Historian Bill Fishman, witness to 1936 Battle of Cable Street, dies at 93
- Credit: Archant
Bill Fishman, one of the best-known historians and political campaigners in London’s East End, has died at the age of 93.
The son of a Jewish immigrant garment worker was born in 1921 and brought up in a working-class Whitechapel.
He was to witness the infamous Battle of Cable Street at 15 as a member of the Labour Youth League in October, 1936.
Bill was among the estimated 300,000 protesters, mainly Jewish garment workers and Irish dockers, who prevented Mosley’s Blackshirts getting past Gardiner’s Corner at the beginning of Whitechapel and then later stopped them getting through Cable Street, which eventually led to the decline of pre-war fascism in Britain.
He told an audience at Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall in 2006, on the 70th anniversary of Cable Street: “I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley.
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“I shall never forget that as long as I live—how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”
The former history teacher from Bethnal Green’s Morpeth Secondary school, who was later appointed principal of Tower Hamlets College of Further Education and went on to lecture at Oxford University, wrote many books on East End social history and European revolutions.
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He held several visiting professorships on both sides of the Atlantic and was appointed Queen Mary London University’s Senior Research Fellow in Labour Studies with special reference to Jews. He was made an honorary fellow of Queen Mary in 1999.
William J Fishman, born April 1, 1921, died on December 22, 2014, aged 93.
Prof Fishman took an active part in a campaign by the East London Advertiser in 2009, when he was 88, which succeeded in keeping Tower Hamlets Archive library open when it was threatened with closure.
But he is remembered largely as an historian and witness to the Battle of Cable Street.
He wrote a special article for the Advertiser in 2006 on the 70th anniversary of Cable Street. We reproduce that article in tribute to a much-loved East End figure...
By 1936, Oswald Mosley’s party had been waging a hate campaign against Jews, communists and the Irish in the East End for more than two years, writes Bill Fishman.
Accusing Jews of taking ‘English’ jobs, Mosley’s elite bodyguard—the Blackshirts—terrorised Jewish stallholders in Petticoat Lane market, beat up Jews going home after synagogue and covered walls with anti-Semitic graffiti.
“Perish Judah” and “Death to the Jews” were scrawled all over the East End.
Copying the militaristic style of the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Spain, they carried out a reign of terror.
At that time, I was a member of the Labour Youth League and we heard that Mosley was planning a big rally in the East End on that Sunday in 1936, on October 4. We were told to get down to Gardiner’s Corner on the edge of the City.
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 fascist nationalist forces.
I got off the 53 tram just after noon and there were already people marching and carrying banners proclaiming ‘No Pasaran’—the slogan we took from the Spanish Republicans which meant ‘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.
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—black-shirted himself—marching in front of about 3,000 Blackshirts 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.
But at Gardiner’s Corner, Mosley encountered his first setback, thanks to a lone tram driver. I saw a tram pull up in the middle of the junction about 50 yards away from me—blocking the Blackshirts’ route. Then the driver got out and walked off. I found out later he was a member of the Communist Party.
I remember that, in contrast to the ugliness to come, the weather was beautiful, like a summer day. By mid-afternoon, the crowds had quickly swelled to more than 250,000, with some reports later suggesting that up to 500,000 people gathered there.
As the tension rose, we began chanting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5! We want Mosley—dead or alive!” and “They shall not pass!”
I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley and shall never forget that as long as I live—how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.
In a bid to keep the crowd away from the fascists, around 10,000 police officers, virtually every spare policeman in London and the South East, had been drafted in.
The police decided when the tram stopped and blocked the way to charge 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.
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.
When Mosley was halted at Gardiner’s Corner (today’s crossroads of Commercial Street, Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road), police chief Sir Philip Game told him that the fascists could go another way, south through Royal Mint Street and Cable Street.
As Mosley was passing on instructions, Faulkner rushed to a phone kiosk 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 is very narrow and there were three and four-storey houses where Irish dockers lived who quickly erected barricades of lorries piled with old mattresses and furniture.
Women in the houses hurled rotten vegetables, muck from chamber-pots and rubbish onto 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!
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 of London.
When the news filtered through, people went mad and 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, with some of them being severely beaten once in custody. In all, there were around 100 injuries, including police officers.
Oswald Mosley’s popularity began to wane, after his setback in Cable Street.
The Government hurried through laws banning political parties from wearing military-style uniforms, depriving them of both menace and allure.
Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government passed the 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.
Although a lot of fascists still lived in the East End following the Cable Street victory, never again would the ideology be so popular.
Jews, communists, Irish and English men and women rose up simply because they did not want 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 apologise, I was a fascist and supported Mosley. Now I realise how wrong you can be.”
There was redemption in that and it moved me. It made me realise how much things were changing even then.
—Prof William J Fishman, written for the East London Advertiser, October 4, 2006