This week saw the 80th anniversary of the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’, which took place on 4th October, 1936, in London’s East End. Many Jews, Socialists, liberals, trade unionists and various other people, both men and women, young and old, from across the local community in Stepney, united together to prevent a march by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF).
Inspired by the recent events in the Spanish Civil War, local people in Stepney proclaimed ‘No Pasaran!‘ They were determined to give Mosley and his Blackshirts a very bloody nose, and were fed up with the recent anti-Semitic campaign that had been pursued by BUF branches in the area.
Previous Blackshirt marches, together with regular street-corner BUF meetings, and a series of racial incidents across East London, had reinforced the feelings of frustration and anger felt by local people in the area. Barricades were built across Cable Street, stones collected, and women readied themselves with chamber pots so they could empty the contents on anyone marching in the street below. Some direct physical fighting did indeed break out. On the advice of the Metropolitan Police, who had already tried to clear the way for the march and had encountered the strength of opposition from the local inhabitants, and genuinely feared further serious disorder could occur if the march went ahead, Mosley was forced to call off his BUF march.
Cable Street has often been presented by historians as a watershed moment in the struggle against the BUF in London’s East End, and by generations of activists as a major triumph for anti-fascism in 20th century British interwar history. In the post-war period, when Mosley attempted a political comeback and held meetings and marches once again in the East End in the late 1940s and the 1950s, anti-fascist activists (especially Jewish ex-servicemen) sought to again stop Mosley in his tracks, and often drew upon memories of Cable Street for encouragement and tactics. Similarly, Cable Street was often cited as a model by those who were determined to stop marches by the extreme right National Front (NF) in the 1970s (see picture) and the British National Party (BNP) in the early 1990s. There was particular anger when the BNP won its first local council seat (on the Isle of Dogs) in September, 1993, which suggested that the East End was still being targetted by the extreme right.
A number of commemorative events have taken place about the circumstances that led to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, and about some of the precise details of the day itself, including a special seminar recently held at Sheffield University and a ceremony at the famous Cable Street mural (see main picture above). Yesterday (4th October) TV viewers in London were able to see a news report where three eyewitnesses (including a gentleman who is now 101-years old) recalled their memories of the Battle and added important background context. A special blog by Professor Nigel Copsey has also been written (entitled “Who Owns The ‘Battle of Cable Street’?”) for the Sheffield University ‘History Matters’ blogsite.
Moreover, the ‘Hope not Hate’ anti-fascist campaigning organisation have just set up a brand new website, at: www.cablestreet.uk. This exciting new site makes available a variety of sources for students and scholars, including profiles of Stepney and the rising tensions that culminated in the dramatic events of 4th October, 1936, together with details about the Battle itself and its legacy, and some fascinating interviews with both expert historians and some veterans of the anti-fascist groups who participated in the Battle. There is also some invaluable information on the local Jewish community at the time.
More generally, it is also interesting to note that there has been something of a ‘battle of memory’ over Cable Street and its place in British political and cultural history. As Prof. Copsey points out in his blog, from the very start ‘ownership of this momentous day was contested’. The Communist Party, for example, saw itself as the pre-eminent anti-fascist movement, instrumental in mobilising working-class people on the day of the battle. But Copsey also notes that: ‘Whilst we ordinarily think of Cable Street as a major triumph for anti-fascism, the British Union of Fascists declared it one of the greatest days in their movement’s history’. The BUF claimed that the events of the day had ‘broken the press boycott’ on Mosley and his Blackshirts, and some 5,000 new recruits to the movement joined up within 48 hours. In the BUF’s eyes, the Leader and his Blackshirts, who had recently adopted a brand new German-style uniform, consisting of a peaked cap, breeches and jackboots (see picture above), represented ‘the true patriotic East Ender’. In addition, as Copsey also reflects, ‘the traditional line that Cable Street dealt a hammer blow to Mosley’s BUF has become increasingly questionable’.
Nevertheless, despite some of the more uncomfortable but important truths that have been dug out by historians about Cable Street in recent times, there is no doubt that Cable Street undermined some of the credibility of British fascism. It also encouraged the government to introduce the Public Order Act (POA), which banned the wearing of uniforms by political movements in the UK, whether left or right, and strengthened the powers of the Home Secretary to regulate, restrict or ban extremist marches through sensitive areas. This was very controversial, and caused much unease to some members of Parliament.
However, when the POA came into force in January, 1937, it arguably wrecked the ‘glamour’ of wearing military-style uniforms in the public arena, an intimidating visual image that had been especially prized by Mosley and his Blackshirt supporters, but was now no longer legal.
Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University