The day I fought the Blackshirts in Battle of Cable Street—Bill Fishman
PUBLISHED: 21:39 29 October 2008 | UPDATED: 13:43 05 October 2010
Crowds bayed for blood. A lorry has been overturned to form a barrier against the fascist march. Protesters clashing with police. This was the legendary 1936 Battle of Cable Street when 300,000 working class men and women took to the streets in London’s East End to stop a march by Mosley’s Blackshirts. The fascists tried to march through Whitechapel, then heavily populated by Jews, communists and Irish Catholics. But a single electric tram stops them. Here, Bill Fishman recalls the dramatic events of Sunday, October 4, 1936:
Crowds bayed for blood. A lorry has been overturned to form a barrier against the fascist march. Protesters clashing with police.
This was the legendary 1936 Battle of Cable Street when 300,000 working class men and women took to the streets in London’s East End to stop a march by Mosley’s Blackshirts.
The British Union of Fascists, led by former Government cabinet member Sir Oswald Mosley, tried to march through Whitechapel, then heavily populated by Jews, communists and Irish Catholics. But a single electric tram stops them.
Bill Fishman, professor of Modern European History at Oxford, was a 15-year-old youngster who got caught up in the Battle of Cable Street.
Prof Fishman (pictured above, left) finally met Mosley’s son Sir Nicholas Mosley (right) during a 70th anniversary public forum about Cable Street at Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall in 2006, sharing a platform with him. They both give their views on Cable Street seven decades on.
Here, Bill Fishman recalls the dramatic events of Sunday, October 4, 1936:
BY 1936, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had been waging a hate campaign against Jews, communists and the Irish in the East End on London for more than two years.
Mosley’s Blackshirts, his elite’ bodyguard, terrorised Jewish stallholders in Petticoat Lane market, accused Jews of taking English’ jobs, beat up Jews going home after synagogue and covered walls with anti-Semitic graffiti.
The Blackshirts copied the militaristic style of the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany and the fascist regimes in Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, attempting their own reign of terror in Britain.
I was a member of the Labour Youth League at that time and we heard that Mosley was planning a big rally in the East End on Sunday, October 4. We were told to get down to Gardiner’s Corner.
It seemed like an act of solidarity because, on the same day, the Republicans in Spain were also preparing to defend Madrid against General Franco’s nationalist forces.
I got off the 53 tram from Hackney just after noon and there were already people marching and carrying banners proclaiming No Pasaran’—the slogan we took from the Spanish Republicans meaning They shall not pass.’
People were coming in from the side streets, marching towards Aldgate. There were so many that it took me about 25 minutes to get there along Whitechapel Road.
Around 10,000 police officers, virtually every spare policeman in London and the Home Counties, had been drafted into Whitechapel to keep the crowd away from the fascists.
I remember standing on the steps of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, watching Mosley arrive in a black open-top sports car. He was a playboy aristocrat and as glamorous as ever.
By this time, it was about 3.30pm. You could see Mosley—wearing a black shirt himself—marching in front of 3,000 fascists and a sea of Union Jacks. It was as though he was the commander-in-chief of the Army, with the Blackshirts in columns and a mass of police to protect them.
I had already seen him at a public meeting some months before. He had been standing on the back of a lorry parked outside the Salmon & Ball pub in Bethnal Green.
I remember the weather was beautiful, like a summer day. By mid-afternoon, the crowds had swelled to 250,000, with some reports later suggesting up to half-a-million people had gathered there.
The tension rose and we began chanting, “One, Two, Three, Four, Five! We want Mosley dead or alive!” and “They shall not pass!”
Mosley encountered his first setback from a lone tram driver. About 50 yards away from me at Gardiner’s Corner, I saw a tram pull up in the middle of the junction—barring the Blackshirts’ route from Aldgate to Whitechapel. Then the driver got out and walked off. I found out later he was a member of the Communist Party.
At that point the police charged the crowd to disperse us. They were waving their truncheons, but we were so packed together there was nowhere for us to go.
I could see police horses going up in the air because some kids in front of me were throwing marbles under their hooves. That made the police more hostile and they spent the next hour charging into us.
Then, suddenly, people were waving to us from the back of the crowd.
The Communist Party had a system of loudspeaker vans and a command post with a phone and team of messengers from which to co-ordinate the action.
SPY IN MOSLEY'S RANKS
But they also had a secret weapon—a spy named Michael Faulkner, who was a medical student and communist sympathiser. Faulkner had infiltrated the Blackshirts.
The Blackshirts had been halted at Gardiner’s Corner. So the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Philip Game, told Mosley the fascists could go south through Royal Mint Street and Cable Street.
As Mosley was passing on instructions, Faulkner rushed to the phone near Aldgate Underground station and rang Phil Piratin, the communist leader. Piratin told those in the loudspeaker vans to transmit the message—“Get down to Cable Street!”
The sheer weight of numbers meant it was a slow procession—but I got there in time to watch the battle.
I was young and afraid of what was basically a fight between the police and us, because we couldn’t get near the Blackshirts.
Cable Street then, as now, was narrow and there were three-storey and four-storey houses where Irish dockers lived. The dockers erected a barricade with an overturned lorry piled with old mattresses and furniture.
Women in the houses hurled rotten vegetables, muck from chamber pots and rubbish on to the police, who were struggling to dismantle some of the barricades.
Things escalated again when the police sent snatch squads’ into the crowd to nab supposed ringleaders. Organised groups of dockers hit back with stones and sticks, while making several arrests’ themselves!
Indeed, there are some families in the East End who still have police helmets and batons as souvenirs!
BLACKSHIRTS TURNED BACK
Finally, with the area in turmoil and the protesters at fever pitch, Sir Philip Game told Mosley that he would have to abandon the march, fearing too much bloodshed. He ordered Mosley to turn back and march through the deserted City.
People went mad when the news filtered through. What had been a wild protest became a massive victory party, with thousands of people dancing in the streets.
Once the dust settled, it was found that 150 protesters had been arrested, some severely beaten up while in custody. In all, there were around 100 injuries, including police officers.
But Oswald Mosley’s popularity began to wane, after his setback in Cable Street.
The Government hurried through laws banning political party members wearing military-style uniforms, depriving them of both menace and allure.
Stanley Baldwin’s Tory Government passed the 1936 Public Order Act, which gave the police the power to ban provocative’ marches.
Then, during the Second World War, Mosley and his wife Lady Diana Mitford were interned as a threat to national security. Years in the political wilderness followed before his death in 1980.
The Battle of Cable Street victory in 1936 meant that never again would the fascist ideology be so popular.
Jews, communists, Irish and Englishmen and women rose up simply because they did not want fascist extremism.
Years later, during my first teaching job in Bethnal Green, a parent came up and said: “My son speaks very highly of you.
“I have to apologize—I was a fascist and supported Mosley. Now I realize how wrong you can be.”
There was redemption in that and it moved me. It made me realize how much things were changing in Britain, even then.
Professor of Modern European History, Oxford