In October 2016, London commemorated the 80th anniversary of the historic Battle of Cable Street where up to 200,000 men, women, and children gathered to protest a march through East London led by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF). A former member of Parliament known for his public speaking skills, Mosley founded the BUF in 1932, and within two years membership had grown to 50,000. In the years leading up to the Battle of Cable Street, the BUF had developed a reputation for its attacks on Jews and Communists, going so far as to describe Jews as “rats and vermin from the gutter of Whitechapel.”
Posters announcing the 4th October event were distributed in September, and political leaders in the East End petitioned Home Secretary Sir John Simon to ban the march; however, their request was denied. On 2nd October, the Jewish People’s Council presented a second petition with 100,000 signatures to request that the march be banned on the grounds that the “avowed object of the Fascist movement in Great Britain is the incitement of malice and hatred against sections of the population.”
Despite these efforts, the British government allowed the march to proceed as planned and assigned 7,000 members of the police force to accompany it.
In the streets of the East End, Jewish residents (many of whom had fled Tsarist pogroms), Irish dock workers and labourers (many of whom had left famine and poverty in their own country), along with Communists and Labour Party members gathered to demonstrate against Mosley and his Blackshirts. Together, they barricaded streets and blocked the intersection of Whitechapel High Street, which forced the march to reroute via Cable Street where the demonstrators had overturned a brick truck and created barricades, once again blocking the route. In the spirit of Spain’s anti-fascist movement, protesters yelled “No Pasarán! They Shall Not Pass!” The streets became violent as police charged the crowd to clear a path for the marchers, while children were instructed to throw their marbles under the hooves of the police officers’ horses, causing them to stumble and fall. Women emptied chamber pots and debris from above and protested alongside the men in the streets, and demonstrators threw rotten fruit and stones. Records suggest that most of the confrontations occurred between the police and the demonstrators, and not the marchers, with only six Fascists arrested out of a total of the 85, which included some women and juveniles.
In the end, anti-fascist demonstrators celebrated as Mosley and the BUF members were forced to turn back.
Some historians today warn against mythologising the Battle of Cable Street. Daniel Tilles, assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow and author of British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40, explains that while the anti-fascist demonstrators prevented Mosley and the BUF from completing their march, in the wake of the event, interest in the BUF and instances antisemitism actually increased. According to Tilles, “The scenes at Cable Street, widely reported in the press and newsreels, fit perfectly into the narrative the BUF aimed to create—of a Jewish, communist-inspired mob violently denying British patriots the right to march through their own streets.”
By late October 1936, membership in the BUF had increased by 2,000, with many joining East End branches of the organisation.
In March 1937, Tilles notes that the BUF received 18% of the East End vote, and around 30% of the non-Jewish vote, in the three main areas of the Cable Street confrontation between demonstrators, police, and Fascists.
A large mural, with its own tumultuous history that students will learn about in the next lesson, commemorates the Battle of Cable Street and was the scene of a march and rally on 9th October 2016 when participants carried signs reading “1936–2016 Fascists Still Do Not Pass” and “No to Antisemitism, No to Islamophobia, No to All Racism.” London’s East End has undergone a demographic shift since 1936, and now members of its Bengali and South-East Asian communities face similar racist threats and hate crimes, while Britain and Europe experiences a rise in anti-immigration sentiment. There is much to learn from the Battle of Cable Street about the power that individuals and groups wield in the face of intolerant policies and behaviours when they unite against racism and discrimination. Hopefully by engaging with this history, students will think critically about the choices made by the East End community and its allies in 1936 and then consider choices available to them as agents of change in the face of prejudice and discrimination in their schools and communities today.