runs through the heart
'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
varying waves of immigrant
s 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 cable
s for the nearby shipbuilding dockyard
s were once
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
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.