Spreading the message of hope and tolerance
IT’S a decade since Sophie Lancaster died after being brutally attacked in a park.
The Haslingden student’s untimely death at the hands of a gang of ‘feral’ teenage thugs shocked the nation.
Her family, prosecutors and police insist she died simply because she looked different.
Described as a ‘goth girl’ during the furore that followed her death, Sophie in fact loved all kinds of alternative music and culture.
It has been her friends and peers in subcultures across the country that have spent the last decade spreading a message of hope and tolerance in Sophie’s name.
From tragedy came the catalyst for change.
Her mum Sylvia has spent the past 10 years working tirelessly to stamp out hate crime and intolerance in Sophie’s name.
In the wake of her daughter’s death Sylvia set up the Sophie Lancaster Foundation - a charity dedicated to creating a lasting legacy to the bright young woman.
During the early days the group relied on alternative bands to help spread their message at gigs and festivals.
But it quickly snowballed and, in the years after her death, it was impossible to go to a gig in the north west without spotting a ‘S.O.P.H.I.E’ wristband.
The message grew further as punks, moshers, metalheads, emos and goths spread those ideals at alternative gigs and festivals, such as Rebellion and Download Festival.
Bands including Goldblade, The Damned and The Levellers sold the wristbands from their merchandise stalls.
In 2009 the organisers of metal music festival Bloodstock dedicated a stage to Sophie. That same year the foundation gained charity status.
It was a flurry of activity that carried Sophie’s family through those first difficult years after her death. But it wasn’t easy.
Sylvia said: “When I look back at the old pictures of myself in the early days I see how angry I was. I can see it.”
These days she is different - softer - she says.
“It’s just time. You just deal with things differently. You live alongside the grief. She ain’t coming back so you just get on with it. It’s been therapeutic to have this to put my energy into.”
Sophie was just 20 when she and her boyfriend Robert Maltby were set upon by the ‘feral thugs’ in Bacup.
The gang of teenagers first attacked Robert during the early hours at Stubbylee Park, on August 11, 2007.
When Sophie rushed to help him they focused their attention on her, kicking her in the head and leaving her for dead. The couple were so badly beaten that when paramedics arrived they could not tell if they were male or female.
Sophie, who was placed on a life-support machine, bore the shape of a footprint on her head. She died 13 days later.
Brendan Harris and Ryan Herbert are both serving life sentences for Sophie’s murder.
Brothers Joseph and Danny Hulme and Daniel Mallett have all since been released from prison after serving sentences for grievous bodily harm.
The judge who jailed the young men said Sophie and Robert had been the victims of a hate crime and were targeted because their appearance was different.
Judge Anthony Russell QC said: “This was feral thuggery. It raises serious questions about the sort of society which exists in this country at the start of a new millennium which was heralded with such optimism.”
Sylvia remembers the night of the attack as a surreal experience.
“You can’t grasp it fully,” she says.
“It just didn’t make any sense. And then you are being fed lots of information and you have to try and process it. I remember thinking ‘why would anyone want to attack her? How very odd’.
“Then you get to the hospital and find out friends are not allowed in, just family, and you hear more about what went on. You see the injuries for the first time - that’s horrible. Especially if you’ve never seen anyone who’s been beaten up before and you see that damage.
“You think ‘she will be alright tomorrow’ and then obviously, she isn’t. She was gone and you could see that. It’s very strange.”
Though she did not know the circumstances of the attack when she first received that fateful phone call from police, Sylvia immediately knew it was linked to Sophie and Rob’s appearance.
“When I heard the ages of the kids responsible, instantly you know that’s the reality,” she says.
“There was never any doubt in my mind.”
Sophie was a popular, caring young woman with a keen interest in books and poetry. The gap-year student had planned to start an English degree later that year.
It’s likely that she inherited her love of alternative music from her mum and dad John - both fans of punk and rock bands such as Whitesnake, Meatloaf and the Pixies.
It was testament to the impact she had throughout her short life that hundreds of people turned out to Sophie’s funeral, including journalists and television crews.
Though it was difficult for Sylvia, John and Sophie’s brother Adam to have such a public funeral, they were keen to spread a message of tolerance.
Sylvia’s hard work over the years has resulted in an OBE. And Sophie’s name has been embraced as a bastion of unity.
A stage at the metal festival Bloodstock, a make up blusher and a black eyeliner all bear Sophie’s name.
The Illamasqua eye liner, in particular, Sylvia says, she would have loved.
And then there are the ‘S.O.P.H.I.E’ branded zippo lighters, hip flasks, badges, T-shirts and notebooks that the charity team has spent the summer lugging around various festivals and events.
Simon Armitage created the award-winning poem Black Roses, written in Sophie’s voice.
It was later adapted into a play - just one of many creative outpourings sparked by Sophie’s death.
“People have been so kind,” says Sylvia.
“When we’re at festivals at the end of the night often people will throw their fake horns at us and I love that.”
A decade after Sophie’s death, Sylvia has no grand plans to mark the occasion. Instead she will spend the day reflecting.
“I want people to see how peaceful and what a pleasure she was,” Sylvia says. And fun - she wasn’t miserable by any stretch of the imagination.
“My most vivid memory is how funny she was. She was sarcastic and quick and could be quite cutting. But gentle. She was a quiet little thing really. She read constantly from being a little girl. She always had a book on her arm. That’s how I remember her - with a bottle of Coke, a chocolate bar and a book, reading peacefully.”
●● It is a decade since Sophie Lancaster was killed