The Battle of Cable Street – 4th October 1936

It is 87 years since the Jewish community of East London and its allies blocked the streets in order to prevent Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists marching through.

The Fascists were subjected to a humiliating defeat as the police found themselves unable to clear a path.

The Battle of Cable Street, as it has become known, is the most popular anti-fascist victory to have taken place on British soil.

Here we look at the history of 4 October 1936 and its subsequent commemoration. In order to do this we have used a variety of primary and secondary sources, including interviews with those involved.

HOPE not hate brings you this resource not just to inform you of an interesting historical episode but to allow you to draw some of the timeless lessons that can be learnt from it, and how the HOPE not hate campaign links to our shared heritage of Cable Street.

The Jewish East End – Chapter 2

Arrival in England

Whilst the first Jews came to Britain following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Jewish community of London’s East End mainly comprised of families that had arrived between 1881 and 1914.

Many of these families settled in England after fleeing antisemitism and murderous pogroms in Russia, Poland and many other Eastern European countries. They followed previous waves of immigration that had brought Huguenots, Irish and other smaller groups into the area.

By the 1930s some 183,000 Jews lived in London, the majority in the East End due to cheaper rents. Stepney was home to some 60,000 Jews and the heart of Jewish East London.

Life in the East End

In Stepney many Jews lived in terribly overcrowded conditions and in poverty, as did most East Enders during this period. According to the 1931 census, the population density of St George’s, Stepney, was thirteen times greater than that of an outer London borough like Woolwich.

The Great Depression of the 1930s greatly impacted the cabinet manufacturing and tailoring trades, the two trades most Jews were employed in. As dole queues grew, people were forced to work as “sweated labour”, accepting miserably low wages for hideously long hours.

In spite of these harsh conditions, Stepney had a vibrant and distinctive cultural identity based around the synagogues, schools, Yiddish theatres, cafes, newspapers, trade unions and political organisations that they established in the area.

Antisemitism

Deprivation fostered a pernicious strain of antisemitism, and some neighbouring communities blamed the easily-identifiable Jewish community for worsening conditions in the East End.

In the early 1900s organisations such as the British Brothers League (BBL) held meetings in the East End agitating for immigration controls, resulting in the discriminatory Aliens Act 1905.

Such campaigns left behind a legacy of antipathy from which Oswald Mosley was able to draw.

These tensions were greatly exasperated by the Great Depression. Drawn from centuries old prejudice, stereotypes of Jews as exploiting landlords and money-lenders were presented in the media, alongside contradictory associations of Jews with ghettos and poverty.

Oswald Mosley and the BUF – Chapter 3

Origins

By 1936 the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had become the largest organised antisemitic force in Britain.

Unlike other British fascist leaders of the same period, BUF leader Sir Oswald Mosley emerged from the establishment, starting out his career as a rising star in both the Conservative and Labour parties.

Mosley became disillusioned with the mainstream and founded the unimaginatively titled “New Party” before transforming it into the BUF after meeting Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in January 1932.

Support

Mosley capitalised on the anger felt during the Great Depression to propose a single-party authoritarian regime, which he claimed would destroy class differences and lead to the triumph of the “new fascist man”.

With this message Mosley attracted as many as 40,000 members in 1934 and the support of the Daily Mail, who ran the notorious headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the same year.

Oswald Mosley’s “Comrades in Struggle” address

Olympia rally

As the fascist movement developed, so too did opposition to it. Led by Communists, socialists and trade unionists the anti-fascist movement grew, supported also by Liberals and some anti-fascist Tories.

However, those who interrupted fascist meetings found themselves dealing with unprecedented violence from Blackshirt thugs.

The notorious Olympia meeting of 7 June 1934 came to symbolise Blackshirt thuggery. After the Daily Worker posted the location of the West London meeting, a number of anti-fascists attended, intending to disrupt the meeting.

Hecklers were beaten by gangs of Blackshirts armed with knuckledusters and other weapons and thrown into the street. The BUF was roundly condemned by the mainstream and the violence of the meeting effectively ended Mosley’s pretence of respectability.

Albert Booth, Communist Party organiser, describes the violence at Olympia

Scapegoating

With its reputation in tatters following Olympia and increasingly under the influence of Hitler, BUF leaders sought to exploit the reservoir of antisemitism in the East End in order to save the party.

By 1936 the BUF was pouring most of its resources into holding meetings in the East End and distributing crude antisemitism. Mob orators such as Mick Clarke and Owen Burke sought to whip up violence on street corners night after night.

As this approach gradually gained support in poor neighbouring areas such as Bethnal Green, Mosley announced he would celebrate the fourth birthday of the BUF by staging a provocative march through Stepney, the heart of the Jewish East End, on 4 October, 1936.

Organising against Mosley – Chapter 4

Members of the Stepney Workers Sports Club, taken at an anti-fascist march, 1936.© Jewish Museum, London

Initial organising

The announcement that Mosley planned to march his uniformed Blackshirts through the East End of London on Sunday 4 October 1936 sent shockwaves through the Jewish community. But this community was no stranger to adversity.

In response to the perceived inaction of Jewish authorities such as the Board of Deputies (BoD), Stepney locals took it upon themselves to organise against the BUF. Many were already organised in the newly formed National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers (NUTGW) and the Worker’s Circle.

In July 1936 a conference was held by 86 different organisations in order to work out a practical plan for combating Mosley. From this conference the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and antisemitism (JPC) was born, and was to lead opposition to the march.

Jewish Chronicle reporting on anti-fascist conference, July 1936.© Jewish Chronicle. 

Banning the march

In the run up to 4 October there were numerous incursions into Stepney. Feelings ran high as five East London mayors met with the Home Office on 1st October to warn of the likely consequences if the march proceeded. The following day the JPC delivered a 100,000 strong petition urging the Home Secretary to ban the march.

However the Government refused to ban the march and it was left to local people to defend their community from the fascists.

Bar the Roads to Fascism!

As the Jewish and non-Jewish establishment called for people to stay off the streets, the JPC, the trade unions, the Independent Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth began to mobilise.

On 3 October the Daily Worker printed a map of the proposed fascist march and called for Jew and Gentile alike to unite en masse in Leman Street, Cable Street, Gardiner’s Corner and St George’s Street to halt Mosley.

The most vocally anti-fascist political party – the Communist Party – initially found itself caught in a dilemma, having already planned an anti-fascist “Aid Spain” rally in Trafalgar Square that day.

However, under much pressure from East End members, the national CP overprinted their leaflets with the words “Alteration: Rally to Aldgate 2pm”.

The Battle of Cable Street – Chapter 5

https://youtube.com/watch?v=CXhxT0s1aRo

The Fascists are coming

As the Young Communist League began to occupy Victoria Park, where the fascist intended to hold a rally, the event that came to be known as “The Battle” kicked off with the Jewish Ex-Serviceman’s Association marching along Whitechapel Road, proudly displaying their medals, in order to advertise the counter-demonstration.

They soon found their route blocked by mounted police and were ordered to disperse. Upon refusing they were beaten severely. This set the tone for the rest of the day.

As the news spread, antifascists assembled at Gardiner’s Corner at Aldgate, blocking the gateway to the East End. Whichever route Mosley took, they had to pass through here to go down his planned route of Whitechapel Road or Commercial Road. Estimates of the eventual crowd vary between 100,000 and half a million. The crowd roared “They Shall Not Pass!” and “Down with Fascism!”

Six thousand police, including London’s entire mounted police division, tried to clear the area. Four anti-fascist tram drivers intentionally abandoned their vehicles, forming barricades which were used by the crowd as they were attacked by police on horseback.

Nevertheless the police struck out with extreme brutality. Cafés were turned into first aid units by the Communist Party to treat the wounded.

While Mosley waited impatiently with a few thousand Blackshirt troops, the police decided that with Gardiner’s Corner in the hands of an unmovable anti-fascist crowd, they would clear an alternative route to the south through Cable Street.

Barricades in Cable Street

Cable Street had been ready since early morning. Three sets of barricades, one containing an overturned lorry, were erected across the narrow street using material from a builder’s yard and from local Jewish people’s homes and shops nearby.

Remembering the support of the Jewish community in the dock strikes of 1912, Irish dockers stood in solidarity with Jews against the fascists, ripping up paving stones with pickaxe handles to add to the barricades.

The street was strewn with broken glass and marbles as a defence against mounted police charges. Anti-fascists chanted slogans and gave clenched fist salutes from behind the barricades in defiance. As the police attempted to clear the barricades, locals rained down all manner of items.

Albert Booth, Cable Street organiser, describing the events of the day

Victory!

For no route left for the fascists Sir Philip Game, the Commissioner of Police, told Mosley to march his troops west from Tower Hill and out of the area.

Meanwhile anti-fascists marched to Victoria Park heralding a victory for the Jewish community, the people of the East End, and anti-fascists everywhere.

Independent Labour Party pamphlet describing the events of the day. © Independent Labour Party Publications

They Did Not Pass

Aftermath – Chapter 6

For Anti-Fascists

While 4 October 1936 was a great success for the anti-fascists, there was still a lot of work left to do.

For a start legal aid had to be organised for some 79 anti-fascist men and women who were arrested that day, many of them severely beaten by police. In contrast just five fascists were arrested.

Whilst the Jewish People’s Council arranged free legal support, the sentencing was punitive with heavy fines and custodial sentences including hard labour being meted out.

Metropolitan Police report on Cable Street, with a list of arrests. © Images reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London. See full page

Support for the BUF

The adage that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” seemed to apply to the BUF. Mosley immediately sought to present his party as victims of Jewish-Communist violence and BUF membership temporarily increased in the weeks following their humiliation at Cable Street.

Whilst the BUF greatly exaggerated this influx of support, reports from the Metropolitan Police estimate 2,000 new recruits joined soon after Cable Street.

Mile End Pogrom

One week after the Battle, while antifascists were holding a victory rally, the BUF retaliated in Stepney.

Approximately 200 antisemitic youths ran down Mile End Road smashing Jewish shop windows, looting and burning cars. They attacked anyone thought to be Jewish and reportedly threw a hairdresser and a four-year-old girl through a plate glass window.

The day came to be known as the “Mile End Pogrom” and remains one of the most notorious antisemitic events of 20th century Britain.

Public Order Act

The 4 October provocation led directly to Parliament debating the 1936 Public Order Act, which passed into law on 1 January 1937.

The POA controlled public processions and banned the wearing of political uniforms in public. This undercut sections of Mosley’s support, as many poor, unemployed and ex-servicemen found Mosley’s quasi-military uniforms attractive.

Under the provisions of the act, an order prohibiting marches in East London was renewed every three months until the disbanding of the British Union of Fascists in 1940.

Ubby Cowan discusses the impact of the Public Order Act

Legacy of Cable Street – Chapter 7

Stepney Tenants Defence League

Cable Street helped set in motion a more sophisticated and ultimately more successful brand of anti-fascist politics.

The surge in support for Mosley immediately after Cable Street helped convince many, including Communist Party organiser Phil Piratin, that to defeat the BUF they had to tackle the genuine socio-economic grievances exploited by Mosley within the East End rather than simply meet it with physical force.

Working with a network of tenants committees before forming the Stepney Tenants Defence League (STDL), Piratin and colleagues tackled the high rents charged by slum landlords for substandard accommodation. The STDL orchestrated rent strikes aimed at bringing landlords to the negotiating table, winning vital concessions and rent reductions for beleaguered tenants.

Although the STDL was organised by Communists – many of whom were Jewish – they also saved fascist tenants from eviction. The STDL soon extended its work into the heart of the “fascist” East End, particularly areas such as Duckett Street, Stepney. The BUF had done nothing for them. As a result BUF cards were torn up in disgust.

By helping local people overcome their problems and helping them to understand that these were not caused by “Jews” or “immigrants” the STDL proved that it is unity, rather than division, which enables communities to overcome its social deprivation.

The lessons are there to be relearned.

Quinn Square Tenants Rent Strike Victory

Permission of Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School, London
cover | spread 1 | spread 2 | spread 3 | spread 4 | spread 5 | spread 6

Failure of BUF

After Cable Street, Mussolini was so appalled with Mosley’s failure to gain “mastery of the streets” that he decided to end his financial subsidy, a vast sum of money that effectively underwrote the operating costs of the BUF.

Mosley attempted to prove his worth to Il Duce at the March 1936 elections, and although the BUF polled a respectable 19% in some areas of Bethnal Green, not one single councillor was elected. Mussolini cancelled his subsidy and without it, the BUF began to collapse as an organisation.

The final nail in the coffin for the British Union of Fascists was WWII. Mosley’s links to Hitler saw the organisation under increasing state scrutiny and becoming deeply unpopular with the public.

Mosley’s calls for an alliance with Hitler eventually led to his imprisonment in 1940, along with Britain’s other prominent fascists. The organisation was officially dissolved in 1940.

¡No Pasarán! – Chapter 8

Ubby Cowan on the Spanish Civil War

The International Brigade

The struggle against fascism in the East End was set against the backdrop of the rise of international fascism. With Hitler and Mussolini already in power in Europe, fascist units of the Spanish army rebelled against the left-wing government in July 1936.

On the night of the fascist uprising the Communist deputy Dolores Ibarruri – La Pasionaria – declared on national radio that the people should fight against the fascist takeover. She ended with the words “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees! No Pasarán!”

This call was heard all over the world and over 2,000 men and women from Britain went to Spain to fight on the Republican side. A quarter gave their lives.

The cause was keenly felt in the East End and many Jews went to fight, forming roughly ten percent of the Britons in what was to become the International Brigades.

The first Britons to arrive in Spain were two Jewish tailors from Stepney, Nat Cohen and Sam Masters, who together organised the Tom Mann Centuria in honour of a founding father of the trade union movement. Cohen was wounded and returned home in April 1937. Masters, who joined the British Battalion, was killed at Brunete in July 1937.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=-SqgkrL_PrM

Aid Spain in the East End

For every person who went to fight in Spain, there were many more who contributed to the Republican cause through the numerous “Aid Spain” committees that sprang up across Britain. These committees helped bring much-needed humanitarian relief to the country.

The committees, some independent, some attached to the labour or Communist Parities, raised money to equip the Republicans with ambulances, medical supplies and other necessities. Enormous amounts of money were raised, including in the poverty-stricken East End.

This was a campaign which united Jews, Communists, Labourites, Quakers, Liberals, Catholics and those of no political or religious attachment. However, for East End Jews already experiencing a taste of fascism at home, the Aid Spain campaign was particularly intense.

The connection between the struggle at home and abroad is reflected in the adoption of a Spanish slogan – They Shall Not Pass, ¡No Pasarán! – by those struggling against Mosley.

Antifascism since Cable Street – Chapter 9

After the War

After WWII, Mosley and his supporters attempted to return to business as usual under the name “The Union Movement”. However, it faced considerable opposition from a nation exhausted by war and many of its meetings were shut down by determined anti-fascist organisations.

The most well-known of these organisations was the 43 Group, mainly comprised of Jewish ex-servicemen and women. The group, many of whom were directly involved in Cable Street, drew inspiration from 4 October 1936 to strengthen their resolve against fascism.

The actions of the 43 Group ensured the attempted fascist revival was short-lived. By the 1950s Mosley was exhausted and was quiet for most of the decade.

Len Sherman on the 43 Group

The Anti-Fascist and Anti-Racist Alliance

By the late 1950s, the old forces of race hate began targeting recent immigrants from the Caribbean. Racist attacks, whipped up by the White Defence League and Mosley’s Union Movement, culminated in the Notting Hill race riots in August 1958.

In response, alliances were forged between the new and old anti-fascists to defend the local community. The most well-known of these was the 62 Group, a coalition of left, Jewish and independent antifascists, including members of the 43 Group and informed by Cable Street organisers.

It was during this period that the anti-fascist organisation Searchlight emerged, and by the mid-1970s it was producing a monthly magazine.

New Threats

The National Front (NF), gaining support in the 1970s, posed the most significant fascist threat since the BUF. The fascists again tried to exploit antipathy in the East End, this time directed against more recent immigrant communities, primarily Bangladeshi and Bengalis.

Rock Against Racism was formed in response in 1976, attracting 30,000 people to its first major concert. This was followed up by a huge series of local and national events.

In 1977 Lewisham’s community, black and white together, formed the Anti-Nazi League, which was to becpme a major political force, running a big campaign to expose the NF in the run up to the 1979 general election.

Antifascist committees continued to exist throughout the 1980s, and in 1985 much of the anti-fascist movement became united by the formation of a national group, Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which was especially successful in street confrontations.

New approaches

Facing tough opposition on the street, fascism turned to the ballot box, and in 1993 a BNP candidate was elected on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End. Whilst his seat was held only for a short time, it was a foretaste of what was to come in the following decade.

As the forces of fascism evolved, so too did antifascist organisations. Community Security Trust (CST) was formed in 1994 by former members of the 43 and 62 group, many of whom were present at Cable Street.

Today they work with the police to provide protection and representation for British Jews on issues of racism and extremism.

HOPE not hate

HOPE not hate was launched in 2004 to combat an unprecedented electoral fascist threat in the form of the British National Party (BNP).

As the BNP gained councillors in many part of Britain, HNH worked with local activists in election after election, producing millions of pieces of literature to address the local issues that the BNP sought to exploit.

The BNP, who have many links to Mosley and the BUF, reached their electoral peak in June 2009 when they gained two MEPs and several councillors. However it was downhill from there. In 2010 they lost councillor after councillor, including all 12 in Barking and Dagenham, where HNH had been campaigning intensively.

80 years on from Cable Street, it remains the modus operandi of right wing groups to target areas of tension and scapegoat vulnerable communities. Today HOPE not hate draws from the anti-fascist lineage of Cable Street and seeks to unite all those opposed to the politics of hate.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=uElNKuJudBU
The Cable Street mural, St George’s Town Hall, Shadwell.

Remembering Cable Street – Chapter 10

https://youtube.com/watch?v=BNJVOC-VQ1c

The Mural

The Battle has inspired art of all kinds, most strikingly the giant mural on the west wall of St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street. Commissioned in 1976 by the Tower Hamlets Arts Project, Dave Binnington and Desmond Rochford began the work, drawing inspiration from Spanish muralists and Picasso’s Guernica. Binnington interviewed many local characters and included them in the design.

In 1980 fascists vandalised the mural, obliterating two thirds of the painting. Binnington understandably quit the project. Paul Butler, along with Rochford and Ray Walker, worked together to finish the project in October 1982.

The mural has been repeatedly vandalised by fascists, until a special varnish was applied so any future attacks could be easily cleaned off. The mural stands today as a powerful symbol of anti-fascism in the East End.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=1Ab-B7EF1-g

Acknowledgements

Researched by David Lawrence and Eden Gallant; written by Steve Silver and David Lawrence.

HOPE not hate would like to thank: Dr Daniel Tilles, David Rosenberg, Richard Humm, Dave Rich, Walter Lawrence, Paul Butler, Queenie Beer, Alf Gallant, Sam Needleman, Bernard Kops, and Dorris Pampel for their interviews.

We would also like to thank: Yoav Segal, Simon Demisse and Victoria Iglikowski of the National Archives, Stefan Dicker of the Bishopsgate Institute, Merian Jump of the Marx Memorial Library, Barbara Warnock and Howard Falksohn of the Wiener Library, Natasha Gee-Firsht of the Jewish Chronicle, and Joanne Rosenthal of the Jewish Library, London, Ben Chacko of the Morning Star, Sophia Gorton from Reuters/ITN Source, Colin Spanjar of the Board of Deputies, The British Library, Vivi Lachs and Klezmer Klub.

© Images reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

The National Archives give no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided.

Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education.  Applications for any other use should be made to The National Archives Image Library, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, Tel: 020 8392 5225, Fax: 020 8392 5266.

Published 4 October 2016

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