The legacy of Sophie Lancaster: “We should be embracing difference, not scared of it”

On August 24, 2007, 20-year-old rock fan Sophie Lancaster lost her life after she and her boyfriend were set upon by a gang in a local park.

The legacy of Sophie Lancaster: “We should be embracing difference, not scared of it”
Paul Travers

This story was originally published in August 2017, marking the 10-year anniversary of Sophie Lancaster's death.

In the early hours of Saturday, August 11, 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend Robert Maltby were walking home in the Lancashire town of Bacup when Robert was set upon in a vicious and completely unprovoked attack by a large group of teenagers.

When Sophie went to his aid, she too was attacked. Both were repeatedly kicked in the head and left bleeding and unconscious. While Robert eventually emerged from his coma, Sophie never did, and she passed away on August 24, 2007.

She was just 20 years old.

The five perpetrators charged with the crime were aged between 15 and 17. Two received life sentences for murder while the other three received between four years and four months, and five years and 10 months, for grievous bodily harm.

Those are the bare facts behind Sophie Lancaster’s tragic death. But the facts alone are wholly inadequate when it comes to telling the full story of the devastation brought about by this horrific murder. It takes, perhaps, the words of a mother who has faced what no parent should have to in burying their child way before their time. And this child was not taken by capricious, uncaring illness, or the random circumstance of an accident. Sophie Lancaster was a victim of hate.

“When I went in [to the hospital] they said they couldn’t tell at first which was male and which was female because they were so swollen,” says Sylvia Lancaster. “There were trainer marks up the sides of her face. There were star-shaped indents from the end of the laces. [Sophie’s] ears were massive; there was all this pus. There are consequences to jumping on somebody’s head and it’s not a video game. You don’t just bounce back up again from something like that.

“From the top of my head to the tips of my toes, it felt like everything was rubbing together. It was horrible and I felt so helpless. To see your little girl on a life support machine… I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

She’s addressing a special assembly of Year 8 students at Brooksbank School in Elland near Halifax, to which Kerrang! has also been invited, and the young audience is rapt. There’s no surreptitious talking or giggling in the back as Sylvia tells Sophie’s story.

“They shouted something like, ‘Let’s bang the moshers!’ They were targeted because they were different,” she continues. “That little girl was just 5’1” and eight-and-a-half stone, and she went to help Robert. She was cradling his head when they turned on her, trying to stop them.

“You hear that as a mother and you’re so proud, that she’d do that for someone she loves. But part of you also thinks, ‘Why didn’t she just run?’”

It’s difficult to comprehend the bravery of a woman who is willing to revisit the darkest period of her life over and over again in a bid to make a difference. But 10 years on, Sylvia doesn’t just tell the story of Sophie’s death. She also talks about the way she has inspired thousands of people to stand together against hate and fear, about the work done in her name via The Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Because Sylvia Lancaster refused to let her daughter’s death count for nothing.

When the presentation finishes, there’s a spontaneous round of applause. Sylvia will later tell us that if a single young mind has been changed, if a single prejudice has been challenged and rethought, it’s worth all the effort.

“It’s about taking something terrible that happened and turning it into something positive,” she says.

A decade ago, before the attack on her daughter and Robert Maltby took place, Sylvia, who worked in youth services, was already planning on starting a campaign aimed at addressing hate towards alternative subcultures. She had seen how Sophie and Rob were looked at on the streets, and had experience in hearing tales of bullying and victimisation from the community.

The pair stood out in a small town like Bacup, and Sophie was instantly recognisable with her multiple facial piercings and often multicoloured dreadlocks. She’d been a vegetarian from the age of six, used to proselytise to her family on issues such as world poverty, and was a voracious reader. At the time of the attack she was on a gap year, after which she was planning to study English. It was reported at the time that some of her favourite bands were My Chemical Romance, Korn and Slipknot and, while she’s been commonly referred to as a goth in the media, she didn’t like to be pigeonholed.

Sylvia describes Sophie and Rob as “bright, creative, intelligent young people”.

The original campaign, launched after Sophie and Rob were assaulted, was named S.O.P.H.I.E., standing for Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere. Sylvia says that, at the time, Sophie was still expected to make an eventual recovery.

“The original aims were just to get out there and raise awareness. Let young people see that there’s nothing to be frightened of, that we should be embracing difference, not scared of it. That was really the original thought behind it,” says Sylvia.

Following Sophie’s death, the campaign started to snowball, with bands, celebrities, alternative communities, online groups and ordinary people of every type embracing the message of tolerance, acceptance and positivity they attempt to spread.

Courtney Love has proudly worn a S.O.P.H.I.E. wristband on the Jonathan Ross Show and at various award ceremonies. The Saturdays, Professor Brian Cox and Julie Hesmondhalgh – who played Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street and also Sylvia in Black Roses, a play about the Sophie Lancaster case – have also been vocal supporters and donors (“I love Julie, but if she plays me in a beige cardigan again there’ll be trouble – I’ve never worn a beige cardie in my life!” laughs Sylvia). Everyone’s support is hugely appreciated, of course, but, when pushed, Sylvia says that the single celebrity whose involvement she excited her most was ’80s new wave idol Adam Ant.

“I was a huge fan when I was younger. He’s the reason why my son, who also works with the Foundation, is called Adam,” she laughs.

It was the involvement and funding of make-up brand Illamasqua, however, that allowed the S.O.P.H.I.E. campaign to take a major step-up and become a full-time registered charity, which it did in 2009, as The Sophie Lancaster Foundation.

“I did a campaign with Illamasqua, which is how I got involved,” nods actress Vicky McClure, who you would recognise from the likes of This Is England and Broadchurch. “Their message was all surrounding alternatives, and the make-up they used was big and bold and do-what-you-want. They were champions of that sort of thing and they were massive supporters of Sophie.

“I had heard of the story,” she continues. “I was aware of it when it happened but then you see Sylvia and the work they’re doing and the movements they’re making and it’s just amazing. ‘Stamp out prejudice, hate and intolerance everywhere’ is their tagline and that’s exactly what it is. We all know the battle we’ve been fighting against racism. It’s a similar kind of thing, and we’ve got to continue the fight because people are still being attacked because of the way they look. People are still being attacked because of their sexual preference, and their race. We know by now it shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t be a thing we have to discuss. But we do.”

Many musicians, artists and bands from alternative subcultures have also become involved with the foundation, or been inspired by Sophie’s story. Dutch symphonic metallers Delain, for example, wrote the title track of 2012 album We Are The Others about Sophie – ‘I’m walking with Sophie tonight / She lives in the air that I breathe,’ it begins.

“I’d wanted to write about otherness for a long time. But it’s a big topic and when you talk about things like that it’s so easy to just say, ‘You know what? We’re all different – deal with it, it’s a beautiful thing,’” explains vocalist Charlotte Wessels. “I wanted to say that, but I wanted to give a certain weight to the topic. Because, yes, in a perfect world everybody would be accepted for the way they look, the colour of their skin, their sexuality – you name it. But the fact is that’s not the case and it was when we were writing the song that I remembered the case of Sophie Lancaster and how it touched me and how it created this wave through the community when it happened.

“That was when we got in touch with the Foundation. I can write a song about feelings or abstract things and be done with it, but this is not abstract at all. This was someone’s daughter and someone’s friend, and so I really wanted to get in touch before putting anything out.”

The band also worried that the song itself was too upbeat for such a sombre and serious subject, yet Sylvia and the Foundation loved its positivity, and the song has since become an anthem for both the Sophie Lancaster Foundation and Delain.

Just as one small stone can start another one rolling, that song helped to spread both Sophie’s story and the charity’s message. “That’s where I first really got involved. I’m very close to Delain and I was intrigued by the lyrics and the music video,” says Alissa White-Gluz of Arch Enemy.

Alissa has since become yet another vocal supporter of the work carried out by Sylvia and the Foundation. She has donated stage clothes for auction and her band contributed a track in You Will Know My Name to a charity album called S.O.P.H.I.E., also featuring the likes of Cradle Of Filth, Devilment, Delain and Evil Scarecrow. An earlier album called HOPE featured some of the goth scene’s biggest names including The Mission, Alien Sex Fiend and Gene Loves Jezebel.

“Some people probably thought that You Will Know My Name was literally about me introducing myself,” says Alissa, referring to the fact that the song was originally on 2014’s War Eternal, the album on which she replaced long-time vocalist Angela Gossow. “That song was written by Michael [Amott, guitar] about being someone who is looked down on, someone who is considered different or bullied or who is, for whatever reason, the victim of somebody else’s hatred. It’s about reclaiming your own existence and your own right to being a person.

“When we play that song live I come out wearing a hood and perform the first half of the song with my face covered and my eyes hidden, so I can’t see the audience and they can’t see my face. It represents how invisible you feel when people treat you like you’re less than a human being. Then by the end of the song I take off the hood and I come back into being myself. That song is always interesting to perform and I think it has a positive impact for a lot of people.”

The Sophie Lancaster Foundation has a strong presence on the UK festival circuit, and we initially caught up with Sylvia and the team at this year’s Download Festival, where it has been in attendance since 2012.

“Sylvia’s treated like royalty when she comes here,” says PC Darren Goddard, fondly. A jovial bear of a man and a hate crime officer with Leicestershire Police, he explains that, largely through their involvement with The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, the county’s police established a community presence at the country’s premier rock festival, and also became the ninth regional police force to record hate crimes against members of alternative subcultures.

Many of the people stopping at the stall to buy S.O.P.H.I.E. wristbands and other merchandise, or just to stop for a while and chat, would probably have been in primary school when Sophie was killed. It’s a story that continues to resonate, however.

“We do get a lot of people who just want to talk and tell us their stories,” says Sylvia. “When we’re out there working at a grassroots level, people will tell us how they’ve been attacked or abused and that’s why they support us, because they know we’re telling the truth. We have to be careful because we’re a charity and we don’t want to give the wrong advice, but we’ll always listen and signpost to other agencies who can help.”

Simon Hall first got involved with the Foundation when his Midlands metal band Beholder wrote a song called Never Take Us Down in the wake of Sophie’s death. The Foundation asked to use it and it was released as a charity single. Sylvia still plays it at every presentation she makes, and it’s even been aired in the European Parliament when Sylvia was a guest speaker at the first Hate Crime Symposium in Strasbourg, France.

As well as fronting Beholder, Simon is also a booking agent and stage manager for Bloodstock, and he invited the Foundation to attend in 2009, suggesting that the festival’s second stage be renamed The Sophie Lancaster Stage, which it remains to this day.

“It was all a bit haphazard but it was beautiful at the same time,” he chuckles, recalling the Foundation’s first festival foray. “They literally turn up with a pasting table and a couple of hundred wristbands and everything was blowing away in the wind. When you see all the kids bee-lining straight for the Sophie Stage, just to say hello or even vent, that’s important. It’s a great safe space for a lot of people, for people to get things off their chests.”

When Delain were invited to play Bloodstock in 2015, they were initially scheduled to play the main stage, but asked to step down to the smaller one in honour of Sophie.

“We said, ‘Listen, that’s a very good spot, but there is no way, with us performing We Are The Others. We need to play The Sophie Stage, we want to make that tribute. It would have been really strange to play somewhere else, it would have felt wrong,” explains Charlotte.

At festivals, of course, the Foundation’s people are largely preaching to the converted. It’s a case of getting out there, raising the profile and raising funds. But the work they do in communities and schools is every bit as important. It’s one thing to support the victims of hate crime, but in reaching out and attempting to make an impression on young minds, they hope to reach the potential perpetrators, too. They do this not only through the type of massively impactful presentation that we witnessed Sylvia deliver at Brooksbank School, but also through workshops, the delivery of educational resources that are designed to challenge prejudices, and by training professionals in education, youth work, the police and prison service.

With just four paid members of staff – including Sylvia and son Adam – the work they get through is phenomenal. Partnership and development manager, Kate, who has worked with Sylvia since the campaign’s inception, tells us that they are supposedly part time, but that it rarely works out that way. She estimates they make 90 to 100 presentations and appearances a year, as well as holding around 10 training days.

For all the great work they’re doing, however, hate crime figures continue to rise. In 2015/16, the most recent figures available, Home Office data showed there were 62,518 hate crimes involving the five ‘hate crime strands’. This was an increase of 19 per cent on the 52,465 incidents recorded the previous year.

As alternative subcultures are not yet a centrally monitored hate crime strand, there are no national figures available. But in 2014/15 Greater Manchester Police, the first force to begin recording alternative subculture hate crime, recorded 28 such incidents. This was a 40 per cent increase over the previous year, though the true figure is likely to be much, much higher. Anecdotally, pretty much everyone we speak to for this feature has their own story to tell, whether it involves violence, name-calling or anything in between.

So are things actually getting any better?

For a start, PC Goddard warns about getting too wrapped up in the numbers.

“All the research shows that hate crime is under-reported, so to my mind any increase is actually a good thing,” he says. “I’d hope any increase is from people having the trust and confidence to come forward and tell us. These attacks are also being picked up more in the mainstream media and online. There’s a societal outcry now that says this behaviour is outrageous, that it can’t be tolerated.”

Sylvia agrees that hate and prejudice will probably never be stamped out entirely, but refuses to feel like she’s fighting a losing battle.

“Like I said before, every single mind changed is a victory. We’re out there doing the best we can and if we change one mind a day, we’re doing our job.”

What would you like to see being done to combat this sort of hate and prejudice that currently isn’t?

“What I’d really like to see done, and I can’t understand why it isn’t, is that it needs to be on the curriculum,” Sylvia explains. “It shouldn’t be down to each individual school as to whether they’ll have us in or not. We actually did a one-off in a primary school for Year 6s [aged 10 and 11]. That was quite interesting, and we need to do more at that younger age. We found they did already have certain mindsets and prejudices, which was not what we expected.”

We catch up with the Foundation once more, six weeks on, as they make an appearance at the fabulously creative and visually stunning Whitby Steampunk Weekend, albeit without Sylvia today as she’s feeling under the weather.

With their wonderfully oddball mix of cabaret, punk, swing and acoustic ukulele, Victor And The Bully are a big name in the niche scene and Matthew Rogers, aka Victor, claims the community is a beacon of the sort of acceptance and tolerance we’d like to see everywhere.

“The steampunk community is filled with the most wonderful people you’ll ever find,” he explains. “There’s no elitism. You can get dressed up but you can turn up in a tracksuit, and as long as you’re being splendid with everyone, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.”

At the Foundation’s stall, located amidst a cornucopia of mechanical and sartorial wonders, Victor tells the story of when he used to dress in the style of Robert Smith of The Cure. “I was walking down the corridor at school and the next minute I’m blacked out on the floor. I’d been hit and had my jaw broken, so I’ve experienced these things myself,” he reveals.

Whitby has had a long association with the UK goth scene. Dominated by the brooding Whitby Abbey, the seaside town was the setting for a large chunk of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and has played host to the Whitby Goth Weekend for more than two decades. It also has a long affinity with The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, too. Not too far from the Pavilion where the steampunk event is taking place, there’s a memorial bench to Sophie, who attended a number of the Goth Weekends. Today it’s festooned with floral and fabric tributes and a T-shirt reading ‘Invincible Girl’ – the title of a Foundation charity single by Bad Pollyanna.

In the La Rosa Hotel around the corner, a resplendently tattooed receptionist, coincidentally also called Sophie, tells us that Whitby is a relative beacon of tolerance. “People move here just because of that,” she nods. “It’s very welcoming and you can walk through town at night without getting any abuse, even on the weekends when there’s no event on.”

It sounds like a haven, but there’s still no room for complacency. Kate tells us that they held a workshop in a school in Whitby and were surprised to find that the prejudices held by some of the kids were as prevalent here as anywhere else they had visited.

It’s never going to be an easy battle to win, but the Foundation continues to do amazing work in that direction, and for Sylvia it’s all about hope and positivity, as well as keeping Sophie’s memory alive.

In a final chat on the phone, she laughs about Sophie having being referred to in the press and online as ‘an angel’.

“She was an individual and she was quite feisty. Funny. A bit stroppy at times. She was just like anybody else: quite complex, but she wasn’t always an angel,” she says.

And what do you think she would have made of all the attention she’s had?

“I think her vain side would have quite liked it, but I sometimes wonder myself at that. Is she up there somewhere going, ‘For God’s sake, Mum, shut up!’? I think that might be her take on it,” she laughs.

We’re just glad that this formidable woman refuses to shut up. The work that she and the rest of the Foundation continue to do is not only inspirational: it’s something that makes the world a better place, one changed mind at a time. And that makes it a fitting tribute to a young woman whose life was cut tragically short in the most shocking of ways.

For more information, please visit sophielancasterfoundation.com. To support the cause, text SOPH05 £(AMOUNT) to 70070.

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