The Battle of Cable Street

Photo: Tower Hamlets Environment Trust plaque, 3 Dock Street, E1 London

875 words/4 ½ minute read

In the last week of September 1936 the British Union of Fascists (the BUP) announced its intention to mount a show of strength in the East End of London on the afternoon of Sunday October 4.  The aim was to intimidate the local Jewish community and the local anti-Fascist working class.  Uniformed Fascists were to gather in military formation on the edge of the East End, to be reviewed by their leader Sir Oswald Mosley before marching through the East End to a mass rally in Victoria Park, Hackney.

To the last moment there were calls to the Jews in the East End to avoid confrontation.  On October 3 the Board of Deputies of British Jews denounced the Mosley march as anti-Semitic and called on all Jews to stay well away.  The Jewish Chronicle warned:  “Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings.”   The paper went on to explain its reasoning:  “Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting.  Unless you want to help the Jew baiters, keep away.”

The “Battle of Cable Street” took place on Sunday 4 October 1936.   Assembling in Royal Mint Street, near Tower Bridge, and intent on marching through the East End to a triumphal rally in Victoria Park, were five thousand uniformed British Union of Fascist marchers.  The marchers were due to gather in Royal Mint Street at 2.30 p.m.  “Hours beforehand,” the Daily Worker reported, “every street between the Mint and Aldgate was thronged with people.”  The marchers formed up in military formation, a column of three thousand men stretching back for half a mile, with more than two hundred black-bloused women in the centre.

 Facing them, and seeking to keep them out of the East End, were more than a hundred thousand anti-Fascists:  local Jews, socialists, communists, anarchists, Irish dockers, miners from as far away as Wales and the North of England.  More than 10,000 police, including 4,000 on horseback, prepared to clear the road so that the marchers could continue unmolested.  As the marchers waited for their leader, and for the order to advance, they called out in unison:  “The Yids, the Yids, we gotta get rid of the Yids”.  They also chanted: “M-O-S-L-E-Y, we want Mosley”, to which the watching crowd shouted back, “So do we – dead or alive”.

Sir Oswald Mosley arrived for this climactic moment of his movement and his career in a black sports car at 3.40 p.m., an hour after he was expected to arrive, and ten minutes after the march had been due to set off.  “Union Jacks on decorated poles rose in the air and a forest of hands above the black-coated ranks went up in salute,” wrote the Daily Worker, as Sir Oswald, wearing the new Blackshirt uniform, with a peaked cap, drove down the ranks with two other officers of the movement.”

 The marchers advanced along Royal Mint Street, in the direction of Whitechapel Road.  They planned to march past Gardiner’s Corner, a department store in Aldgate, at the junction of Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road, known as the ‘Gateway to the East End”, but they did not get that far.  A lone tram driver stopped his tram in the middle of the junction, blocking the Blackshirts’ way.  The driver then got out and walked off.  Barricades were erected in the side streets to stop the marchers advancing.

Michael Sherbourne later recalled: “My three brothers and I were all there, at different points, I was at the Aldgate end of Mansell Street, faced by dozens of Mounted Police who were protecting the Fascists.  We, many thousands of us, were all given bags of children’s marbles, and as the horsemen moved towards us, preparing to gallop, we scattered the marbles along the ground, which for the horses, was worse than an ice rink.  Every horse, without exception, every one went down as soon as its hoofs touched the marbles, and of course took its rider with him.  We had dockers, mostly Irishmen, came from London Docks, miners who came from Wales and the North of England, hundreds came from Scotland…”

After a series of running battles with the defenders, the Mosleyites failed to break into Cable Street.  At that point, Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, fearing serious bloodshed if the marchers continued their assault, ordered Mosley to call off the march.  The Blackshirts then dispersed westward towards Hyde Park, while the anti-Fascists continued to battle with the police.  In all, 150 of those who had sought to halt the march were arrested, and about a hundred were injured, including police, women and children.  Some of the arrested were sentenced to hard labour.

The Battle of Cable Street was over.  The men and women of the East End, Jews and non-Jews alike, had successfully held off a provocative march through their streets.  Uniformed thugs had been repelled.  But the efforts of the police to protect those thugs, and the ferocity with which the police acted against the defenders, left a legacy of hostility, and a foreboding that the Fascists could, and would, be allowed to return.

 Excerpt © Martin Gilbert, 2011, published in High Points magazine

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