This past Bank Holiday weekend marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Sophie Lancaster. In the early hours of Saturday 11th August 2007, Sophie was kicked and stamped into the coma from which she would never recover. Sophie was attacked along with her boyfriend Robert Maltby in a park in Bacup, Lancashire by three teenage boys who were heard abusing them for how they were dressed. The gang went for Rob first and, when Sophie tried to protect him, they turned on her too. Rob was also beaten into a coma but he survived, just barely. On 24th August, after doctors confirmed that she would never regain consciousness, Sophie’s family made the decision to turn off life support. She was 20 years old.
The violence of the unprovoked attack is as shocking now as it was then. Details released by Sophie’s mother Sylvia following her death stated that one of the attackers had stamped so hard on Sophie’s face that the imprint from the design on his shoelace was imbedded in her cheek. After she died, Sylvia released the now infamous photograph of Sophie taken in hospital after the attack. Bruised and swollen, with tubes in her mouth and nose, it is only her dreadlocked hair that identifies that girl as the slight, smiling young Sophie Lancaster from pictures taken before the attack. The photograph launched the story into the national press. Soon afterwards, Sylvia set up The Sophie Lancaster Foundation (S.O.P.H.I.E), and in 2009 the Foundation became a national registered charity, devoted to challenging prejudice and intolerance towards people from alternative subcultures.
Seven years on, I still find Sophie’s death heartbreaking and the savagery of the attack on both Sophie and Rob incomprehensible. Like Sophie, I became immersed in alternative culture from a young age, identifying with the darkness and the drama of the music, clothing and art of the goth and metal scene. Dyed hair, heavy makeup, leather and fishnet, dog collars and big boots – I found self-expression in the creativity of dressing up, making and remaking myself and my image in a way that helped me make sense of who I was and how I felt comfortable in the world. There was the occasional bullying at school for how I looked but, thankfully, it never became serious. At college I met more people into the same music and at university I found an inclusive scene that embraced all kinds of alternative subcultures and lifestyles.
During that time I was lucky to get away with just verbal abuse and having the occasional object thrown at me (once, rather bizarrely, it was a mobile phone, launched hard at my head with a string of abuse from a passing car). Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Coming home from a rock club in the early hours of the morning with a group of friends, five or six years before Sophie’s death, one of them said that he would go the local 24-hour garage to pick up the obligatory post-club cigarettes and Pringles. The garage was less than a ten-minute walk away along a main road, a journey that all of us had made countless times before. When the front doorbell rang a short time later, I looked down the hallway and saw him rush into his bedroom at the front of the house. Then I heard his girlfriend scream. I walked into my friend’s bedroom to see his t-shirt pulled up and blood running down his side – a group of three strangers had attacked him on the way to the garage and one of them had stuck a knife in his back, just below his left shoulder blade. He said that the gang had started shouting abuse at him when he walked past them, mocking how he looked and calling him a ‘freak’, before jumping him. It was actually the long black leather duster coat which they mocked him for that had stopped the knife going in further and possibly saved his life.
Sobriety happened immediately. As a couple of friends took him to the hospital, I remember sitting on the stairs trying to process what had just happened and being completely unable to comprehend how anyone could do something like that. How could someone possibly be incited to murderous rage because they don’t like or understand how another person chooses to dress? It’s one thing to hurl an insult (or a phone) but something else entirely to stick a knife into someone or, in Sophie and Rob’s case, jump up and down on their head until they lose consciousness. The gap between the two suddenly seemed terrifyingly small.
Sylvia Lancaster speaking at Haslingden High School, Sophie’s high school, in 2014.
Sylvia and S.O.P.H.I.E (Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred & Intolerance Everywhere) have worked relentlessly since Sophie’s death to promote understanding and tolerance of alternative subcultures within schools and communities. Working with Huthwaite International, the Foundation run educational workshops aimed at challenging the perceptions of young people about those around them who look differently and live alternative lifestyles. With the help of funding in 2009 from The Lancashire Criminal Justice Board, the Foundation was able to develop its range of teaching resources and training courses for teachers and youth workers. Sylvia frequently goes out into communities to talk about Sophie and regularly appears on television and in press interviews about the work of the charity and their fight against hate crime.
Along with education, the main cause of the Foundation is their campaign to have UK Hate Crime legislation extended to include people from alternative subcultures, lifestyles and dress codes. Sylvia is a member of the Hate Crime Advisory Board, working with a variety of organisations to help them shape their policies and procedures in relation to hate crime. In April 2013, Greater Manchester Police became the first UK police authority to add alternative subcultures to their list of monitored Hate Crimes, meaning that crimes such as the attack on Sophie and Rob will now be recorded as a crime in the same way as disability, racist, religious, sexual orientation and transgender hate crimes. Warwickshire Police followed suit in early 2014 and, in July this year, Sylvia and the Foundation’s campaign manager Kate Conboy-Greenwood met with Norman Baker MP, Minister of State for Crime Prevention, to discuss the under-reporting of hate crime and what can be done to support victims more effectively.
The alternative community continues to stand alongside Sylvia and the Foundation. In 2009 Bloodstock Festival renamed one of their stages The Sophie Lancaster stage and the Foundation frequently has stalls at music festivals and events across the country throughout the year, selling merchandise and providing information about their work. Lots of musicians and artists have shown their support for the charity in the press and by wearing official S.O.P.H.I.E wristbands. Earlier this month alternative band Bad Pollyanna released their official S.O.P.H.I.E. charity single ‘Invincible Girl’.
Courtney Love wearing her official S.O.P.H.I.E wristband onstage in London.
International music merchandise retailer Backstreet Merch stock the official charity merchandise and cult UK make up brand Illamasqua donate £3 from each sale of their jet black S.O.P.H.I.E Eye Colouring Pencil to the Foundation. In 2009 Illamasqua also commissioned Dark Angel, a short, animated film about the attack featuring music by Portishead. The film premiered in Manchester and was shown on MTV to raise awareness of the work being carried out by the Foundation.
Support for S.O.P.H.I.E has also come from poetry, theatre and radio. In 2011, poet Simon Armitage wrote a collection called Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for Poetry. The poems are spoken in the voice of Sophie, before, during and after her attack. Black Roses was performed as a BBC radio play, with the poems intercut with prose taken from Sylvia’s recollections about her daughter. In March this year, the Foundation, along with Goldblade’s John Robb and MP Kerry McCarthy held a Black Roses listening event followed by a discussion on Hate Crime in The House of Commons. That evening, Black Roses was performed at the Southbank Centre. The play was simple, powerful and devastating to watch – when it ended, the audience sat in silence for some time before a quiet applause began. Black Roses was followed with another Sophie-inspired radio play, Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster, earlier this year.
Rachel Austin as Sophie and Julie Hesmondhaigh as Sylvia in Simon Armitage’s Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.
In a society where social media has pushed image to the forefront and is constantly giving us new ways to judge, hate and unite against each other, the work that S.O.P.H.I.E is doing, particularly with schools and youth groups, is as important now as it has ever been. In June this year, Sylvia Lancaster was awarded an OBE for her work over the last seven years towards a more tolerant and safe society for those people who are seen as ‘different’. Whereas there can be no doubt that she would prefer to have her daughter alive than to have the letters after her name, the recognition is well deserved and the legacy that she is building for Sophie is one that will hopefully make a real difference to the lives of many.
The Sophie Lancaster Foundation website (Registered Charity Number 1129689)
Donate to S.O.P.H.I.E by texting SOPH05 £, followed by the amount you wish to donate to 70070
Buy official S.O.P.H.I.E Charity merchandise here
S.O.P.H.I.E on Facebook
S.O.P.H.I.E on Twitter
Watch Illamasqua’s film Dark Angel here
Listen to ‘Invincible Girl’ by Bad Pollyanna here
Read about Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster here
Read about Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster here