Today, ARATrust commemorates 85 years since the anti-fascist ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was won on 4 October 1936 against Oswald Mosely’s ‘Blackshirts’ and his UK political party, the British Union of Fascists (‘BUF’).

The history of the rise of the BUF and lessons to be learned are still as prescient today, not least because of the solidarity of the local residents and workers from Jewish and Irish communities, together with dock workers who organised to stop a planned march by violent fascist Blackshirts through the heart of the East End Jewish community with the police aiming to ensure the march would proceed.

This article explores the rise of the BUF, how it garnered support from other UK political parties, factions of the media, European fascist allies, and how it was confronted by the successful organised activism of working-class people in the streets of the East End. A cycle of violence followed leading to the government enacting stricter public order legislation, and the withdrawal of BUFs European funding stream, leading to its demise in 1940.   

The rise of Oswald Mosely

Educated at Winchester College, in January 1914, Mosely became an officer cadet at Sandhurst. On the outbreak of the First World War, he was commissioned in a cavalry regiment spending time in Ireland and then training to become a pilot in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. Having crashed his plane and broken his ankle, he then became a Lieutenant but was stationed for desk work. He began to develop a keen interest in politics joining the Conservative Party and was initially selected for the safe seat of Harrow. During the election campaign, Mosley called on Germans in Great Britain to be deported and that Kaiser Wilhelm II should be tried for war crimes. He claimed that Germans had “brought disease amongst them, reduced Englishmen’s wages, undersold English goods, and ruined social life”. He was elected to Parliament with a significant majority of the vote and aged 22, he became the youngest MP in the House of Commons.

Mosely was far from a loyal Conservative and in his maiden speech, he made an attack on government including on Winston Churchill and continued to criticise the government over its policy in Ireland. In the 1922 General Election, Mosely stood as an Independent candidate and won another majority. In 1924, Mosely joined the Labour Party, but they lost the General Election that year. On 20 February 1931, Mosely and 5 other Labour MPs resigned from the Labour Party forming a ‘New Party’ which was said to have been purged of all associations with socialism and fielded 25 candidates in the 1931 General Election. The New Party’s newspaper said that although the Party was inspired by the Fascist movement, it wanted British answers. The New Party fared badly at the General Election.[1]

The British Union of Fascists (‘BUF’)

In December 1931, Harold Harmonsworth (Ist Lord Rothermere), the press baron and owner of the Daily Mail had a meeting with Mosely and told him that he was prepared to put his printing press at his disposal if Mosely succeeded in organising a disciplined Fascist movement from the remnants of the New Party. Rothermere believed it was important that this party would target working-class voters to help the Conservative Party. In January 1932, Mosely went to Italy and met with Benito Mussolini who had organised various right-wing groups in Italy into a Fascist Party emphasising patriotism, national unity, hatred of communism, admiration of military values and unquestioning obedience. Mussolini subsequently formed a defensive alliance with Adolf Hitler (the Pact of Steel) and then declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940.

Back in Great Britain in 1932, Mosley wrote an article in the Daily Mail about Mussolini’s achievements and formed a fascist party in the UK, the British Union of Fascists whose members mainly came from the right wing of the Conservative Party and steadily grew to an estimated 35,000 members.

BUF Blackshirts

Mosley decided that the uniform of the BUF and symbol of fascism would be the black shirt. It would be instantly recognisable in a fight against outside disruptors and which he described as a symbol of authority and classroom brotherhood masking class or social differences.

Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts

Daily Mail supports Oswald Moseley’s BUF

At this time, Lord Rothermere wrote a series of articles acclaiming the new regime of Hitler in Germany and informed readers he “confidently expected” great things of the Nazi regime. Hitler acknowledged this help. In 1934, Rothermere wrote an article praising Mosely entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”. In July 1934 Lord Rothermere suddenly withdrew his support from Mosley and the BUF, informing Hitler that this was because the “Jews cut off his complete revenue from advertising”, compelling him to “toe the line”.

Extracts from fascist policies in ‘The 10 Points of Fascism’ leaflet [2]

Mosley began to make violent anti-Semitic speeches that received praise from Hitler and he decided on a long-term electoral strategy of supporting anti-semitic campaigns in Jewish areas. At the time, of the 350,000 British Jews, around 230,000 lived in London, the majority in the East End. Mosely described Jews as “rats and vermin from the gutter of Whitechapel. In October 1935, Mosley ordered senior members of the BUF to promote anti-semitism in the areas with the highest numbers of Jews. The BUF also became active in Manchester and Leeds. In an attempt to increase support for their campaign the BUF announced its intention of 5,000 Blackshirts marching through the East End on 4 October 1936.

“Among the impoverished workers of the East End, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) built their movement in a horseshoe shape around the Jewish community,” says author and historian David Rosenberg, whose relatives owned a stationery shop on Cable Street at the time.[3]

In July 1936, a conference was held by 86 different organisations to work out a practical plan for combating the BUF. The march was interpreted by Jews, Irish and local dock workers as a challenge to organise in solidarity against the BUF.

The Conservative Government led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to ban the march despite the protestations of 5 East London mayors. The local Labour Party were also reticent about standing up to the fascists and were aligned with the Board of Deputies of Jews who felt disinclined to counter the fascists for religious reasons.

The Battle of Cable Street

The BUF were intending to hold their rally in Victoria Park so the Jewish Ex-Serviceman’s Association marched along Whitechapel Road, displaying their medals to counter the fascist demonstration. Their route was blocked by Police but upon refusing to stand down they were beaten severely.  Anti-fascists assembled and blocked the Aldgate gateway to the East End. Estimates of the anti-fascist crowd that gathered varies from between 100,000 to half a million. The crowd chanted “They Shall Not Pass!” and “Down with Fascism”.

Six thousand police officers including London’s entire mounted police division were deployed to clear the area and went about doing so with brutality.

Remembering the support of the Jewish community in the dock strikes of 1912, Irish dockers stood in solidarity with Jews against the fascists, ripping up paving stones with pickaxe handles to add to the barricades.

The street was strewn with broken glass and marbles as a defence against mounted police charges. Anti-fascists chanted slogans and gave clenched fist salutes from behind the barricades in defiance. As the police attempted to clear the barricades, locals rained down all manner of items.

Women protesters at Cable Street[4]

Few stories of the brave acts of women are associated with the Battle. But they played a prominent part. The East End Women’s Museum has archived their role.

Local communist activist Phil Piratin recalled:

“It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse that they didn’t any longer want in the house onto the police.”

Although the image of housewives throwing rubbish down at the police and the fascists has become an important part of the Cable Street battle, women were also in the street, fighting alongside the men.

Joyce Goodman (née Rosenthal) said: “the police… were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses hooves.” Out of the 79 anti-fascist protestors arrested on the day, 8 were women. Only 5 fascists were arrested.

Sarah Wesker

Mick Mindel was a union leader who was there on the day, and in an interview years later he commented:

“women leaders like Sarah Wesker set an example and at the time of the Cable Street battle she was a real inspiration to all of us.”

Sarah Wesker has been all but forgotten now, but in the 1920s she gained a high profile in London as a formidable union organiser, leading famous strikes at the Goodman’s, Poliakoff’s, Simpson and Rego textile factories. In 1932 she was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the 12th Congress.

Fluent in Yiddish and English, she had a reputation as a fiery speaker, “as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers” (she was less than five feet tall).

Forming a strong local coalition of activists they defeated a powerful political force as well as standing up to the Police, who were forced to march out of the area.

Independent Labour Party pamphlet  Independent Labour Party Publications

Mile End Pogrom

Although hailed as a victory against the Blackshirts, fascism intensified with the BUF increasing its membership by 2,000 people.

Daily Herald, 12 October 1936

One week after the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, whilst anti-fascists were holding a victory rally, the BUF retaliated in Stepney. Approximately 200 antisemitic youths ran down Mile End Road smashing Jewish shop windows, looting and burning cars. They attacked anyone thought to be Jewish and reportedly threw a hairdresser and a four-year old girl through a plate glass window. The day came to be known as the “Mile End Pogrom” and remains one of the most notorious antisemitic events of 20th century Britain. Though less serious, attacks on Jews were also reported in Manchester and Leeds in the north of England.

The BUF was relatively short-lived as Benito Mussolini was so disappointed with the outcome of the ‘Battle of Cable Street‘ that he withdrew his funding of the party, a sum which had until then underwritten its operating costs.

The Conservative government also enacted the 1936 Public Order Act, which put curbs on public processions and banned the wearing of political uniforms in public, which undercut Mosely’s support. Orders prohibiting marches in the East End were renewed until the BUF disbanded in 1940 and Mosely was imprisoned for calling for an alliance with Hitler.

Lessons Learned and Re-learned

To ensure that the fertile ground which gave rise to the BUF’s incitement to fascism taking hold would no longer do so, socio-economic grievances including housing issues concerning high rents and decaying standards of accommodation began to be addressed locally.  However, the ‘Fascist Policies’ above have to this day been used by various groups such as the National Front, British National Party, English Defence League and Britain First (amongst other political or far-right groups) to exploit local grievances, create hatred and division. This exploitation has given rise to new anti-racist and anti-fascist alliances requiring constant vigilance and education to ensure that hate cannot win.

Arpita Dutt
Anti-Racist Alliance Trust
4 October 2021