Britain of the 1930s, beset by economic crisis, political paralysis, mass unemployment, hunger and anger, was a breeding ground for fascism as much as any other European nation. By autumn 1934 it was clear that antisemitism was absolutely central to the ideology of the movement that constituted Britain’s fascist menace.
On 4 October 1936, an iconic clash took place in London’s East End, where 60,000 Jews eked out a living in one square mile from Aldgate to Whitechapel, many of them first generation immigrants. On that day there were mass blockades and barricades. Blood was spilled. There were 84 arrests (79 of them anti-fascists, and 13 of those were women). Many received fines, others custodial sentences with hard labour.
It became known as the Battle of Cable Street, though the clashes occurred at three separate locations. There is still much to learn from that single day, but perhaps even more from the build-up and the aftermath.
Rise of Mosley
Britain’s economic crash hit northern towns hardest, especially those that depended on one main industry. London’s economy was more diversified and robust, but the already impoverished population of its first manufacturing area, the East End, suffered badly throughout that decade.
In Brune Street, in the East End’s immigrant ghetto, thousands queued outside the “Soup kitchen for the Jewish poor” every night, children on one arm, a saucepan in the other. While they queued there one night in March 1935, a young charismatic politician – Conservative at first, then Labour from 1924-31, simultaneously addressed a 9,000-strong crowd in the splendour of the Albert Hall, in London’s opulent West End.
They cheered wildly when he condemned Jews as the “nameless, homeless, all-powerful force which stretches its greedy fingers from the shelter of England to throttle the trade and menace the peace of the west… grasping the puppets of Westminster, dominating every party of the state”. A force, he insisted, “that fascism alone dares to challenge.”
This was Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats, by that time leading the British Union of Fascists (BUF). In March 1931, he left behind the “tired old gang” politics of Tories, Liberals and Labour, and created a hybrid “New Party” that combined Keynesian economics, hard-right nationalism, paranoid anti-communism, and disdain for democracy. It had its own private defence force, known as the “Biff Boys”, to guard their leader and menace opponents.
By October 1932 it rebranded itself as the BUF or “Blackshirts” as they were popularly known. Modelling himself on Mussolini, whom he met in the New Party phase, Mosley described the BUF as “a party of action based on youth that will mobilise energy, vitality and manhood to save and rebuild the nation.” Aggressive gendered language, populist generational politics that ignored class, and a saviour complex, all rolled into one. He cast himself as the saviour who would herald a “Greater Britain”.
That same month, Father Groser, an East End churchman and close friend of George Lansbury MP, organised a local conference on housing and unemployment. The invitation letter highlighted the damage from unemployment: “frustration of personality, loss of proper self-respect… the creation of an embittered and hopeless section of the community”.
He didn’t know then that he had listed the characteristics that would soon be exploited by organised fascists. Tony Benn identified the ingredients for powerful social change as “hope and anger”. More recently we have seen populist right-wing forces offer this combination in America, Hungary and Poland. In 1930s Britain, it was the fascists, rather than the left, offering this cocktail.
By early 1934 the BUF had 500 branches and 40,000 members nationally. Money poured into the movement. But Mosley over-reached himself with a series of mass indoor rallies including a 15,000-strong meeting at Olympia Exhibition Centre which saw extreme physical violence meted out to opponents by stewards, right in front of those they wanted to impress: well-heeled businessmen and 150 politicians sitting in the audience.
Those physically beaten in Olympia were part of a growing anti-fascist movement in which the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party were prominent. Thousands demonstrated outside Olympia. An ugly antisemitic characterisation of the protesters in the BUF-friendly Daily Mail cast many as “alien” East End Jews.
As Mosley’s support plummeted after Olympia, he began to reorientate the movement, by focusing a populist fascist message on a select number of predominantly working class areas. In 1935 its newspaper proclaimed: “We are now the patriotic party of the working class.”
Road to Cable Street
A familiar phrase? In November 2016, when Paul Nuttall became UKIP’s leader, he told a press conference: “We are now the patriotic party of the working people”. He used to teach history at an FE College.
The BUF established its first East London branch in Bow, in October 1934. By 1936 it had four large East End branches forming a horseshoe around the Jewish enclave. Their menacing open-air meetings encroached those Jewish areas. Their antisemitic invective blamed Jews for every social, economic and political ill from racketeering landlords and price-cutting business competitors, to prostitution and violent criminality.
They exploited divisions between the Jewish and Irish communities who rarely mixed, telling the Irish that Jews had grabbed better housing and better jobs. In truth, both communities suffered. But even before Mosley came to the East End, you could hear antisemitism from the pulpit in some local Catholic churches. This was not confined to working-class areas. Antisemitism was a popular sport among Britain’s upper-middle and upper classes, and still today remains relatively unchallenged there.
In February 1936, Mosley renamed his party the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, shifting ideologically from Mussolini towards Hitler, and his street corner speakers added a zoological antisemitism to their standard anti-Jewish complaints. They called Jews “rats and vermin from the gutters of Whitechapel”, a “pestilence”, a “cancer”. Fascist ideologue William Joyce described Jews as “simians with prehensile toes” and “an incredible species of sub-humanity”.
The more the incitement, the more violence Jews met. The very young and elderly were particularly targeted. When Parliament debated mounting antisemitic terror in July 1936. George Lansbury, warned “unless this thing is put an end to …there will one of these days be such an outburst as few of us would care to contemplate.”
Denis Pritt MP, predicted “pogroms in this country”. And to those advising Jews to “stay away” from their victimisers, the Communist MP, Willie Gallacher, asked how they could:
“Stay away from the chalking of offensive remarks on the pavement and walls of houses, the placards stuck on doors, people who go into shops and intimidate Jewish shopkeepers… Jewish pedestrians set upon by gangs of thugs would be only too glad to stay away.”
Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, made a fatuous appeal “to everybody on all sides to behave reasonably”. The East End Jewish community felt under siege but also alone and abandoned. Calls to Jewish establishment bodies such as the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish Chronicle for help, were ignored.
Today the Jewish Chronicle seems to see antisemitism everywhere. In the early 1930s they condemned antisemitism in Germany, Poland and Romania but couldn’t or wouldn’t see it where it was spreading virulently just a few miles away.
They talked of “isolated and unique events”; which they had “no desire to exaggerate”; the pathetic efforts of “Amateur Nazis – made in Germany”. Race hatred they argued, was “a weed which fortunately it is difficult to plant in British soil”. They dismissed Mosley, as an “irritant” an “using un-British weapons.” the Board of Deputies was just as complacent and aloof.
This reflected class aspirations. The Jewish establishment were fighting a different battle to become fully absorbed into British middle-class life. Though the Chronicle did occasionally print critical letters that said: “The most decisive act of our leaders has been the resolve to do nothing”, and “If the so-called leaders of Jewry do not take the lead, there are Jewish men and women who will”.
East End Jews knew they had to find solutions themselves locally. Jewish trade unionists took the initiative. Through the Workers Circle, a left wing friendly society, they called a grassroots conference that created the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC).
The JPC sought to mobilise the local Jews against both antisemitism and fascism, while building links with non-Jewish anti-fascists. They established their own street platforms to challenge the fascists and usually featured both Jewish and non-Jewish speakers. Their declared aim: to build an anti-fascist majority in the East End.
When Mosley threatened to have “four marching columns” on 4 October invading the streets most heavily populated by Jews, the JPC was crucial to the resistance. In two days, they collected nearly 100,000 signatures of local residents on a petition demanding that the Home Secretary ban Mosley’s march. The Home Secretary ignored it, citing free speech and free movement. But the JPC had a Plan B. They published thousands of leaflets saying “This March Must Not Take Place”.
With parallel efforts from the JPC, Communist Party, ILP, Labour League of Youth and grassroots trade unionists to stress the need to literally stand against fascism, so many tens of thousands were mobilised that they completely blockaded Gardiners Corner at Aldgate, the gateway to the East End, chanting “they shall not pass”.
Mounted police charged and beat the crowd but could not clear a path. Mosley waited in vain in Royal Mint Street, near the Tower of London, to be told to begin his march. Anti-fascists gathered in numbers close to Mosley’s waiting troops and many skirmishes broke out.
Eventually, the police sought to redirect the march further south through Cable Street, a narrow artery from the edge of the city leading towards the docks. The first two thirds of Cable Street was almost entirely Jewish, the last third, mainly Irish. Mosley had battled for the hearts and minds of the Irish community but so had the anti-fasicsts. On that day Irish dockers, in particular, came to the Jewish end of Cable Street to help build barricades.
Police finally dislodged the first barricade, a tipped over truck, and ran through, unaware that further barricades stood behind. Caught between the barricades they were pelted with objects thrown by women in the flats above Cable Street’s shops. Facing resistance at ground level and from above, the police retreated and told Mosley that his plan to march in the East End was dead. They instructed him to lead his marchers in the opposite direction and disperse.
The impact of that day was felt profoundly by both sides. Anti-fascists, especially from the community most under attack, grew in confidence and were determined to build on the unity they had forged. The Jewish communist Phil Piratin, who played a key strategic role before and after the day, reflected:
“In Stepney nothing had changed physically. The poor houses, the mean streets, the ill-conditioned workshops were the same, but the people were changed. Their heads seemed to be held higher, and their shoulders were squarer – and the stories they told! Each one was a ‘hero’ – many of them were… The ‘terror’ had lost its meaning. The people knew that fascism could be defeated if they organised themselves to do so.”
The fascists felt dejected and humiliated. Their leadership turned against each other over the following weeks. Several lost heart and deserted Mosley. They still had large branches in the area, but the momentum was now with anti-fascists.
Ironically it was not only the fascists that felt humiliated. The Board of Deputies – regarded by the state as “official” leaders of the Jewish community since their founding in 1760 – did too. They, and the Jewish Chronicle had told the community to stay indoors, warning them that if they involved themselves in demonstrations and disorder they would be aiding the antisemites. They were roundly ignored, as Jews took to the streets in huge numbers alongside their non-Jewish neighbours.
Meanwhile, the prestige of the Jewish People’s Council continued to grow.
Mosley’s last throw of the dice in the East End was to challenge for council seats in elections in March 1937 in their strongest wards. They promised victory to their members and supporters, as they had at Cable Street, but Labour, boosted by swathes of anti-fascist canvassers held the seats comfortably. The highest fascist vote share was 23% in one Bethnal Green seat.
After the council elections, one prominent failed fascist candidate, Charles Wegg-Prosser, who had had been leader of its large Shoreditch branch, not only resigned from the BUF but defected to the anti-fascists and became a key figure exposing and denouncing the BUF. After the Second World War, he served as a Labour councillor in Paddington, west London.
The final defeat of fascism in the East End took more than one spectacular demonstration on one day. It was cemented by the patient work done on the housing estates on the borders of the Jewish and non-Jewish parts of the East End through the Stepney Tenants Defence League, formed mainly by Communist and some Labour party activists.
It brought together Jewish and Irish communities that Mosley had tried to divide, in a sustained common struggle against slum landlords. Between 1937-39 that joint activism saw more than 20 successful rent strikes take place, marginalising the fascists’ attempts to stir up hate.
Ultimately, the malicious sentiments and beliefs that Mosley’s fascist movement represented throughout the 1930s, could only manipulate people’s consciousness in a society that allowed profound social and economic inequality, mass unemployment, low pay, poor housing, poor access to education, neglect by those with power and wealth, widespread hopelessness, and a longing for personal and national salvation.
If only such problems were confined to the past. Those who recognise today how perniciously the politics of hate can spread, must expose and combat both the underlying social and economic problems as well as the vultures who feed on them.
And, perhaps in doing so, we will draw inspiration and ideas from ordinary people who, in the maelstrom of the 1930s, disregarded the hollow advice of those with more comfortable lives and more blinkered vision, and found collective ways to face these problems with such courage, imagination and determination.