Eighty years ago this week, anti-fascists in East London confronted Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts as they tried to march though what was then a largely Jewish area. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was notorious for using marches and rallies as cover for vicious attacks on Jews. The confrontation has gone down in folklore as ‘The Battle of Cable Street’. Many myths have grown around the confrontation, including about the role of the Communist Party, which has often claimed for itself the primary role in organising the resistance to Mosely. Joe Jacobs was a Communist Party activist in East London at that time, a member of the Young Communist League (YCL), and his autobiography Out of the Ghetto (subtitled ‘My Youth in the East End: Communism and Fascism 1913-1939’) gives a vivid account of his political life in east London. I am publishing here an edited extract from Out of Ghetto, about the Battle of Cable Street, and about the struggles he had not just with fascists but with the leadership of the Communist Party, too. The following year Jacobs was expelled from the Communist Party (he later rejoined, only to be expelled again).
From Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto, pp235-256
In Stepney we heard a rumour that Mosley intended organizing a mass march of uniformed Fascists through the heart of the Jewish areas. In fact, the Blackshirt carried a notice saying full information about a proposed march and meetings would appear next week. The next week’s issue announced a march ending in four meetings, at Aske Street, Shoreditch, Salmons Lane, Limehouse, at 5pm in Stafford Road, Bow and at 6pm at Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green. Before these announcements, the air was full of foreboding. Speculation was mounting. Rumours multiplied. The immediate response was that this could not be allowed to happen and that if it did, the outcome would be disastrous…
With the local Labour Party members and others we joined in the general agitation concerning the Blackshirts’ proposed march through Whitechapel. The YCL had been organizing a rally to Trafalgar Square to take place on October 4th in support of the Spanish workers. As this was the date we had heard might be the one Mosley had in mind for his march, I saw Willie Cohen, Secretary of the London YCL and asked him what was being proposed. He told me that the District Party Committee were going ahead with the plan for the Trafalgar Square demonstration. He said Spain was more important than Mosley. I was horrified!
On September 30th, the following report appeared in the Daily Worker:
Ex-soldiers ‘asked’ to give way to Mosley.
On Sunday, October 4, members of the Ex-Servicemen’s Anti-Fascist Association planned to hold a march and meeting in the East End of London. They had all their plans drawn up and police permission was asked. This was not refused. No, the police merely asked the Ex-Service men to put their meeting off.
Why? Because suddenly Mosley and his Blackshirts announced their intention of holding a march, and not one, but four meetings in the East End on that same day. No dilemma for the police. Streets clear for Mosley, that was a necessity. No matter that the Ex-Servicemen had already arranged their demonstration. They could have a day that Mosley did not want, but not next Sunday.
At Trafalgar Square, however, on Sunday the YCL is holding its great meeting to collect £100 for the people of Spain. A call has been sent out by the London District of the CP for workers to go in their thousands to Trafalgar Square, and after the demonstration to march through East London’s streets to show their hatred of Mosley’s support for the Fascist attack on democracy in Spain.
East London workers are called on to rally to Tower Hill on Friday at 8pm to demonstrate against the Fascism which the Mosley gangsters will demonstrate for on the following Sunday.
I was furious. I could hardly believe what I was reading. I had been fighting their ideas for years. Here was the confrontation and I could not withdraw. On the contrary, I knew that if the DPC line was carried, a heavy blow would fall on the workers of East London and workers everywhere. It would also be the end of me. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by fighting these pernicious tactics…
A petition was being signed against Mosley’s march, all over the East End. Other organizations were organizing and calling for opposition to the march…We in the CP were supposed to tell people to go to Trafalgar Square and come back in the evening to protest after Mosley had marched. The pressure from the people of Stepney who went ahead with their own efforts to oppose Mosley left no doubt in our minds that the CP would be finished in Stepney if this was allowed to go through as planned by our London leaders.
I had seen the East London organizer, Frank Lefitte, and told him that the Stepney Branch Committee asked for immediate meetings with District representatives to discuss the situation. He had agreed to put our request to the Secretariat the following morning, which must have been Monday, September 28th. The day after this I received this note, which I collected from one of the places where Frank Lefitte usually left such notes when he could not contact me personally.
Joe. In case you come back, the DPC has made the following arrangements re Mosley’s march:
1. A Party meeting at Salmon and Ball and another at Piggott Street in Poplar, i.e. near to each end of the march. Meetings to be kept orderly control. Avoid clashes.
2. Loudspeaker van is touring area advertising the meetings.
3. Thousands of leaflets are waiting at Carters’ for immediate distribution. I leave a copy here.
4. What Stepney must do is rally masses to each of these meetings (Mostly to Salmon and Ball round here).
a. Keep order: no excuse for Government to say we, like BUF are hooligans. If Mosley decides to march let him. Don’t attempt disorder (Time too short to get a ‘They shall not pass’ policy across. It would only be a harmful stunt). Best see there is a good, strong meeting at each end of march. Our biggest trouble tonight will be to keep order and discipline.
b. Push the Party’s leaflet around the crowds. (Poplar and Bethnal Green are getting supplies too). F. Lefitte.
I could hardly believe my eyes. How could they be so blind to what was happening in Stepney? The slogan ‘They shall not pass’ was already on everyone’s lips and being whitewashed on walls and pavements. I went to Pearl’s home where I met her brother Harold, when he returned from his work with the Ex-Servicemen’s Anti-Fascist Association. He was in no doubt about what he was going to do, whatever the CP had in mind. His language was even stronger than his usual strong language. It was too late to contact anyone so I told Harold I was going to phone the DPC early the next day, the 30th, and ask them to come to the East End the same evening. I would suggest they come to Harold’s home to meet a delegation of the Stepney Branch Committee…
When I phoned I made it quite clear that many Party members were rejecting the Party line in practice. In fact, the membership, in my view, would revolt if the DPC adhered to their line. It was agreed that a delegation would come to Harold’s place that same evening, 30th September…
Harold and I were determined to have a showdown with the delegation if we could not get a change of line. We thought it would not come to that once they were presented with the facts concerning what was really happening. In due course, John Mahon, DF Springhall and I think the third one was Bob McLennan and Frank Lefitte arrived. We were treated to a long talk on the world situation in which it was stated that the demonstration to Trafalgar Square in support of Spanish Democracy, was more important than Mosley’s march in East London.
Our leaders always talked about the world situation in a particular jargon which often impressed the rank-and-file. On this occasion Harold told them not to try to blind us with science, that he did not understand their language and even less their attitude. We argued that the best way to help the Spanish people was to stop Mosley marching through East London. It was, in fact, the same fight. If we said the Fascists should not pass, it was what the Spanish people were trying to ensure and giving their lives in the process. A victory for Mosley would be a victory for Franco. In any case, the people of East London had their own ideas about all this and would oppose Mosley with their bodies, no matter what the CP said. We argued long and hard… I was quite prepared to argue all night…
Pat Devine arrived. He had come as fast as he could from a meeting at the Party Centre… and before any more could be said, he announced that the Centre had decided to change the line. The call would go out to all branches to rally to Aldgate instead of Trafalgar Square on October 4th. The slogan would be ‘They shall not pass’, which was already being repeated all over Stepney and could not be ignored, in this case, by the CP or anyone else…
By way of explanation, and in order to get the District leaders off the hook, Pat said that the Centre had made this decision because they had become aware of the real situation in East London only that day. They did not previously appreciate the feeling and did not think that enough people could be rallied in time to stop Mosley marching. They now knew that this was possible. I was too excited to see, at that moment, that the previous line had been the result of reports which these same District leaders must have transmitted to the Centre…
We meant to make the slogan ‘They shall not pass’ a reality. It was close to llpm when Pearl, Harold and I left to tour the area wherever we knew Party members would be waiting to hear from us. When we got to the ‘Popular Cafe’ in Manningtree Street, there were lots of people there and they wasted no time. Arrangements were made by groups all round us to start whitewashing until the small hours of the morning. The slogan was clear, `They shall not pass – Rally Tower Hill, Oct. 2nd, 8pm; Rally Aldgate, Oct. 4th.’ I never saw such enthusiasm before. The air was electrified. We proceeded to other points, cafes, ‘Circle House’, anywhere we might find Party members to take up the slogan in a clear, loud voice. The whole area seemed to be alive. Squads of whitewashers seemed to be everywhere. We didn’t get to bed until after 4am. I was so tired I must have fallen asleep the minute my head hit the pillow. My mother had a hard job getting me up for work on Thursday morning…
Came the Big Day. I was up fairly early and after a good breakfast, I went as arranged, to my sector of the front, which was Gardiners Corner. Our headquarters were in Manningtree Street, behind the fire station in Commercial Road, about sixty yards from Gardiners itself. We had a first-aid post as well as facilities for dishing out leaflets, banners, posters etc. We were equipped to receive messages and runners to carry messages to all the other sectors, particularly in Cable Street, where we anticipated there might be a lot of problems. We thought the crowd would be concentrated at Gardiners, and that if the Fascists attempted to march, they would find it almost impossible to leave Royal Mint Street by way of Mansel Street or Leman Street to Gardiners. The most likely route if these ways were barred, would be along Cable Street. I can’t remember exactly, but I think Pat Devine was in charge in the Cable Street area.
There were first-aid posts and points where contact could be maintained for reporting and issuing instructions, at Whitechapel library, Toynbee Hall, off Cable Street and other places in addition to where I was at Manningtree Street. The geography favoured us as the approach to Whitechapel Road could be barred by moving crowds in a short space of time, no matter which way the police and Mosley decided to try to march. By mid-morning the crowds coming to Aldgate were already so big that Gardiners Corner, a big road junction made up of Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel High Street, Commercial Road, Commercial Street and Leman Street, was blocked and traffic was coming to a standstill. Around midday, the police were beginning to show their hand. There were skirmishes going on all over the place. I was told that down in Cable Street, which is quite a narrow street, it was already impossible to pass. By about one o’clock there was a tram stuck on the rails, right in the middle of the road junction at Gardiners Corner. Young people were perched on all the lamp posts and any other vantage point, displaying posters and directing the crowd towards the weak spots in the front with the police. The crowds were roaring ‘They shall not pass’.
The police were making periodic baton charges, both mounted and on foot, in an effort to keep the crowds back. Many people were being arrested. It took several policemen to escort anyone arrested to the station. This was because they were not equipped with the number of vehicles and other crowd control technology that exists now. As anyone was grabbed by the police there were determined attempts by others to secure their release. So each arrest meant that a large number of policemen would have to leave the main cordons, thus weakening them. For every ten arrests about a hundred policemen were engaged in getting them to the police stations. After a while the senior officers realized what was happening and the arrests almost stopped. They were content to baton charge and inflict heavy wounds on the front ranks of the demonstrators. This they did with great effect.
If their efforts had failed and the main body of demonstrators had managed to get into Leman Street, or round the back via Manse Street and the side streets towards Royal Mint Street, where Mosley’s forces were surrounded on all sides by thousands of police, I’m sure there would have been a pitched battle in Royal Mint Street and Tower Hill. Fortunately for the police and Mosley, who had chosen the Fascists’ assembly point with great care, the whole of their southern and part of their western flanks were protected by the docks, which were closed, and the river at Tower Bridge and Tower Hill. Otherwise it would have been possible to surround them and I don’t know how they would have retreated without being severely mauled by the enormous crowds who were ready to make any sacrifice to prevent the march. They did eventually retreat westwards over Tower Hill, but not before the great battle of Cable Street.
Around one o’clock, I decided to have a look at Royal Mint Street if I could get there. By way of Great Alie Street, across Leman Street into Little Alie Street, where the ‘Circle House’ was situated, I got into Mansel Street, and eventually to the junction of Royal Mint Street and Tower Hill. I saw lots of Blackshirts in full uniform, many vans specially designed for carrying personnel, with iron-barred windows. Police vehicles of all kinds were everywhere. No one not in uniform could get into Royal Mint Street itself. Judging from the way everybody and the Blackshirt vehicles were facing, it looked as though they could either go by way of Leman Street or Cable Street. Any thought that they could try going by some devious route which would take them through the back streets, was irrational. They would have been sitting targets for all the people in all the houses en route.
I returned to Gardiners Corner where things were getting really hot as we got nearer to two o’clock, which was the time the counter demonstration had been asked to assemble. There were already many people walking around with their heads bandaged. Our first-aid units were being kept very busy. Lots of people were coming up with stories about terrible fighting at the junction of Royal Mint Street, Leman Street and Cable Street. Thousands were turning away from Gardiners Corner down Commercial Road into all the side streets towards Cable Street, where we knew that barricades were being built to bar the way. I got back to Manningtree Street to hear all the reports coming from Cable Street and elsewhere. It appeared that the police were trying to force a way through Cable Street to clear a path for Mosley and his supporters. I was never in Cable Street that day, so I had to hear and read all about what happened there later.
Mosley’s forces, preceded by a massive force of mounted and foot police, actually tried to leave Royal Mint Street, but never managed to get into Cable Street. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner who was on the spot decided to call the whole thing off, and Mosley was obliged to take his forces westwards away from the East End. As the news spread, cheers could be heard all over the area and into the surrounding streets some distance from the battleground itself. The air was full of sound. People shouting slogans: ‘They did not pass’; ‘They shall not pass’…
The top image is of the mural of the Battle of Cable Street, which was completed in 1983. The other photos are of the day, from various sources.