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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.