The Battle of Cable Street is a significant moment in the history of London Jewry and has often been represented as a turning point in the struggle against Fascism in Britain. This week, commemorations for the 80th anniversary will include a march and a rally in east London – both to remember the past – and to highlight the importance of combating racism and prejudice today.
Anti-fascist protesters run as police approach a barricade near Aldgate during the clashes – crowds had overturned a lorry in Cable Street and used building materials from a local building yard to block the road.
There were at least 100,000 Anti-Fascist protesters on the streets that day (some sources suggest as many as 250,000 people). Jews, Irish dockers, trade unionists, Communists, Independent Labour Party members, women and children turned out to form a “Human barrier to Stop Fascists” [Sunday Referee, 4 October 1936]. “LIKE A SIEGE. 84 arrests, 200 hurt” ran the headlines of the Daily Express, following clashes with police – who made baton charges into the crowds in an attempt to clear the roads. Just one week earlier, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had announced its intention to parade in the vicinity of the Royal Mint, where it would be drawn up in military formation and inspected by Sir Oswald Mosley. From here they planned to march through Aldgate and Whitechapel – the heart of the Jewish East End of London – before holding Fascist meetings at multiple venues in the area. [q BZ8211.P73 Parkes Cable St. press cuttings]
The BUF had been running a campaign of provocation and violence aimed at stirring up anti-Semitism in the East End for some time. The newly formed Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism (JPC) drew attention to inflammatory speeches, indoor and outdoor meetings, processions into Jewish and anti-Fascist districts, and incidents of violence against Jews. Their statement of policy identified the BUF with a modern political anti-Semitism which threatened the democratic rights of the British people as a whole. [MS 60/15/53]
Strenuous efforts were made by local organisations to persuade the government to prohibit the march – the mayors of five East End boroughs asked the Home Office to ban it – but without success.
In just 48 hours, the JPC gathered almost a 100,000 signatures for a petition which was presented to the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon. This would not have been possible without the “magnificent assistance” of local Anti-Fascist groups, including the Jewish Councils of Action, the East London Association for combating Fascism; the Ex-Servicemen’s Movement against Fascism, and the members of the Workers’ Circle.
Although the parade went ahead, the scale of the counter-demonstration and the threat of blood shed were so great, that Sir Philip Game, the Chief Police Commissioner, called off the march through the East End to prevent further breaches of the peace. Running battles continued for hours in the streets.
The BUF may have suffered defeat on the day but the fight against Fascism was far from won. The passage of the Public Order Act, 1936, after the disturbances, banned marching in uniform and required police consent in order for marches to go ahead. In the short term, however, historians suggest that life became worse for Jews in the East End. The prominent Jewish involvement at Cable Street and the publicity that violent opposition had produced was exploited by the Fascists to gain sympathy and support.
The story and significance of Cable Street is vividly captured in the papers of the Reverend James William Parkes (1896-1981), held here in the Special Collections at Southampton. Parkes dedicated the greater part of his life to combating anti-Semitism. He had first-hand knowledge of the situation in the East End of London and in 1936 he was meeting local people, giving educational lectures, trying to understand the problem, in order to work out possible solutions. His papers shed a fascinating light on the different approaches and viewpoints within the Jewish community and of the efforts of Gentiles and Christians to join them in the fight against prejudice.
To read about the life of the Reverend James Parkes: MS 60
Cable Street 80: http://cablestreet80.org.uk/