The Mosley Riots

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The 'Battle' of Cable Street which took place on the 4 October 1936 has become the defining myth of the East End of London and of the left, memorialised thereafter as the defeat of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts amid the cries of 'They shall not pass!'
How did this enduring mythology arise, what was the nature of East End radicalism, what role did the police play, what were the origins of fascism and what happened after the events?
Professor Emeritus, Clive Bloom will investigate the British radical tradition between the wars and set Cable Street in the context of contemporary ideological conflict.

This is third of the Mondays at One series of lectures, From St Paul's Cross to Hyde Park Corner: Public Oratory in London from the Middle Ages to the Present Day. The other lectures in this series are as follows:
    The Development of the Early English Newspaper
    The Suffragettes
    Free Speech and State Control

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17 June 2013   The Mosley Riots   Professor Clive Bloom   I am going to talk today about Oswald Mosley, and obviously everybody knows who Oswald Mosley is, give you a little bit of background and a few maybe bits of facts that you might not remember, and afterwards, hopefully, we will have enough time for some questions and answers. I will show you some pictures first, just to get you into the Mosley mood as it were…   That is Oswald Mosley in 1933 with Il Duce. He had been to Italy before, and this is the visit where he undertook to introduce to Britain what is called the corporate state, which is the state essentially under privatised but under government control. I think this has been doctored, this picture, to make him closer to Il Duce. If you look at it, it does not look right. The corner here is not quite right, so I think it has been doctored, the picture, but it is interesting.   This is him shouting and screaming. He is a very handsome, as you can see. He was born in 1896, very, very wealthy. He was not born Sir Oswald Mosley – that was his father’s title which he inherited – born Oswald Mosley, and I noticed, rather bizarrely, and I am not a Fascist, but I noticed rather bizarrely he has my belt on so that is a bit worrying.   He is wearing the black shirt and the black trousers, which were finally banned of course, and if you look at him, he looks like something out of a modernist painting. This is very modernist. His uniform is extremely modernist. So, he is very interesting, sartorially.   This is William Joyce, who is Lord Haw-How. This was his Head of Propaganda, I believe. There is a scar here, can you see the scar there? That came from fighting. He had a degree from University College London, hated just about everybody actually, but hated Jewish people, and Communists too, and he got this at a fight, and he said of course a Jewish Commie had done it, but there was no proof one way or the other. He was Irish. He hanged of course – he should not have done, but I guess he deserved it anyway. His very last speech, by the way, which you can hear at the Imperial War Museum, he was completely drunk, completely rolling drunk, and he impersonates Churchill while he is doing it. It is quite funny.   This is John Beckett, who was the publicist and editor of the Blackshirt for Mosley’s organisation, BUF. He carried on right the way through. He was an anti-Communist really, but he adopted anti-Semitism, and indeed, interestingly enough, his grandson lives in Israel.   This is the famous poster. This is Mosley speaks, in East London, Sunday, 4th October 1936.  There were going to be four marching columns, four great meetings. There is Beckett, there is Joyce, there is some other speakers, and they were going to come together and march along heroically. Of course, none of this happened at all. The march never took place – we will talk about that in a minute.   This is where the thing took place, so to give you an orientation… Here is Leman Street. There is where the Blackshirts gathered, there, Royal Mint Street, and they stopped there.   This is Cable Street…   That is Gardeners Corner, which does not exist anymore. It has all been knocked down. Those of you that are familiar with the East End will know that Gardeners Corner burnt down and then it was demolished and rebuilt, and so there is nothing really to see.   This is Gardeners Corner, and this is where the barricades went up. So it gives you some sense of what we are talking about. Notice, Cable Street is actually on the edge of the Jewish area, which is up here – it is not where you think it is. If you are not used to the area, it is not quite where you think it is.     This is Phil Piratin, who wrote “Our Flag Stays Red”. He was one of the leaders of the Resistance, as they called it, “They shall not pass”, and here, he is actually winning the election.  I do not think it is the election. I think here he is winning the ticket for the council, but after the War of course, he became one of the last of the Communist MPs, for Mile End, which does not exist anymore as a constituency. That is Phil Piratin, and he wrote “Our Flag Stays Red”, which is the most famous record of the events.   This is Mosley marching. Notice the flashes – they have already got the SS-type flashes on their sleeves. This, I think, is William Joyce next to him, but it is not entirely sure, and here he is marching towards the actual event. Again, as I say, this is probably along Royal Mint Street.   This is the crowds. These are the police, obviously, trying to stop things going on, a police car there, complete disorder and there is lots of these pictures.   It is not all men, it looks like all men, but here is a lady, and there is a number of women in the shots if you look carefully, so women did take part.   This is the very famous shot. This is Cable Street. That is one of the barricades. These are the shops along here, which were shuttered, and many of them had “Do not attack this shop, it is Jewish” or “Do not attack this shop, we belong to the trade union movement” or the Communist Party or whatever, and above, which I will tell you about later, women attacked the police from above, throwing chamber-pots of wee on their heads, so it was quite exciting stuff.   It is well worth noticing the crowd, because I want to say something about the crowd: these are young, relatively well-dressed men. These are not the type of people that Philip Game, who was the Commissioner of Police, accused of rioting. Philip Game essentially told a little bit of a naughty fib.   I think these images gives you a sense of what people looked like, how it went on, what the day actually physically looked like. You can of course see films of it. If you are a YouTube fan, then you can go on that and watch films, etc.   I just want to start then with: what exactly is fascism? I mean, it is an obvious thing to say, but British fascism is not the same as other countries’ fascism and it developed slightly differently.     The first thing to say is that, if we go back to the nineteenth Century, a famous jurist, a writer on legal history, called A. V. Dicey divided the nineteenth century into three parts, and the last movement in the nineteenth century that he divided it into was collectivism. Interestingly, what he meant by that was the rise of communism and Marxism, the rise of the trade union movement, things of that nature – people coming together as a collective.     Interestingly enough, against that were a number of writers, especially people like Oscar Wilde etc., who believed in the rise of the individual, who believed in the importance of the individual, the centrality of individualism, and the revolt – and this is an important word, the revolt of individuals against the mass, the one man against the whole mass of the joined-together people that were coming together at that time.   This is quite significant for Mosley. It characterises what he is about. He comes to represent the single man who is in charge of the mass. Now, interestingly enough, this was meant to be a contradiction. The mass of people in the nineteenth century, were meant to be more and more concentrated. Laws being made during this time were more and more about concentration. The individual was being squeezed out. So, Mosley, as a lot of people in the fascist organisation, tends to be a contradiction, and it is that contradiction partially which actually destroys him. So, it is not necessarily the opposition to him that destroys him, straightforwardly, it is also inconsistencies and incoherences within his own theoretical system, and he did have quite a complicated – well, straightforward but intellectually valid system of working out what he stood for and why he stood for it.   Pre-War, if we go to just before the First World War, what we have is a number of the movements and ideas that emerged after the First World War in the fascist movements which rose just before Mosley came on the scene. Between 1919 and roughly 1930, there are a very large number of fascist organisations, mostly patriotic, mostly traditional, mostly king and country, mostly Eastbourne ex-Indian majors, and a very large number of very, very seriously strange ladies, who came together to bring together fascist ideology, mostly to do with anti-Semitism.     Nevertheless, that was not the case of Mosley, and I want to show how Mosley developed various strands of thought and they come to fruition in him. I am not saying that Mosley was a person who consciously thought these through. I think he was an opportunist. However, it is clear that there does become a pattern in his thought.     So, for instance, in the First World War, just before the First World War, we are talking about 1913, we are talking about this language… This was language that you got in many writers…   Crusades. Many of the churches in the pre-First World War period were talking about having a blood crusade, something to wipe away. They talked about white slavery and male infidelity and all the rest of it, so a purity crusade.     Dictatorship. Interestingly enough, the Suffragettes, at this point, who were very frustrating with what had gone on, Emily Pankhurst decided she would become dictator, that is the word, the use that she put, that is the actual word she used, “dictator” of the movement, and a lot of people left, Sylvia included, who was concerned that her mother was going a little bit crackers.   The idea of cleansing, the idea of bringing the nation back clean and beautiful again, was another idea that very often came up.   The most famous blood idea of course is the return to blood sacrifice, which was 1916 in Ireland, but in England, and in London especially, you get a lot of crusades – church crusades, Suffragette crusades, communist, union and other crusades – which used the word “blood”, and I have to say, interestingly enough, quite a large number of academics pedalled this blood argument. In fact, many of them pedalled the blood argument and added to that the idea of carbolic – somehow we had to scrub the nation with carbolic to clean us of all our sins.     So, when we went into the First World War, this language already existed. It was not something that was made up by Oswald Mosley, or invented even by Adolf Hitler, as it goes. It already existed.     Wyndham Lewis had taken up the ideas of destructiveness from people like Marinetti, and Wyndham Lewis believed that it was not going to be the civilised people that saved the world, it was going to be the barbarians – the barbarians needed to be the ones, the Aryan races needed to be the ones who saved Rome from itself, rather than the Italians, as with Marinetti of course, the Italians saving themselves from themselves.    The watchword was action, action and art. These were the two ideas. Art was going to cleanse things.   Even the pacifists used the same arguments. Pacifism used the same arguments about renewing the world through getting rid of capitalism, getting rid of bankers, getting rid of exploitation, so that, even though they were pacifists, there was dirty war and there was clean war, and clean war would be the one, as it were, that was fought by the pacifists on behalf of a cleaner, better and more peaceful and cooperative world.   This language existed right the way through the period we are talking about, and it emerges again at the other end. It comes out once the War is finished. It emerges with the language of fascism and the ideas that come together through fascism.   If we go back to the end of the First World War, what we have is disillusionment. The first thing that they capitalise on is disillusionment. A lot of the anti-Semitic organisations were – all, in fact, anti-communist. The anti-communist crusade was much more significant than the anti-Jewish crusade, until the mid-‘30s and then it changes, but certainly the anti-communist crusade was very important indeed, and all the national Fascisti and other organisations, many of which were either lower middle-class, girl-guide type organisations or were upper crust, aristocratic, country house type, Downton Abbey type fascists. These two groups often intermixed and they often belonged to each other’s groups.     The other thing to put in the mix is the one lot of people who encouraged fascism was MI5 because MI5 wanted to remove from the British industrial scene communism altogether, and MI5 spent a large amount of money and quite a long amount of time mixing with fascist groups who fed them information. Fascist strong-arm men worked, for instance, for the Cunard family, etc. – anything to break up the unions, anything to break up the Communist Party, people getting involved. The Communist Party starts in summer of 1920.   So, these groups are coming together. What they are looking for is a type of transcendental leader. They are looking for a mystical leader, someone who can bring it all together, who can focus on what is going on. They did not find this. They did not find this for a long time. Then it suddenly occurred, when Mosley is slowly coming through the parties. Remember, he swaps parties, he creates his own party, he creates New P, the New Party, which he has with him – at that point, he starts to realise the idea of authoritarianism, and he has with him the “Biff Boys”.     The “Biff Boys” were the guys who used their fists. These were the heroes of, if you like, 1920s and ‘30s thrillers, John Buchan type stuff, and Sapper and all these people. Everyone is full of “Biff Boys”, always punching the enemy on the nose on behalf of the British Empire. The Biff Boys, of course, were led by a Jewish boxer, who finally left the organisation when it became authoritarian, “Kid” Lewis, but nevertheless the Biff Boys.   This is the point when the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, starts to back, “Hurray for the Biff Boys” and all the rest of it, and say this is where we want to go, this is the direction we need to go.   He is looking all the time, Mosley is looking for a way into the political system that allows him two things: one, he is extremely egotistical – you saw the picture on there, in his black uniform, strutting around. He is extremely egotistical. He is looking for a place to intervene in the system so that he will become the leader.    Interestingly enough, there are a number of groups looking for what they consider, in language very similar to, looking for Christ. They are looking for the fascist Christ. A.K. Chesterton, who is of course the cousin of G.K. Chesterton, A.K. Chesterton formed the National Front, part of the National Front in the 1960s and 1970s, he was part of this organisation, and he talks about Mosley as if he is Christ, as if he is a transcendent leader.   He talks about him in these terms, so Mosley is aware that he has the power of ego. He has the power to push his ego forward. He has the power, in other words, to impose his will, and he is in a situation where enough people are willing to agree with his ideas, his prognosis of the future, and the future was very simple. Remember, we are looking at a period when there is huge mass unemployment, when there is communist agitation, and where there is huge poverty. He said he could cure unemployment with the corporate state, people would become richer and there would be requirements for people to be employed. He would cure poverty because people’s money would go up and therefore they would be able to afford better things, and he would impose his will on democracy, which was the problem. The problem was democracy because the problem allowed communism to flourish, and communism was the enemy of democracy, and he would simply wipe communism away. So, he starts off as an authoritarian. He is a singular authoritarian figure. Now, if you remember what I said about the nineteenth century, he brings these two things together: on the one hand, he brings centralisation, a single figure; but at the same time, he is bringing in the mass around the single figure, almost to worship him. So he understands, very clearly, that communism has the right propaganda and that communism is the correct social idea.  What he needs to add to that is something that is nothing to do with communism, which is the transcendental mystic individual who will lead the masses forward and protect private property and protect British interests. He was always a patriot. I do not think we can accuse him of being anything other. But nevertheless, it is British interests, that he believes Britain of course is going to be the major player in the future. So, one of the things he brings to the table is the idea of revolutionary politics. Fascism is essentially revolutionary politics, and it is emphasised again and again: it is patriotism and revolution.   So, in 1932, he forms the BUF, which changes its name every now and then, but 1932, he starts the BUF, he sets himself up, and he prepares to go with this new organisation. The first thing he chooses is a black uniform. Now, the black uniform of course is taken from the Italians, but the black uniform is very interesting because he understands that communism has a very simple idea and that is egalitarianism, and he says, if we are all wearing black – he of course was a very wealthy aristocratic, and he had, with his first marriage, not his second marriage, I will talk about that a bit later, but his first marriage, he had three crowned heads of Europe and two princes or something at the marriage. It was hugely important. A very wealthy, very important aristocratic person. Black shirts means that everybody is equal, so he wears a black shirt and his lieutenants wear a black shirt – everybody looks equal. First of all, he takes the communist idea of equality – get rid of the class base. Class war, and this is what he is indulging in, class war has to get rid of the class base if you are going to go to war on behalf of equality on behalf of full employment, etc. etc. He has to find some way of making communism look tawdry, and the way he does this is to say that communism is internationalism, and internationalism belongs to pacifism, and pacifism undermined the effort in the First World War, pacifism is essentially feminist, pacifism is essentially anti-imperial… So, he fights this argument on a patriotic score.     Now, no one had thought of doing this. He fights the argument for fascism on the idea that patriotism and revolution go together. Of course, these are complete contradictions. No one has ever thought that revolution goes together with patriotism. The only people that ever did that was the French Revolution and that is a very long time ago and that has nothing really to do with Oswald Mosley. However, the nineteenth century is the history of revolutions, all of which are determined by international affiliations. Even the Hungarian, Polish and other revolutions are essentially affiliated to international movements. Here, he says, no, we are going to have the revolution, it is going to be specific to Britain…   I am not going to read you anything else, but I will just very quickly read you a little quote from one of his first pamphlets, which is “The 10 Points of Fascism”, which I have to say, should you be so daring as to go on eBay and the only way to buy this pamphlet, by the way, is to talk to the fascists, so fascism has got a few bob of my money…PO Box, Ramsgate. So, if you want this information, it does still exist. It is all reproduced. There are lots of nasty people in the world who still love this stuff, so it is interesting, but it is interesting to get into it because it is interesting to see what the nitty-gritty, from the inside. Rather than just point your finger at the fascists and say, “Well, they were bad,” from the inside, it is quite interesting.   This is the little paragraph I will read you. This is the first point of his creed.   Fascism is a creed of patriotism and revolution. For the first time, a strong movement emerges, which, on the one hand, is loyal to king and country, and on the other hand, stands for far-reaching and revolutionary changes in government, in economics and in life itself. Hitherto, patriotism has been associated with those who wish to keep things as they are; revolution has been associated with a flabby internationalism…   That is a very fascist word, “flabby”. If you do not like them, you are “flabby”…   …flabby internationalism which sets the interests of foreign countries before those of Britain. The watchword of fascism is “Britain first”. We love our country, but we are determined to build a country worthy of that love.”   So the country has to give something back to fascists, as the fascists give something to the country.   “Things cannot remain as they are…”   This is very interesting, this idea that just after the First World War, that things had reached melting point.   “Things cannot remain as they are: we must have great changes to adapt modern Britain to modern fact. True patriotism finds expression for the first time in the revolution of fascism.”   Here we can see, quite clearly, that what he is building up here is this idea that fascism will save the country. Fascism is not designed – and of course it was, of course it was designed to join up with Italy, Spain, the Japanese eventually, and Germany and all the rest of these fascist countries, of course it was, but he dresses it up to say this is a patriotic movement to protect the Empire for the incursions of foreigners – and the foreigners are communists and Jews. They are the two groups that are the essential foreigners. What people will follow is the will of the technocratic nation because, once they are voted in, he says we will have democratic elections, but once Mosley is voted in, he will abolish democracy, and when he is voted in, he will bring in instead the corporate state and all of the politicians will then become technocrats who will manage the corporate state for the future. It is interesting that if you read this without realising it is about communism, half of what he says sounds like 2013 – it is very scary…but there we go!   He even suggests that we should go back to “Merry Old England”, “Merry Old England” he says…  That is what he really wants: he wants us to go back to Merry Old England. That sounds very strange now, but it is not strange because one of the areas – and I will probably get into terrible trouble for saying this, but I am going to say it anyway – one of the areas that he copied, although of course it has a completely different ideological base, is a group called Kibbo Kift.     Kibbo Kift were green-coated, militant boy-scouts. There is lot of stuff – if you go downstairs, there are some bits and pieces in cabinets on Kibbo Kift. They wore green, they believed in a Tolkienesque world, and they had – and this is the important thing – they had a hierarchy, they wore green, they all wore green, and they had a uniform very similar to this but it was a green uniform, a bit like Robin Hood. They did woodcraft, hence the Woodcraft Folk that followed, but they also, and more importantly, had an all-green marching drum section, and this was what the BUF copied. They had a drum section that went in front of them. Interestingly enough, this Merry England thing is not some weird aberration but actually looks to what is going on at the present moment when things are going on.   He wants to have the idea of youth, action, vitality, revolution, the end of capitalism, as he sees it.  He wants to channel the energies of people into this new world.   Just to carry on, the first thing he does is unite all of the fascist groups. All of the fascists groups either come together through the BUF or completely vanish because they no longer belong, or they are even more right-wing. One of the most right-wing people was a camel doctor called Arnold Leese. He was a veterinarian and he was a camel doctor in the First World War, and he was one of the most virulent anti-Semites from this period. He re-emerges after the Second World War. He would not join Mosley because he said they were not fascist enough. So, even William Joyce, who I think was a psychopath, was not even fascist enough for people like Arnold Leese.   They bring these groups together. They decide to hold meetings. They hold a series of meetings which culminates in Olympia, the famous Olympia meeting, 12,000 guests invited. Most of the aristocrats of England turn up because they want to see what is going on. It is floodlit, it is huge, and there are 12,000 people turn up – 1934. 12,000 people turn up. It is infiltrated by communists and Jewish people. There is fighting breaking out, it becomes a lunatic asylum. He is standing – as soon as he stands to make his speech, the fighting starts, and it carries on for most of it. It is one of the very first riots and it is so disturbing to people watching it. They did not realise that the BUF might create this sort of tension, not that they were particularly pro-communist or pro-Jewish or anything like that, but it was clear that these people in these uniforms had stirred up this new agitation which did not seem to have existed before.    Of course, the end result was that a large number of people were arrested, not as many as you think, it is only in the tens, but people were arrested. Lots of people had knuckledusters confiscated and all the rest of it. There was fighting, people ejected, and of course the cameras were there. I think Pathé News was there to take the pictures. So, this is the first great media event. This is what he wanted to do, as Goebbels did this sort of thing so well in Nazi Germany.  This was his Nuremburg Rally, and it failed dismally. It was a total disaster. In fact, he was banned from appearing on the BBC until 1968 because of it, so that is quite a long ban. So that everything fell apart…   Of course, that did not discourage the Blackshirts. They carried on, they marched on, and they again appeared in Hyde Park. Hyde Park occurs just about the same time, and this is very interesting because they were opposed by about 10,000 trade unionists, and this is the first time I have found – always the police have always stood between the two groups and tried to keep one group and another group apart, from the eighteenth century onwards, well, certainly from the nineteenth century, but this is the first time anybody openly said that the police were state fascists, state-sponsored fascists. So, in other words, they are the pigs, is a 1960s idea. This was a communist leader called John McGovern, and he said that the police were state-sponsored fascist. I mean, I am very happy to be corrected, but this is the very first time I have found these words. So, it is 1934 that the police are starting to be seen as in cahoots with the Blackshirts, which is interesting I think.   About 60 to 70 people were arrested. They had continuous meetings afterwards, and these meetings went on and on of course until 1936.   Imagine the East End. The East End is Jewish, it is also Irish, there are lots of people multi-ethnic from the boats, etc. around Limehouse and those areas, but essentially, it is a largely Jewish area and that is where the BUF wants to march.   Prior to 1934, Mosley had not felt it necessary to openly disparage Jewish people. He had no reason to do so. He believed in a corporate state, on the Italian fascist lines, and that was about it. But he was, I think, pushed into – and he was an opportunist, as I believe I said before – he was pushed into this position, and I have no doubt he bought into it so I am not saying he was not an anti-Semite, by any means, but he bought into it, by people like John Beckett and William Joyce and other people who said this has to be a platform of the BUF – A.K. Chesterton, etc.   So, slowly but surely, from 1934 onwards, there is the equation of communist and Jewish, so communist equals Jewish. The two equations which fascists have always used all around the world is: communist equals Jewish; and capitalist equals Jewish. Communist Jews always manipulate capitalist Jews to manipulate all of everybody else. This is a paranoid fantasy that has existed for a long time. It still exists in the 21st Century, so I am not going to deal with that today, but nevertheless, this is one of the first times it really comes to a head.   Mosley decides that this is a good idea to push. As soon as he starts to push this, he offends large numbers of Jewish advertisers, not least of which was the head of the Odeon Cinema chain, who refused to show anything to do with Mosley, and of course he became one of the great hate figures of the BUF. So, people like the Daily Mail had their pockets severely shortened by a lack of money, so they said we are not going to support you anymore. Rothermere, I do not believe for one second, became any less a liker of Jewish people; he just wanted the money. So the advertising dried up and of course, therefore, the support dried up.     People did not like the rather crude aggressive nature of these Blackshirts. People were finding that a bit difficult. Having said that, in 1934, they had roughly 40,000 paid-up members. After 1934, because of the distaste for them, they had roughly 5,000 paid-up members, so it really went downhill. He had to revive something.   Now, he had 5,000 members. He was getting good votes in various areas of the East End, different parts of the world. He had a good support. He had very good support in places like Epping, for instance, in Essex, which still is quite right-wing in a number of ways. So, these different areas, still had little pockets, like the BNP I suppose nowadays. Nevertheless, he could not concentrate those votes in one particular place.     So, it was decided that they would march along Cable Street, and that he would take the salute of roughly 1,900 Blackshirt troupers. They came from the Black House, which was the place in Kensington which was their headquarters, and I do not know if they all marched there or got the Underground, but nevertheless – the Blackshirts, by the way, when they got there, and I have a lovely anecdote in the book, one Blackshirt getting a ticket for somewhere or other, in his black uniform, and as he was getting the ticket, he complained because the ticket-seller sang “The Red Flag” as he got the ticket ready for him, which I think is great!     Anyway, they gathered in Royal Mint Street, as we saw, and by this time, they had a marching band, they had their full fascist uniforms, with the jack-boots, they had the flash on their sleeve, and they had the whole uniform, the whole military look. They also had loudspeaker vans. The last loudspeaker van only vanished in 1968, so they lasted a very long time.      The other side, however, was determined to stop them, of course, and the watchword was “They shall not pass!” from the Spanish Civil War, and by this point, a very large number of groups have coalesced to put a stop, as they saw it, to fascist incursions. Remember, there were British people fighting in Spain. The TUC and other people had policies on this. So, they were gathering slowly together and deciding that the Blackshirts had to stop.   What happens of course is a myth, but nevertheless it is an important one. If we can imagine Cable Street, and we can imagine those streets that I pointed out at the beginning of the talk, they are filing up over the day with Jewish and trade union leaders and with dockers. Most of the dockers are Irish, and the dockers, to a large extent, do not like Jewish people, but, here, the dockers and the Jewish people, allegedly, and it is very difficult to prove, are standing together against fascism.   The person in between all of this is Sir Philip Game. Sir Philip Game was the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and he was in charge right the way through the Second World War as well, and he had to stop the two sides coming together. So, he said to Mosley, “Wait until we have cleared the Jewish and other groups on the streets and you can march through and that will be the end of it.”   I want to talk about this a little bit later, but 100,000 protestors turned up around Cable Street, around Gardiners Corner, and they are milling and they are waiting. They start to turn over lorries.  They break into the lock-ups, which are all where of course the costermongers kept their stuff for Petticoat Lane and Hester Street Market, and they break into those and take – well, I do not know if they broke in or were let in, but anyway, they take the stuff out and they put it across the road.  This is very rare in British history: they actually built barricades. It is interesting to note, if you look at the information about the Battle of Cable Street, it is called the “Battle of Cable Street”, not the “Communist Revolution”. There is lots of mythological language arrives around this event.   But, anyway, they put barriers up. They commandeered a tram. They turned over four lorries, some of which you can see in the pictures. There was not a huge amount of damage done – lots of chalking on walls weeks before, “Come together – this is going to happen” etc. and of course Mosley’s group, the BUF, are putting up invitations all around the East End to come to their meeting too.   So, Mosley is waiting, he is lined up, he is in his Rolls Royce to take the salute, and he has 1,900 men standing there in black shirts. He probably has about 3,500 people just gawping at them.  Absolutely nothing happens. It is irrelevant – they are completely irrelevant to the story.   The story concerns the police and the anti-fascist groups. Anti-fascists do not fight with fascists.  Anti-fascists fight with the police, and they always have done, if you think of Blair Peach and all these people go back to Southall and Red Lion Square and all the rest of it.   They fight with the police, and the police sent their entire mounted division, and their Rolls Royces because they had a few too, and turned up on the spot to hold the crowd back. The interesting thing is they could not hold the crowd back. The crowd was much more violent – I mean, we always hear about the violence of the anarchists and the anti-capitalist protestors.  These people make these people look like Mickey Mouse. This is much more violent.     We are talking about East End working class people, and the East End working class people were not upper class or middle class West End people; they were people that were used to fighting, people that were used to the black market, people used to pinching things off stalls, a fly by night life. So there is an awful lot of people who live a tough, hard, not necessarily grinding life, but a life on the edge of violence and other things. They are standing in the way.   The dockers are standing in the way. Unlike when the dockers marched for Enoch Powell, the dockers were on the right side this time and they are not doing that. They are standing there and they are waiting for the enemy, as they see it. These are the terms they used, “the enemy”, to turn up.     A large number of women have turned up, women from the Communist Party, women just interested, and a large number of women are in the upper rooms of the houses, looking out the windows, watching what is going on – lots of the crowd is watching what is going on.   The police try to shift the crowd. The crowd will not shift. The crowd start to throw marbles at the horses, so the horses could not stand up of course and they start falling down. Actually, if truth be told, it is a police riot. The police go absolutely bonkers, and there is lots of accounts of blood everywhere, people being hit. Amazingly, no one died and no one even got badly injured, bizarrely, but a very large number of accounts of people getting hit, people getting beaten up, and huge amounts of fights breaking out sporadically. The police run the crowd, and the crowd runs somewhere else – there is no idea of kettling in those days. The crowd just retreats somewhere else, and that carries on for most of the afternoon. It starts about 2.30, and so there is running battles, running skirmishes until about 2.30.   The police break into Cable Street, and a famous guy who writes about this, I think dead now, called Joe Jacobs, writes that women throw chamberpots and rubbish on top of their heads as the police are running down. The police do not like, of course, all this stuff falling on their heads, so they run into the nearest lock-up that is open and shelter, and they are taken prisoner by the Communist Party, who, to prove they have taken them prisoner, take their hats, take their helmets as trophies, and kick them out and say “Go home and do not start on us again!”   There are sufficient witnesses I think to suggest the police were largely sympathetic to the Blackshirts. When the police turned up, there are records of them doing Sieg Heil salutes in the buses they turned up in. Although there were a large number of policemen from the area who were pro-Jewish because they understood Jewish ways, they understood communist ways, they understood the mix of East London, there were sufficient from outside the area not to be so sympathetic. So the police very much wanted to mix it, if you want to put it in colloquial language, with the people they were fighting.     The fight goes on for most of the afternoon, and by six o’clock, they are dispersing. Philip Gain goes to Oswald Mosley and says, “Look, you will have to disperse – we cannot allow you down Cable Street.” The police, at this point, have lost control of the streets, and Oswald Mosley takes the salute and takes the march somewhere else and that is the end of the march.   The end result is roughly 90 people got charged and 70 people got arrested – so there are 90 charges, one or two people had more than one charge. Four vehicles got damaged. So this is very minor stuff actually. It is significant in terms of its outpouring, but quite minor in other ways.  A number of people obviously got hurt and went home grazed and bruised and all the rest of it and were dead cheerful they had had a fight with the police, because of course the police were seen as the enemy by the communists, they were seen as the enemy by many trade unionists, and they were seen as the enemy by many Jewish people of course, who felt that policemen were very often anti-Semitic. They had had their victory, if you like. Cable Street had been a victory against state fascism as much as it had been a victory about stopping fascism itself marching down the street.   Lots of people have asked why Oswald Mosley did not push it. Why did he not say, “Look, my storm-troupers will march their way through Cable Street and smash these Jew boys on the head and get through and to hell with them!”? Simple answer: he was getting married on 6th October to Diana Mitford, Diana Guinness. The witness was Adolf Hitler, and he got married in Goebbels’ house. He was not going to ruin that one. So, he had to acquiesce whether he liked it or not – he had no choice. He had to say, “Alright, well, I will go with what you say.”   Sir Philip Game, the reports on the events are quite interesting, and I will just finish on this. The myth does not really start till the 1970s. The idea of beating fascism was of course central to Jewish ideas and to many communist ideas, but the Second World War intervened and that is somewhat more important. So the idea of beating communism as a mythological subject, as standing firm, the Anti-Nazi League and these things, really starts much later, in the 1970s, with the rise of BNF and people like that, starts to come back.   Immediately the week after the events, the BUF increased their membership by double. They doubled their vote in Bethnal Green, they doubled their membership everywhere else, because people were offended that they could not be allowed to march in this free country. So they actually did not do too badly out of the march. Mosley was not there of course, but nevertheless, people sent them money to join the BUF.   The Government was so horrified it brought in the Public Order Act 1936 and banned uniforms, so that was the first thing, so that is why you do not see marching anywhere in uniform anymore.  They brought that in. So the Government was already concerned and worried.   The Jewish rioters – and it was a riot – or the Jewish battlers I suppose, who felt they had defeated fascism, divided I think, interestingly, into those who went with what is called the Board of Deputies – the Board of Deputies looks after the interest of Jewish people in England – who really did not want to get involved, they really did not want to intervene, and the more working class Jewish people, who were more communistic and less Jewish, less religiously Jewish, who became more stronger in their self-belief. So, interestingly, it split the Jewish community in ways that I think still exist, and that split I think still goes across North West London and East London still today, and that is interesting I think. If it did anything, it actually affected the Jewish community more than it affected the BUF, who were, after all, vanished for the Second World War anyway.   Do you remember I pointed out they are reasonably well-dressed people, that it is Sunday, they have got suits and ties on? The people that were on the anti-fascist march, were all relatively well-educated working class boys and girls. Philip Game, to avoid the problem of accusing home-grown Jewish people or communists or TUC people of being troublemakers, said it was all the fault of those dirty foreign Jewish immigrants. There were not any dirty foreign Jewish immigrants, it was just a myth, but it was a way of avoiding the problem – very similar to some of the language we get to do with immigration nowadays. They avoided the incomers rather than the people that actually were there.   How many people were there? Let us just go back over that, just very quickly. My father was there. He was about eleven years old – my father was there. He came from a family of nine, and all his brothers and sisters were much older than him. He never said that his brothers and sisters went, so he is one in nine people. He lived in the East End. I think the numbers who went to Cable Street were much smaller to 100,000 – I have come to the conclusion they were much smaller than 100,000. I think there were probably nearer 30,000 or maybe 40,000 at tops, and the reason I come to this is because Philip Game, the number 100,000 comes from the police record.     Two things to say here: one, Philip Game lost control of the streets – you would not say you have lost control of the streets if there are only 5,000 people against you, you would say “We were overwhelmed, absolutely overwhelmed – our brave boys were fighting for their lives!” So he emphasises the bravery of the Metropolitan Police, while emphasising the cowardice of the protestors. I think there was probably less, although it certainly looks pretty much, I mean, you see these huge numbers, but 100,000 people on the streets is very, very hard to organise, and working on my little bit of information about the people I know who were there, it seems that the proportions do not seem to line up. The fascists, yes, because we know their numbers because it is the numbers of the people that were in the Blackshirts who actually belonged, so that is not too problematic, and we have records of their life.   Just to finish off: were the fascists defeated? Yes, they were. Did they go away? No, they did not.  The week after, Blackshirt ran a newspaper – it runs a newspaper called Blackshirt – and it had “Why the Jews hate us”, edited by Beckett, who I told you about, and the article was written by Chesterton, “Why the Jews hate us”, a great long diatribe about Jewish people, etc. etc. and, at the bottom, in a little corner – you can get the actual paper is here because I looked it up at the Museum of London – at the bottom of the paper, it has a little note of where the speakers had been that week. This is only two weeks after the event. Mosley had been somewhere, Wynn Joyce had been somewhere, Chesterton had been somewhere, Beckett had been somewhere…  In other words, the speakers continued. They continued right up until internment.     Of course, Mosley changed his argument – he was out of uniform by this time. He changed his argument to “Let us not get involved.” That was his new argument. He had dumped the anti-Semitism – let us not get involved, this is all a Zionist plot, and we do not need to get involved in the European war. That failed of course as well.   Diana Mosley wrote for Tatler when she came out of prison. Nothing ever happened to her. Mosley, of course, lived in the South of France. Every now and then, he came back to England to try and get back into power. Other fascists such as Jeffrey Hamm and other people, stood for fascism in the East End and these old stomping areas that they had been to before. It was never the same again.     But interestingly, and importantly, the virus, and I think it is the virus of fascism, has never gone away. Cable Street is the most important mythological event. It is a myth because it says you can stand up to these people. It is not necessarily factually true in any of its particulars, but it says that riots and that protests and that defending your area – remember these were Jewish people and trade unionists and dockers defending the area they lived in – does work if you stand up to the bullies and thugs of this world.   © Professor Clive Bloom 2013

This event was on Mon, 17 Jun 2013


Professor Clive Bloom

Clive Bloom is Emeritus Professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University and a best-selling author and publisher.

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