In 1936 a battle took place on the streets of the East End that was to focus the eyes of Britain on the growing threat of fascism in its midst.
A plaque on a wall in Dock Street tells the story. ‘The Battle of Cable Street: The people of East London rallied to Cable Street on 4 Ocotber 1936 and forced back the march of the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts through the streets of the East End … They shall not pass.’
And this Sunday, 8 October, there is a programme of events* to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that remarkable day. A procession, street theatre, exhibition, films, music, history and stalls (not to mention the Cable Street mural) combine to remind East Enders of why their stand mattered then … and matters just as much now.
Oswald Mosley had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, being invalided out of the forces following a plane crash in 1916. In 1918, at just 21, he became an MP, the youngest in the House of Commons, representing the Conservatives in Harrow. But Mosley was in a hurry, and with a disdain for what he saw as tired parties staffed with mediocre men. In 1926 he crossed the floor of the House, and was elected Labour MP for Smethwick. Appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the second Labour administration of 1929 he swiftly resigned again – furious that his plan for dealing with mass unemployment were ignored by the party leadership.
The impatient Mosley now formed and headed his own party, the New Party. They were unsuccessful in the elections of 1931, and once again he moved on. In 1932, fired by visits to Europe and the examples of Hitler and Mussolini, he formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The platform was anti-corporatist (especially anti the banks), protectionist and anti-Communist. But Mosley was taking on much more than that from the continental fascists.
An increasingly anti-semitic tone coloured his speeches – Jews were cast as the villains of international big business and banking. And his speeches were protected by the ‘Blackshirts’ who would brutally break up any disturbance. Mosley’s links to the Nazis in Germany were close – he married Diana Mitford in Goebbels’ home in Germany in 1936, with Hitler a guest. The newly-weds were also negotiating with Hitler to broadcast radio transmissions from Germany to Britain.
Mosley’s public marches were becoming increasingly provocative too, and a planned parade through the Jewish heartland of the East End was to prove the final straw. Remarkably, the march was legal – Government had been strongly petitioned by local people and politicians to ban the parade through Cable Street but had refused. A mixture of locals, Communist, Socialist and Jewish groups (many from out of the area and to a total of an estimated 250,000) erected roadblocks to stop the BUF passing.
So began ‘The Battle of Cable Street’, with running battles between the anti-fascists and police, who were trying to force a path for the BUF. With the Blackshirts largely shielded behind police lines, relatively little fighting was to take place between the BUF and the protestors. Fenner Brockway, Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, was injured by a police horse and, realising the carnage that would ensue if the fascists were helped by the police into the heart of the area, telephoned the Home Office. Mosley was ordered to cancel his march and the BUF were rerouted towards Hyde Park.
It wasn’t the end of the fascists in the East End. The following week, the windows of every Jewish-owned shop in the Mile End Road were smashed. And in the March 1937 local elections the BUF polled 23 per cent of the vote in Bethnal Green; l0.3 per cent in Limehouse and 14.8 per cent in Shoreditch. “The size of their vote was a surprise even to those in touch with the East End,” reported The Observer on 7 March that year. Mosley was to continue to address rallies around London over the following years.
But with the 1936 Public Order Act had come the banning of civilians parading in military uniform. That had removed the Blackshirts focus … and perhaps their appeal. Oswald Mosley would be interned in 1940, and the BUF itself later banned. By now war had started and the East End was involved in the bigger fight against fascism.
London History: 100 faces of the East End by John Rennie is available now; £8.99; ISBN: 978-1-4116-6608-5 at http://www.lulu.com/content/324701. A history of London and the people who made it. Pen pictures of Attlee, Captain Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, Stalin, Gandhi, Lew Grade, Steve Marriott, Fu Manchu, Sylvia Pankhurst, Lionel Bart, The Tichborne Claimant, John Wesley, Terry Spinks, Joseph Conard and dozens more…