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Search for those involved in 1978 'Battle of Brick Lane' for heritage project about Altab Ali's murder

PUBLISHED: 07:00 30 September 2019

1978... The day Asian community took to the streets around Brick Lane in the battle to stop racist murders by thugs. Picture: Paul Trevor

1978... The day Asian community took to the streets around Brick Lane in the battle to stop racist murders by thugs. Picture: Paul Trevor

Copyright Paul Trevor © 2015.

It was a defining moment for the East End's Bengali community when Asian youth groups rose up after the racist murder of 24-year-old Altab Ali.

They formed defence groups after Altab Ali's murder on the streets in May 1978. Picture: Azad KonorThey formed defence groups after Altab Ali's murder on the streets in May 1978. Picture: Azad Konor

Now a heritage project is being launched to mark that day when they took to the streets around Brick Lane in 1978 following the attack on the young textile worker in Whitechapel.

Altab was stabbed by a gang of fascist skinheads as he walked innocently passed St Mary's chuchyard on his way home to Brick Lane.

That old churchyard is known today as Altab Ali Park in his memory which holds an annual commemoration service.

Altab's killing on May 4 that year in Adler Street, off Whitechapel Road, was the turning point when the East End no longer accepted murder on its streets.

The Anti Nazi League mobilises Aisan community to defend itself. Picture: Azad KonorThe Anti Nazi League mobilises Aisan community to defend itself. Picture: Azad Konor

The violence had started around 1970 with what is thought at the time to have been Britain's first racist murder with the killing of another immigrant textile worker in Bromley-by-Bow.

Campaigners held public meetings with East End MPs like Peter Shore urging the community to defend itself.

But the violence continued for another eight years until what became "the Battle of Brick Lane".

It was to mirror events of a previous generation when the Jewish and Irish communities rose against Mosley's Blackshirt fascists and stopped them marching through Whitechapel in 1936 when an estimated 200,000 protesters blocked their path in "the Battle of Cable Street".

'Battle of Cable Street' in 1978 to keep fascist gangs out of the East End.  Picture: Paul Trevor'Battle of Cable Street' in 1978 to keep fascist gangs out of the East End. Picture: Paul Trevor

Now Brick Lane's 1978 "battle" is being marked with a heritage appeal for anyone who was there to put their recollections on record for future generations.

Bethnal Green's Four Corners community studios wants help from today's volunteers and from activists at the time to unravel how and why this watershed moment unfolded.

"The aim is to create a vital record of 1978 as told by local people," Four Corners' Katy Palmer told the East London Advertiser.

"We are making an extensive collection of oral history interviews publicly accessible alongside never-before-seen photographs."

Police lead Altab's funeral procession through Brick Lane in May 1978. Picture: Paul TrevorPolice lead Altab's funeral procession through Brick Lane in May 1978. Picture: Paul Trevor

Documentary photographer Paul Trevor captured the protests in 1978 with his iconic images that today offer a powerful catalyst for gathering first-hand accounts from those involved.

The project is also producing a short documentary film by Four Corners, as well as an exhibition to go on tour, a public events programme and a schools study pack.

Altab Ali had recently arrived in Britain from Bangladesh when he was stabbed. His killing mobilised the community to take a stand which led to a mass campaign across the East End "against hatred and intolerance".

Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum's chairman Alan Green, Rector of St John at Bethnal Green, said on last year's 40th anniversary: "Altab Ali's name lives on despite his murder 40 years ago, a symbol of the determination that is still needed today to make clear that the East End has no place for hate."

1978 Met Police poster in hunt for Altab Ali's killers. Picture: Paul Trevor1978 Met Police poster in hunt for Altab Ali's killers. Picture: Paul Trevor

Organisers of the Brick Lane project are appealing for oral history volunteers who have communication and listening skills to travel to people's homes and be flexible about interview times "to bring the project to life and shed light on this historic moment".

They are inviting them to Friday's 5pm launch to get inspired and meet those who were there in 1978.

They want anyone who is available for half a day a week for three months who has a connection to the East End or a keen interest in its story. They would also have spoken and written communication skills with basic computer knowledge.

The October 4 launch on at Four Corners studio in Roman Road is also the 83rd anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, involving the East End's Jewish community of the day, regarded as "the most popular anti-fascist victory to have taken place on British soil".

Memorial to Altab Ali, 1964-78, in the park that now bears his name. Picture: LBTHMemorial to Altab Ali, 1964-78, in the park that now bears his name. Picture: LBTH

Volunteers for the Brick Lane project are being invited to email their CVs to the Swadhinata Trust, which organises the annual Altab Ali commemoration in Whitechapel every May, at admin@swadhionata.org.uk

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