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