Remember the day they did not pass

Remember the day they did not pass

80 years on from the Battle of Cable Street, Alex Davis revisits myths, truths and the relevance of this historic day for modern anti-racism efforts.

Nestled in his cosy armchair down a quiet street in Ilford, it’s hard to imagine the serene figure in front of me as anything but gentle and welcoming. With typical pride, the 94-year-old great-grandfather points to pictures of his family while offering a hearty selection of biscuits. 

And yet, as the conversation turns to Cable Street, a transformation occurs in Willie Myers. His eyes suddenly exude an energy entirely unaltered by the passage of time and his commitment to defending his community becomes unashamedly clear.

“I was 14 when my anti-fascist involvement began,” he recalls. “A friend convinced me to join the Young Communist League and I began feeling it was my duty to oppose Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. We all did.”

Battle of Cable Street red plaque
Battle of Cable Street red plaque

Formed in October 1932, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) claimed a peak membership of 50,000 in mid-1934.  Yet, by 1936, it had fallen into steep decline. Increased violence, grossly demonstrated during a mass rally at London’s Olympia, and the movement’s growing anti-Semitism began deterring much of its conservative support. Even the media largely ignored the rising radicalism of this weakening force in British politics.

But when the BUF announced its intention to march through the East End on 4 October 1936, its residents took notice. Willie joined a crowd of at least 100,000 anti-fascist protestors seeking to prevent 3,000 or so black-shirted members of the BUF marching through the predominantly Jewish quarter of London. The crowd was diverse: a united front of Jews, Communists, Irish dockers and trade unionists.

What followed was a violent confrontation, not between the two belligerents as is commonly believed, but between the anti-fascists and the 6,000 police officers, who were under orders to protect the marchers. In total, around 80 anti-fascists were arrested and at least 73 police officers injured.  But the fascists did not pass and the legacy of Cable Street was born.

Defeat in victory?

Although the anti-fascists were quick to praise their own efforts, most scholars now accept that Cable Street was, at best, a symbolic demonstration of popular hostility against fascism and anti-Semitism. An important marker, yes, but in reality, the consequences were dire for the Jewish community.

A demonstrator is taken away under arrest by police officers after a mounted baton charge, in East London, on Oct. 4, 1936, to stop fighting between anti-fascists and Sir Oswald Mosley's blackshirts.
A demonstrator is taken away under arrest by police officers after a mounted baton charge, in East London, on Oct. 4, 1936, to stop fighting between anti-fascists and Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts.

The following weekend witnessed the worst incidence of anti-Jewish violence in the interwar period, the infamous ‘Mile End Pogrom’.  Around 150 to 200 fascist youths smashed up Jewish shops and houses, and even threw an elderly Jewish man and young child through a window. The backlash wasn’t limited to London either: similar episodes occurred in Leeds and Manchester. Anti-Semitism worsened to such an extent that the Jewish People’s Council, the leading force in East End Jewish anti-fascism, warned the following summer of the fascist “terrorism which appears to increase week by week”.

The historical record also reveals that Cable Street renewed sympathy towards the BUF. The violent response by those opposing Mosley was successfully spun as an illegal blockade of a march organised with police permission.

The result was significant: the BUF’s membership increased by several thousand
and the party mustered a remarkable 18 percent of the popular vote in local elections the following March.

Perhaps most revealingly of all, almost exactly one year later, a near identical battle took place in Bermondsey, just one mile south of the river. Again, more than 100,000 anti-fascists faced a column of approximately 3,000 Blackshirts, with the resulting violence leading to 113 arrests. Its very existence stands as stark evidence against the finality of Cable Street.

Inspiring a new generation

Why, then, has Cable Street entered popular memory as the turning point in the defeat of British fascism? If the Battle seemingly made little difference to the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s, shouldn’t it be a mere footnote in history?

Sitting with us in Willie’s home is his grandson, Natan Doron. Now a Labour councillor, Natan speaks eloquently of his grandfather’s influence on him.

“I recall Willie taking me to Cable Street at a young age. I’d recently begun learning about the Holocaust and Cable Street offered a very different message.

“I feel like my grandpa’s generation did the heavy fighting and their struggle resulted in opportunities for future generations. It has certainly formed an important part of my own politics. Cable Street taught me that you have to fight for change and that progress isn’t

So perhaps the significance of Cable Street lies in its influence on subsequent generations.

Cable Street mural
Cable Street mural

But what of the literal fighting itself? The violence of the day forms an important, but perhaps uncomfortable, part of the Cable Street story. It mustn’t be forgotten that the ‘heroes’ of Cable Street fought directly with the Metropolitan Police. Admittedly, the anti-fascists believed the establishment’s tolerance of Mosley’s fascists made the police a legitimate target, but can violence ever be justified?

“That’s a tricky one,” replies Willie. “I think violence should be a last resort, but I wouldn’t hesitate to fight back even today if it was necessary.”

Another veteran, not of Cable Street but of the militant 43 Group, goes further. Maurice Podro fought the resurgence of fascism in post-war Britain and his response is unambiguous.

“I am a firm believer that you fight violence with violence. I don’t see it any other way.”

Drawing  the right lessons

But if you don’t believe in violence as a solution, what lessons can be taken from Cable Street?

According to a spokesman for the anti-racism organisation, HOPE not hate, “Cable Street showed how important it was to forge common unity in the face of organised hatred, and to stand up alongside vulnerable communities.”

Unity in the face of adversity is a strong message. But it must be peaceful, says the historian Daniel Tilles. He admires the courage of the anti-fascist protestors, but warns of drawing the wrong lessons from Cable Street.

“Far-right movements rely on a victimhood narrative and create conflict to drum up interest,” he explains. “By starving them of attention, they remain rooted to the fringes.”

Today’s fascists are, fortunately, far smaller in influence. It’s hard to imagine 300 – let alone 3,000 – right-wing sympathisers marching through Golders Green.

Or is it? My discussion with Willie concludes with his chilling warning: “When I shut my eyes and listen to Farage, all I can see is Mosley staring right back at me.”

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