Photo: A mural depicting the Battle of Cable Street. Photo credit: Alan Denney via Flickr
René Cassin’s James Masters looks back at the Battle of Cable Street, when a coalition of Jews, Irish dockworkers, socialists and trade union activists prevented Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists from marching through the East End of London.
For many the date of October 4 1936 is one that has slipped back into the annals of history. For others, it remains a day which will never be forgotten.
Now, 80 years on since the Battle of Cable Street, London is set to remember once again the day the Jews of the East End joined together with communists, trade unionists, Labour party members and Irish Catholic dockers to confront Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and declare: ‘No Pasaran’.
The slogan of the Spanish Civil War reverberated around the East End with over 200,000 protesters, or even 300,000 according to some reports, standing up against the fascism which was sweeping across Europe.
By 1936 Hitler’s Nazis were already in power, while Spain’s civil war had split the country. In Britain, Mosley wanted to take advantage of the current fear, targeting the Jewish community by using them as a scapegoat for the ills of London’s working class.
Mosley’s vision of causing havoc and engineering hate failed to come to fruition as his 7,000 Blackshirts, flanked by 10,000 police officers, were met with an unstoppable force of unity.
Professor Bill Fishman, who died in 2014 aged 93, was 15 on the day of the march and was stood at Gardner’s Corner in Aldgate, the entrance to the East End.
“There was masses of marching people. Young people, old people, all shouting ‘No Pasaran’ and ‘One two three four five – we want Mosley, dead or alive’,” he told the Guardian in an interview in 2006.
“It was like a massive army gathering, coming from all the side streets. Mosley was supposed to arrive at lunchtime but the hours were passing and he hadn’t come. Between 3pm and 3.30 we could see a big army of Blackshirts marching towards the confluence of Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road.
“I pushed myself forward and because I was 6ft I could see Mosley. They were surrounded by an even greater army of police. There was to be this great advance of the police force to get the fascists through. Suddenly, the horses’ hooves were flying and the horses were falling down because the young kids were throwing marbles.”
Stood between the Blackshirts and the anti-fascists were thousands of police attempting to keep the peace. The protesters, well organized, had heard that Mosley wanted to take his men through Cable Street on their way into the East End.
Despite the warnings of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, which urged people to stay away on the day of the march, those in the predominately Jewish area of London refused to be cowed.
“I heard this loudspeaker say ‘They are going to Cable Street’,” said Professor Fishman. “Suddenly a barricade was erected there and they put an old lorry in the middle of the road and old mattresses. The people up the top of the flats, mainly Irish Catholic women, were throwing rubbish on to the police. We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism.”
The lessons of Cable Street remain to this day. On October 9 London Mayor Sadiq Khan will join with delegates from trade unions, Bangladeshi associations, anti-racism groups and Synagogues to mark the occasion.
While most of those who were at Cable Street on that fateful day are moving towards the end of their lives, their wisdom remains for all to see.
“I remember the day so vividly, I can see it clearly,” Willie Myers, who was just 14 at the time, told The Guardian.
“After Cable Street, we carried on the fight against fascism and racism. Even today, if I had to do it all over again, I would.
“We haven’t learned the lessons of the past. Prejudice is still directed at Jews, but it’s even worse towards Muslims. When I hear of Muslims, or Polish people, being attacked today, I feel angry. I cannot fathom out why we can’t see each other as human beings. If we’re cut, we all bleed the same.”
James Masters is a journalist, previous René Cassin Fellow and current activist. René Cassin is a UK based NGO, which engages the Jewish community on a range of human rights topics such as modern day slavery, discrimination and asylum.