83 years ago to the day, there was a battle in London’s East End that turned out to be one of the largest riots in the city’s long and storied history which has since been immortalised in a mural on the side of Saint George’s Town Hall, a short walk from Shadwell station.
The Battle of Cable Street was the clash between the police and protestors barring the way for the fascist march of Sir Oswald Mosley and the “Blackshirts” of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). It is often painted as the final nail in the coffin for fascism in Britain but the truth, as always, is a little more complicated than this romanticised notion.
To understand the significance of the day, we need to understand a little of the political climate of the time. The Spanish Civil War was underway; the fascist insurrection led by General Franco, Mussolini’s fascist party was in power in Italy and had conquered Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany and transformed it into a dictatorship. In short, fascism was rife in Europe.
The Thirties were an incredibly tumultuous time, with the devastation of the Great Depression laying the foundations for a disgruntled and impoverished working class to adopt the more radical ideologies of fascism. People were poor- poorly educated and cash poor. The workhouses had scores of people outside daily looking for work.
The few lucky enough to get work, worked long hours for terrible pay. People were looking for scapegoats and sadly, as has so often happened throughout history, blame fell on the Jewish community, the majority of which lived in the East End.
Oswald Mosley capitalised on this, proposing a single party authoritarian regime that would abolish the class system. In 1934, the BUF attracted as many as 40,000 members and was championed by the Daily Mail. Echoing the rhetoric of Nazi Germany- labelling Jewish people as “vermin”, and bankrolled by Mussolini and Hitler, his party started distributing anti-Semitic material and holding fascist meetings throughout East London, replete with black uniforms and the raised arm salute.
In the lead up to the 4th October 1936, when Mosley proclaimed that he would celebrate the 4th birthday of the BUF by holding a march through the East End, the locals took notice; particularly the Jewish community, who were fed-up with keeping their heads down.
On the morning of the 4th, Cable Street was barricaded and thousands upon thousands of people turned out to bar the way. There were Jewish Londoners, Communists, dock workers, Irish immigrants and locals standing as one to block the march, shouting the slogan: “they shall not pass” and pass they did not. It lead to clashes between the police and protestors but Mosley and his merry band of Blackshirts turned around and went home; his march an abject failure.
It was one of the first instances of the British Jewish community feeling supported, not victimised and it was an important stand against fascism; a symbolic victory against a dangerous ideology but at first, instead of finishing fascism in Britain, it had an upsurge in popularity, with Mosley painting the BUF as victims of Jewish-Communist violence in the media. The BUF orchestrated attacks on Jewish shop fronts a week later, in a day that was to be known as the Mile End pogroms.
The legacy of the battle resulted in the Public order act passed in Parliament in 1937 which prohibited the wearing of political uniforms on the street and the creation of the Stepney Tenant Defence League (STDL) which tackled the socio-economic issues of the deprivation that led to the uptake of fascist ideologies instead of simply meeting them with force. They challenged slum lords who were charging high rents and won concessions and rent reductions for tenants.
The BUF never really got a foot hold into British politics, often seen as nothing but a fringe party. Mosley’s bombastic rhetoric and his extremist politics never really gained traction with the British public: traditionally pragmatic and conservative in their political views. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1940 for championing a coalition with Hitler and the BUF was officially dissolved the same year.
The Jewish community has since thrived in London, becoming the largest and most prosperous in Europe, although they’ve now moved further north to Stamford Hill and Golders Green and have been replaced by South Asians and hipsters.
It’s worth coming out of your way to this otherwise unremarkable patch of East London to see the mural. If for nothing else, it’s not often you get a chance to see Adolf Hitler depicted in his underwear. There’s a quiet park nearby which leads to St. George-in-the-East church, an 18th century Anglican Church, which is also worth checking out.
The mural stands as a testament to the famous spirit of the East End which was immortalised during the Second World War and the Blitz. It also serves as a reminder of what can be achieved when a community works together instead of against each other. With the anti-immigrant rhetoric of that time being re-echoed today, and the current anti-Semitic furore surrounding the Labour party, it’s a message that’s as important and timely as ever.
Thanks for reading,
Sources & further reading:
You can even watch some of the footage here: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-battle-of-cable-street-1936-online