Cable Street: 'Solidarity stopped Mosley's fascists'

By Kurt Barling
Special correspondent, BBC London


Seventy-five years ago east London Jews and Irish labourers stood up to fascists who wanted to march through their streets.

So began the legend of The Battle of Cable Street.

After the Great War Europe faced the twin spectres of mass unemployment and economic depression.

The political response created tumult in democracies in Germany and France from which Britain was not immune, with ideological conflicts between supporters of communism and fascism.

The climate of 1930s British intolerance did not start at Cable Street. It had been brewing ever since Hitler's 1933 election in Germany.

Growing paranoia

In London the Jewish community in Stepney quickly became a target.

Jews were blamed for the economic and political crisis despite the fact the vast majority of them lived in abject poverty in the East End.

Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) had demonstrated their intent with a huge turnout at a mass rally at Olympia in 1934.

The movement and the street methods of his Blackshirts often mirrored those of the Nazi Brownshirts in Hitler's Germany.

Bernard Kops was a young boy of 10 when Mosley and his supporters decided the best way of demonstrating their potency was to march through the heart of London's Jewish community in Cable Street on 4 October 1936.

He says for many of the older generation of Jews, like his parents, there was a growing sense of paranoia: "My mother said there were only two types of people in the world. Jews and Jew-haters.

"Of course, when Cable Street came along the Irish labourers and dockers came out and it was them that really made sure Mosley didn't get through.

Running battles

"My mother and father really had to change their minds after that and accept that others did come to help us out."

Modern claims, hard to verify, boast up to 250,000 people assembled in and around Shadwell and Whitechapel to oppose the march.

It became a trial of strength between which ideological current was gaining the upper hand.

The threat of bloodshed was so great that the home secretary and Metropolitan Police were forced to cancel the British Union of Fascists' march.

image captionBernard Kops was 10 in 1936 and rolled marbles under the police horses

This did not stop the running battles between those opposing Mosley and the 10,000 police, some on horseback, who had been deployed in record numbers to secure a route for the BUF through Stepney.

Children like Bernard Kops were even given an active role: "We were told to use our marbles to roll them under the horses.

"I saw one horse rear up and the policeman fell off and everyone tried to hit him."

Max Levitas was 21 at the time. He went on to represent Stepney for the Communist Party for 15 years after the war.

He says that it was a sense of working class unity that prevented the Mosleyites passing Cable Street.

New threats

"It was the solidarity between the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the trade union movement that stopped Mosley's fascists, supported by the police, from marching through Cable Street.

A mural on the side of St George's Town Hall in Shadwell has recently been restored and reflects the determination of newer migrants, predominantly from Bangladesh, to embrace the history.

image captionMax Levitas was a Cable Street protester

By commemorating the 75th anniversary in numerous events across the borough, the local authority has sought to evoke a spirit of solidarity in a diverse community to tackle what they see as a new threat of intolerance towards Muslims.

The Battle of Cable Street was a turning point. Firstly, the Public Order Act 1936 was rushed through Parliament to oblige future march organisers to seek permission from the police.

A ban was also placed on demonstrators marching in uniforms.

In the initial aftermath of the rioting it appeared a pyrrhic victory because there was a surge in support for the fascists and increasing anti-Semitism made life difficult for the Jewish community.

But, as the new threat from Nazism fashioned a new enemy, Mosley's BUF became less of an immediate threat.

War with Germany put paid to their prospects, although many are now arguing not the reality of intolerance.

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