Racism in Forest Gate in the 1970s and 1980s Part 1 - the scene is set, as the attacks begin

Sunday 3 June 2018

The demonstrations outside Forest Gate police station in June 2017 protesting about the death of Edson da Costa, following police action, brought back memories of similar demonstrations over thirty years ago.

This is the first of a two part post recalling those times, often through the eyes of participants, or contemporary observers. We are almost wholly indebted to a long out-of-print booklet: Newham - the Forging of a Black Community for the contents of these articles.  Full details of the publication can be found in the footnote.

A re-telling of these events from a generation ago makes for grim reading today. Some of the locations referred to in the story below now have different uses - indeed, the old Forest Gate police station, itself, is long gone - but the events surrounding them were truly dreadful, and barely credible thirty years later.

One or two of Newham's elder statesmen today emerge from this re-telling with considerable credit, notably former councillor Conor McCauley and current GLA member Unmesh Desai. They were pioneers for a better, anti-racist, borough, often swimming against the tide of considerable establishment bigotry and prejudice.
Unmesh Desia in 1980 - sporting
a very Che Guevara look

Unmesh Desai - today. In the 1970's
and 80's a leading figure in local fight
against racism in Newham
By way of background. According to the 1981 census 27% of Newham residents then lived in a household headed by someone of "New Commonwealth" background - about half of whom were Asian and a quarter Afro-Caribbean. The figure had been less than 1% in 1951.

The Asian community was largely concentrated around East Ham and Upton Park, while Afro-Caribbean residents mainly centred in, or around, Forest Gate.

The attractions of these areas to newcomers were, as ever, the presence of low skilled jobs and cheap, private sector, rented accommodation.

Work could be found in places like Ford's in Dagenham, some of the factories in the south of the borough, dependent on imports brought in through the still active local docks (such as Canning Town's Tate and Lyle) and the factories in and around the Lea Valley - subsequently closed to make way for the Olympic Park.

Newham Council in the 1970's and 80's operated a blatantly racist housing allocations policy. In 1975, for example, Cllr Bill Watts - sometime Housing chair - openly admitted that the Council had changed its housing allocation policy (via the points system) to avoid housing Asian families.

Bill Watts, one-time Newham
Labour deputy leader, admitted
to fixing the housing points
allocation system to
discriminate against Asian families
Largely excluded from council housing estates that dominated the south of the borough, newcomers drifted into often over-crowded private sector accommodation in the older Victorian properties that dominated the north of Newham - in places like Forest Gate.

Attempts by immigrant groups to establish houses of worship, temples, mosques and Gudwaras were often frustrated by hostile "host" communities and closed down by Newham Council for reasons of overcrowding, or a failure to gain planning permission.

Durning Hall - has a proud record of being
 one of few places to welcome black and Asian
 organisations, to organise against
racism during the 1970's
Hindus, at least, were offered a welcoming home in Durning Hall in the 1970's. The Hall's management committee extended their hospitality to hosting meetings of the Indian Association of East London, which attempted to organise demonstrations and petitions to MPs against the 1971 Immigration Act - when other bodies had refused them permission to rent their premises.

Above and below, two reports from Newham Recorder in the same edition, 1 April 1971. Top: vicar of St Barnabas church in Little Ilford claiming people who objected to them selling the premises to a Sikh organisation were doing so for racist reasons.  Below: report claiming Newham North East Conservative club refused membership to an applicant on the grounds that he was Asian

Undeterred by the local bigotry (above)
local anti-racists march against the
Immigration Bill, in April 1971, following
organisation meeting in Durning Hall
 (see above)
Durning Hall's hospitality, however, was the exception. Just a mile away, in February 1972, the landlord of the now-closed Three Rabbits pub in Manor Park (see photo, below) was referred to the then Race Relations Board for practicing a "colour bar".

Former Three Rabbits pub operated
a colour bar in the 1970's
Racial violence was never far away. In April 1971 a flaming plastic bottle was thrown through the front door window of a house in Forest Gate, where 10 Afro-Caribbean people lived. Forty minutes later, petrol was poured through the letter box of an Asian family in Manor Park.

Jerry Westall, The Community Relations Officer at Newham International Community (NIC) - the forerunner of what was to become the Community Relations Council - condemned the incidents and said they were the work of the (fascist) National Front.

Newham Recorder, reporting Jerry
Westall's suspension from work
He was promptly suspended from his post by the Community Relations Commission and criticised by the chair of the NIC (a Labour councillor) for making "irresponsible statements detrimental to race relations" and a report he had compiled into right wing extremism in Newham was suppressed.

Education proved another arena for racist tensions. Nationally, the government had decreed that 'no one school should have more than 30% of immigrants'. Because of the racial profile of parts of Newham, this meant that black and Asian students were almost being bussed around the borough, in order to comply. Black children were the prime victims. In October 1973 Newham's Director of Education reported that of the 200 children who had not been allocated school places, "137 were immigrants".

A 1971 survey by the East London West Indian Association found that 15% of black children in the borough were being placed in ESN schools.

Newham's attempts to deal with the discrimination were clumsy. In 1972 it sponsored John Freeman, head of Earlham Primary school, to go on a fact-finding mission to the Caribbean to find an explanation for his observation that "Asiatic people have a higher IQ than West Indians".

382 Katherine Road, today - what was the
hq of the anti-racist Newham Monitoring
Project in the 1980's
In the late 1970's, two schools in the south of Newham, Letharby (now Brampton) and Pretoria (now Eastlea) gained notoriety  for "Paki-bashing" and "Nigger-bashing", and many incidents of racist violence were recorded.

The National Front (NF) recruited locally in workplaces and among football clubs. It boasted that at West Ham it had its largest newspaper sales. An NF member, who recruited outside Upton Park told Skin - a London Weekend Television programme:

We used to buy the kids a few drinks, wind them up and send them off to smash up a Paki's home. We just sat back. They did it all for us.

Local black activist, Kenny Pryce - see the second article in this series for his family's experiences - recalled:

A white kid at school took me to see West Ham one Saturday. It was a nightmare. There was a black player, Clyde Best, and there were so many songs about him, and people chanting "you're a dirty black bastard" and throwing bananas. I didn't watch the match, because I was so busy watching what was going on around me.

In the May 1974 local elections the NF polled 29% of the vote in Hudson ward and 25% in Canning Town - both in the south of the borough. In the general election, six months later, 5,000 Newham residents voted NF - the highest of any borough in the country.

The council was slow to respond. It was a closed, self-interested, body. In an article that may sound familiar to observers of Newham council's recent past, the London Journal, in May 1978 found decision making in Newham to be highly centralised, with little policy discussion and committee meetings held in private, with few public meetings. The article concluded:

The leading members felt, trustee-like, that having been elected, they had a mandate to rule as they judged best, and they brokered no challenge to their authority.

Racism was prevalent among many of the old guard in the Labour leadership.

One up-and-coming change agent was the then young Cllr Conor McCauley. In 1991 he described the atmosphere of the late 1970's within the old Labour establishment:

During one council meeting, (Cllr) Bert Taylor shouted up at Asians sitting in the public gallery 'Well, you can fuck off, back to Pakistan where you came from'. And at a local Labour party ward meeting a former mayor of Newham (and a magistrate) started talking about 'the coons', how they smelt, how he couldn't stand the smell of their cooking and how, if he had his own way, he would send them back to where they came from.

Recently retired ex-councillor Conor
McCauley remembers the bad old days of
a racist Newham Council

A young Asian community activist played a significant role in raising black and Asian consciousness at the time - and in organising resistance to the prevailing racist orthodoxies.

It was the present Newham Greater London Assembly Cllr, Unmesh Desai, of the Newham Monitoring Project. The role of that organisation - and others - in leading the anti-racist fight-back will be considered in the second article in this feature.

Here Unmesh is, providing the Newham context for which the anti-racist resistance was activated in the 1980's.

There were decaying dock areas with communities alienated from and neglected by the local council, but very proud of their working class heritage. As they saw the docks closing around them and the rise of middle class areas, many of them moved out to Essex, and beyond.

Those who remained were resentful, and inward looking: they came to believe, that despite all the evidence, that the council was bending over backwards for all the 'newcomers', who also happened to be black.

Footnote This post has been largely based on the publication: Newham - the Forging of a Black Community, published by the Newham Monitoring Project and the Campaign Against Racism and fascism, in 1991. It is sadly out of print, though second hand copies occasionally become available. 


  1. Has anyone any further info on clr Bill watts

  2. Wow. How society has changed and despite Braverman’s view for the better.
    I moved Plaistaw in autumn of 87. Whilst I was aware of Tower Hamlet and the difficulties that Bangladeshi had I did not know that the street I live in was once a no go area for the likes of me.


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