ADVERTISER 150: How 1936 ‘Battle of Cable Street’ made headlines 80 years ago

1936: The nass demo that halts rise of fascism in pre-War Britain

1936: The nass demo that halts rise of fascism in pre-War Britain - Credit: Archant

Our nightly series for the East London Advertiser’s 150th anniversary this year reaches 1936 and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, the folklore legend when the East End turns out to stop Mosley’s Blackshirts marching through Whitechapel. The fascists are bent on provoking unrest in the largely Jewish district, but the stand by Jews, Irish, Communists and socialists forces the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to order Mosley’s 3,000 marchers to turn back—the moment in time when fascism begins its decline in pre-War Britain...

October 4, 1936: Demonstrators block streets at Gardiner's Corner to stop Mosley's Blackshirts march

October 4, 1936: Demonstrators block streets at Gardiner's Corner to stop Mosley's Blackshirts marching into Whitechapel (deserted tram is seen far left)... [photos: Tower Hamlets Archives] - Credit: TH Archive

1936: The Battle of Cable Street marks a turning point in the rise of pre-war fascism when an estimated 250,000 protesters turn out to stop Mosley’s Blackshirts.

They symbolically prevent his 3,000 fascists marching through Whitechapel on Sunday, October 4.

The planned march from Tower Hill is seen as provocation against the East End’s largely Jewish and Irish Catholic population.

1936: Protesters refuse to move at Gardiner's Corner

1936: Protesters refuse to move at Gardiner's Corner - Credit: TH Archive

But the Government refuses to ban it on grounds of democratic rights—so protesters block Gardiner’s Corner crossroads in Whitechapel High-street. A tram driver even stops his double-decker in its tracks right on the junction with Commercial-street and Commercial-road to block the intended march.

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Police try diverting the Blackshirts through Cable-street to avoid the mass demonstration.

But protesters get wind of the switch from a spy in the Blackshirts’ ranks and they, too, head to Cable-street. A lorry is overturned, paving stones ripped up and a makeshift barricade is erected.

1936: Protesters switch and block the entrance to Cable Street to stop the Blackshirts

1936: Protesters switch and block the entrance to Cable Street to stop the Blackshirts - Credit: TH Archive

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Protesters clash with police and it is soon deemed too dangerous for officers to marshall the march, so the Metropolitan Commissioner orders Mosley to turn back.

There is jubilation when word reached the crowd. The Battle of Cable Street has stopped the Blackshirts getting through.

A line has been drawn with the battle cry “They shall not pass”—changing British politics for ever.

1936: Demonstrators dig up paving stones to erect barrier in Cable-street to block Blackshirts march

1936: Demonstrators dig up paving stones to erect barrier in Cable-street to block Blackshirts march - Credit: TH Archive


A young Bill Fishman, the son of a Jewish immigrant tailor and a member of the Labour Youth League, is among the protesters. His recollections in the East London Advertiser as a Professor of History at Oxford are recorded years later on the 70th anniversary in 2006 when, at 85, he writes:

Mosley’s Blackshirts terrorised Jewish stallholders in Petticoat Lane, accusing Jews of taking ‘English’ jobs, beat up worshippers going home after synagogue and daubing walls with anti-Semitic graffiti.

1936: Police attempt to clear blockade in Cable-street

1936: Police attempt to clear blockade in Cable-street - Credit: TH Archive

Mosley was planning a big rally in the East End on Sunday, October 4. We were told to get down to Gardiner’s Corner.

I got off the 53 tram from Hackney and there were already people marching and carrying banners proclaiming ‘No Pasaran’—from the Spanish anti-Franco republicans, ‘They shall not pass.’

People were marching towards Aldgate. There were so many that it took me about 25 minutes to get there along Whitechapel Road.

2006: Prof Bill Fishman (left) face-to-face with Oswald Mosley's son, Sir Nicholas Mosley, at Toynbe

2006: Prof Bill Fishman (left) face-to-face with Oswald Mosley's son, Sir Nicholas Mosley, at Toynbee Hall on 70th anniversary of 'Battle of Cable Street' [photo: Mike Wells/East London Advertiser 2006] - Credit: Archant/East London Advertiser

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.

You could see Mosley—wearing a black shirt himself—marching in front of 3,000 fascists and a sea of Union Jacks, as though he was the commander-in-chief of the Army, with the Blackshirts in columns and a mass of police to protect them.

By mid-afternoon, the crowds had swelled to 250,000, with some reports later suggesting up to half-a-million people had gathered there.

We began chanting, “They shall not pass!” and “One, Two, Three, Four, Five—we want Mosley dead or alive!”

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 into 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.

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 to co-ordinate the action. But they also had a spy named Michael Faulkner, who was a medical student and communist sympathiser. Faulkner had infiltrated the Blackshirts.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Philip Game, told Mosley that his Blackshirts, blocked at Gardiner’s Corner, could go south through Royal Mint Street and Cable Street instead.

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’.

There were three-storey and four-storey houses where Irish dockers lived who 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 ringleaders. Organised groups of dockers hit back with stones and sticks.

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.

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. 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 uniforms, depriving them of menace and allure.

Stanley Baldwin’s Tory Government passed the 1936 Public Order Act, which gave the police the power to ban all future ‘provocative’ marches.

The Battle of Cable Street in 1936 meant that never again would the fascist ideology be so popular.

—Bill Fishman, Professor of Modern European History, Oxford

Bill goes on to become a history teacher at Bethnal Green’s Morpeth Secondary in the post-war years, then a lecturer at Oxford University and in 1999 receives an honorary fellowship at Queen Mary’s University in Mile End. He dies in 2014, aged 93, having left a lifetime legacy of knowledge of society’s struggles against racism and intolerance.


2006: Nicholas Mosley, son of Blackshirt leader Oswald Mosley, is invited to Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall on the 70th anniversary of Cable Street where he meets activists like Bill Fishman and retired Stepney councillor Max Levitas to explain why his father led the fascists to Whitechapel:

My father had been carried away on the Nazi bandwagon and started the movement before 1933 when Hitler came to power, but was tainted by what Hitler was doing in Germany.

The barricades at Cable Street changed all that. They did work. The people had made their point—their protest worked. Those who put up the barricades were heroic.

Years later, my father told me it was ‘the most terrible propaganda disaster’. I later found out the reason he turned away from Cable Street so easily was because the next day he was due to marry Diana Guinness (nee Mitford) in Goebbels’ house in Germany—Hitler was one of the guests. It was a strict secret and I think he was worried it would get out if he had been arrested.

But he was already losing political influence. I remember his public meeting two years earlier at Olympia, which was to attract the good and the great, but was disrupted by communists. His stewards behaved badly, brutally dragging protesters out and attacking them.

After that, influential people who had supported him, like Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, withdrew their backing.

My father’s people had got out of control. So he dressed his followers in new blackshirt uniforms to claim he was in charge of a disciplined force. The first time they dressed up was at Cable Street in 1936.

Two of his members, including William Joyce (subsequent traitor who broadcasts Nazi propaganda from Hitler’s Germany during the War) quit the movement after Cable Street, saying it was feeble. Both were anti-Semites.

My father realised there was no chance of gaining power. By 1937, his movement collapsed.

—Sir Nicholas Mosley, 2006.

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