Cable Street runs through the heart of London's East End: one of the main routes through Whitechapel from the Tower of London towards the docks. It's always been a working class area, and one which has been home to the varying waves of immigrants which have made this part of East London their home before moving on elsewhere. The name of the street actually derives from the fact that cables for the nearby shipbuilding dockyards were once manufactured here.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the main group of immigrants living in the area were Jewish refugees from eastern Europe and Russia, most of whom had come to Britain fleeing the Tsarist pogroms at the end of the 19th Century. Their sons and daughters had grown up in the East End and rightly considered themselves as much British as their neighbours.

What's more, they lived in a time of major political ferment. Across Europe wave after wave of attempted revolutions had sprung up since the outbreak of the First World War, from the Irish uprising in Dublin in 1916, through to the 1917 Russian revolutions and the British general strike of 1926, and many of the young Jews living in the area were active and enthusiastic members of the British Communist Party.

But there were other political forces working in Europe in the 1930s. Fascism was beginning to take hold: Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. Britain was no more immune to the ideologies of the right than it was to those of the left. The British Union of Fascists (BUF) under the leadership of the well-known and well-respected politician Sir Oswald Mosely was recruiting members at an enormous rate. Emboldened by a series of election successes in a Britain suffering the effects of the Great Depression Mosely pointed the finger of accusation at British Jews, using The Protocols of The Elders of Zion to back up his wild accusations of an international Jewish conspiracy.

As a show of strength Mosely announced he was going to lead his followers (known as blackshirts because of the colour of the quasi-military uniform they wore) in a parade along Cable Street, the heart of London's Jewish community. Previous similar marches had resulted in nothing more than a token show of strength from anti-Fascist protesters, and a huge police presence to protect the jackbooted marchers. At Cable Street however, things turned out very differently.

The elders within the local Jewish community decided it would be too dangerous to remain in the area while the march took place and advised their congregations and communities to hide away indoors until it was over. The more militant and politicised younger members of the community immediately approached the local Labour, Communist and Trades Union movements to organise a defence against Mosely's blackshirts.

Knowing they couldn't beat the fascists alone they approached the non-Jewish members of their community for assistance. Equally politically active and no lovers of the BUF, they readily rallied around. The slogan of the day was: They Shall Not Pass.

In the middle of the afternoon the Fascists, who had gathered their full national presence outside the Tower of London marched on the East End, protected from the protesters by police in vans and on horseback. As they turned the corner into Cable Street itself they were met with a surprise: a barricade had been erected in the middle of the street from an overturned truck and reinforced with bricks. As the BUF and police marched up to the barrier stones began to rain down on them. The police tried to stop the fighting but had to withdraw their men when they started to sustain too many casualties.

The fighting continued for some time, but the blackshirts were completely overwhelmed and routed. This single event more than any other sounded the death toll for Fascism in Britain for 30 years or more. The BUF lost all credibility with the establishment and Mosely, who had once been tipped as a future Prime Minister never sat in Parliament again.

To me, the battle of Cable Street is important for two reasons: firstly it showed that racial and religious differences can be overcome: the Fascists were beaten because Russian Jews stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Irish Catholics and English Protestants, and secondly it completely halted the progress of Fascism in the UK, where the BUF were rapidly becoming as respectable and close to power as their friends in Germany, Italy and Spain had come.

Even more importantly, my grandfather was there, (as he used to say "I was a young working class Jew living in the East End, I had to have been there!"), and most of the above account comes from my memories of what he told me happened. In addition he embued in me a belief that wherever it rears its ugly head Fascism can be opposed; to this day British anti-Fascist groups still use the same slogan that first appeared on those Cable Street barricades:

They Shall Not Pass


If anyone wants any more information either send me a /msg (this is something I know a lot about), or otherwise a Google search for Battle of Cable Street returns some interesting sites, including http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/redweb/hpapers.htm which has some fascinating contemporary newspaper reports from the time.

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