Solly Kaye, who has died aged 91, had his political awakening in the Stepney slums of the 1920s. During the 1930s he joined the East End opposition to Oswald Mosley, fighting in the Battle of Cable Street. But throughout his long life, Kaye refused to bow to the myth-making that grew up around that day. Fascism had become a small but significant contagion among East Enders in the thirties, he argued. And the disease, if less obvious at times, was even more prevalent at the close of the 20th century.
Solly was the youngest of four children, raised by poor Lithuanian immigrants in Stepney. He was only five when his father died, leaving his mother to bring up the children alone. It was an early experience of how the community could help itself, the family falling on the mercy of Jewish charities. An imperfect experience though — the means testing employed was a humiliating experience, as families had to prove how poor they were.
At 14 he got a job as a woodcarver in a cabinetmakers, and carving was to remain a passion through his life. In later years, Solly would teach woodwork at a north London school. But his experience in the 1920s disgusted him. This was little better than sweated labour, and he quit to work in the fur business … Conditions were even worse.
Speaking in the 1980s, Solly remembered the East End as a place of bad pay, rotten housing and very little to do: “You had massive unemployment, immense poverty, social services nowhere near what they are today, terrible slums.
“I lived in a street where 17 people lived in one little block of three flats with one outside toilet, and the street was so narrow that at 10 years of age I could hop across the road in two hops. It was a terrible warren of bad housing. There was a lot of poverty and there were a large number of Jewish people who were first-generation immigrants.”
No television, no music scene and very little money. Cinemas and dancehalls were full, but the cliché that ‘young people had to make their own amusement’ was never more true. Rambling was a huge craze, as thousands of youngsters met at London Bridge every Sunday.
Help in building the community came from within and without. “Among the Jewish people there were a number of ethnic cultural clubs. The Workers Circle had lectures and discussions. If you belonged you paid sixpence a week and if you were ill you got 8 shillings (40p), because you had to safeguard yourself against ill-health as there was no NHS.”
The university settlements, such as Oxford House, were doing good work too. They had come to the East End in a missionary spirit, responding to the terrible poverty of the late 1800s. Many children got their first taste of organised sport here, and boxing proved especially popular with Jewish boys.
But there was another force competing for the loyalty of young cockneys.
The fascists, led by maverick MP Oswald Mosley, had strongholds in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, south Hackney, parts of Poplar, all on the edge of Stepney where the large Jewish population lived.
“They could involve people through envy, fear or whatever, by saying: ‘over there the Jews, they’ve got your houses; over there the Jews, they’ve got your jobs,’” remembered Solly. “Even though we were living in bloody poverty with bugs crawling all over us in the night.”
East Enders set up the Jewish People’s Council to fight fascism, and Solly joined a Communist Party conducting anti-fascist propaganda. There was the Stepney Tenants Defence League, and local church leaders joined the fight. It was an impressive coalition of very different groups, but Solly was under no illusions about fascism being solely a force from outside preying on East Enders.
“In South Hackney they stood in one election and got 3,000 votes, and in Shoreditch they got nearly 3,000 votes … very high votes for a local election,” he remembered. “Their support came from the lumpen working class: non-skilled unemployed, drifting types, unorganised, no loyalty to anything.
Mosely set up his ‘barracks’ in disused pubs and churches, gave his soldiers money and uniforms and crucially “a tremendous amount of confidence”. But the East End anti-fascists gained confidence too, from the fight against fascism in Spain (ultimately unsuccessful of course), where ordinary people said “so far and no further. They shall not pass”.
The same slogan was adopted for Cable Street; the Blackshirts failed to complete their march; and fascism was, temporarily at least, repulsed.
But the battle could never stop, as Solly warned in the eighties. “In spite of Cable Street, in spite of the war, in spite of the suffering caused to millions by fascism, racism exists and is widespread in our society today … now it’s not marches or street meetings – it’s songs and it’s slogans and it’s poison put into the minds of young people.”
Solly Kaye continued his lifelong battle as a member of the Communist Party, undeterred by the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. He became an entertaining and popular orator, using skills learned in 1930s London; he was equally at home speaking at huge rallies in Trafalgar Square or at the Friday lunchtime meetings on Tower Hill. Here he would share the platform with Methodist minister Donald Soper … diametrically opposed views on God didn’t stop the pair speaking together and getting on as friends.
And he became a force in East End politics, leading tenants against their slum landlords; helping a squatters’ campaign to house the homeless; and serving on Stepney (and then Tower Hamlets) Council, for 15 years from 1960.