Woolwich’s mixed community in shock as it tries to make sense of brutal murder

Residents of London borough fearful following murder of soldier Lee Rigby

Members of the Sikh community wait to lay flowers yesterday close to the crime scene in Woolwich, London, where 25-year-old soldier Lee Rigby was murdered on Wednesday. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Members of the Sikh community wait to lay flowers yesterday close to the crime scene in Woolwich, London, where 25-year-old soldier Lee Rigby was murdered on Wednesday. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


The large sign over the Classic Sea Food fish shop on Woolwich’s Green appears to reflect the community’s diverse ethnic population. It reads: “Specialist in European, African, Caribbean, Asian & Etc.”

The mix of many nationalities suggested by the sign is immediately noticeable on the streets of this southeast London borough, which yesterday was still horrified by Wednesday’s events. Several streets were cordoned off, two helicopters pulsed overhead for much of the day, and there was a heavy police presence.

“People in Woolwich often saw those two men,” Gemma Paris reported, as she looked over the green on a break from her job in telesales. “They used to stand outside Poundland and Specsavers on Powis Street [Woolwich’s high street] on Saturdays, preaching about Allah.”

Help for Heroes
Paris was trying to find a Help for Heroes t-shirt to buy and wear in solidarity with Lee Rigby, the dead soldier.

“What I am afraid of are more copycat killings,” she admitted with a shiver, looking up beyond Wellington Street to where the forensic squad had placed their small white marquee over the spot where Rigby had lain.

Outside the Lord Harry pub, Paul McClintoch, a former member of the parachute regiment, was in bullish mood. He and three other friends had travelled from Northampton that morning to lay flowers in tribute.

“More people should come down here and do something,” he declared. “Get together. Show their support. Do something.”

Support for whom?

“It’s not about the EDL or the BNP, it’s about showing support for English people dying unnecessarily on our streets,” he answered, referring to the far right groups, the English Defence League and the British National Party.

Standing beside McClintoch was Darren Robbins, who also described himself as a former army man; a member of the artillery. “I’ve lived in Woolwich for 26 years,” he said. “Those two men were not proper Londoners. They might have had London accents, but there’s a difference between Londoners and real proper Londoners.”

Shaking with emotion
Shortly after 1pm, a group of men representing the Sikh community in Woolwich went to the police barrier on Wellington Street to lay flowers. Their spokesperson, Sewa Singh Nandhra, took a handwritten piece of paper from his pocket, and read it out on behalf of the community, his voice shaking with emotion. “This was a despicable and awful act. There is no cause on earth to justify such a killing. Please stay calm and stay vigilant.” Afterwards, he admitted that he and others were “afraid that there might be some backlash in the community.”

On Bathway, Sam , who did not wish to give her surname, who was born in Britain to Jamaican parents, stood smoking outside her office, where she works as an employment and skills co-ordinator.

“I’ve lived and worked round here for 15 years,” she said. “I don’t even know what to think about what happened yesterday. My emotions are all random. It’s unbelievable how barbaric it was. You should never get used to seeing anything like that. I am fearful of what might happen next.” She spoke of a borough that “has no one single ethnic community. It’s a mix.”

Luc Emmanuel Nevry was born in France to parents from the Ivory Coast, and now lives in Woolwich. He stood outside the town hall, listening to rap and wearing an “I love London” blue sweatshirt.

“This is a very diverse community – Somalians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Brazilians,” he said. “What I want to know is why the police didn’t shoot to kill yesterday, as they have done before? Why are these two different?”

Soon after 3pm, children from Mulgrave Primary School, which had been in lockdown the previous day, started to leave for the day. As they scattered into nearby streets, police carefully held up tape for them to pass under.

African origin
One parent collecting her five-year-old child was Selina Matthew-Scott, of African origin and now living in Woolwich. As she bought her son a cone from a Mr Whippy van, Matthew-Scott described the previous day’s events as “horrendous and disgusting.” She also spoke of her fears of what may now happen in the community.

“I knew there was racist tension in this community,” she said quietly. “It has been bubbling under the surface for a long time. Now I can see certain people – by that, I mean white people – making what happened a racist issue instead of a political one. This horrible thing has allowed people who may have hidden their views to now be open with them. And that makes me afraid. The implications for me out of this are racial. Even today, I have received abuse.”

And all day, flowers continued to pile up at various locations around the Royal Artillery Barracks. At the main entrance in Artillery Place, the card on one bouquet read, “Things will change. People will wake up.” Another simply stated: “Shameful. RIP.”