October 4th marks the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, one of the most infamous pieces of public disorder in inter-war Britain. For years afterwards, right up to modern times, socialists trumpeted that it was the day British fascism was defeated by the workers, but this is little more than romantic myth.
This day in 1936 saw Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists march into the East End of London to mark the fourth anniversary of the founding of the party. Although antisemitism was not at that point a major plank of Mosley’s policy, the march was deliberately routed through areas with high Jewish populations. It was a cynical move to gain support from traditional East Enders which played up a double squeeze of competition from poor immigrants on the one hand and the enterprise of Jewish businessmen on the other.
A petition to halt the march organised by the Jewish People’s Council and signed by 100,000 people was turned down by the Home Office. It was obvious to everyone that there would be trouble. Despite the reputation of BUF marches for descending into violence, it was Mosley’s deliberate strategy to provoke trouble rather than be the instigators. He himself claimed to deplore violence, and by forcing his opponents to throw the first stone the fascists could pose as the victims and highlight the evils of communism. The Battle was the prime example of this strategy in action.
In truth, fascism in Britain was already all but defeated. Mosley’s support had been in steady decline since its heyday in mid-1934 when he claimed 50,000 supporters. His Blackshirts had been modelled after Mussolini’s men but were now rechristened stormtroopers bringing them closer to Hitler. Senior officers adopted military-style uniforms with peaked caps and armbands making them look more like Nazis than ever. Mosley later admitted this move was a mistake. On October 4th he could muster only between 3,000 and 5,000 supporters, including 400 women and a body of grey-shirted cadets for his march. The BUF found most of its recruits among young people and most of the marchers were under the age of 20.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon when the Blackshirts assembled at Royal Mint St, Stepney at 2.30pm. Mosley swept up at 3.25 in his ‘bullet proof’ car with motorcycle escort. The march would follow a five-mile horseshoe route, initially heading east for a rally at Salmon Lane, Limehouse. The parade would turn north to Stafford Road in Bow where there would be another rally, on to another at Victoria Park, Bethnal Green. Its final leg headed west to terminate with a meeting at Aske Street, Shoreditch, at 6.30pm.
The East End mobilised to stop the fascists. It was a spontaneous rising without a great deal of central control. Trade unionists, communists, anarchists, Irish dock workers, Jews and members of the Independent Labour Party took to the streets. Anti-fascists blocked the route, including barricading the west end of Cable Street. A bus was dragged across the road and corrugated iron sheets were painted with the slogan famous from the Spanish Civil War – ‘They Shall Not Pass’.
Skirmishes had already taken place, with the BUF’s leading bruiser Tommy Moran being brought down by chair wrapped in barbed wire. A thousand police cleared Mint Street of protesters and made a cordon around the Blackshirts. Some officers were seen to make fascist salutes and use anti-Jewish abuse. Six thousand were deployed in all, including the Metropolitan Police’s entire mounted branch. As the route through Cable Street was blocked by a human wall making clench-fist salutes, the Police made a determined effort to clear it. Concrete, glass and bricks were scrounged from builders yards and thrown at the policemen. Marbles were scattered under police horses and chamber pots were emptied from high windows.
Numbers are hard to establish. It is claimed that over 100,000 antifascists were involved, of whom 83 were arrested and between 100 and 200 injured including women and children. Some 73 police officers were also injured.
As events spiralled out of control, Sir Phillip Game, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police appealed to Mosley to call off the march. He could not legally prevent it, and to do so anyway would make Mosley a Martyr. To the disappointment of many of his supporters, Mosley complied and agreed to have the march re-routed through the West End. There never was a big showdown between fascists and socialists, and the Battle of Cable Street was essentially one between the police and the anti-fascists.
Socialist and Jewish organisations made a great deal of their victory in stopping the march, as is still the case today. The Battle framed the politics of many who took part, with some going out to Spain to fight with the International Brigades. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, is proud that his mother stood with the Jews of the East End that day. Ironically support for the fascists actually increased in the East End as a reaction to the left-wing violence.
The battle was followed up by a wave of attacks on Jewish property and individuals over the next week known as the ‘Mile End Pogrom’, including one incident when a child was thrown through a shop window. Yet, ten days after the battle the BUF was able to hold a rally at Bethnal Green which was attended by 12,000 people that passed off peacefully.
While not truly being the day fascism was defeated in Britain, Cable Street was a watershed for the BUF. Mosley was criticised within the party for being too law-abiding and an increasing schism developed between the Leader and more extreme elements. Together with frustration at the lack of electoral success this drove the party deeper into overt antisemitism, and what today we would call far right policies, in an attempt to win support. The Public Order Act (1936) came into force soon afterwards, banning political organisations from wearing uniforms, and Blackshirts marched Britain’s city streets no more. Renamed British Union, the party survived another four years until May 1940 when Churchill banned it and had Mosley arrested.
The Battle of Cable Street forms the opening two chapters of Blackshirt Conspiracy. As the novel is alternative history, I have given Mosley a much more threatening force than he possessed in reality. Hugh Clifton has to scout ahead of the march while Sissy remains frustrated she has been posted out of harm’s way. They cannot prevent the battle, so will Mosley bow to the request of the police, or will the Blackshirts storm the anti-fascist barricades?
If you take a walk east from Tower Hill or Tower Gateway stations, you will find that the area around Cable Street has changed a great deal since 1936, following wartime bombing and post-war redevelopment. A ‘red plaque’ erected by Tower Hamlets Environment Trust now marks the site of the battle, and there is a large and impressive mural painted on a gable end. A large number of books and online resources cover the event and its aftermath, including a newsreel sequence from the bfi.