The Battle of Cable Street

Posted on October 4, 2021 by Il Grido del Popolo©


It is 85 years since the Jewish community of East London and its allies blocked the streets in order to prevent Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists marching through.

The Fascists were subjected to a humiliating defeat as the police found themselves unable to clear a path.

The Battle of Cable Street, as it has become known, is the most popular anti-fascist victory to have taken place on British soil.

This multimedia website looks at the history of 4 October 1936 and its subsequent commemoration. In order to do this we have used a variety of primary and secondary sources, including interviews with those involved.

HOPE not hate brings you this small resource not just to inform of an interesting historical episode but to allow visitors to draw some of the timeless lessons that can be learnt from it, and how the HOPE not hate campaign links to our shared heritage of Cable Street.

By 1936 the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had become the largest organised antisemitic force in Britain.

Unlike other British fascist leaders of the same period, BUF leader Sir Oswald Mosley emerged from the establishment, starting out his career as a rising star in both the Conservative and Labour parties.

Mosley became disillusioned with the mainstream and founded the unimaginatively titled “New Party” before transforming it into the BUF after meeting Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in January 1932.

Mosley capitalised on the anger felt during the Great Depression to propose a single-party authoritarian regime, which he claimed would destroy class differences and lead to the triumph of the “new fascist man”.

With this message Mosley attracted as many as 40,000 members in 1934 and the support of the Daily Mail, who ran the notorious headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the same year.

As the fascist movement developed, so too did opposition to it. Led by Communists, socialists and trade unionists the anti-fascist movement grew, supported also by Liberals and some anti-fascist Tories.

However, those who interrupted fascist meetings found themselves dealing with unprecedented violence from Blackshirt thugs.

The notorious Olympia meeting of 7 June 1934 came to symbolise Blackshirt thuggery. After the Daily Worker posted the location of the West London meeting, a number of anti-fascists attended, intending to disrupt the meeting.

Hecklers were beaten by gangs of Blackshirts armed with knuckledusters and other weapons and thrown into the street. The BUF was roundly condemned by the mainstream and the violence of the meeting effectively ended Mosley’s pretence of respectability.

With its reputation in tatters following Olympia and increasingly under the influence of Hitler, BUF leaders sought to exploit the reservoir of antisemitism in the East End in order to save the party.

By 1936 the BUF was pouring most of its resources into holding meetings in the East End and distributing crude antisemitica. Mob orators such as Mick Clarke and Owen Burke sought to whip up violence on street corners night after night.

As this approach gradually gained support in poor neighbouring areas such as Bethnal Green, Mosley announced he would celebrate the fourth birthday of the BUF by staging a provocative march through Stepney, the heart of the Jewish East End, on 4 October, 1936.

The announcement that Mosley planned to march his uniformed Blackshirts through the East End of London on Sunday 4 October 1936 sent shockwaves through the Jewish community. But this community was no stranger to adversity.

In response to the perceived inaction of Jewish authorities such as the Board of Deputies (BoD), Stepney locals took it upon themselves to organise against the BUF. Many were already organised in the newly formed National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers (NUTGW) and the Worker’s Circle.

In July 1936 a conference was held by 86 different organisations in order to work out a practical plan for combating Mosley. From this conference the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and antisemitism (JPC) was born, and was to lead opposition to the march.

In the run up to 4 October there were numerous incursions into Stepney. Feelings ran high as five East London mayors met with the Home Office on 1st October to warn of the likely consequences if the march proceeded. The following day the JPC delivered a 100,000 strong petition urging the Home Secretary to ban the march.

However the Government refused to ban the march and it was left to local people to defend their community from the fascists.

As the Jewish and non-Jewish establishment called for people to stay off the streets, the JPC, the trade unions, the Independent Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth began to mobilise.

On 3 October the Daily Worker printed a map of the proposed fascist march and called for Jew and Gentile alike to unite en masse in Leman Street, Cable Street, Gardiner’s Corner and St George’s Street to halt Mosley.

The most vocally anti-fascist political party – the Communist Party – initially found itself caught in a dilemma, having already planned an anti-fascist “Aid Spain” rally in Trafalgar Square that day.

However, under much pressure from East End members, the national CP overprinted their leaflets with the words “Alteration: Rally to Aldgate 2pm”.

As the Young Communist League began to occupy Victoria Park, where the fascist intended to hold a rally, the event that came to be known as “The Battle” kicked off with the Jewish Ex-Serviceman’s Association marching along Whitechapel Road, proudly displaying their medals, in order to advertise the counter-demonstration.

They soon found their route blocked by mounted police and were ordered to disperse. Upon refusing they were beaten severely. This set the tone for the rest of the day.

As the news spread, antifascists assembled at Gardiner’s Corner at Aldgate, blocking the gateway to the East End. Whichever route Mosley took, they had to pass through here to go down his planned route of Whitechapel Road or Commercial Road. Estimates of the eventual crowd vary between 100,000 and half a million. The crowd roared “They Shall Not Pass!” and “Down with Fascism!”

Six thousand police, including London’s entire mounted police division, tried to clear the area. Four anti-fascist tram drivers intentionally abandoned their vehicles, forming barricades which were used by the crowd as they were attacked by police on horseback.

Nevertheless the police struck out with extreme brutality. Cafés were turned into first aid units by the Communist Party to treat the wounded.

While Mosley waited impatiently with a few thousand Blackshirt troops, the police decided that with Gardiner’s Corner in the hands of an unmovable anti-fascist crowd, they would clear an alternative route to the south through Cable Street.

Cable Street had been ready since early morning. Three sets of barricades, one containing an overturned lorry, were erected across the narrow street using material from a builder’s yard and from local Jewish people’s homes and shops nearby.

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.

For no route left for the fascists Sir Philip Game, the Commissioner of Police, told Mosley to march his troops west from Tower Hill and out of the area.

Meanwhile anti-fascists marched to Victoria Park heralding a victory for the Jewish community, the people of the East End, and anti-fascists everywhere.

While 4 October 1936 was a great success for the anti-fascists, there was still a lot of work left to do.

For a start legal aid had to be organised for some 79 anti-fascist men and women who were arrested that day, many of them severely beaten by police. In contrast just five fascists were arrested.

Whilst the Jewish People’s Council arranged free legal support, the sentencing was punitive with heavy fines and custodial sentences including hard labour being meted out.

The adage that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” seemed to apply to the BUF. Mosley immediately sought to present his party as victims of Jewish-Communist violence and BUF membership temporarily increased in the weeks following their humiliation at Cable Street.

Whilst the BUF greatly exaggerated this influx of support, reports from the Metropolitan Police estimate 2,000 new recruits joined soon after Cable Street.

One week after the Battle, while antifascists 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.

The 4 October provocation led directly to Parliament debating the 1936 Public Order Act, which passed into law on 1 January 1937.

The POA controlled public processions and banned the wearing of political uniforms in public. This undercut sections of Mosley’s support, as many poor, unemployed and ex-servicemen found Mosley’s quasi-military uniforms attractive.

Under the provisions of the act an order prohibiting marches in East London was renewed every three months until the disbanding of the British Union of Fascists in 1940.

Cable Street helped set in motion a more sophisticated and ultimately more successful brand of anti-fascist politics.

The surge in support for Mosley immediately after Cable Street helped convince many, including Communist Party organiser Phil Piratin, that to defeat the BUF they had to tackle the genuine socio-economic grievances exploited by Mosley within the East End rather than simply meet it with physical force.

Working with a network of tenants committees before forming the Stepney Tenants Defence League (STDL), Piratin and colleagues tackled the high rents charged by slum landlords for substandard accommodation. The STDL orchestrated rent strikes aimed at bringing landlords to the negotiating table, winning vital concessions and rent reductions for beleaguered tenants.

Although the STDL was organised by Communists – many of whom were Jewish – they also saved fascist tenants from eviction. The STDL soon extended its work into the heart of the “fascist” East End, particularly areas such as Duckett Street, Stepney. The BUF had done nothing for them. As a result BUF cards were torn up in disgust.

By helping local people overcome their problems and helping them to understand that these were not caused by “Jews” or “immigrants” the STDL proved that it is unity, rather than division, which enables communities to overcome its social deprivation.

The lessons are there to be relearned.

After Cable Street Mussolini was so appalled with Mosley’s failure to gain “mastery of the streets” that he decided to end his financial subsidy, a vast sum of money that effectively underwrote the operating costs of the BUF.

Mosley attempted to prove his worth to Il Duce at the March 1936 elections, and although the BUF polled a respectable 19% in some areas of Bethnal Green, not one single councillor was elected. Mussolini cancelled his subsidy and without it the BUF began to collapse as an organisation.

The final nail in the coffin for the British Union of Fascists was WWII. Mosley’s links to Hitler saw the organisation under increasing state scrutiny and becoming deeply unpopular with the public.

Mosley’s calls for an alliance with Hitler eventually led to his imprisonment in 1940, along with Britain’s other prominent fascists. The organisation was officially dissolved in 1940.