‘The Battle of Cable Street’ – 75 Years On

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As we approach the 75th anniversary of the key event in repulsing fascism in the East End of London, David Rosenberg looks back on the importance of the Battle of Cable Street, and looks forward to the events planned for October:

On 4th October 2011, we will mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street – an iconic moment in the struggle against Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

On that day, a movement basking in the contemporary triumphs of its counterparts in Italy, Germany and Spain, convinced of its
righteousness and invincibility, claiming to voice the frustrations of the abandoned and disenfranchised and to be harnessing their energy to a renewed national purpose, came seriously unstuck.

Mosley had planned to celebrate the fourth birthday of his fascist party by sending 3,000 uniformed blackshirts in four marching columns through London’s East End streets where a beleaguered community of 60,000 Jews eked  out a living.

The fascist troops were heading for four platforms – in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Bow and Limehouse, where Mosley and other leading fascist ideologues would delight their local supporters with speeches promising a “Greater Britain” at the expense of their Jewish neighbours whom they blamed for all society’s ills.

Their grand scheme of 4th October failed. It met determined resistance not just from that community they had long been assaulting with words and, for many weeks, physically terrorising. The wider East End population, including many from the equally impoverished Irish community that Mosley tried to turn against the Jews, came out to stop the fascists too. A human wall blocked every entrance to the East End, especially at Gardiner’s Corner, Aldgate, and a series of barricades were built in Cable Street.

Seven thousand police, including the whole of London’s mounted police regiment, could not clear a pathway through for the fascists. Mosley’s movement suffered a great blow at Cable Street but soldiered on until 1940. The self-confidence of the anti-fascists grew immeasurably on that day but they could only muster such numbers because of the persistent work they had been conducting in several arenas to neutralise the fascist threat and even win over some who once embraced Mosley’s movement.

In some London streets, commemorative plaques mark significant lives and event but their story must be told in just a few words. Just off Cable Street, at the junction with Dock Street, a red plaque commemorates the outstanding achievement of anti-fascists on that October day.

Further along Cable Street, though, on the side-wall of the former St George’s Town Hall, stands a more graphic monument, a huge mural, the size of the building itself. It was designed by a local artist, Dave Binnington – inspired by Diego Rivera’s style – but completed by others. Binnington abandoned the project after it was repeatedly defaced by the political descendents of Mosley’s movement. A thin but effective layer of varnish protects it today from those who want to deny the narrative it portrays through its powerful images.

St George's Town Hall, Cable Street. Photo: Peter Thwaite, Creative Commons

As historians our job is to make history real; not through art but through using powers of description and analysis to enable our public to feel as if they really are standing in the shoes of individuals of the past. In trying to achieve this with my area of historical interest – London’s East End – I have been using physical props such as street names, buildings and panoramic views.

In the footsteps of yesterday’s fighters

I attempt to convey events in this history by taking groups on interactive walks on the actual streets where the events were played out. One of my walks is called “Anti-Fascist Footprints: a walk through the 1930s East End from Gardiner’s Corner to Cable Street”.

Gardiner's Corner at the junction of Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road, 1946. The building was destroyed by fire in the 1970s.

In designing this walk, I chose to start near the redeveloped site that was once Gardiner’s Corner, and knew that the climactic moment of the walk would be the Cable Street mural. The challenge was to fashion an elaborate route from one
to the other enabling me to reveal the story between the headlines.

The body of the walk would be a series of stopping points at which I would offer answers, sometimes definite, sometimes tentative, to a series of questions: What was Mosley doing before he was a fascist? Why did his movement concentrate so heavily on the East End? Why were the police so determined to let him march? How did the anti-fascists start to organise? Which individuals or organisations were involved? How did the fight against fascism in the East End relate to the fight against fascism in Spain? And didn’t the leaders of the Jewish community tell people to stay indoors? So, why did local Jews ignore their advice?

Many such questions arise spontaneously from walkers.

A street map of the 'old' East End

I can point to physical features of the environment: the street where  a key activist was born, a housing estate where unity between Irish and Jewish communities was forged, the building that once housed the office of the Jewish People’s Council, a campaigning organisation churning out propaganda leaflets.

But I also have a portable historical resource – a scrapbook with photos, leaflets, quotes from participants, maps, and contemporary newspaper cuttings.

The scrapbook is growing –  a by-product of visits to various archives: the People’s History Museum and Working Class Movement Library in Manchester, special collections in the libraries of Warwick and Sheffield Universities, and more locally at the Bishopsgate Institute on the edge of the city and the East End, while I have been researching a long-form version of aspects of this history to be published shortly before the commemoration in October.

The youngest participant on the walks to date has been a 9 year old, the oldest over 80. I’ve taken school and college groups, trade unionists, community organisations, children and grandchildren of Cable Street veterans, and members of the general public of varying ages and ethnicities, all fascinated by the rich mix of ingredients that contributed to this historical event.

As we return to our starting point, we cut through a small green space named Altab Ali Park. Ali was a young Bengali clothing worker stabbed to death in a racist attack more than 40 years after Mosley attempted to invade the East End. A poignant reminder that we have not yet been able to confine this history to an archive box.

- – - – - – - – -

For details of this walk, and David Rosenberg’s other East End walks, visit:
www.eastendwalks.com

Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s, by David
Rosenberg will be published by Five Leaves Publications.

Commemorative events (talks, book launches, films) will be taking place at
Wilton’s Music Hall (off Cable Street) on the weekend of 1st and 2nd October
2011, organised by the Cable Street Group and over the following two weeks
through events organised by the Jewish Museum.

  • Paul Butler

    Dave Binnington initiated the Cable Street mural project, but it was badly damaged by BNP thugs at an early stage in design. Dave resigned, the wall had to be largely re-rendered and the mural was re-designed and painted by three artists, Paul Butler, Desmond Rochfort and Ray Walker. It took them nearly a year to paint. Whilst the artists acknowledge Dave Binnington’s role they feel that their’s also should be acknowledged.

  • http://www.eastendwalks.com David Rosenberg

    Absolutely – apologies for the initial omission.

  • http://WebsiteURL Anna Davin

    David Rosenberg’s rich account of the Cable St events reminded me that my father, Dan Davin, a newly arrived Rhodes scholar, had been there and wrote about it to my mother back in New Zealand. So I looked up the letter, written a week later on 11 October. His friend Geoff Flavell, a medical student in London for three years already, had been showing him the town. (Mass at the Brompton Oratory, an afternoon in the Tate Gallery, dinner in a French restaurant and much crawling.)Then:
    ‘Last Sunday R. and F. and I went to the East End to watch the Fascist attempt at a march. We were in the thick of the riots and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The communist sympathies were very strong. I felt very partisan and incited my neighbours to resistance of the the polics. But they were men of straw. So was I. Then we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t bad. You would have loved it … The rest of the night was a pub crawl.’
    Years later he had strong memories from that day: his shock at the poverty of the streets and houses and people; his fury at a mounted military officer who held his nose to express contempt for the massed East Enders; the power of the emotion and politics of the crowd. And when he reached Oxford the following week he found college life stifling and class-bound, ‘routed’ a man who called to recruit him to the Conservative Club and joined the Labour Club whose representative came next.

  • Andrew Whitehead

    Anna – what a wonderful letter. And a Chinese (I wonder if in Limehouse) and a pub crawl sound a good way of rounding off the day.
    Many years ago, I interviewed a hotelier called Tom Wilson who in 1936 had been a police constable based in Kentish Town. He was on duty for several Mosley meetings, and was at Cable Street trying to keep the two sides apart. ‘It seemed to me we were getting it from both sides’, he told me, ‘I can’t remember any other occasion when I used my truncheon during my service.’
    I also spoke to the CP’s Phil Piratin – in 1945 elected the Communist MP for Stepney and Mile End – who told me how party activists had arranged to barricade Cable Street. A clapped out old lorry was, by arrangement, left in a haulage yard to be pulled across the road and block it. Phil Piratin’s story was that when the call to ‘get the lorry’ went out, the wrong lorry, a perfectly serviceable one, was pushed across the road. He also – more arrestingly – mentioned a local agreement between communists and fascists ‘not to interfere’ with each other’s local outdoor pitches.

  • http://lacolumna Bob

    Hi. Fascinating article. I am a member of the La Columna living history group, a group of living historians dedicated to the recreation of the lives of British anti-fascists in the 1930s. We very much hope to be involved in the 75th anniversary of Cable Street, but should you ever require any help with, for example, some costumed interpreters or the like for you walks, I am sure that we would love to help. lacolumna.org Salud, and No Pasaran! Bob, Sargento, La Columna.

  • Steve Gander

    My father and my uncles were there-. They grew up in Cable Street, right next to the Hastings Arms – some nights that pub had singing beer and sometimes it had fighting beer. They heard it all. They played music iwth a Jewish violinist.
    That day my father and uncles were in the friont line when Mosley’s troops wanted to march through. My Dad told me there were barridades and the battle was in fact against the police who were in the front line trying to force a way through for the fascists. They rolled marlbes under the horse’s hooves and threw darts against them, which made them rear up throwing their Mr Plod off. The slogan of the day was the same as the Spanish Civil War slogan … “they shall not pass”… in Cable Street they did not.

    • Uklioness

      Would you consider letting me interview you about Cable St? I am a British (Jewish) writer living in Florida. I am currently writing a crime drama screenplay and wish to reference what went on in the East End during this time period. Thank you
      Arielle Benjamin     uklioness@cfl.rr.com

    • Orla

      Hi, I am researching this topic as my chosen option for my History Leaving Cert and need sources on the topic and would love an interview, in person or through email about it, if you could get back to me that would be fantastic. Thank you.

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  • Pete

    I remember my dad, who was only a kid at the time, telling me that my grandfather had many a battle with Mosley and his blackshirts at Kentish Town, where they lived. He remembers the first time he was told by his dad to stay at home with his mum because “there was going to be some trouble round the corner with Mosley’s fascists.”
    Not knowing at the time what a fascist was, or a Mosley for that matter, and plagued by his natural curiosity, he waited for his dad to leave and then followed him at a safe distance. My dad remembers my grandfather meeting a large group of men at the end of our road, and followed them as they walked towards where Mosley was planning to hold a rally. That was when all hell broke loose, my dad remembered. Hundreds of screaming and shouting men and women,  were running towards the junction of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street where the blackshirts were gathered. The people of Kentish Town ran into the fascist front lines with fists flailing, boots kicking and clubs being wielded. Dad remembers being able to see that most of the blackshirts had knives as well as knuckledusters and coshes, and a lot of people were getting hurt. Eventually, due to the overwhelming numbers of anti-fascists, the blackshirts realised that they were losing the fight and began to run in any direction that they could, pursued by the crowd until they were out of sight to my dad. He noticed a lot of bleeding people laying in the road and sitting on the kerbs, treating each others injuries, while others were organising getting the badly hurt people to hospital. It was then that my dad saw his dad, and he was relieved to see that he was alright. Seeing him, my dad proceeded to run back home, climbed over the back wall and into the house through the kitchen, and waited for my grandfather to come home. When he arrived home my grandmother cried with relief, and my dad asked what all the trouble was about.My grandad explained everything to him, and told him about his concerns regarding fascism, how it was gaining worldwide momentum and needed to be stopped. So, thanks to my grandad, my dad was a lifelong and fervent anti fascist, as am I, as are my kids, and my grandchildren most certainly are. Five generations against fascism that I know of. I’m quite proud of that. Long may it continue.

    • Paul

       Fascinating account. My father was arrested at Blackshirt march in Kentish Town at Islip street on the corner of Kentish town road 1936 . he was called a  hooligan for opposing them  by the press. He also told me the Blackshirts carried concealed  knives and knuckle dusters . At the time he was an amateur  boxer  that trained at a Stepney gym and all he had was his fists but he he waded  into the march regardless, sick of their filthy insults and jibes. He fought in three major battles during WW2  Caen, the Ardennes and the Rhine crossing and also had a medal for the defence of Britain during 1941  

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