The Battle of Cable Street has been regarded by many as a unique event and has taken its place in the mythology of place. But a more constructive way to reflect on the ‘Battle’ is to see it as an instalment in the legacy of a unique space, the East End of London, which has been a first point of settlement for immigrants for more than 350 years.
Over the centuries the presence of Huguenot, Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi immigrants has contributed to a legacy of confrontation, collaboration and on rare occasions, a combination of the two. It is the legacy of a place whose proximity to the centre of government, finance, commerce and monarchy, has resulted in local events influencing national policy. 1
One of the constants in East End history is the way in which incomers have been perceived as a threat to homes, jobs and nation. In 1675 the English weavers of Spitalfields resorted to violence to save their jobs and stop the Frenchies (Huguenots), ‘taking the food from our mouths’. In order to prevent a massacre, the King’s Guard was called out. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, jobs and homes were again the issue, though not often physically attacked.
The Eastern European Jewish community were constantly subjected to verbal abuse, being called by one trade unionist, ‘the refuse of the world’. Following the sinking of the Lusitania, in May 1915, violence came to the streets of Limehouse, Stepney and Bethnal Green when outraged locals ransacked German homes and businesses, together with those of the Jewish community with German sounding names.
It was not only the threat posed by economic hardship, overcrowding and the wartime enemy that spurred attacks – the East End immigrant as sexual predator is part of the legacy of place. Huguenots were perceived as sexual philanderers and Eastern European Jews were frequently identified as posing a danger to English females and the purity of the nation race. 2
Though Phil Piratin, a local Jewish-Communist protagonist at the Battle of Cable Street, recalled witnessing some violent incidents, it was not until the settlement of Pakistanis in the 1960s, that violence took a more lethal turn. As the new East End migrant community became established the old accusation of ‘they’re taking our homes’ was heard on the streets, and members of extreme right-wing groups began attacking the new immigrants. In 1968 a new word entered the lexicon of migrant confrontation: ‘paki-bashing’.
In the decade that followed, a number of young Bengali men were murdered in and around Brick Lane. This time there was no collaboration between disparate groups. Far right white youths regularly rampaged up and down Brick Lane and Mile End Road attacking young Asians.
Convinced that the police did not always act in their best interests, young Bengali men founded vigilante groups as a means of self-defence. Once again the extreme right had forced its targets to take independent defensive action, as it had immediately after the Second World War when young Jewish vigilantes founded the ‘43 Group’ in reaction to the (re)emergence of Mosley’s Union Movement.
However, there were instances when, as at Cable Street, differences were overcome and mutual support took over. In 1889 and again in 1912, Jewish tailors and Irish and English Dockers went on strike in protest against harsh conditions and low wages. Striking tailors and dockers shared platforms at the end of the 1889 dock strike, and the dockers donated the residual £100 in their strike fund to the Jewish tailors. Twenty-three years later in an act of reverse compassion, after the successful conclusion to the tailors’ strike, Jewish families took in and cared for 300 starving dockers’ children until the dock strike petered out.
Sixty-six years later there was a rare example of local white and Bengali collaboration when both communities jointly protested against attempts to create an all Bangladeshi housing estate. It was all right for people to choose to live with their own, but not to be forced to live in a ghetto.
Yet another constituent ingredient in the East End legacy of place is religious difference. Huguenots were not denounced because of their Calvinism; they caused alarm when rumoured to be crypto Catholics. Alien was the euphemism used to identify Eastern European Jews from the 1880s onwards. Rather than their religion, it was their ‘taking jobs and homes’ that furnished the anti-alien rhetoric that drove the Aliens Act of 1905.
Not until the end of the third decade of the twentieth century did the term anti-Semitism, with its combined religious and racial connotations, become the language of Jew hatred and a force behind the BUF’s intended march through Cable Street; indeed many of the Jewish activists on that day were Jews by birth, not practice, their avowed religion being communism.
The legacy of the East End is one composed of its unique location and demography. Over the centuries proximity to the nation’s heartland has emphasised the need to respond rapidly – though not always effectively – to issues such as the threat from violent unrest, poverty and exploitation, and the migrant presence; problems which away from the capital, if not ignored, are not always prioritised.
The action taken by those opposed to Oswald Mosley on that October day may not have stopped him promoting the Fascist dogma, but it broadcast a message to the nation that East Enders, whatever their roots, could unite in the face of the unacceptable. The demography of place has been a powerful factor in the events that have taken place on the streets of East London; the Battle of Cable was one of those occasions. 3
Anne Kershen is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Queen Mary University London. Her research interests include migration and migrants more, with emphasis on immigration and settlement in London. She is currently working on an edited volume in memory of William J Fishman, to be published by Routledge in 2016.
Image: Brick Lane Mosque. La Neuve Église church was built by the Huguenots in 1743; it became a synagogue at the end of the nineteenth century and a mosque in 1976. The building is a definitive statement of immigrant settlement in the East End since the seventeenth century [via Wikicommons].
- Some of the outcomes include: 1773 Spitalfields Act: first act to control wages – albeit within the boundaries of Spitalfields; 1888/9 Sweating Commission – established as a response to the sweating system in the East End, but then extended nationwide and eventually resulting in the Trade Boards Act of 1909; 1905 Aliens Act; 1908 Old Age Pensions Act – following Charles Booth’s poverty survey of the East End in 1888/9 and his subsequent crusade for Old Age Pensions; 1909 Trade Boards Act (introduced minimum wages in specific trades) – following outrage at continuation of sweating system in East End and elsewhere; 1936 Public Order Act after Battle of Cable Street. ↩
- The threat of miscegenation was an ongoing fear articulated fiercely in the years leading to the Aliens Act of 1905. The phobia emerged again in the wave of the dock riots that broke out in 1919 when non-European dock workers who were consorting with some English girls in an Arab cafe in West India Dock Road, were violently assaulted by locals. ↩
- The twenty-first century has seen the local become global. External factors now strongly influence local activity; as a Bengali student said to me in 2007, ‘9/11 changed everything’. And it did. We can still trace the legacy of place in the East End, but it has absorbed external fears and a new, distasteful, ingredient has been added to the legacy and relevance of place in the history of the Battle of Cable Street. ↩