A history of anti-fascism in Red Lion Square

Anti-fascism campaigner Fenner Brockway

The recent clashes between neo-nazis and anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of protestor Heather Heyer, has once again thrown into clear spotlight the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the views of the far-right and the far-left in the US.

Closer to home, Red Lion Square in Bloomsbury was the scene of violent disorder of its own, when anti-fascist demonstrators confronted a National Front rally in 1974.

15 June 1974

The National Front and its far-right agenda had been slowly gaining support in the UK since its formation in 1967.  By 1974, the National Front was sufficiently confident in its identity to hold a march through the centre of London, culminating in a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square.  A counter-demonstration of anti-fascists was organised for the same day, with the result that the two groups met in Red Lion Square on the afternoon of 15 June 1974.

The result was a brutal battle between members of the National Front, anti-fascist protestors and the police, which resulted in the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately, the first person to die at a public demonstration in England for 55 years.

Fenner Brockway

A further link to anti-fascism and Red Lion Square comes in the form of Fenner Brockway.  Brockway was a celebrated pacifist during the First World War, who was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for his stance as a conscientious objector.  However, Brockway found himself forced to reverse his anti-war views when he witnessed the rise of fascism in Spain in the 1930s, a situation which was to culminate in the Spanish Civil War.

Brockway was instrumental in recruiting British forces to oppose the fascist regime of Francisco Franco and, in later life, as a member of parliament, he campaigned strongly for world peace, to end racial discrimination, fight global poverty, and oppose nuclear weapons.

A statue to Brockway by Ian Walters stands at the west end of Red Lion Square although, like his memory, the statue is in danger of being overlooked, as it gets submerged in the dense overgrowth surrounding it.

Red Lion Square past and present

The Square was originally created in the late 17th century and quickly became established as a fashionable place of residence.

However, by the mid-19th century, the Square had fallen into disrepair and disrepute, and later, after extensive bombing during World War Two, only a small number of the original houses were left standing.

Today, the green centre of the Square is overshadowed by mature trees, which seem to be attempting to block out the modernist blocks, which form a slightly depressing concrete backdrop to the Square.

Nevertheless, plenty of benches provide a place to stop and sit, and a small café provides hot snacks and drinks for office workers and students, few of whom would imagine that this quiet enclave had played witness to such a violent recent history.

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