The Battle of Cable Street – a summary

The Battle of Cable Street was only a brief moment in the grand scheme of history. It lasted for less than one day, and was not fought by noble, princely leaders on the field of battle, but was instead fought by ordinary people on the streets of East End London. However, it is this which makes the Battle of Cable Street so emotive, and which gives it the power to strike a chord even in the present day.

On Sunday 4th October 1936, when the British Union of Fascists (BUF) tried to march down Cable Street, they met a crowd which had adopted the revolutionary motto ‘they shall not pass’ as their battle cry. The crowd had blocked and barricaded the street. They refused to budge. As a result of their determination, the BUF were forced to call off the march. The day was a victory for all who disagreed with fascist ideology.

This article will examine the background circumstances of the Battle of Cable Street, the events of the day, and the aftermath which followed.

The Rise of the BUF

While the 1920s had, on the whole, been a period of excitement and prosperity, the 1930s were the reverse. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had caused stock markets to crash around the world. Soon after, both America and Europe were in the grip of the Great Depression.

In Great Britain, the government passed austerity measures and sought to stabilise the economy, yet they could not remove the damage done by poverty and unemployment. It was in this context that social tensions became increasingly fraught, and the rise of fascism in mainland Europe only served to make the situation worse. The National Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini, had already come to power in Italy in 1922. In the years following the Wall Street Crash, the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler became increasingly powerful, and took control in 1933.

In 1932 an ambitious politician named Oswald Mosley – fresh from a trip to see Mussolini’s regime in Italy – founded the BUF. Its ideology was anti-communist and anti-Semitic. The black uniforms worn by BUF members mimicked those of Mussolini’s followers, and earned them the nickname ‘Blackshirts’. In the early years of the 1930s the BUF enjoyed a measure of popularity.

The Battle of Cable Street

The Battle of Cable Street was originally intended to be a demonstration of the BUF’s support and ideology, although it became famous as a symbol of resistance against them. The BUF planned to march through the East End of London, where there was a large Jewish population.

The march was opposed from the outset. Around 100,000 people signed a petition calling for it to be banned. However, when these efforts failed, Londoners were warned to avoid the area while the march took place. Despite this, there were those who were determined to stop the march from going ahead, even by force. Anti-fascist activists worked together and made plans to disrupt the march. Many of those who demonstrated were not local residents, but people who had travelled to the area for the purpose of preventing the march.

On the 4th October, Mosley’s Blackshirts set out across London. Officers of the Metropolitan Police were deployed to accompany them, in order to ensure that the march could proceed safely. However, when they reached Gardiner’s Corner, the Blackshirts found that their original route had been blocked by anti-fascist activists. This forced the Blackshirts to try and march down Cable Street instead.

A barricade was set up in Cable Street. Communists and Irish dockworkers joined local residents – Jewish and non-Jewish – to block the road. Householders pelted Blackshirts with rotten food. Children rolled marbles under the hooves of the police horses, thus impeding the progress of the mounted officers who had been sent in to disperse the crowd.

A number of baton charges had already taken place that day, and the authorities began to fear the outbreak of violence and rioting. As a result, the Metropolitan Police bowed to public pressure and persuaded Mosley to call off the march. The BUF was defeated.

The Aftermath

Yet the Battle of Cable Street was not the end of the BUF. Although their popularity waned as relations with Nazi Germany worsened, they continued to exist until 1940, when they were forced to close.

The Battle of Cable Street included an estimated 250,000 protestors, 10,000 police, and led to 150 arrests and 175 injuries. These numbers are, of course, important. However, the ideas and ideologies illustrated by the Battle of Cable Street are equally significant. They demonstrate the ideological and social conflicts which dominated and shaped this era of history.

Mallory Russell

See also Mallory’s articles on the Spartacus Uprising, the German Revolution and the Russian and Soviet concept of the ‘New People’.

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