This October the Labour movement will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. No single event has captured the imagination of the British left as has the events of October 4th 1936, in which 100,000 anti-fascists clashed with police and Fascists to prevent a Blackshirt rally through London’s East End. It is now described as a ‘key event’, not just in ‘repulsing fascism’, but in the ‘history of the working class movement’. However, there is a danger that in remembering, and often misremembering, this one momentous event, local anti-fascism will be forgotten. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were not defeated by one event alone, but by the persistent campaigning of thousands of anti-fascists across the country. Among the dates the Left should also remember is 18th July 1937, when trade unionists in Southampton halted a Blackshirt rally.
Mosley had gradually been building a small following in the working class port town. Southampton had not experienced the worst effects of the depression, and there was a growing fear that immigrants – often miners from South Wales – would come to the town to look for work. In fact, Mosley had held a modest rally in Southampton in July 1934. A strong police presence at Southampton’s Coliseum ensured that the most dramatic incident was when a ‘police constable lost his hat’. It was hardly Cable Street, but the incident may have fostered the belief among Southampton’s politically minded workers that only a united labour movement could defeat Fascism.
Unlike the earlier rally at the Coliseum, it appears that the police did not predict violence when Mosley agreed to address a meeting on Southampton Common. Mosley had been scheduled to attend a gathering in Southampton previously, but had cancelled due to injuries received whilst fencing. On this occasion the Blackshirts proposed march to Southampton Common via the busy town centre streets. It was a route designed to provoke a strong response from residence; but an internal memorandum the Chief Constable ended optimistically: ‘please report by Monday morning if any untoward incidents take place’.
On the day itself between 15,000 and 20,000 people, including perhaps 4,000 organised anti-fascists, ‘gathered round the black loud speaker van from which Sir Oswald spoke’ (1). From the outset, the Echo reported, Mosley ‘was greeted with “boos” and catcalls from a section of the crowd, and a few missiles were thrown’. Mosley spoke for 45 minutes, but throughout that time the increasingly hostile crowd ‘shouted and sang, keeping the chorus up for some time “We Don’t Want Mosley”’. Indeed, Mosley’s words ‘had not been heard by more than a handful of supporters’.
During this time, local Communist and TGWU activist Trevor Stalland recalled, ‘we had surrounded the van…ringed around was all the nasty bits of work from the East End’, ‘anyway we beat down on the opposition of this ring, and clustered in on Mosley’. With the tension mounting, light relief was provided when one docker attempted to scale the van and grab Mosley; before the anti-fascist had reached his target a blackshirted bodyguard pulled the protestor’s ‘trousers down and…he had no underpants on or nothing, and that became the talk of the town after’.
Southampton police followed typical tactics; they formed ‘a cordon around the van’ in an attempt to secure Mosley to safety’ (2). Despite this, Mosley was ‘hit in the face by a stone and one of his staff received a blow in the face’. Stalland remembers that ‘he was knocked about a bit, we kept pushing him off the Common on to the main road and the police were taking him up towards a car’ on The Avenue until protestors ‘turned the car on its side’.
Tony Kushner, editor of Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society, warns that events like this, and specifically Cable Street, can be misremembered by participants who highlight their own significance in the day. Trevor Stalland is certainly open to this accusation. Indeed, he believed that he ‘was taking the lead…I was urging them all to walk faster and faster’, ‘until we had the police and Mosley having to run away from us up the Avenue’. Of course, Stalland was speaking almost 50 years after the event, and his own recollections would be influenced by the town’s collective memory. Moreover, despite placing himself at the centre of events, Stalland’s description is confirmed by newspaper reports; he even underestimates the size of the crowd. The Echo confirmed that Mosley escaped to an empty tram car, but the electric line was pulled apart. Despite heavy police protection ‘a window of the tram was broken by a missile’ before Mosley eventually ‘fled the scene’.
Five protestors were arrested at the rally: Ernest Emery (22, Seaman), Alfred Pallett (17, driver’s mate), Richard Ball (40, plumber), Gordon Pearce (22, tool maker) and Walter Gorse (22, joiner’s mate). Of these, Emery, Pallett and Ball were charged with ‘using threatening and insulting behaviour’ and Pallett was further charged with ‘discharging missiles to the danger of the public’. The accused were each admitted to bail in their own recognisance of £5.
Most histories of the Battle of Cable Street now downplay the role of the Communist Party. The heroic narratives that emerged soon after the event, in which the Communists spurred on a class-conscious army, have now been challenged. Some historians even suggest that demonstrators were fighting ‘not only against the police and the fascists but also against the leaders on their own side’ (3). When considering the events of 18th July 1937 one is instinctively inclined to ask who was responsible for organising the demonstration. Certainly the Communist Party had the most to gain from such activism. Indeed, by the mid-1930s ‘the fascists and communists needed each other, for the mutual vilification gave them a significance which they otherwise lacked’ (4). In spite of this, any theory that the high turnout is evidence of the Communists’ ability at mobilisation does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the Communist Party had arranged a meeting on the same day in a different part of The Common. The slim coverage in the Daily Worker could suggest that the Communist Party were unimpressed with the demonstration. Moreover, historians are wrong to allow Communist anti-fascism, often involving violence, to overshadow the more consistent anti-fascism of Conservatives or Liberals.
The leftwing historian might take this as evidence that it was a genuinely rank-and-file uprising in which people protested without any encouragement from the movement’s leaders. Whilst this is accurate, the reality is less romantic. Sunday meetings on the Common were routinely attended by thousands of people. In fact, the meetings, which all political parties held, were ‘so packed with people’ that nearby cinemas decided to close whilst they were taking place. This particular meeting, with its infamous speaker, would have naturally drawn a large, curious crowd. Nevertheless, once Mosley spoke, the boos, catcalls and missiles were spontaneous outpourings of working-class feeling.
Anti-fascism in provincial towns like Southampton is rarely remembered with huge commemorative events like the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Cable Street. However, the rise of anti-fascism in Southampton is significant because it represented a gut-feeling, and was extremely difficult for any leadership to control. Even the Communist Party leadership did not appreciate the strength of feeling among ordinary workers, and their willingness to confront fascists. Southampton’s demonstration against Mosley, despite, or perhaps because of, its unorganised nature, was extremely successful. In the November 1937 municipal elections a discredited BUF secured only 29 votes in Southampton. Richard Baxell suggests that the feeling that ‘grass-roots protesters had made many areas of the country no-go areas for the Blackshirts’ encouraged people to support Republican Spain, or even volunteer to fight (5). Perhaps one can presume that those who left Southampton for Spain were involved in earlier clashes with Mosley’s Fascists. More importantly, similar scenes took place up and down the country, and in this way Fascism was unable to get a foothold in local politics. Fascism was not repelled by one remarkable event in London, but by hundreds of tiny defeats and the activism of thousands of workers throughout the country.