The Battle of Cable Street

The rich said, “Damn’ Jews! They’re all Communists, reds – revolutionaries!” and the ignorant befuddled poor said, “Bloody Jews! They’re all rich – they’re all millionaires”. So between the two – smacked in the face and kicked in the backside at the same time.

(Simon Blumenfeld, Jew Boy [1935, reissued by London Books 2011])

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Red plaque commemorating Battle of Cable Street, Dock Street, near Cable Street junction. Photo: Richard Allen, Wikimedia Commons.

Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the Jewish East End (parts of the London borough of Stepney) on 4 October 1936. Six thousand police officers were deployed to protect the right of these thugs to demonstrate in public. Between 310,000 and half a million people gathered to block the fascists, adopting the slogan of the Spanish Civil War “They Shall Not Pass”. The ensuing fight between locals – Jews, cockneys, Irish dockers, Labour and Communist Party members – and the Metropolitan Police led to the Commissioner Sir Philip Game to order Mosley and his three thousand blackshirts to call off the demonstration.

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Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, Charlton: Photo Archive, Cable Street

During the 1980s Roger Mills and the Cable Street Group interviewed a number of eye-witnesses and participants in this famous fight. (Roger Mills, Everything Happens in Cable Street [Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2011]) On the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, here is Mr and Mrs Ginsberg’s story:

Mr Ginsberg: I lived in Cable Street all the time up until 1938 when I got married. People by then were scattering all over the place. I didn’t know my wife then but she was at the Battle. I was there right at the front. I saw the crowds so I went right through them. Foolish! Mosley’s crowds were in Royal Mint Street. The police were lined up in Leman Street and Dock Street and the beginning of Cable Street so I went – Nosey Park – right to the front to see what was happening. I was foolish being in front because when they started pushing forward – the police were on horseback – they didn’t care who they pushed or threw down.

Mrs Ginsberg: Policemen’s helmets were flying and boys’ teeth were being knocked out. They were banged on the head with truncheons. It was terrifying.

Mr Ginsberg: I went to help this chap, the horse had jumped on his stomach. He was in terrific pain. I went to help him but the police were saying, “Get back, get back.” They were going to hit me, I had to go back; I couldn’t help the man. But Mosley never got past. We all expected it – that was why there were so many people there. It was a very heavy atmosphere. Many people were afraid, they stayed in their houses and wouldn’t come out. But a lot of us did. When they did turn back there were people on the floor, injured.

Mrs Ginsberg: I belonged to the Labour League of Youth – the Labour Party. The Blackshirts were going through our streets and a friend of mine said, “Come on, join us.” So I did and we all went to Cable Street and that’s how I became involved. I was there in the thick of it and saw all the horses coming at us. I was terrified. I went to the corner and said to the police, “I want to go home.” He said, “No, you can’t go that way,” and he sent me back into the melee. It was like a war. They built a barricade in the middle, the men did. Everything they could lay their hands on – tables, chairs and God knows what.

Mr Ginsberg: It came as a great shock because the police were our friends. They used to walk along  the street and we used to say hello. Every time the police walked they used to try the door. Every door they tried. They used to give advice and have a drink in the pub. They were very friendly the local police. But here they were from the Midlands – somewhere up north – goodness knows where they came from. They had strange policemen. And they were banging people on the head. A great shock.

Mrs Ginsberg: They suffered too. We saw policemen with blood streaming down their faces. They didn’t have it all their way. It was their job to allow Mosley to march through. They tried but there were masses and masses of people and it was impossible to get through even with horses. They had to give up in the end and turn him back.

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