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Heritage project remembers those in the 1978 Brick Lane 'uprising' after Altab Ali's murder

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 October 2019 | UPDATED: 13:03 08 October 2019

Mass sit-down protest blocks Bethnal Green Road on July 18, 1978, three months after Altabs murder. Picrture: Paul Trevor

Mass sit-down protest blocks Bethnal Green Road on July 18, 1978, three months after Altabs murder. Picrture: Paul Trevor

Paul Trevor

Those who took part in a defining moment in 1978 when the Bengali community stood their ground against racist murder on the streets of London's East End have been reliving that time for future generations.

Catherine Peters, now 70, was a 29-year-old East End social worker in 1978 who took part in the Brick Lane 'uprising'. Picture: Mike BrookeCatherine Peters, now 70, was a 29-year-old East End social worker in 1978 who took part in the Brick Lane 'uprising'. Picture: Mike Brooke

Activists back in the day, now in their sixties and seventies, are answering the call to put together a heritage project about the Brick Lane "uprising" following Altab Ali's brutal slaying in Whitechapel.

Catherine Peters was among them, a 29-year-old Tower Hamlets social worker now a grandmother at 70 still living in Whitechapel 41 years later, who turned up for the heritage project launch at Four Corners community studio in Roman Road.

"It was the community coming together to defend themselves," she told the East London Advertiser at Friday's launch.

"I'm not Bengali—but they're my friends. It don't matter who you are, what you are."

1978... Bengali women passing National Front slogans daubed in Brick Lane, the younger woman in the photograph now traced by Four Corners' heritage project. Picture: Paul Trevor1978... Bengali women passing National Front slogans daubed in Brick Lane, the younger woman in the photograph now traced by Four Corners' heritage project. Picture: Paul Trevor

She was among thousands of protesters turning out on the streets following the murder of the 24-year-old textile worker in Whitechapel.

The project by Four Corners studios is to record memories of those involved 41 years ago for future generations. Its artistic director Carla Mitchell wants to revisit the history of Brick Lane in 1978.

She said: "This was the second generation whose parents were meek, just grateful to be in Britain and accepting abuse.

"But that second generation who become British by 'identity' was self-aware and wouldn't put up with abuse."

Four Corners director Carla Mitchell... Four Corners director Carla Mitchell... "We want to revisit the history of Brick Lane in 1978." Picture: Mike Brooke

The project has unique images captured at the time by freelance photographer Paul Trevor, who witnessed the big march and sit-down protest that brought the streets to a standstill.

National Front supporters had attacked marchers and there was a scuffle and a fight, he remembers, but the police arrested two victims instead, after the thugs ran off.

It led to a stand-off between police and protesters who spontaneously sat down in the road.

"The police got angry and said they'll get them for obstruction," Paul recalls. "So people got up and marched to Bethnal Green police station where they sat down again and weren't budging until those two guys were released.

Swadhinata Trust's  Ansar Ullah... Swadhinata Trust's Ansar Ullah... "Altab's murder was the final straw when the community took to the streets." Pictures: Mike Brooke (foreground) and Paul Trevor

"There was a stand-off, but the victims were released after 30 minutes and were hailed as heroes."

The protest march resumed and headed for a rally in St Mary's Gardens in Whitechapel, now called Altab Ali Park where Altab had been bludgeoned to death three months before.

Today, the Swadhinata Trust Bengali heritage organisation, set up in 2000 to inspire new generations about their cultural history, maps out how the first generation arrived in the 1950s and 60s as economic immigrants, mostly single men looking for a better life.

The turning point came by 1978 when they no longer felt "in transmission".

Memorial to Altab Ali, 24, murdered in Whitechapel March 1978. Picture: Swadhinata TrustMemorial to Altab Ali, 24, murdered in Whitechapel March 1978. Picture: Swadhinata Trust

Swadhinata Trust's Ansar Ullah explains: "They wanted to stay here with all the rights of being British citizens.

"But there was a sense of not feeling part of Britain, being treated differently. They were abused whenever they went out, often attacked.

"Altab's murder was the final straw when the community took to the streets."

The heritage project runs until March 2021 to keep alive that "turning point" in 1978 when the East End said "enough is enough".

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