10 December 2011

The very ugly side of British Fascism, 1936

I first heard about the 1936 Battle of Cable Street in the early-middle 1950s, a story told with great pride by my grandparents. Then this year, at a conference, I heard the story discussed again.

Sir Oswald Mosley arriving at a Fascist rally, London, 1936

The Battle of Cable Street took place on 4th Oct 1936 in London's East End. On that day, Britain’s Fascist movement was enjoying the triumphs of its brethren in Italy, Germany and Spain, convinced of its righteousness and invincibility, claiming to voice the frustrations of the abandoned and disenfranchised.

The Fascists believed they were popular, locally. They carefully targeted areas where there were large numbers of immigrants and where the left wing parties were trying to gain support. The Fascists were harnessing their energy to a renewed national purpose i.e promising a “Greater Britain” by getting rid of Jewish and socialist citizens and by giving their jobs to the deserving unemployed.

The East End of London had been specifically targeted by the Fascists. In 1936 the Jewish population of Britain was 350,000 (0.7% of the total population). However nearly half of the nation’s Jewish population lived in the East End – 60,000 in Stepney alone.

Police clearing demonstraters from Cable St, Oct 1936. In History Today

All through the summer of 1936 the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had organised street-corner meetings, fire-bombing and smashing the windows of Jewish shops, daubing racist abuse and launching physical attacks.

Later that year, Sir Oswald Mosley planned to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of his Fascist party; he wanted to send 3,000 uniformed black-shirts in marching columns through London’s East End streets where the terrified Jewish community was living. The Jewish People’s Council quickly organised a petition calling for the Fascists’ march to be banned, but the government refused to cooperate.

It turned into a clash between the police protecting the Fascists on one side, and local Jewish and socialist groups on the other.  As the photo shows, the anti-fascist groups erected road blocks in Cable Street in an attempt to prevent the march from taking place. The police tried to clear the barricades. As a result, there was a series of running battles between the police and local residents.

Why did the police look after the Fascists and not the local residents of Cable St? Why did the government not protect local residents' homes and families? I am assuming the government felt hamstrung; after all Sir Oswald Mosley was a member of the aristocracy, as was his first wife and his second wife. But even more importantly, the list of titled donors and supporters closely connected to the British Union of Fascists read like Debrett's Peerage.

c300,000 demonstrators from the local East End population turned up. They included many from the equally struggling Irish citizens, the very people Mosley had tried to turn against the Jews. The residents' slogan was the same as the Spanish Civil War slogan - "they shall not pass".

Police baton charging local residents to allow the Fascists through, 1936, The Socialist Newspaper.

A human wall blocked every entrance to the East End, especially at Gardiner’s Corner Aldgate, and a series of barricades were built in Cable St. 7,000 police, including all of London’s mounted police regiment, could not clear a pathway through for the Fascists. Much to the surprise of the Fascists, the police and the government, Police Commissioner Sir Phillip Game called the march off two hours into the rally; Mosley conceded defeat and disbanded his troops. 80 anti-Fascists and 75 policemen lay injured in the streets, but at least the march had been stopped.

Even today, there is debate about exactly how successful the anti-Fascist Cable Street action was, in the long run? The left wing newspaper The Daily Worker reported on the next day: ‘The rout of the Mosley gang is due to the splendid way in which the whole of East London's working-class rallied as one to bar the way to the Black Shirts. Jew and Gentile, docker and garment worker, railwayman and cabinet-maker, turned out in their thousands to show that they have no use for Fascism.’ This quotation probably did illustrate a general feeling among those who vigorously opposed Fascism, but what of the others?

One great result: a housing estate was opened where unity between the Irish and Jewish communities was reinforced. Even more significantly, the Home Office was forced to act, to ensure greater public order. As a result of the Cable Street events, the Public Order Act 1936 was quickly passed. This made the wearing of political uniforms in public and private armies illegal, using threatening and abusive words a criminal offence, and gave the Home Secretary power to ban marches. And local authorities in other cities started to forbid the use of town halls by the BUF.

In any case, it must have been difficult to estimate how unsuccessful (or otherwise) the BUF was in other parts of Britain, especially Scotland.

Perhaps we can conclude that Mosley’s movement had their pride dented at Cable Street, but it was hardly a huge body blow to Fascism. Subsequent BUF rallies attracted larger and larger crowds, the party's membership increased and BUF candidates stood in London local government elections in 1937. Along with most active Fascists in Britain, Mosley was not interned until May 1940!! Saving the lives, homes and businesses of the East Enders had not stopped the Fascists. It took until the second year of a catastrophic world war before the British Government saw a clear threat to national security in Mosley and the BUF.

Tower Hamlets mural commemorating the Battle of Cable St, painted 1980s 

In the 1980s, a large mural depicting the Battle was painted on the side wall of the old St. George's Town Hall building in Cable Street. Designed by a local artist, Dave Binnington was forced to abandon the project after it was repeatedly defaced by modern-day Fascists. Varnish protects the mural today from those who would destroy its powerful images. And just off Cable Street, at the junction with Dock Street, a red plaque commemorates the success of the anti-fascists on that October day.

Helpful reading:
David Rosenberg Battle for the East End: Jewish Responses to Fascism in the 1930s, Five Leaves Publications, 2011.
Daniel Tilles, Fascism and the Jews: Italy and Britain, Vallentine Mitchell, 2011.


The Clever Pup said...

Hail Spode! The police probably were solicitous of the Black Shirts because knobs like Mosley were rich.

Hels said...

I might have thought you were exaggerating the contribution of the rich and the titled to BUF. But you are quite right!!!

This much I knew already. Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, 6th Baronet, of Ancoats. His first wife was Lady Cynthia Curzon, daughter of George Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India and then Foreign Secretary. Sir Oswald was himself a Member of Parliament.

After Lady Cynthia died in 1933, Sir Oswald married Lady Diana Mitford Guinness, daughter of David, 2nd Baron Redesdale. They married in Germany in October 1936 in Joseph Goebbels' home. Lady Diana Mitford Guinness’ first husband had been Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne and heir to the beer fortune.

What I did NOT know what the list of titled donors and supporters closely connected to the British Union of Fascists (see Wiki). THE BUF's major supporter was the newspaper magnate Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere. Lord Rothermere Rothermere owned the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail and other influential papers.

I have never seen so many Dukes, Viscounts, Earls and Barons
in one place.

Hermes said...

My Mother lived in the East End then and can just remember it. Strange how some figures like Mosley just go off the rails as Enoch Powell did later. I suspect the titled waited to see who might win - as usual.

Hels said...


that the Fascists would want to march through the area that had the most immigrants, socialists, Jews, Irish and working class people shouldn't surprise anyone.

That the government ignored a petition calling for the Fascists’ march to be banned in the streets where ordinary people lived with their families is still shocking.

I realise the police were just obeying orders. But the baton charges were on local citizens who barricaded their own streets. Who gave the orders to pull down the barricades into the private streets and to allow the Fascists in? Who allowed local residents and policemen to be injured but the Fascists escaped untouched.

75 years later and there are still answered missing.

Hermes said...

I love that mural by the way. There is a very good web site with great pictures:


I can't cut and paste this but this is a very good book:


Andrew said...

Beautifully distilled Hels. I knew a little of the Battle of Cable Street. I am going to print your post out. Funnily just today I was listening to a radio podcast about Ruth Blatt. I guess you know who she was. When she arrived in England and was looking for accommodation, her landlady was happy to have her as a guest, as long as she was not Irish.

Hels said...


thank you :)

The Cable Street Group celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on 2nd October 2011, almost 75 years to the day. It must have been an amazing anniversary - I do hope some of the original participants of the Battle were there, still alive and well.

Hels said...


timing is everything!!! The Ruth Blatt story, and her connection to London and Melbourne, was perfect for this post. I am glad you heard the podcast.

My grandparents were so proud of "our" success in Cable St. For the first time, ordinary working people stood up against the Fascist thugs and won. It was a huge story.

But as Daniel Tilles suggested, the success for short term, big on symbolism and short on political substance.

Anonymous said...

The Jewish Roots Tour of the East End was well worthwhile, as was the mural. But the old town hall looks a bit sad.

Deana Sidney said...

That's a great story... didn't remember it if I ever knew it.

It's a story that should be told. Whenever things get lopsided as they are now, the ground is fertile for such horrid movements. Instead of struggling together to bring everyone up, divide and conquer... pit unfortunate against unfortunate for scraps... take the gold. It has worked throughout history.

Hels said...


Of course it is important to preserve and protect the old buildings, but I cannot see where all the money will come from.

There is some good news. Have a look at the great work done by The Spitalfields Trust which bought crumbling Regency houses in Whitechapel and rebuilt them observing strict conservation rules.


Hels said...


agreed. The best place to remember a story is not in obscure academic history conferences but in popular television programmes and magazines.

So although I didn't necessarily agree with the conclusions, I was very grateful for "The Myth of Cable Street" by Daniel Tilles in History Today, Vol 61, 2011.

Andrew said...

And then tonight's Upstairs Downstairs continues the theme. Your timing really was impeccable.

Hels said...


sometimes I creep myself out with timing!!! _Tonight_ I saw a pre-recorded programme on Mosley on the History Channel called Betrayal.... well worth watching. Of course it was too late for my blog post, but I can always add more data.

For a long summary of the Mosley programme, see

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
This is a very interesting account which you give here and, in these divisive times, it is apposite to make mention of such past events.

We do tend to agree that the reluctance of the establishment to deal with the Fascist movement could well be based on the fact that so many of the movement's members were linchpins within that very establishment.

We are sure that you know that Arnold Wesker's play 'Chicken Soup with Barley' takes this very incident as its theme.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

no I have not read or seen Chicken Soup With Barley, but what a great reference. In the first act, "In 1936 we see the Kahn family and friends excitedly preparing to blockade Cable Street in order to halt the progress of Mosley's parading fascists."

No wonder the play has struggled to be performed. I assume this is because of 1] the reluctance of the establishment to deal with the Fascist movement back then and 2] the embarrassment of the establishment now!

Dianne said...

It's amazing Hels when we look back on events and ponder why! One would think that justice would have prevailed and the citizens of this community protected but it was not so and I only feel sorry for the discrimination & suffering of these poor working class people - whose only crime was to be born of another race or another place.

Hels said...


I suppose that the crises being felt in Europe at the time were TRULY nightmarish - devastation of world war one, massive unemployment, The Great Depression etc. So political parties popped up on all parts of the political spectrum.

On the extreme right, we would have expected the replacement of Parliament with a dictator, the end of workers' rights, expulsion of citizens born in another country etc etc. We have seen extreme right wing regimes before and we will see them again.

What was so shocking about the BUF in 1936 was the violence and lawlessness in a civilised country. Fire-bombing of Jewish shops, beatings of migrants, workers' gatherings being broken up by violent goons. This I don't understand.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post! I knew a little of the Mitford family involvement in Fascisim by reading The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mitford-Girls-Mary-S-Lovell/dp/0349115052 Another of the Mitford girls had a massive crush on Hitler and lived in Germany for awhile.

Hels said...


you are quite right. Unity and Diana Mitford travelled to Germany as part of the British Union of Fascists delegation, in time for the 1933 Nuremberg Rally. Unity Mitford idolised Hitler and was determined to live the rest of her life in a victorious Germany. Diana was the active link between the BUF and Hitler, when it wasn't politic for her husband Sir Oswald to travel.

Despite Unity and Diana's parents both being keen supporters of the BUF, the other three Mitford sisters turned out very thoughtful and well published democrats. Their only brother was a Fascist supporter, yet died in the British army in WW2 in Japan.

Intelliblog said...

Fascism was widespread in Europe at the time and it supposedly gave all the answers the world needed after the Great Depression. That it could occur in a society obsessed with class and tradition such as the British one is surprising. What is not surprising is its overturn by both the proletariat forces as well as the elite, both of which it managed to offend.
Amazing mural!

Hels said...


normally I have no trouble responding to comments or questions. But I am utterly stumped.

We may understand why desperate citizens were drawn to desperate politics, in the shadow of Nazi Europe. But why did civilised Britain, beacon of democracy to the world, allow bestial men (and women) to half destroy the East End of London and beat its citizens to a pulp? And why did the police participate so vigorously, on the side of the Fascists?

Destroying the East End for Peace was a bit like screwing for virginity. It didn't make sense, even in Fascist thinking.

Heather on her travels said...

So glad to hear that people power prevailed over the fascist march

Hels said...


this one defeat of the Fascists took on heroic proportions, both real and symbolic. By the time I heard the story, in c1956, it was presented as the single occasion in any nation where hundreds of thousands of ordinary working class families stood up to the jackbooted Fascists, the police and possibly the entire government.

I wonder if the modern Occupy movements and the Arab Spring movements will be viewed in the same way - heroic, symbolic, protecting their homes and children.

Hels said...

Cynthia and Irene Curzon were the elder daughters of the Edwardian statesman and Indian Viceroy, Lord Curzon. The Curzon sisters' wealth and social position put them at the centre of the British political scene from 1920 on.

Lord Curzon gave Lady Cynthia fabulous pearls when she married Oswald Mosley in 1920. These pearls were auctioned by Bonhams in April 2013, estimated at up to £80,000.

London Historians' Blog said...

Many thanks to London Historians' Blog:

No 19 Princelet St Spitalfields was first built in 1719 and the first occupants were a silk weaving Huguenot family. Later it became home to Polish and Irish immigrants and in the 1860s a synagogue was built into a garden extension. A secret room below the synagogue hosted anti-fascist meetings in the 1930s including preparations for the battle of Cable Street. Children from the Kindertransport found a first sanctuary there in the 1940s.

This house is now the Museum of Immigration.


Tom Bower said...

For years Max Mosley has fought a series of personal crusades including his loyal defence of his father, Sir Oswald Mosley, who held repugnant views. Last week the Daily Mail published graphic photographs taken in 1962 of Mosley appearing to punch anti-fascist protesters while protecting his father, Oswald, the infamous admirer of Adolf Hitler and leader of the British Union of Fascists, established in 1932.

More troubling for Max Mosley, the Mail discovered a leaflet distributed during a 1961 by-election on behalf of a candidate of his father’s postwar fascist Union Movement warning that “coloured” immigrants spread “tuberculosis, VD and other terrible diseases like leprosy”.

Tom Bower
March 4 2018,
The Sunday Times

Hels said...


Thank you. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Sir Oswald Mosley, his two wives and their three families. Clearly I need to pursue some reading on the next generation of Mosleys.