The Battle of Cable Street was a clash between police and protesters who were trying to prevent the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through Stepney, the most concentrated area of Jewish population in the country. The 1930s saw fascism spreading across Europe. Both Germany and Italy were under fascist regimes, and the Spanish civil war was being fought between fascists and republicans. In 1932 the BUF was founded by Sir Oswald Mosley, who hoped to replicate the success of similar organisations across Europe.
Over the summer of 1936, tension in the East End increased as marches and meetings were organised in response to the BUF’s anti-Semitic propaganda and frequently violent activities. When the planned march was announced on the 29th of September it was seen as deliberate provocation. One petition against the march gained 10,000 signatures, but the Home Secretary refused to ban the march on the grounds that to do so would be undemocratic. Whilst there was widespread opposition to the march, opinion on how to respond was divided. Moderates feared the inevitable violence that would result from attempting to stop the BUF, so called for people to just ignore the march. However, it was eventually decided that an attempt would be made to stop the march.
It was well known that Mosley planned for the BUF to gather in Royal Mint Street, then split into several columns to march through East London before reassembling for a rally in Bethnal Green. However the specific details of the planned route were not known, so the anti-fascists met at 4 different points, attempting to block all possible routes into the East End. It was the responsibility of the police to clear a route for the BUF to march. Although there were minor scuffles between fascists and anti-fascists, the main clashes were with the 6000 police officers who attempted to clear a route for Mosley and the BUF ‘Blackshirts’. The police made numerous baton charges at Gardiner’s Corner in Aldgate, but the way was blocked by a tram which had been stopped by its anti-fascist driver. The only other alternative this left was Cable Street.
Several barricades had already been built, including one constructed from an overturned lorry. The slogan “No Parasan- They Shall Not Pass,” which came from the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, had been painted on banners, barricades and the streets. The police were bombarded with projectiles from upper windows as they repeatedly charged, dismantling barricades and obstacles only to find more behind. As injuries and arrests mounted, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner ordered Mosley to abandon his planned route. Furious and humiliated, the BUF marched through London before quietly dispersing at Embankment. In the East End, celebrations continued long into the night.
To me, the Battle of Cable Street was a vocal expression of communal will, as well as a fierce declaration of ownership over the streets and spaces of the East End. A month after the Battle, the Public Order Act was passed, which controlled public processions and banned political uniforms in public. Under the terms of the act marches in East London were prohibited until the BUF was disbanded in 1940. Although it limited their activities too, the ban was a clear victory for anti-fascist campaigners, as it represented a U-turn of the government’s position of supporting the BUF’s right to march at any cost.
Sources and Further Reading
Jackson, Sarah and Rosemary Taylor. Voices from History: The East London Suffragettes. Stroud: The History Press, 2014.
Rosenburg, David. ‘The Battle of Cable Street- 75 Years on.’ History Workshop Online, January 8, 2011, accessed September 17, 2014 http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/cable-street75/
The Cable Street Group. Battle of Cable Street 1936. Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2011.