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Why did the Battle of Lewisham happen?

The Foster Family

16-year old Christopher Foster who was arrested and accused of being involved in muggings (© Syd Shelton, courtesy Autograph ABP)

The origins of the Battle of Lewisham began with a Metropolitan Police campaign targeting muggers. On 30 May 1977, the police arrested 21 young black men from the Lewisham on suspicion of a wave of street crimes across London. In response to the heavy-handed arrests, the ‘Lewisham 21 Defence Committee’ was set up. Christopher Foster’s father, David (pictured above) was instrumental in the establishment of the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee to support those arrested. The campaign HQ was their front room, where this photograph was taken.

On 2 July 1977, the Committee held a demonstration in New Cross which was attacked by members of the National Front (NF) who threw rotten fruit and bags of caustic soda. Later that month, the NF announced that on the 13 August it would stage an ‘anti-mugging’ march through New Cross and Lewisham to Catford.

NF steward waiting to set off, Achilles Street, 13 Aug. 1977 (© Peter Marlow)

The march by the NF was viewed as a highly provocative and many organisations called for it to be banned. In a letter to The Times newspaper on 9th August 1977 the Deputy Leader of Lewisham Council called the NF march, ‘a direct incitement to racial hatred and a danger to the people of Lewisham’. Two days later, also in The Times (11th August 1977) The Mayor of Lewisham, Roger Godsiff, criticised David McNee, the Commissioner of the Met. Police, and denounced arrangements for policing the march.

Direct opposition to the NF march came through the organisation of counter-marches designed to demonstrate opposition, both peacefully and more forcefully. The ‘All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism’ (ALCARAF) organised a peaceful march for the morning of the 13 August.

The Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, on the way to the ALCARAF rally. 13 Aug. 1977 (© Chris Schwarz)

The Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, on the way to the ALCARAF rally. 13 Aug. 1977 (© Chris Schwarz)

The Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, at the ALCARAF Rally, the Major of Lewisham behind.13 Aug. 1977(© Chris Schwarz)

The Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, at the ALCARAF Rally, the Major of Lewisham behind. 13 Aug. 1977(© Chris Schwarz)

The intended route of the ALCARAF march was from Ladywell Fields, along Lewisham Way and finishing at Railway Grove in New Cross, but this was viewed as being too close to the start of the NF march. ALCARAF reached an uneasy compromise with the Met. Police whereby the march would be diverted down Algernon Road, back towards Ladywell, at which point the protestors would disperse.

 

Other organisations, however, believed that the NF should be confronted at its assembly point in Achilles Street, New Cross and that attempts should be made to physically prevent the march. Particularly prevalent among these groups were the ‘Anti Racist / Anti-Fascist Co-ordinating Committee’ (ARAFCC) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who called for supporters to mass at Clifton Rise, near to the junction of New Cross Road and Lewisham Way and physically prevent the NF from marching.

Anti-racists meeting bore the NF march, New Cross Road, 13 Aug. 1977 (© Paul Trevor)

Anti-racists meeting bore the NF march, New Cross Road, 13 Aug. 1977 (© Paul Trevor)

On the eve of the march, opinions were still very much divided. ALCARAF continued to maintain that it would ‘not participate in any clash between extremists of left and right’, while another letter to a national newspaper suggested, ‘Two violently opposed groups of people intend to clash in our high street… it would be naïve to presume that there will be no violence’ (The Times, 12 August 1977).

Thus the stage was set for the Saturday 13 August 1977 and the events which would become known as the ‘Battle of Lewisham’.

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