A friend and colleague remembers Blair Peach, killed by a member of the Special Patrol Group in Southall during a demonstration against the National Front (NF) on 23 April 1979.
Blair Peach was born in New Zealand in 1946. After earning his degree at Victoria University and periods of work as a fireman and hospital orderly, he arrived in London in 1969.
From that year until his death on the streets of Southall on 23 April 1979, he worked at Phoenix School in Bow, East London. He was a dedicated and brilliant teacher who was much appreciated by his pupils. As one of them wrote, after Blair’s death:
‘He was a different kind of teacher. His interest in his pupils was not confined to the schoolroom but extended into their homes, where he would visit and give advice and practical help whenever he could.
He was a man of high ideals, but ideals are no good if they are not put into practice. He always practised what he preached. At school he instituted a special class to help those children who had difficulty in reading and those classes were extended into the school holidays. He did this because he cared about these children and wanted them to be free thinking adults who would not be pushed about by the system. I know I will never forget him and he will always be remembered as a friend of the people.’
The 1970s represented a ferment in education to the young teachers in East London, particularly those organised within the East London Teachers’ Association, the local branch of the National Union of Teachers. As a loyal and committed trade unionist and socialist, Blair Peach was at the centre of debate. As the topics ranged from democracy in schools, the participation of the local community in education, the abolition of wage differentials amongst teachers, the run-down of local public services like hospitals and council housing, Ireland, South Africa and solidarity with other trade unionists like the Shrewsbury building workers – Blair was always leading, contributing and doing the often tedious and infrastructural work associated with the struggles over pay and conditions that is the daily bread of trade unionism. In the last year of his life he had been elected as the president of East London Teachers’ Association.
There was a particular electricity about Blair’s spoken interventions. He had a stammer that sometimes interfered with his delivery. Yet his personal courage was such that his words and arguments always emerged, forged through a determination that you could feel was willing his voice forward. All his colleagues knew the words would come, and waited through his struggle for articulation, and even if you disagreed with his arguments you felt so close to him and proud that you were debating with such a brave mind.
What concerned Blair Peach more than anything was the growth in organised racism in East London all through the ’70s. He didn’t just speak out and condemn the rise in the influence of such fascist groups as the National Front and British Movement during those years, he organised against their poison whether in the classroom, trade union meeting or the street. He hated racism with all his being and was the first to mobilise himself and others in any action which combated it. He was an active organiser within his South Hackney and Shoreditch Branch of the Anti-Nazi League, was frequently involved in standing firm against racists with the Bengali community in the Brick Lane neighbourhood, and successfully campaigned to stop the Inner London Education Authority allowing schools to be used for evening meetings by fascist organisations.
I have a particular memory of Blair’s strength against racism. After union meetings at Mile End Teachers’ Centre a group of us would always have a drink and continue the discussions at the Railway Tavern, in Grove Road, Bow. During one such occasion, we heard from one of the pub’s customers that the landlord was refusing to serve Black people. We immediately challenged him about this, and he tried to defend the ban, saying that as far as he was concerned Black people ‘were all pimps, queers and prostitutes’.
After a later court hearing which followed the consequences of this incident, the Morning Star (27 November 1974) reported in these words what had been said:
‘Mr Peach told the court he was “absolutely disgusted” after he heard confirmed that the landlord ‘was a racist.’ He and several other teachers, who used to go to the Railway Tavern after union meetings, went to another tavern down the road.
There they talked to West Indians who used to drink in the Railway but who were now not allowed to drink there. They returned to the Railway Tavern and he was under the impression they were going to stand outside advising people not to go in because of the colour bar. But as no one was outside, he went in and saw teachers and some of the West Indians being refused drinks by the publican. Then the police arrived and told them to leave.
When he asked why, they would give no reason and then one of them said: “Let’s nick him” and grabbed him by the arm and two of them pulled him out of the bar into a police car.’
Blair was acquitted of the charge of threatening behaviour after this hearing. As he was leaving the court, a colleague overheard a policeman say to him as he passed: “You have got off this time Peach, but don’t worry, we’ll have you!” I remember we laughed about it at the time, but those words were to come pounding back to some of us five years later in April 1979.
During the last years of the ’70s Blair was becoming more and more involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist activities. The last time I saw him was in January 1979 at the funeral of Michael Ferreira, the Hackney Black youth who has been stabbed to death by young racist thugs, and who had died on his way to hospital after unconscionable delays in Stoke Newington police station, where Michael’s friends had taken him, looking for a phone. As we walked with hundreds of others behind the cortege through the streets of Hackney, Blair told me how he had been targeted and attacked by local fascists.
As the evening news bulletins of 23 April announced that a teacher from East London had been killed following the intervention of the police in anti-racist demonstrations at Southall in the West London borough of Ealing, even before his name was mentioned, how many other teachers as well as I, had a terrible presage that it would be Blair? For he had been the most committed, the most exemplary, the most selfless, in every way.
In the London Evening News (24 April), a Southall witness, Mr. Parminder Atwal, described Blair’s fatal encounter with about twenty members of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, who were running towards him carrying shields and black truncheons:
‘As the police rushed past him, one of them hit him on the head with the stick. I was in my garden and I saw this quite clearly. When they all rushed past, he was left sitting against the wall. He tried to get up: but he was shivering and looked very strange. He couldn’t stand. Then the police came back and told him this: “Move! Come on, move!” They were very rough with him and I was shocked because it was clear he was seriously hurt.
His tongue seemed stuck in the top of his mouth and his eyes were rolled up to the top of his head. But they started pushing him and told him to move, and he managed to get to his feet. He staggered across the road and came to where I was in the garden. I tried to sit him down. He was in a very bad state and he couldn’t speak. Then he just dropped down. I got a glass of water for him, but he couldn’t hold it and it dropped out of his hand.’
These words express not only the brutal and clinical manner of Blair’s death, but the love which the Black people of Southall showed to him in his last moments, during the demonstrations that followed his death and the events leading to his funeral. This has found its most concrete form in the two schools – the Blair Peach Nursery and First School and the Blair Peach Middle School – that were finally opened in Southall in July 1988.
The context of Blair’s death and the brave resistance of the Southall community are recalled with a telling realism in Colin Prescod’s film, A Town Under Siege, now reissued as one of the four related documentaries of the historical movements of British Black people in the 1970s, Struggles for Black Community, all made with the cooperation of the Institute of Race Relations. They are powerful educational narratives of their epoch, strongly relevant to now-times struggles and packed with vital knowledge of British urban history in the Twentieth Century.
Read an IRR comment: ‘The political legacy of Blair Peach
Download posters of protest following the death of Blair Peach (all material from the IRR’s Black History Collection) (pdf file, 112kb)