Remembering the Battle of Holbeck Moor

On this day in 1936, Blackshirts led by Oswald Mosley organised a rally in Leeds to intimidate the city's Jewish population – and were driven back by 30,000 anti-fascists to the tune of The Red Flag.

On this day in 1936, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) were turfed out of Leeds by 30,000 anti-fascists. For those who are neither local historians nor active in the Leeds labour movement, what became known as the Battle of Holbeck Moor has been largely forgotten. The anti-fascist victory wasn’t given attention by the national press at the time, and only local court proceedings and write-ups in the Leeds Mercury document it. However, it remains one of the most dramatic confrontations the city has ever seen.

The rationale for the demonstration was clear. After serious violence at rallies like Olympia in 1934 saw the BUF being dropped by the Daily Mail – which had once enthusiastically “Hurrahed” for him – Oswald Mosley was forced to tactically relocate BUF operations to northern England, where unemployment was endemic and the taste for a political alternative was high. Moving his northern regional headquarters to a building in the Jewish district of Salford, he began looking for other opportunities to exploit.

One potential source of recruitment he identified in Yorkshire was the Leylands, an area in north Leeds. Long considered the Jewish quarter of the city, the Leylands was a crowded district of sweatshops, small factories and slum houses. It was estimated that between 6,000 to 10,000 Jewish immigrants made up the majority of the local population, and the area was often at the receiving end of local bigotry.

To Mosley, the racial enmity that some in Leeds displayed towards the Jews was promising. In 1917, there had been anti-Jewish riots in Leeds, and long before the Blackshirts were established, cafés and pubs in Leeds would refuse serve to Jews and “Jews Not Wanted” signs were hung from the entrances of many major employers. This discrimination had also seen a significant Communist presence in the Leylands, as well as a branch of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers (NUTGW, now a part of the GMB), which had a militant presence in the Leeds sweatshops.

In advance, Mosley planned to hold a provocative march through the Leylands. Already aware of his plans – and eager to quell anticipated branches of the peace – the Leeds Watch Committee, which oversaw policing in the city, deemed that the Blackshirts could not march through the Leylands. However, they did not prohibit some form of Blackshirt demonstration, which was allowed to go through several major streets in Leeds before arriving at Holbeck Moor, slightly over a mile outside of the city centre.

Ultimately, Mosley could accept this, believing that Holbeck – an industrial area surrounded by workhouses and slum dwellings – would be the ideal area to drum up fascist politics. But unfortunately for him, most working-class districts of Leeds had strong Labour and Communist presences; after discovering the march, they had heavily mobilised in pubs, factories and knocked on the city’s terraced streets to warn people of the demonstration.

Due to sectarianism from its official leadership, the Leeds Labour Party refused to officially endorse any anti-fascist work, meaning that although many Labour members and supporters were building opposition to the Blackshirts in the build-up to the demonstration, their work was in opposition to the Labour line. Despite these appeals for moderation, the mood in Leeds became increasingly polarised. On the night before the march, swastikas were daubed on Jewish houses and Jewish people were attacked on the streets.

The front page of the Leeds Mercury carried a report from the rally.

On the day, it was clear that the work put in by scores of anti-fascists had paid off. When Mosley and a thousand uniformed Blackshirts arrived at Holbeck Moor, a throng of 30,000 Leeds residents awaited them with red flags and trade union banners. Older figures in the Leeds labour movement (many of whom have now passed on) would talk of the hate etched on the Blackshirt’s faces as they realised they had been outnumbered – and soon to be outfought – by anti-fascists.

Faced with the threat of violence from protesters, the Blackshirts appealed for police protection, using the security forces as a wedge to move to where they had hoped their speeches could take place. Upon arriving, Mosley climbed on top of a van to use as a makeshift stage. As he started his oration, the vast crowd of anti-fascists began to roar ‘the Red Flag’ to drown him out. The Leeds Mercury reported that he stopped and started his speech many times, with ‘the Red Flag’ renditions growing louder with each attempt.

Not content with stopping Mosley from speaking, the counterdemonstrators wanted to send a clear message that British Fascism was not welcome in the city. Stones began to rain down upon the Blackshirts, with Mosley dodging missiles as he attempted to continue his oratory. Realising they were greatly outnumbered, and with Mosley unable to continue as planned, the Fascists retreated with great difficulty from the Moor.

Around forty Blackshirts were injured at the event, with fourteen people requiring hospital treatment at Leeds General Infirmary for head wounds caused by the stones they were pelted with. One unfortunate fascist was held at the infirmary after suffering from ‘serious abdominal injuries,’ and Mosley himself was hit and injured by a stone.

After the event, only three arrests were made from the 30,000 counter-demonstrators, with John Hodgson from Leeds being charged with throwing the stone which injured Mosley. All three were let off lightly by the Magistrates, with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, after the Leeds Watch Committee expressed their fears to the courts that harsh punishments may prompt further riots and protests from working-class Leeds.

After the event, the local press deemed the gathering of Mosley’s Blackshirts and their subsequent rout ‘The Battle of Holbeck Moor.’ The people of Leeds had rejected the scourge of fascism from the city and sent a clear message that their influence was not welcome. In London, the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism were preparing for what would become the most famous anti-fascist battle in British history, the Battle of Cable Street. In the build-up, publications such as the Daily Worker proclaimed that “what happened in Leeds must happen in East London!”

And it did. But unlike the Battle of Cable Street, there is no blue plaque to remember the event, and Holbeck has no murals to celebrate its anti-fascist heritage. It is truly a crime that an event with such historical and cultural importance to the city of Leeds has never been recognised by the city’s council or other civic bodies.

Today, there is a Labour-led council in Leeds, which champions its radicalism on issues such as climate change. Why then have they shown such little interest in remembering the radicalism of the city’s past? As the final survivors of anti-fascism’s heroic moments depart us, we should be encouraging much more official recognition and commemoration of events such as the Battle of Holbeck Moor.

In doing so, we would be showing a new, combative generation of anti-fascists and anti-racists the battles that were fought before them. It would also remind the same poisonous elements rising their heads in cities like Leeds that they have been rejected before, and they will be rejected again.