On a rainy day in August 1977 thousands of anti-fascists armed with bricks, bottles and wooden sticks marched between New Cross and Lewisham to confront members of the far-right National Front party.
Police used batons, smoke bombs and mounted patrols in an effort to simmer down the revolt that took place on Saturday August 13. The clash resulted in 56 injured police officers and 214 people arrested.
A series of events happening in south London that summer led to the situation. On May 30, 21 young black people were arrested in south-east London, in connection with muggings. “Clear the muggers off the streets” became one of the NF’s slogans.
This lead citizens to mobilise and create the Lewisham 21 Defense Committee, in support of those arrested. In that period of time, the NF and the National Party, both of far-right nature, also polled more votes combined than the Labour Party in a local ward election in 1976, which lead to the creation of the ALCARF (All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism).
Over a thousand NF detractors gathered in Lewisham, with the intention of making their way up to New Cross to confront the so-called Nazis.
Martin Lux, an anti-fascist activist who was in the frontline the morning of the Battle, wrote in his book Anti-Fascist: “Over the heads of the reception committee a police helicopter clattered impotently as we surged through the streets, ready for anything. Apart from anti-fascists, the streets were deserted. We’d outmanoeuvred the authorities so far and it looked like we’d be able to occupy New Cross Road with or without reinforcements.”
Eventually, the crowds grew stronger, attracting up to 4,000 people, far bigger than anything the police ensemble could contain, and protesters ran through the human-barriers formed by officers. Lux recalled: “We were now right up, parallel to the Front, their police cordon having disintegrated … No slogans, no chanting, just thousands of yelling voices, the sound of bottles crashing into nazi ranks, bricks crunching as they thudded into the road, off the sides of buildings, advertising hoardings, boarded up shops. Whole garden walls were demolished in seconds.
“We charged the Front, this was the long-awaited opportunity and we weren’t reluctant to get stuck in. Bricks and bottles raining all around, it was bloody, no holds barred, hand to hand fighting. Although the Fronters looked just like us down to the long hair and combat jackets, some even sporting flares, it was obvious who was who. Flying kicks, punches and the clashing of improvised weaponry filled the space around me.”
National Front members dispersed through Deptford Broadway to Lewisham but their opposers wanted more and a new mob gathered in front of Lewisham clock tower. The crowd marched to a nearby bowling alley, where it was believed NF members were having a rally and a new brutal fight began with the police. The severity of this clash led to the first use of riot shields on the UK mainland.
The riot was a landmark in the borough’s history, a show of strength from the people against not only the NF but also the police, questioning the values of those in power.
Until Sunday (March 19), an exhibition at Lewisham Arthouse is commemorating the Battle and celebrating the borough’s diversity. Walking to the exhibition in Lewisham Way visitors tread the path where thousands would have walked up from New Cross to Lewisham 40 years ago.
Steve McCarthy, curator of the exhibition, told Eastlondonlines: “This was a very troubled area. The country in general was. The Seventies were a time of austerity, maybe there are lessons to be learned [today] from that time.”
A further series of events, including a contemporary perspective of the Battle will take place in the months leading up to the anniversary. Despite facing new challenges like gentrification, the area remains rich in diversity.
Video reporters – Jason Knuckles and Benedetta Ricci