By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Seventy years ago, the Battle of Cable Street saw Jews and left-wingers stop fascist Blackshirts marching through east London. But is it still important?
Turn left out of Tower Hill tube station and even in October there are throngs of tourists making a beeline for the Tower of London.
But few of those transfixed by tales of tyrants and their victims will make the half-mile journey to another historic site, one where the people of east London made a stand against a "tyrant-in-waiting".
Walk through the tourists, past the glass headquarters of merchant banks and soon you are in drab Cable Street, lined by council estates on one side, while the railway thunders overhead on the other.
Here is the site of a major milestone in the mythology of the left, the celebrated Battle of Cable Street.
Various plaques and a giant mural pay tributes to the thousands of Jewish residents, communists, trade unionists and Irish dockers who gathered on 4 October 1936 to stop Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts marching through the East End.
The anti-fascists battled for hours as the police tried to clear a way through, first through the "Gardiner's Corner" junction and then along Cable Street, and won. With the police unable to prevail, the Blackshirts were ordered to turn back. To those who fought it was Britain's stand against a doctrine that cast a dark shadow over Europe.
In the aftermath, with dozens of arrests and injured policemen, the establishment's patience with the fascists and their opponents wore out. The Public Order Act 1936 banned political uniforms such as the Blackshirts and began close regulation of political marches in Britain.
Sound of hooves
Mosley had been determined to march through the East End. The police had been determined that a lawful march would not be impeded. And the anti-fascists had assembled under the Spanish slogan No Pasaran - they shall not pass.
To Ubby Cowan, 89, the sound of horse's hooves, smashing glass and the thud of police truncheons is as vivid as if it was yesterday.
Mr Cowan, who now lives in Finchley, remembers a crowd of up to 300,000 people waiting at Gardiner's Corner, the gateway to the East End, for the arrival of the Blackshirts. Communist organisers had prepared with military precision, with teams of messengers, first aid posts, and a spy in the fascist ranks.
SIR OSWALD MOSLEY
Tory and Labour MP
BUF formed 1932
Secretly wed Diana Guinness
Hitler dined with newlyweds
BUF enjoyed some support in Bethnal Green
Interned during WWII
Formed pro-Europe party
"I heard the clip-clop of hooves. It was the mounted police making an attack. Some of the crowd turned round and ran. I was sent flying through a plate-glass window and landed on a bunch of tailor's dummies," Mr Cowan says.
"Someone hauled me out. The police attacked with batons swishing, the size of broomsticks. When they hit you, you knew you'd been hit."
The feeling among anti-fascists was that the police protected Blackshirt demonstrations and cracked down on their opponents. Shouts of "go back to Palestine" and "dirty Jew" were common at rallies, Mr Cowan remembers.
He lost an expensive jacket during the battle and needed stitches in his head, but remembers feeling elated at stopping the police that day.
Today there has been a transformation where Mr Cowan once fought. The east end's Jewish population was streaming out even by the end of the war, and now where once Jew and Irish Catholic lived cheek by jowl, the streets are filled with Bangladeshis.
Where once tenements overlooked the fighting in Cable Street, allowing women to throw the contents of chamber pots over the advancing police, grey tower blocks now loom.
And to many of those passing by, white or Bangladeshi, a reference to the Battle of Cable Street brings on blinking incomprehension.
A woman at a bus stop, who does not want to be named, remembers the battle vaguely. She was then 15.
Kops has written plays about the East End
"I know there was an uprising and pavements up, shop windows broken, a right old carry on."
But for many of the others living or working on Cable Street, this titanic struggle is not the subject of daily discussion. Only two visitors are in the vicinity of the mural.
Javier De Alba, a Spaniard, and Agatha Gromacka, a Pole, have come from nearby Bethnal Green to see a site which they say is an important emblem for resistance against fascism and the acceptance of immigrants.
"English people should know about this," Ms Gromacka says.
Playwright Bernard Kops is one of those who have done their utmost to keep the flame alive.
He was only 10 on the day of the battle but remembers being one of the many children who threw marbles in an effort to up-end police horses.
"It was a very confrontational time. The Spanish Civil War had been going on.
"There was this feeling that the Blackshirts had to be stopped from marching. On the day, I remember this kaleidoscope of people and horses hooves, police swinging truncheons, my brother being hit."
A massive mural remembers the battle
Cable Street was one life-changing event for the Kops family. The other was failing to raise enough money to rejoin their family in the Netherlands and thereby escaping the tragic fate of their Dutch cousins at Auschwitz.
Prof Bill Fishman's voice crackles with animation as he recalls the slogans chanted at the fascists: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5 we want Mosley dead or alive" and "down with fascism, down with war".
"One could see a barricade erected - an upturned lorry, mattresses and furniture right across this narrow street.
"It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.
"On top of the large houses as the police moved forward women were throwing things, emptying chamber pots and rubbish and potatoes. Two policemen were taken hostage."
But while many doyens of the left see the Battle of Cable Street as the defining moment in the failure of British fascism, there are historians who see the Blackshirts as peripheral.
While they enjoyed some support from the rich and well-to-do, with the Daily Mail famously trumpeting "Hurrah for the Blackshirts", they never threatened widespread electoral support.
And the Public Order Act that outlawed their uniforms could be interpreted as having as much to do with fears about the popular left-wing reaction to the fascists as any distaste for Blackshirt thuggishness.
Its legacy can certainly be seen in regulations like the ban on protests near Parliament contained in the recent Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, but the impact of Cable Street on British politics will always be disputed.
The area is unrecognisable now
Lord Skidelsky, who wrote a revisionist biography of Mosley, says there is both truth and myth in the story of Cable Street.
"It is partly true the opposition stopped Mosley from marching, but the reality is that he was asked to call it off, he gained support as a result of it, and he wanted to call it off anyway as he had an engagement in Berlin [to secretly marry Diana Guinness at Goebbels's house] the next day. It was all a bit less heroic than it seemed."
But Prof Fishman will always remember and always believe.
"Fascism wasn't destroyed but it was checked. Fascism got a real blow in the guts that day."
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Those wishing to celebrate the 1936 events (or just wanting to find out more) can do so by attending the 70th Anniversary of Cable Street, a free festival, on Sunday 8 October 2006. Cable Street, London. E1. (Shadwell tube)12noon - 4pm.
Stephen, East London
Wow. I lived in Cable Street for 10 years and I never knew that this had happened. Historic events like these should be brought to light more often and show that everyone used to stick up for each other regardless of age or race.
My great-uncle and grandfather both were at the Battle of Cable Street and I could not be prouder of them. I firmly believe that they, and their fellow jews, helped to bring about the end of fascism in this country, and words cannot express the relief that this gives me. My family (like many others') died in camps during the war - perhaps if more people had been able to stand up to the fascists then 6 million need not have died...
We live in Hackney, and we've been past Cable Street once, and pointed it out to our kids. This article has made me feel that I'd like to take them there properly so they can feel a connection with this bit of local and national history.
My grandpa and his brother marched and fought at Cable Street. They used to say that if you were Jewish in the East End in the 1930s you had no choice but to become a communist. My great-uncle was arrested for throwing a brick at a policeman, gave the false name Charles Markson (which he still thinks is quite witty) and ended up becoming a professor of law at Cambridge!
A professional, balanced article by the BBC on the fight against fascism and intolerance 70 years ago. It's a shame that current BBC television journalism cannot match the integrity and objectivness of its content
Alan Davis, London
I joined the City of London Police in the Sixties. Many of my older colleagues remembered "Cable Street". The boundary of the City is close to Gardiners Corner and Cable Street. They followed their orders and did their duty and rather like servicemen, did so in spite of their feelings against Fascism. I was involved with numerous polical demonstrations since joining and we always followed the strong belief that "I may abhor what you say, but will always defend your right to say it."
Patrick Connolly, London
My great grandad fought in Cable Street. He like so many Londoners, then and now, defied category. He was a Dutch Jew who ran away to sea, served King and Country with the navy in both world wars (lied about his age in the second one!) and married an English woman. As far as I'm aware, he didn't stand up for a specific political or moral belief, but simply for his family, friends and neighbours, whatever their background. That for me is the greatest lesson of Cable Street, especially at a time when London seems more than ever divided by religion, race, age and wealth.
I knew from my grandparents telling about it that there had been an uprising of sorts along the Cable Street and that it involved Mosley and his Blackshirts, but I never knew exactly what had gone on. Now when I walk down Cable Street from Shadwell Station I'll have more thought for what took place!
Layla, East London
Fascism was defeated by careful political management at home and by armed force abroad. This sort of petty mob violence was counterproductive- in Germany, the Nazi paramilitaries thrived on regular clashes with Communist militias.
Ben Turner, London, UK
"a site which they say is an important emblem for resistance against fascism and the acceptance of immigrants."
So, opposing immigration makes you Fascist, does it? Opposing the constant colonization of Britain by non-Britons, makes you a Fascist does it?
If the BBC is run by left-wing globalists, they're not doing a very good job of hiding it, are they? The BBC are the true fascists, stifling honest debate about serious issues.
Karl Baxter, Inverurie
The school of academic thought that says the BUF was irrelevant is not exactly as outlined above. Stanley Payne (1996) argued that the BUF was insignificant in the history of fascism as a whole. Others (Thurlow, 1998) have argued against this. However it is surely beside the point: in 1936 the BUF did not seem irrelevant, the Public Order Act had not yet been passed
I may be wrong, but I imagine that many of today's residents of Cable Street and its environs are more viscerally anti-Semitic than Mosley ever was.
David, Newport, UK
I always find it fascinating that history portrays the "good" communists defeating the "evil" fascists. In reality the communists killed & persecuted many many more innocents than the fascists ever did, and over a longer period. Perhaps rather than celebrate their actions we should realise that they are both perverted doctrines responsible for the takings of millions of lives.
Why doesn't the BBC allow a perspective from the fascist viewpoint? Surely their political and social viewpoint should be considered as well as that of the Communists? It seems perverse that the BBC should not allow dissenting political opinion.
I tend to think that many East End locals simply joined in the fray because they always like nothing better than doling out a good kicking. It's not difficult to imagine gangs of drunken Irish navvies taking particular pleasure in beating an upper class Englishman half-to-death.
Who are the fascists here - those that wanted to march peacefully, or those that violently prevented that march? There is such a thing as left-wing fascism.
Despite our land becoming a nation of drunken debt ridden thugs I truly believe fascism is not in our genes. The far right will has never and will never get a foothold on this island, our people are too tolerant and content.
Jamie Read, Southport
I am very proud to say that my pappy (grandpa) thumped Mosley and put him down on his backside (there is footage of it, it was included in a film on Lady Mosley) and people who are still alive remember him doing it. I am proud that my hard working jewish grandpa stood up, not just for himself but for every creed, colour and religion to have the freedom to go about their business without persecution in this country. Thanks to him and many, many others like him I exist today and we live in a free if not always democratic society. My gran always used to joke about how he shouldn't be let out on his own in case he starts a riot and then the story of the fight against the facists would be told and not just about Cable Street there were lots of other fights and conflicts at that time but Cable Street does appear to have been the biggest outbreak of public objection to Mosley. My pappy's name was Samuel Montague Abrahams and I am very proud to be his grand-daughter. Thank you for remembering the heroes and fighters of Cable Street.
Rae Kane, Buckinghamshire
My old man was just a lad when that happened. He told me the story of how he'd seen a man with a wheelbarrow full of bricks making his way to the roof of a building. The local women had asked this chap, "wot 'e thought 'e was up to". He'd said that he was going to throw them at the blackshirts. I think the unity of the the times must have rubbed off a bit on my dad. We were Catholics, but my dad named my younger sister Sara ( a more familiar version of Sarah in the Jewish community). Also, during the Six Day War, he was all but ready to volunteer as an ambulance driver in Israel when my mum 'collared' him and sent him back home.
Steve, Tokyo, Japan
The Battle of Cable Street is properly identified here as a myth as portrayed by the left. If you believe the left it was a battle between them and the BUF, wheras in reality is was a battle between the forces of law and order ie the police and rioters urged on by subversive elements of the Communist Party who had their own agenda. A few short years later the Communist Party of Great Britain far from fighting Fascism would be seen to be supporting it as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the need to support the orders of Stalin and The International. Whether you agree with Mosley or not it must be remembered that he was only trying to excercise his legal right to march and protest.
Regarding this ridiculous "revisionist" notion that Cable Street was irrelevant because the Blackshirts "never threatened widespread electoral support" - it is precisely *because* Mosley's thugs were physically prevented from marching the streets that fascism never gained any momentum in Britain.
Anindya Bhattacharyya, Aldgate, London (just off Cable Street!)
There where other people who fought that day who got no recognition. My father also fought against the blackshirts, was annoyed because everyone hails the Communists, Jews and Irish as the only people who fought.
He was just an Cockney street trader with no strong political affiliation, apart from he knew the Facists where bad, but he was no fan of the Communists.
I look forward to the next "Respect Coalition" march in the East End. I shall go down to the area and throw some bricks and marbles in the hope of crippling policemen and horses, and thump some Islamic fascists. Then I can be remembered as some kind of folk hero in 60 years time.
So the Communists fought the police, not the fascists? Why don't they ever say so? Just as they never mention their opposition to the British war effort in 1940 as part of the Hitler/Stalin pact. Definitely not their finest hour.
My dad, Billy Barrett (19 at the time), together with all the fit young men from the Irish community in Wapping, turned out that day to strike a blow against fascism. He and many of his friends were pretty useful boxers so the Blackshirts didn't know what hit them. Until the day he died, he was very proud of what was achieved that day
Denis Barrett, Den Haag, Netherlands
My late father, who was just 17 in 1936, was one of the group which made a barricade from the hijacked bus. His father, my grandfather, was so pleased whith this news, that as a reward, he gave my father his very first glass of whisky to celebrate. There was a real community spirit in those days, which the current sectarianisation of modern society risks. This will inevitably result in a backlash against all "minorities" unless sanity and common sense return to politics!
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