Recently I was lucky enough to interview two of the few remaining ‘veterans’ of the ‘Battle’ that took place on Cable Street eighty years ago, on the 4th of October 1936, when Jewish and Irish residents, dock workers, communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists came together to halt a fascist march through London’s East End. 1
The march was a fourth anniversary celebration of the founding of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). When 100,000 anti-fascist protesters barred the way of the 2,000 marchers, the police were dispatched to clear the route. 2 The ensuing clashes between police, fascists and anti-fascists are still remembered eighty years on as a symbol of resistance against the far right.
Alf Seller witnessed the event itself, as well as the social and political atmosphere leading up to it. Alf was born at number 8 Rutland Street, now called Ashfield Street, in the mid-1920s. He remembers an East End of street-corner pubs, trips to Shadwell Park and activities at the state-of-the-art local youth club. But he also remembers an East End where fascist meetings were ‘a staple feature.’
‘There was the Mosley fascist meetings’, he tells me, ‘at the corner of Philpott Street and Commercial Road, they were held on a weekly basis’. At one such meeting that was broken up by anti-fascists, a young Alf was deeply affected by the brutal sight of ‘the police leading a boy away in a half-nelson. It was somebody that I knew’.
In the days leading up to the 4th of October Alf recalls ‘a lot of talk about this march…everyone was talking about it, you couldn’t help to know.’ Curious, a 10-year-old Alf went alone to Cable Street on the day to see what was happening.
Unable to get to Cable Street, he went to Aldgate. There he saw the arrival of the dockers and the mounted police charges where protesters scattered ball-bearings to disorient police horses. ‘All I know is that when I saw that I thought “there’s gonna be some trouble” and then I did turn round and go home.’
Willie Myers, just 15 at the time, was a very active anti-fascist who participated in the battle. He was right in the middle of the ‘trouble’ that day.
He had been converted into a ‘political animal’ by his neighbour Max Levitas and joined the Young Communist League (YCL) at 14. He spent his youth breaking up fascist meetings in the East End and collecting aid for the Spanish Republicans who had been engaged in a bitter civil war since July 1936. Two of his friends went as volunteers to fight in the latter conflict, one never to return.
On the 4th of October he witnessed baton charges that soured his view of the police forever. In Christian Street, a road connecting Commercial Road to Cable Street, Willie and his friends helped build a barricade on a flatbed lorry. He remembers the strength of the unity between the local residents and the hostility they showed towards the police. These twin forces soon meant the march was called off, to what Willie remembers as ‘a cry of relief…everybody went mad.’
Willie later joined the RAF and helped defeat fascism in Europe. On his return he continued his left-wing anti-fascist activism. He feels a sense of personal pride in the part he played, though hastens to add that he was ‘only one of hundreds of thousands’. However, this pride is tinged with anger and frustration at the survival of racism and far-right ideology today.
While Alf saw few parallels between those days and today, Willie fears a dangerous repeat of the past. At the mention of the rise in reported racial hate crimes since the EU referendum Willie laments, ‘I get angry at times that the lessons haven’t been learned, that the lessons of the war haven’t been learned.’
Of Nigel Farage and politicians like him, Willie warns, ‘When I close my eyes I can hear Mosley. The same sort of rhetoric.’ But he remains optimistic. ‘My ideas are winning over Mosley’s, in spite of the racism that’s going on’, says Willie. For him, this is evident in the recent election of London’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, and also by the diversity he encounters in everyday life.
His grandson, Natan, a Labour councillor in Crouch End, believes that his generation has a duty to carry on the struggle of his grandfather’s generation against fascism, the far-right and racism generally. For Natan, the living history passed down to him by Willie forms an important part of his political consciousness.
Willie’s conviction was dimmed neither by complacency nor by the passage of time as he urged the importance of remembering Cable Street. Though mobility issues have stopped Willie being as active as he would like to be in passing on the anti-fascist lessons of Cable Street, he remains involved. He tells me proudly that he is due to give a talk to his local branch of the Jewish Association of Cultural Studies (JACS) next month on this very topic.
In the face of the current situation, Willie urges vigilance and insists ‘I would willingly do it all again, even now, without a shadow of a doubt.’
Liam Liburd is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. He has conducted research on the centrality of the ‘new fascist man’ in the politics of the British Union of Fascists and also masculinity and anti-fascism in Britain during the interwar period. You can find him on twitter at @Liburd93.
Image: Photograph of the mural of the Battle of Cable Street, courtesy of Liam Liburd.