The Battle of Cable Street in 1936 was an example of ‘people power’ when ordinary working class men and women of the East End came out on the streets in their thousands to stop Oswald Mosley and his black-shirted British Union of Fascists from marching through their neighbourhood.
In those days the Irish and Jewish two communities, both regarded with suspicion by their English hosts, lived uncomfortably side by side, crammed into the streets around Stepney and Whitechapel. There were roads housing Irish tenants adorned with handmade signs proclaiming “No Jews in Our Street”.
Who was Oswald Mosely? After serving in the First World War, Mosley was elected as a Conservative MP. He quickly fell out with his own party, criticising the violence of the Black and Tans auxiliaries in the Irish Civil War, to the point where he quit the party.
Mosley had also been a vocal supporter of Irish nationalism, and his Blackshirts included many Irishmen. His personal bodyguard was a Belfast man, and one of his closest political advisers was William Joyce, a US-born Anglo Irishman who would find infamy as Lord Haw Haw, broadcasting Nazi propaganda from Berlin during the war.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the all-powerful Catholic church was actively encouraging the development of Ireland’s own version of the Italian fascists as a bulwark against communism, and they weren’t shy about equating Communism with Judaism. That year the Dean of Cork told a crowd of 40,000 people that the civil war in Spain was nothing but the work of a “gang of murderous Jews from Moscow”.
It is possible that Mosley imagined the Irish Catholic immigrants living uncomfortably with their Jewish neighbours would come out and fight alongside the fascists, or at least stay out of the fray.
Battle of Cable Street
The march of 5,000 Blackshirts through the largest Jewish community in the UK was a cynical and provocative act.
When attempts to convince the police to ban Mosley’s rally failed, mainstream leaders, from the Labour Party to the Jewish Deputies, advised people in the area to stay indoors. And deny the BUF the confrontation they were seeking.
It was a call that was ignored. On the morning of Sunday October 4th, when an estimated 20,000 protesters flooded out into the streets. They were met by around 6,000 uniformed policemen, who battled to break the human blockade and allow the BUF to carry out their march.
The demonstrators fought back with sticks, rocks, chair legs and other improvised weapons. Rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots were thrown at the police by women in houses along the street. After a series of running battles, Mosley agreed to abandon the march to prevent bloodshed
Witnesses on the day recall seeing young Irish dockworkers fighting elbow to elbow the old Jewish men in Hasidic hats and coats.