Wednesday, May 16, 2012

History Corner: Resisting the National Front 1980

In 1977, the famous Battle of Lewisham occurred when a march by the extreme right wing racist National Front from New Cross to Lewisham centre sparked fighting between anti-fascists, the NF and the police. But sadly this was not the end of the NF in South London. In 1980 there were two marches in quick succession, one in Southwark and one in Lewisham.

The NF march in Southwark took place on Sunday 2 March 1980, despite an earlier unsuccessful attempt by Southwark Council to get it banned. 'Around 1,000 Front supporters took part in the march from Wyndham Road, along Camberwell Road, to Camberwell Green, turning left in to Peckham Road, along Lyndhurst Way to residential Holly Grove [in Peckham] for an open air rally. The marchers - mostly teenage skinheads... chanted "National Front is the white man's Front, join the National Front". There were roars of "N---er Lovers" and "Kill the reds" whenever the few onlookers - mainly from windows - shouted anti-Front slogans' (South London Press 4 March 1980). The leader of this motley crue of racists was then NF Chairman Andrew Brons, who spoke at the rally at the end. He is now a BNP Member of the European Parliament.

The NF speak outside derelict house in Holly Grove 1980,
© Jim Rice,

A similar number of anti-racists turned out to oppose the march, with the counter-demonstration called by Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (SCARF)*. But they were prevented by the police from getting near to the NF: 'Hundreds of officers threw a cordon around them as they gathered outside the London College of Printing, Elephant and Castle... The organisers were informed of the progress of the march by motorcyclists riding between the two rallying points... Some marchers headed for New Kent Road only to be turned back by lines of police'.  Police also cordoned off all side roads along the route, banning pedestrians and traffic. There were ten arrests (SLP 4 March 1980). At one point 'A group of demonstrators started running, trying to get ahead of the escorting police, and scuffles broke out. Several policemen were bowled over' (Times 3 March 1980).

'Keep Britain Two Tone - Demonstrate Against National Front March' (Rock Against Racism)

The Lewisham March

On Saturday 12 April 1980, 100 NF marched from Clapham Junction to Wandsworth High Street. The following weekend they moved on to Lewisham. The march there has been called after Lewisham Council refused the NF permission to use a Council building for a meeting during its Greater London Council election campaign for its West Lewisham candiate Lynda Mirabita.

The route of the NF march on Sunday April 20 1980 was kept secret until the last minute - it went from Forest Hill to Catford where 'A rally was held in a confined areas bordered by Catford greyhound stadium, a railway embankment and bridge, a second railway line and a canal' (Times 21 April 1980). According to the South London Press (22 April 1980):  'Estimates varied between 250-700 NF marchers - mostly young skinheads - against 1,000 counter marchers. Marquees were put up in Hilly Fields for the 4,000 police drafted in for the day'. The police used similar tactics to those employed in Southwark: 'The Anti Nazi League grouped its supporters by Lewisham Town Hall but they were unable to reach their target because police had cordoned off all side streets along the route... mounted police prevented counter-demonstrators breaking through a cordon at Holbeach Road. About 50 protestors tried to reach the Front marchers by cutting across the Private Banks Sports Ground and a football match was temporarily halted as police rugby tackled the demonstrators on a pitch... Another group, armed with spanners patrolled the streets in a car searching for Front members'.

The St Pauls riot in Bristol had taken place just before the Lewisham march, and The Times reported (21 April 1980): 'After the march several hundred of the Anti-Nazi League counter-demonstrators suddenly turned and charged down Lewisham High Street. A few bottles broke against windows to cheers and a brick smashed a tailors shop window. Some youths, mainly black, changed 'Bristol, Bristol' as they ran... Mounted policemen were sent through back streets to cut of the charging youths.' Five people were arrested when police found four petrol bombs in a car in Lewisham High Street, and in a trial later that year four teenagers were jailed for six years each for possession of the petrol bombs which the prosecution claimed they had intended to use against the National Front (Times October 22 1980).

In total 72 people were arrested on the day of the demonstration, the majority of them counter-demonstrators. The police tactics were criticised by Christine Trebett of the All Lewisham Council Against Racism and Fascism: 'Police were present in enormous numbers and prevented the counter-demonstrators reaching the National Front by sealing all routes to the march and threatening arrest to those who tried to break through; counter demonstrators in Brockley Rise were lined up against the wall and people leaving the local public house were prevented from going home. At about 4.00 pm the National Front were diverted into the Catford stations and the counter-demonstrators started to march towards Lewisham. The police lost control and started to run along the main road, driving vans fast along both sides of the carriageway; the police then formed up and drove back the demonstrators, kicking and knocking down any who resisted and making arrests. The police were particularly violent towards the women demonstrators' (report to West Lewisham Labour Party, 1980, included in 'Modern Britain since 1979: a reader', ed. Keith Laybourn and Christine Collette, 2003).

A racist GP in New Cross

Shockingly, a local GP addressed the NF march at the end: 'Dr Robert Mitchell, who has a surgery in Queens Road, said yesterday he would advise his patients against mixed marriages only if asked for advice. He also believed in repatriating black people. Dr Mitchell polled 1,490 votes when he stood as National Front's Parliamentary candidate in Deptford last year'. Lewisham Labour Councillor David Townsend said 'We must take an urgent look at how a doctor with such appalling views can be allowed to practice in such a racially sensitive area as New Cross' (SLP 22 April 1980).

The following March, the NF proposed to hold a provocative march past the scene of the New Cross Fire but this, and a planned counter-demonstration, was banned by the Home Secretary (Times, 5 March 1981).

Racist attacks

Marching wasn't the only thing NF activists were up to at that time. In May 1980 the sometime chair of Southwark NF, Kenneth Matthews, was jailed for six years for a plot to burn down Union Place Resource Centre. This workers co-operative printshop was on Vassall Road near the junction with Camberwell New Road (next to the Union Tavern pub), and printed lots of radical literature.

Matthews(aged 44) lived in Lorrimore Square SE17 and worked for Southwark Council as a dustcart driver. Stephen Beales, another NF member, was jailed for 3 years for the same offence and for petrol bombing a club used by Irish people in Lorrimore Sqaure. A third member of the gang was sent to Borstal (South London Press 22 May 1980). They had been caught outside Union Place with petrol, thunder flashes, and wires intending to make an electronically-detonated petrol bomb (Times 23 May 1980).

Not long afterwards, three other men were jailed for a violent racist attack on a black van driver at East Greenwich service statin (SLP, 10 May 1980)

*The Ruinist found some SCARF graffiti from that period still visible in 2009 in Amelia Street, Walworth - can you still see it?:

Last updated December 2023, added RAR image.



Two other moments from the Camberwell Peckham anti-NF demo. Southwark Council set up surveillance posts at strategic points along the intended demo route with council workers with walkie-talkies reporting back on the progress of the fascists! Cornelius Cardew, almost famous from Scratch Orchestra days but at this point a useless Maoist was nicked at this demo. I have a photo of him from the day standing on the steps of the London College of Printing speaking through a megaphone. The LCP had been the gathering point of hundreds, if not, thousands of anti-fascists determined to stop the NF march.

On the Union Place attack, the nazis were stupid enough to make so much noise in the attack that people from Union Place photographed them. I have these pics too. I think they were in The Times.

Transpontine, did you get these Times cuttings from 56a Archive or just looked independently as I pulled this out too and stuck them in the archive?

Walworth also features in the book "Beating The Fascists" where the regular NF paper sale at East St market is halted one afternoon by some almost superhero militant anti-fascism. The book is pages and pages long. Can find the reference some other time.

. said...

No I could probably have saved my self some time by starting at 56a, but I looked at the SLP in Southwark Archives, The Times I looked at online which you can do for free via the Southwark or Lewisham libraries home page if you have a library ticket number.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I was involved on the other side, I was with Ken and the other 2 the evening they went to Union Place. At the time it was felt that MI5 had phones tapped etc and that's how the arrests were made. I was too young for that trip (15) but I used to sell papers,leaflet houses,protect Martin Webster at meetings,funny how things turned out for him. It would be interesting to view any film of East St taken on those Sunday mornings. If you have any questions please feel free to ask.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this, just what I need. I've been thinking about rivers as borders/barriers (for a writing course). I remember around 20 of us on the SCARF demo getting cordoned off by the police so that the only way back was through a stream of some sort - probably only a little trickle, hardly crossing the Tiber or whatever, but enough to make us bedraggled and slow us down in trying to get back through a different police line. If we'd had GPS at least we'd have known where we were ...

Unknown said...

Watching White Riot encouraged me to do a bit of research, and here it is. I was 12 years old and I'd been horse-riding!! A policeman picked me up in my jodphurs and carried me over the top of the Nazi's to my fairly hysterical mother who was outside our house on the other side of Lyndhurst Way!!!