The Battle of Cable Street mural depicts details from the confrontation between anti-Fascist demonstrators and Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts in London's East End.
Lesson

Public Art as a Form of Participation

Students analyse the Battle of Cable Street Mural and reflect on the role of public art to commemorate, educate, and build community.

Published:

This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Grade

6–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About This Lesson

In the last two class periods, students learned about the Battle of Cable Street by listening to and reading first-hand testimonies of individuals who recalled demonstrating against fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts when they attempted to march into London’s East End on 4th October 1936. In this lesson, students will explore a related story in Cable Street’s history that started in the 1970s when artist Dave Binnington began researching and creating a 3,500 square foot mural on the side of St. Georges Town Hall commemorating the historic Battle of Cable Street and the area’s immigration story. Although Binnington conceived of the mural’s initial design, he abandoned the project in 1982 after it was vandalised with racist slogans, and it was finished in 1983 only to be vandalised again on other occasions in the early 1990s. To introduce this lesson about the artist’s battle to create and preserve the Cable Street mural, students will reflect on the public street art and murals that they may have seen in their own neighbourhoods and schools before doing a close analysis of a large section of the Cable Street mural. They will then read about the mural’s turbulent history, as well as the racism and violence that the East End’s Bengali community has faced since the 1970s and consider how it connects to current racial tension and heightened Islamophobia. The lesson ends with a discussion about the role of art in politics and how art can serve as a means of taking action in the face of injustice.

What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate society? 

How can public works of art memorialise the history, struggles, and triumphs of the individuals and groups that make up our communities and be used as a form of civic participation?

Students will analyse a segment of the Battle of Cable Street mural and reflect on the role of public art to commemorate, educate, and build community.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 1 readings
  • 2 extension activities

Work on the Cable Street mural began in 1976 when artist Dave Binnington, supported by an Arts Council grant, started to research the 1936 Battle of Cable Street and interview local residents to learn about the historic demonstration to protest against Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) march through London’s East End. In addition to reviewing news articles and footage of the event, Binnington invited local community members to contribute their memories, as well as drawings and writings, and a number of them appear on the finished mural. After securing additional funding, Binnington began painting the mural onto the 3,500 square foot wall of St. George’s Town Hall in late 1979. While he originally hoped to finish the project by October the following year, technical issues delayed the project, and then on 23rd May 1982, six-foot-high racist slogans, such as “Rights for Whites,” were spray painted onto the mural, and Binnington resigned from the project. 1

Paul Butler, who had been hired by Binnington to design and work on the bottom section of the mural, recruited two other artists, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort, and together they completed the project. While Binnington’s original vision called for a fisheye lens, which Butler, Walker, and Rochfort preserved in the top section, the remaining sections of the mural had to be sandblasted and reprimed to remove the vandal’s graffiti. From there, the three artists carried out additional research and each completed a section of the wall: Walker painted the left, Butler the centre, and Rochfort the right. The three artists completed the mural in March 1983; however, it was vandalised on other occasions, most drastically in June 1993 when it was destroyed with paint bombs while Butler was working on a restoration of the mural. 2  The vandals also threatened Butler, pouring paint on his car and slashing the tyres; he required police support to guard the scaffold while he worked to complete the restoration. Since that time, the mural has not suffered further damage, and Paul Butler did another restoration in 2011, sealing the mural to the wall and re-painting areas that had faded with time. 3

Now visitors can learn about the Battle of Cable Street by visiting this vibrant mural in Shadwell. The mural depicts aspects of the confrontation that students studied in the previous lesson, including altercations between protesters and mounted police, Communist and Labour Party banners, a hand tossing marbles, debris flying from second-floor windows, and homemade barricades of boards, mattresses, and the wheels of an overturned truck. Individuals painted in the lower left of the mural reflect the East End’s changing demographic, which now includes a large Bengali population and ties their story of facing racism and violence in their community to that of Jews in the 1930s.

  • 1 “The Battle of Cable Street,” London Mural Preservation Society, accessed 25 March 2018.
  • 2“The Battle of Cable Street,” London Mural Preservation Society, accessed 25 March 2018.
  • 3“‘An antidote to the far right’s poison’ - the battle for Cable Street’s mural,” The Guardian, 21 Sept 2016.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Students will use the Crop It teaching strategy to analyse the Battle of Cable Street mural in this lesson. Before beginning, make sure that you have prepared cropping tools for students to use. (You might also have students create them if you feel that you will have time during class.) Each tool consists of two L-shaped strips of paper (cut from the border of a blank sheet of A4 paper), and each student will need two L-shaped cropping tools to work with. You will also need a colour copy of the image for each student or each pair of students. If you don’t have access to a colour copier, you can project the image and have students come to the front of the class with their Crop It tools to analyse and discuss the image.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

Students will respond in their journals to the following prompt:

What murals or other public works of art do you see in your local community or at your school? Why do you think artists create public art and murals? What impact, if any, do these pieces of art have on you or others in your community?

 

Ask students to share their ideas in a Think, Pair, Share and then as a class, make a list of local murals and public art, discussing, if possible, their purpose and how the artists achieve this purpose.

Tell students that in 1979, artist Dave Binnington began work on a large mural on the 3,500 square foot wall of the St. George’s Town Hall in Shadwell, in London’s East End, to commemorate the 1936 Battle of Cable Street. The mural depicts key events and people from 4th October 1936, as well as images in one section of the Bangladeshi residents living in the local community since the 1960s.

Pair up students to analyse the image A Segment of the Battle of Cable Street Mural and pass out the Crop It tools and copies of the image to each pair. Explain to students the image is a section of the mural, and that they will be using their tools to help them look closely at small segments of the mural. You might select from the following prompts to help students analyse and discuss the image with their partners.

  • Identify the part of the mural that first caught your eye.
  • Identify a part of the mural that represents a specific moment in the Battle of Cable Street that you learned about in the last lesson.
  • Identify a part of the image that shows a tension, problem, or dilemma.
  • Identify part of the mural that raises a question for you.

Project the image A Segment of the Cable Street Mural and have students share the parts of the mural that raise questions for them and see if the class can help them find answers. Then project the image The Cable Street Mural so that students can see the right-hand side of the mural that was not part of their Crop It activity. Depending on time, you might invite some students to identify parts of this projected image using their Crop It tools or move on to the next activity.

To provide students with some historical context for the mural and the changing demographics of London’s East End in the 1970s, pass out and read aloud “An Antidote to the Far Right’s Poison”: The Battle for Cable Street’s Mural.

Then, in small groups or as a class, discuss the following questions:

  • What story or message can the Battle of Cable Street mural, and other murals and street art, convey that is different from what you might learn from a history book or written account of a historical event?
  • In the early stages of the mural project in 1978, an individual opposed to the mural wrote to the local paper: “Do we need a reminder in the form of a large picture of violence being perpetually re-enacted?” How would you respond to this individual’s question? Should artists focus on beauty and avoid politics? Or can art have a function in political struggles?
  • What did teacher Rachel Burns mean when, after working on a project that brought together Jewish and Muslim students to learn about the mural, she said that the students “realised it was not only about racism but also about solidarity”? What might she have meant by “it”? What can we learn about racism by learning the history of the Battle of Cable Street and its mural? What can we learn about solidarity by learning the history of the Battle of Cable Street and this history of its mural?
  • What is the role of art in creating community? What is the role of art in educating people? What is the role of art as a call for mutual respect and tolerance in the face of discrimination and unfairness?

Ask students to respond to the following prompt in their journals. You might give them time to brainstorm or sketch in advance, or make this reflection a larger project that involves researching their communities to learn more about the history and where they might place their mural.

Imagine you are submitting a grant proposal to design a mural that calls attention to and educates your community about a historical event or an injustice. Write a short proposal in which you explain the design of your mural and include a description of its significant historical figures, people or groups, landmarks or other objects, and any text that you plan to include on your mural. Consider how your mural might serve as both a memorial and tool to educate community members and visitors and spark important conversations.

 

Extension Activities

If you are able to take your students to Shadwell (Cable Street, London, E1 0BL) to see the mural, consider planning a field trip after teaching this lesson. You might arrange for your class to do an East End walk to learn more about the history of the area or just focus your visit on the mural itself. If you are interested in a more comprehensive study of the neighbourhood, London’s Jewish Museum and London Walks offer guided walks in the East End.

Once at the mural, first have students do a modified Crop It in pairs. They can hold up their hands so their palms are facing the mural and touch their thumbs together to create a three-sided box (with no top). Have the first student choose a piece of the mural to frame with their hand and then describe to their partner. You might also choose from students might select a section to reflect on in their journals using the See, Think, Wonder strategy and then share their ideas with the class.

While the East End Women’s Museum won’t move into its permanent home in the new Barking Wharf development until 2019 or 2020, you can find interesting information on the museum’s website about the role women played in the Battle of Cable Street and other significant moments in the history of London’s East End. If you take your students to visit the Cable Street mural, you might also explore one of the museum’s many projects so your students can learn the stories of the many women who fought for equal pay, the right to vote, the right to raise their voices, and the right to be heard.

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