Cable Street 80

The 4th of October 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, a well-known protest in which around 100,000 people prevented the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through the East End of London, which had a large Jewish population at the time. Since the late 70s, it has become tradition for the 5- and 10-year anniversaries of the Battle to be celebrated with a march, and a rally in St George’s Gardens near the Cable Street Mural. On  Sunday the 9th of October I went along to the latest commemoration, Cable Street 80.

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A campaigner outside Altab Ali Park, where the march began. The park is named after a Bangladeshi textile worker who was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Anniversary marches of the Battle of Cable Street have started in the park since the 60th anniversary in 1996 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The commemoration was organised by Cable Street 80, a loose coalition of community and campaigning groups. David Rosenberg (pictured here in the blue vest), a local author and historian, played a key role in organising events (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sadly there are not many people left who were actually present at the Battle, but many people on the march on Sunday had parents or grandparents who were there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A large number of different groups were represented on the march. This is Sarah Jackson, one of the co-founders of the East End Women’s Museum,  a fantastic project to commemorate the lives and activism of women in the East End (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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GMB is a general union which has its roots in the Gas Workers and General Union, formed in the East End in 1889 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street has become a source of inspiration and pride for many on the political left, so a large range of different groups and causes were represented at the march (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march sets off from Altab Ali Park (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes it way along Commercial Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As time went on and migration brought new communities into the area, the Battle of Cable Street came to be symbolic for whole new generations of East Londoners. It has come to stand as rejection of xenophobia of all kinds, not just anti-Semitism. The Bangladeshi community in East London faced prejudice and violence in the 1970s and 80s, much like the Jewish community had 50 years earlier (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street is continually connected to new and ongoing struggles. For many who marched on Sunday, it was as much about demonstrating a determination to combat the rise of the far-right in Europe today as it was commemorating an event that happened 80 years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes its way down Cable Street, which looks very different now to how it would have done in 1936 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march arrives at the Cable Street mural, on the side of St. George’s Town Hall. The mural itself is nearly 40 years old, and has an interesting history in its own right (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In 1936, the Irish community in the East End also took part to prevent the BUF marching, when many doubted they would. The Connolly Association campaigns for a united and independent Ireland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street also has a Spanish connection, which explains the presence of the Spanish Communist Party. The Battle’s slogan ‘No Pasaran’ is Spanish for ‘They Shall Not Pass’, and comes from the Spanish Civil Way, which was underway in 1936. Many participants in the Battle of Cable Street went on to volunteer in the International Brigade to fight for the Spanish Republic (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Unsurprisingly, there was a strong anti-fascist presence on the march. There are large number of anti-fascist groups in the UK, as evidenced by the amount of anti-fascist protest stickers I have found on the streets of London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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After the march there was a large rally in St. George’s Gardens, near the mural. Speaking here is 101-year old Max Levitas, one of the few remaining veterans of the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is Michael Rosen, the well-known author and poet. His parents were both at the Battle of Cable Street, and he is a keen supporter of the process of remembrance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The ‘headliner’ was Jeremy Corbyn, controversial leader of the Labour Party. He is a constant presence at protests and rallies of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Protest: What’s the Point?

When I posted a link to Reddit about the End Austerity Now demonstration in June I said it was a ‘big success’. Several comments reacted to this rather sarcastically with one asking if austerity is now over. Whilst I didn’t appreciate the tone of the comments, I realised that ‘what makes a successful protest?’ is a perfectly valid question. It is true that protests rarely bring about large scale change, but they serve other purposes too, such as raising awareness, recruitment, demonstrating solidarity and boosting morale.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a 'big success'.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a ‘big success’.

It can be difficult to find examples where protest has directly led to wide-scale change, although the 1990 Poll Tax Riots is one case where protest significantly contributed to change. It is much easier to find examples of protests that have led directly to small-scale, local change. For example, housing protest groups like FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) have managed to prevent an increasing number of evictions and long-distance relocations by London councils over the past few years. Looking further back, the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, East London won themselves better working conditions and helped to kick start New Unionism when they went on strike back in 1888. These examples demonstrate that protest is not always as ‘unsuccessful’ as it is perceived to be.

Even protests that do not lead to direct change can be ‘successful’. For example, a protest can raise awareness of an issue amongst those who witness it and the wider public via media coverage. Fathers4Justice are a group that know how to garner publicity, as their tactic of scaling landmarks dressed as various superheroes demonstrates. As well as dramatic or comic stunts, violence can also increase press coverage, as happened in the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in late 2010. It’s a risk though, as violence can often alienate would-be supporters. On the 13th December 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted a prison breakout in Clerkenwell by blowing up the prison wall. They used too much gunpowder however, and the explosion killed 12 people. The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, and support for the Fenians in London, which had been quite strong up to this point, evaporated. Nevertheless, regardless of exactly how you go about it, protest can be an effective way of raising the profile of an issue you care about.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Linked to raising awareness, protests can also help with recruitment. Put simply, you can’t attract new recruits if nobody knows who you are. Protests get people talking, and provide the opportunity to win people over. After the publicity resulting from the fourth anniversary demonstration of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1936, which has since become know as the Battle of Cable Street, BUF membership spiked. Membership in London almost doubled, jumping from under 3000 to around 5000 (Tilles, 2011). Whilst this is not a positive example, it does show just how effective protest can be at attracting new activists to a cause.

Solidarity is a crucial concept amongst protest groups and social movements. Holding a protest, or attending someone else’s, is a good way of providing both practical and emotional support. The work of Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 miner’s strike, popularised by the 2014 film Pride, is a good example of this. The actions of LGSM not only raised money for the miners, but let them know that they were not alone. In return a delegation of miners led the 1985 London Pride parade, and voted for gay rights motions at Labour and TUC conferences (Kelliher, 2015). Protest can help build and maintain ties between diverse groups.

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains his definition of solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

The final purpose that protest serves isn’t easy to pin down, but I think is best described as morale boosting. Being active in a social movement can be difficult and draining. It often feels as though you are putting in a lot of time and effort for very little return. Protests can provide a sense of accomplishment, of getting something done. They can also be fun; protests often have a carnivalesque atmosphere which provides the chance to relax and let go. Chanting a slogan at the top of your voice surrounded by tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who share your frustration and anger can be a wonderful feeling. It can be hugely helpful to be reminded that you are not the only one who feels the way you do, and this is rarely more obvious than at a protest.

There are several ways in which protest can be successful. It may well be that protests frequently fail to cause change, but this does not mean that they fail as a tactic for dissent. Protests also serve to raise awareness, recruit new activists, show solidarity and boost morale, and at these tasks they are very successful. Austerity may still be in place after the End Austerity Now demo, but I stand by my statement that it was a big success.

Sources and Further Reading

Kellier, Diarmaid. ‘The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the Spirit of Solidarity.’ Soundings 60 (2015): 118-129.

Tilles, Daniel. “The Myth of Cable Street.” History Today 61, no. 10 (2001): 41-47.

The East End’s Radical Murals

Cities are too often bleak places to live in and a mural is one way of making them more attractive and human.

The East End can boast a large number and variety—in sharp contrast to the lack of art galleries in the area.

(East End News, 1986)

I have recently been doing some research on the Cable Street Mural in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (which is, by the way, a lovely place to work- the staff are very helpful). The Mural is located on the west wall of St. George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, and was completed in 1983. It is over 3,500 square feet, and it commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in the area on the 4th October 1936. Demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to clear a route through the East End for the British Union of Fascists to march. The march was called off, and ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ the demonstrators’ slogan, has become a catchphrase of anti-fascist movements of all kinds.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George’s Town Hall.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

When doing archival research, it is not uncommon to get distracted by not strictly relevant, but still very interesting, material. I discovered that the East End does indeed seem to have a strong tradition of street murals, and the Cable Street Mural is not the only one with radical subject matter. London is perhaps not the first city that springs to mind when you think of politically motivated murals- Belfast or Dublin might seem more obvious. London does not like to be outdone however, and political murals do exist here if you are willing to look for them.

Sadly, there are not as many protest-themed murals in East London as there used to be. The Peasants Revolt mural, previously located in Bow Common Lane, was unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt. The peasants had camped in Mile End on their way to London to demand reduced taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Richard II did not meet their demands, but it remains a well-known period in English history. The mural was designed by Ray Walker, who was one of the three artists who took over from David Binnington when he resigned from the Cable Street Mural project in 1982. I have not been able to find out exactly when or why this mural was removed, and why it wasn’t afforded the same protection and investment that the Cable Street Mural has. The Cable Street Mural has been repaired every time it has been vandalised, and was restored in 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.

The Peasant's Revolt Mural (Source: Unite the Union).

The Peasant’s Revolt Mural in Bow Common Lane. Unfortunately it no longer exists (Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

One radical East End mural which can still be seen today is that commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Located in Hale Road in Poplar, the mural was completed by Mark Francis in 1990, and restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian with help from local children. In 1921 30 local councillors were sent to prison after refusing to collect the rates from residents because they were unfair. The mural tells the story of the Rebellion in 4 panels, mainly using words. It does include an image of the well-known political radical George Lansbury, and local residents holding placards that declare ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural in Hale Road (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

Poplar Rates Mural Detail

A close up of George Lansbury and Poplar residents (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

The East End has a strong tradition of radicalism and protest, but a lot of it is not well known. Murals and other forms of public art are a good way of ensuring that historical protests are not forgotten. The Cable Street Mural in particular still draws visitors, and its striking colours and imagery are well worth going to see for yourself. If you have a few spare hours, why not go and check out these memorials to the East End’s turbulent history?

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Mural by George.” East London Advertiser. 31st August 1990.

Anon. “Murals in the East End.” East End News. May 1986.

Anon. “Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural.” London Mural Preservation Society. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/murals/poplar-rates-rebellion-mural/

Anon. “Trade Union and Labour Movement Heroes Commemorated.” Unite. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

Rolston, Bill. “Politics, Painting and Popular Culture: The Political Wall Murals of Northern Ireland.” Media, Culture, and Society. 9, no.1 (1987): 5–28.

On This Day: The Battle of Cable Street, 4th October 1936

The Police attempt to dismantle barricades in Cable Street. Source: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/75th-anniversary-of-battle-of-cable-street-83081

The Police attempt to dismantle barricades in Cable Street (Source: The Mirror).

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.

A Protestor is arrested. Source:http://stevesilver.org.uk/blog/battle-of-cable-street-events/

A Protestor is arrested (Source:Steve Silver)

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.

The Battle of Cable Street Mural in Cable Street. Source: www.jeecs.org.uk

The Battle of Cable Street Mural in Cable Street (Source: Jeecs).

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.