mobilisations for the counter-demonstration. ALCARAF called for peaceful demonstration earlier on the day of the National Front march. 13 August Ad Hoc Organising Committee, called on people to occupy the National Front's intended meeting point at Clifton Rise in New Cross. A third organisation, the Anti Racist/Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee (ARAFCC, the London-wide Federation of Anti-Racist/Anti-Fascist Committees, including ALCARAF) also mobilised activists from across Greater London and published leaflets and posters calling for support for the ALCARAF march and for a physical attempt to stop the NF march.
In the week before the demonstration, a meeting took place in a pub in Deptford between ARAFCC and the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) Central Committee member responsible for their mobilisation. This meeting was intended to produce an agreed joint plan (as both organisations intended to physically block the streets to stop the NF march). However, the SWP insisted that the London Anti-Fascist Committees must accept the leading role of the SWP and mobilise their supporters under the direction of the SWP appointed stewards. This demand was rejected by the ARAFCC (whose members included many veteran Anti-Fascists, some anarchists, Communist Party and YCL members and trade union activists) and thus ARAFCC appointed its own stewards and made detailed plans to combine support for the ALCARAF demonstration in the morning with a physical blockade of New Cross Road in the afternoon. Although the official position of ALCARAF was that it was only mounting a peaceful demonstration on the morning of 13 August to show public opposition to the racist march planned for that afternoon, a number of ALCARAF activists collaborated with and supported the ARAFCC plans to mobilise for two events on the day.
Saturday, 13 August 1977
At 11:30 am, the ALCARAF demonstration gathered in Ladywell Fields, a park in Ladywell. Over 5000 people from more than 80 organisations heard speeches by the Mayor of Lewisham, the Bishop of Southwark, the exiled Bishop of Namibia and others. By agreement with the police the ALCARAF march halted at the top of Loampit Vale between Lewisham and New Cross. However, the Anti Racist/Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee stewards encouraged many marchers to go with them through the back-streets from Loampit Vale to New Cross Road. By this means a great many people from the ALCARAF march succeeded in getting into New Cross Road and onto the route of the NF march. Meanwhile, many of the protestors mobilised by the SWP had gathered in Clifton Rise, a side-street off New Cross Road, but were then contained there by police and unable to get into the main road.
There were clashes when the police tried to move push demonstrators further down Clifton Rise, away from where the National Front demonstrators were assembling in nearby Achilles Street. Police horses were sent into the crowd, and smoke bombs thrown.
At 3.00 pm, the police escorted National Front marchers out of Achilles Street, up Pagnell Street and into the main New Cross Road, behind a large 'Stop the Muggers' banner. Although the police had cleared a route along New Cross Road, it was still lined with a great many people (many from ALCARAF march in the morning). The marchers were pelted with bricks, smoke bombs, bottles and pieces of wood. Anti-NF demonstrators managed to briefly break through police lines and attack the back of the march, separating them from the main body. The protesters then burnt captured National Front banners.
The police separated National Front and anti-fascists, and mounted police cleared a path through the crowd attempting to block progress of march towards Deptford Broadway. Police led the march through deserted streets of Lewisham with crowds held back by road blocks over the whole area. Marchers were flanked by police three deep on either side, with 24 mounted police in front.
Meanwhile, the anti-NF demonstrators, joined by increasing numbers of local people (especially young people) made their way to Lewisham Town Centre, where they blocked the High Street. Unable to meet in the town centre proper, the National Front held a short rally in a car park in Connington Road, before being led on to waiting trains by the police.
Clashes continued between the police and counter-demonstrators, the latter largely unaware that the National Front had already left the area. The police brought out riot shields for the first time on the English mainland, and baton charges and mounted police were used in an attempt to disperse the crowd. Bricks and bottles were thrown at police and police vehicles damaged.
There was a brief period when the police completely lost control of the centre of Lewisham (later dubbed the People's Republic of Lewisham Clock-Tower). There was also an apparent break-down in the police chain of command, with officers driving vehicles at high speed up and down the Lewisham High Street under a hail of bricks and bottles, until one crashed into a railway bridge and the police charged to prevent the three occupants from being attacked by the demonstrators. There was also some minor looting of shops and a vehicle was set on fire before police restored control of the area.
111 people in the march were injured and up to 214 people were arrested during the clashes.
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.
- Lindsay Mackie (15 August 1977). "The real losers in Saturday's battle of Lewisham". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 October 2015.
- Jenny Bourne (19 September 2007). "The real losers in Saturday's battle of Lewisham". Institute of Race Relations. Retrieved 14 October 2015.
- Borrell, Clive (31 May 1977). "21 coloured youths arrested". The Times (60017). London. p. 1.
- "21 on robbery charges". The Times (60018). 1 June 1977. p. 4.
- "Policemen in court fracas with young defendants". The Times (60019). London. 2 June 1977. p. 2.
- Kentish Mercury, 16 June 1977
- South London Press, 5 July 1977
- South London Press, 5 August 1977
- "BBC ON THIS DAY – 13 – 1977: Violent clashes at NF march". news.bbc.co.uk. 13 August 1977. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
- South London Press, 2 August 1977
- Evans, Peter (17 August 1977). "Yard looks at police tactics on demonstrations". The Times (60084). London. p. 2.
- South London Press, 16 August 1977
- Kentish Mercury, 18 August 1977
- The Times, 15 August 1977
- Kentish Mercury, 5 July 1977
- Townsend, Mark (12 August 2017). "How the battle of Lewisham helped to halt the rise of Britain's far right". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
- Stong, Charlie (13 August 2017). "Film of 'Battle of Lewisham' found in time for anniversary". London News Online. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
- "Lewisham '77: success or failure?" By Jenny Bourne, Institute for Race Relations, September 2007
- "A black and white glimpse of the past" by Darcus Howe, New Statesman October 2007
- Vulliamy, Ed (4 March 2007). "Blood and glory". The Observer. London. Retrieved 15 June 2009.
- "National Front march through Lewisham 1977" Eyewitness account of events