The day East Enders built barricades

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This October it is eighty years since working class people came together to stop Oswald Mosley's fascists marching along Cable Street in east London. Simon Shaw looks at the heroic actions of that day, their wider context and the traditions of organisation that made victory possible.

The barricades erected in Cable Street in London’s East End 80 years ago have become an iconic symbol of working class resistance on British streets. This victory over fascism, fought on Sunday 4 October 1936, saw crowds of between 30,000 and 200,000 (estimates vary wildly) stop the police from forming a wedge to allow the British Union of Fascists (BUF) to march into the area.

Harold Rosen, a participant in the events, recalls, “I was 16 at the time and thoroughly demonstration-hardened from a very early age because I had grown up in a Jewish/socialist/communist family. By Cable Street time I’d been on so many demos they were almost a way of life.”

The fact that the community was so hardened meant that it had a much more politically astute strategy for dealing with the fascists than what Rosen called the “dozy Jewish authorities” and the Communist Party, who until the Friday before the battle were calling on anti-fascists to attend a youth solidarity with Spain rally in Trafalgar Square.

According to the local communist Phil Piratin (later a councillor and MP for the area), “The Labour Party, The News Chronicle, the Jewish Board of Deputies, all appealed to the people to stay away, everything was done to damp down working class anger.” The Jewish Chronicle argued, “Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew baiters, keep away.”

Despite these official clarion calls, the community was mobilised and unified in just 48 hours by word of mouth, over-printing of the official “Go to Trafalgar Square” leaflets and chalking or whitewashing messages on walls and pavements.

Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the BUF, was embedded in the British ruling class. Three crown heads of Europe allegedly attended his first marriage. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, backed the party enthusiastically, printing headlines such as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”. When Sir Colin Campbell broke the land speed record in 1935 he carried a BUF Volunteer Transport Service pennant in his cockpit, fitting the narrative spun by Mosley that he was a man in a hurry to save the nation.

He was also a man searching for a political identity after the First World War. He had been a rising star in the Conservative Party before crossing the floor to Labour in protest over the use of the Black and Tans in Ireland. His ego soon surpassed any other motivation than leading his own party. After a visit to Mussolini’s Italy he set up the BUF in 1932, with William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw, who would later be executed by the British state for broadcasting Nazi propaganda during the Second World War) as his minister of propaganda.

By early 1934 the BUF claimed 50,000 members. In June they organised a rally at the Olympia in west London — this was to be Mosley’s Nuremburg. An honour guard of 2,000 Blackshirts formed at BUF headquarters, Black House in Chelsea, to march to the venue. However, 500 Communist Party members had infiltrated the event.

As soon as Mosley started speaking the infiltrators shouted “Fascism means murder”. Both the anti-fascists and the Blackshirts had come prepared for a fight and Pathe News broadcast the ensuing violence widely. For the likes of Rothermere this was too much, and as a result Mosley lost much of his establishment backing.

After the debacle of Olympia and the loss of middle and upper class members, Mosley increasingly targeted the working class in the East End of London, especially those in declining industries such as furniture making, who were in competition with Jewish workers. Anti-Semitism was adopted as a recruiting strategy. In the early days of the BUP Mosley had sought to appear as a “respectable” political party; this approach was now abandoned.

Mosley believed that he could drive a wedge between communities in the East End because Irish dockers in Poplar and Limehouse had a reputation for anti-Semitism. He was mistaken. When the call came for unity against fascism there was a united response from east London’s diverse and ever-changing population.

Anti-Semitism in the establishment at the time was ingrained, however. To get a chilling sense of this listen to Lady Dianna Mosley (one of the Mitford sisters) on the Desert Island Discs archive at bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009mdck. In plummy aristocratic tones she denies the Holocaust, blaming typhus and allied bombing for the deaths, and explains how exciting it was to mix with Hitler.

There was an element of truth to Mosley’s claim that Jews were communists. Many of the 150,000 who had settled in the area since the 1880s were exiles from the Tsarist Russian empire and had come to Britain determined to create a more equal society.

On 4 October the BUF aimed to march 5,000 Blackshirts in their formal uniforms, rather than the utility “fencing” tops, from Royal Mint Street near the Tower of London to Cable Street in the East End. The march was timed to start at 2pm, but Mosley was soon informed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip French that the area was blocked by protesters plus a tram strategically abandoned by its Communist Party driver. In the meantime in the heart of the Jewish East End the community was breaking into shops and market stalls and constructing barricades with what they pulled out.

The majority of the confrontations were between the community and the police, as the police tried to clear the way for the fascists to march.

Women played a key role. In the narrower streets they threw the contents of chamber pots and hot oil onto the police from windows. Some police were taken hostage and sent packing without their helmets. My mother, now in her 96th year, took part on the day as a member of the Young Communist League, alongside key local Communist organisers such as Sissy Miller.

The anti-fascists knew exactly what was planned as a plant, Hugh Faulkner, was in Mosley’s headquarters. A phone line had been specially installed in Phil Piratin’s house to filter information. He explained the organisation: “There was constant communication between responsible communists ‘at the front’ and headquarters. Motorcyclists and cyclists were organised, and were indispensable in ensuring contact. First aid posts in the care of anti-fascist doctors and nurses were opened in a number of shops and houses near the scene of the battle.”

Crucially, victory was not down to acts of individual valour, as a participant in the documentary The People’s Century explains: “You were not asked to fight, but you were asked to form a human wall. When the police tried to move us there was nowhere to go.”

By 6.30pm the police told Mosley the game was up, and they could not clear the streets. He demurred without protest, probably because he was due to fly to Germany to Goebbels’s house to get married; Hitler was to be a witness. The BUF was humbled into a march through the deserted City of London to the Embankment.

Piratin sums up the atmosphere: “The working class had won the day. That night dozens of meetings were held in all parts of Stepney and east London to teach the lessons of that great day of victory.”

The reaction of the Labour Party to the Battle of Cable Street was predictable. At their autumn conference a few days later Hebert Morrison, who was to be deputy prime minister after the war, put the blame for the violence equally on the fascists and anti-fascists. Soon afterwards the Public Order Act was passed and used against working class resistance well into the 20th century.

According to Phil Piratin the news of the victory on 4 October was well received by those fighting the fascist Franco in Spain: “The ‘terror’ had lost its meaning. The people now knew that fascism could be defeated if they organised themselves to do so.”

The BUF was not finished, but Cable Street was a turning point. Their funding from Italy began to dry up; the organisation was stretched after failing to make the hoped-for breakthrough in the East End; and the law began to limit them.

Piratin claimed in his book, Our Flag Stays Red, that the policy of the Communist Party at the time was, “see a fascist, bash a fascist”, but this is belied somewhat by a story from a few months later, which he describes in some detail.

What happened in July 1937 in Paragon Mansions he calls a turning point in the fight against the fascists, and it shows that ultimate victory required patient political engagement in addition to confrontation when necessary. Members of the CP had joined sporting and social clubs in areas of high BUF membership, “in order to mingle with the fascists, sport with them and at the same time put over our propaganda”.

The party also sold the Daily Worker on estates and as a result heard that two families with BUF sympathies were about to be evicted. When the police and bailiffs were due the CP organised barricades and flour and water bombs. The police made a half-hearted attempt to gain entry, but negotiations were soon successfully conducted with the landlord.

Piratin writes: “This was a victory… BUF cards were destroyed voluntarily and in disgust and news quickly went round much more quickly than the leaflet the CP had distributed to the whole neighbourhood, the kind of people who would never come to our meetings and had strange ideas about communists and Jews, learned the facts overnight and learned the real meaning of class struggle.”

In terms of the impact of Cable Street, Harold Rosen perhaps sums it up best: “The fact that thousands of ordinary folk did actually stop a fascist march from taking place in an unprecedented manner meant that the East End was never the same again.”

Harold Rosen’s memoir, Are You Still Circumcised? is available in a new edition this month from Five Leaves Press, £9.99