Under the microscope: The Battle of Lewisham


The Battle of Lewisham is regarded as one of the most important episodes of civil resistance in recent British history. 

The events of 13 August 1944 occurred against the tide of growing British fascism which had seen the National Front's (NF) nationalist rhetoric not only find support among white working class groups, but increasingly, a political foothold - (although, some have argued that the NF 1976 ‘peak’, saw a gradual decline from 1977 onwards.)

Under the chairmanship of John Tyndall, the party improved upon its 1974 general election showing to gain 119,060 votes in the Greater London Council elections, with an increasing number of candidates fielded by the party at successive elections since its 1968 inception.

NF rallies were not uncommon in the 70s, with notable demonstrations occurring in 1975 in protest against European integration, and in 1976 to jeer UK-bound Indian refugees who had been expelled from Malawi.

This was a year of maximum mass support for the NF that started after dramatic successes in the May District Council elections, which occurred at precisely the time of a media blitz, complete with the grossest racist innuendoes, on the handling by the West Sussex Department of Social Services of a homeless family of Malawi Asians who had recently arrived at Gatwick Airport.   

A year later, and the intensity of the neo-fascist fervour remained in full and it would rear its head once more in South East London. Under the pretext of demonstrating against street crime, NF planned to march from New Cross to Lewisham. This was almost universally seen as a targeted effort to provoke and intimidate the area's ethnically diverse community, which was known for its sizable immigrant community.

Photo Credit: RS21 - Lewisham's residents were aware of far-right efforts to undermine and intimidate.

It must be noted that there was an effort to impose restrictions prior to resistance, however, The High Court rejected an attempt by the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) to prevent the protest. This was before an estimated 500 NF supporters gathered around 2pm, determined to march to New Cross; nevertheless, thousands of counter-demonstrators would prove decisive. Led by local community leaders, bishops and the Mayor of Southwark, crowds gathered under the ALCARAF banner to block NF passage beyond at Clifton Rise. Outnumbering the NF more than ten-fold, the white nationalist group were faced with resistance. 

By early afternoon, the number of antifascists waiting for the National Front to arrive at Clifton Rise was somewhere in the region of three to six thousand. When they eventually did arrive, a shower of bricks, bottles, and smoke bombs greeted them, causing scores of injuries.The police quickly became agitated, and wanted to disperse the crowd, making charge after charge. 

Padraig O'Neill, TribuneMag

More than 200 arrests were made as a result of the confrontation, but the Battle of Lewisham’s significance continues to be recognised almost 44 years after the event. 

“The official literature of the NF talks a lot about how Lewisham was very damaging to them. They turned up with what they thought was a force but were hugely outnumbered, then they were prevented from marching through Lewisham – plus press coverage did not paint them as victims but painted them as guilty as anybody else. They never really maintained their hold on the area.”

John Price, head of history at Goldsmiths University, speaking in The Guardian


Why did the Battle of Lewisham happen? | Goldsmiths University of London

Mayowa Ayodele