Tonight the Jamboree club in Limehouse is hosting a one-off party, a showcase of musical, spoken word and theatrical performances. ‘They Shall Not Pass: A Cabaret Special’ brings together a huge mix of performers, and is one of many events taking place this week in collaboration with Tower Hamlets Council and various local community groups. You may see no reason to celebrate, but today is the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, arguably (or in my humble opinion anyway) one of the most important historic events to have taken place in 20th Century London …
My obsession with the event goes back to 2011, when a friend and I were coming up with ideas to regenerate a forgotten strip of land, which we soon learnt was slap bang in the middle of the site of the Battle of Cable of Street, which neither of us had previously heard of.
Having stumbled upon the Cable Street Mural further up the road from our site, we quickly fell in love with the tale of a day in 1936 when hundreds of thousands of East Londoners came together to put a stop to an anti-Jewish march, organised by Oswald Mosley and his army of Blackshirts.
In 1936 Hitler’s Nazis were rising to power in Germany, meanwhile the Spanish civil war was encouraging socialists and communists to join the fight against fascism. In Britain, Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirted British Union of Fascists (BUF) was stirring up anti-Jewish hatred among working-class Londoners. He planned a march through East London’s Jewish district for Sunday 4th October, calling out to his thousands of supporters to stand against the “rats and vermin from the gutters of Whitechapel”, blaming them for many of the city’s social and economic problems. (Huffington Post)
Upon hearing about the march, nearly 100,000 East Enders, Jews and non-Jews, sent a petition to the home secretary John Simon requesting that he stop the march. He however refused, sending 7,000 police to protect the blackshirted protestors.
The community took matters into their own hands. Irish dockers and railway workers came from the far end of Cable Street to help build barricades, and it is estimated that nearly 100,000 anti-fascist demonstrators, including local families, turned out to block the route along which the BUF were planning to march. In the end, it was a standoff between Jews, Irish dockers, trade unionists, communists, Labour Party members, housewives and children, working together against the police and fascists, and the march eventually had to be called off.
For many people, their first encounter with this story happens when they stumble upon the Cable Street Mural. It’s a striking thing. A huge, fish-eye-view explosion of activity, depicting various scenes from day; these were taken from the memories of surviving local residents, recalled during a period of extensive research when the mural was commissioned in 1978. In amongst the chaos, its hard not to notice the faces of the onlookers, many of whom appear to be the Bangladeshi residents of today.
As the original mural artist Dave Binnington put it when he was calling out for local people to take part in the project in 1978:
“Just as the crowd in 1936 was made up of local people, so shall the mural be an image of people living here now”
But the mural wasn’t completed until 1992. By the time the artwork was commissioned in the 1970’s, the Jewish community had moved on further East and North, and now the cloth trade around Cannon Street Road and Brick Lane was worked mostly by a newer wave of Bangladeshi immigrants. They too were soon under attack from the fascists, as they became the latest scapegoats for all London’s social and economic woes. This time it was the National Front (NF), and they were as violent towards these immigrants as Mosley’s blackshirts had been towards the Jews in 1936.
The most well-known of these attacks came the same year as the commissioning of the mural, at a time when the NF were fighting for 41 seats in the local elections. On May 4th, 25 year old Altab Ali was walking home from work in Whitechapel when he was stabbed to death by gang members. The vicious attack shook the local community, and to this day, the Altab Ali Park just off Whitechapel Road is the starting point for many anti-racist marches and rallies.
This event mobilised the local community, but racial tensions against the Bangladeshi community continued well into the 90’s. By the time the mural was completed in 1992 it had been defaced and vandalised repeatedly, and all but one of the original founding team had stepped away from the commission due to intimidation, threats and opposition to the project.
Today, the mural is a vital educational tool in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Local schools use it as the focal point for history projects, an invaluable tale to engage young children living in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country.
The 80th anniversary
This year’s anniversary celebrations are led by Cable Street 80, an umbrella group made up of supporters from various organisations, such as UNITE, The Cable Street Group, Hope Not Hate, The Indian Workers’ Association and The Jewish Socialist Group, along with its key member David Rosenberg who has been working closely with the veterans of the Battle of Cable Street to organise some of the week’s more personal events.
“This anniversary is particularly important because it’s probably the last one where we’ll hear the voices of people who were there” David Rosenberg
This year’s monumental anniversary brings with it a rather inspirational roster of events. With guided historic walks, stories from the people who were there, exhibitions, a Q+A with the women veterans of Cable Street, music performances, parties and, most notably, a march at the original site.
And why the week-long festivities? Why, 80 years later, should we celebrate a march that never happened? Why the talks, the Q+A’s, the tours and ‘star-studded’ rallies?
There are so many answers to these questions, but in order to understand the relevance of the event you have to look at what was actually achieved that day. The people who came together on the 4th October 1936 were not all from the same background, they weren’t particularly organised or prepared. All they had were a common set of values, a belief in the need to (literally) stand in the way of hatred and a willingness to defend their neighbours.
Armed with only old furniture, marbles and overfloweing bedpans (thrown from upper level windows), these normal, working class men, women and children, took on not only the fascists, but also the authorities, fighting both the police and the orders of the foreign minister.
And guess what? They won.
One could argue that this slice of history is more relevant today than it has ever been. Having harked on about the Battle of Cable street for nearly 5 years, this week I was taken aback by how much it affected me to revisit the series of events leading up to, and following on from, the 4th October 1936.
For 80 years, in the UK this event has gone relatively un-celebrated. Perhaps people prefer not to remember a time when fascism was a real threat to our way of life? As a society we pride ourselves of not having succumbed to the influence of such groups at a time when much of the rest of Europe did, and yet the Blackshirts’ march was allowed by our own government.
Who knows what might have happened had people of East London not won against Moseley that day. But I personally believe that given the current global shift in politics and attitudes towards migration and nationalism, we urgently need to be revisiting this story. Every little chapter of it: The community targeted; the response of the authorities; the battle itself; the world events in the following years.
It’s not enough to celebrate the Battle of Cable Street. We need to study it, and learn from it. As a Londoner I feel incredibly grateful for and proud of the people who took to the streets of the East End to fight racism on Sunday 4th October 1936, and until events like this become a part of the national psyche, it is the job of groups such as Cable Street 80 to find new ways of keeping its story alive.
History has a habit of repeating itself, and now, more than ever before, British people need some hope that our current way of life (ie multiculturalism and diversity) can not only survive but can work. All we need are some shared values and a little bit of community muscle power.
…. That and some overflowing bedpans.
- All info about this weekend’s march can be found here.
- More information about this week’s programme of events can be found on the Cable Street 80 and Cable Street Group websites. Find out more about tonight’s event at Jamboree here.
- I pretty much lifted most of the interesting content in this blog post from a wonderfully articulated piece by David Rosenberg in the Guardian. Read his full, and frankly far better article here.