When Sir Oswald Mosley’s plan to march his uniformed fascists through the East End of London on Sunday October 4 1936 was announced it sent shockwaves through the Jewish community that lived there.
Mosley planned to assemble his blackshirts at Tower Hill and have them march in four separate contingents to four points in the East End for meetings in celebration of the movement’s fourth birthday.
Exactly what routes they would take was unclear.
But it was clear that they would have to pass through the main junction of Aldgate – Gardiner’s Corner.
In the run up to October 4 there were numerous fascist incursions into Stepney.
Feelings ran high and the Jewish People’s Council (JPC), an initiative of the Workers’ Circle, led opposition to the proposed march by organising a 100,000 strong petition urging the home secretary to ban the march.
On Thursday October 1 five east London mayors met with Home Office officials and told them that there would be serious trouble in the East End if they allowed the march to go ahead. The following day a delegation delivered the petition.
But the government refused to ban the march and it was left to local people to defend their community from the fascists.
The JPC issued the call to “Bar the roads to fascism.”
Other slogans of the day were “Remember Olympia” – after a meeting in 1934 where anti-fascist protesters were severely beaten – and, borrowed from their republican comrades who were fighting the Falangist forces and their fascist allies in Spain, “They Shall Not Pass.”
Jewish and non-Jewish establishment organisations called for people to stay off the streets, but the JPC, the trade unions, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour League of Youth and others began to mobilise.
The most prominent and influential of the anti-fascist political parties – the Communist Party – initially found itself caught in a dilemma.
The Young Communist League had already planned an anti-fascist Aid Spain rally in Trafalgar Square that day.
But the defence of the East End was paramount and the national CP overprinted their thousands of Trafalgar Square leaflets with the words “Alteration: Rally to Aldgate 2pm.”
Prominent at the head of the organised resistance on October 4 was Phil Piratin, who was later to represent Stepney as a Communist Party MP.
As the fascists’ plans were unclear Piratin sent a number of “spotters” to their assembly point at Tower Hill to obtain the route.
The Young Communist League was given the task of occupying Victoria Park from early in the morning, where the fascists intended to hold a rally.
The same morning the Jewish Ex-Serviceman’s Association assembled near the London Hospital for a march to advertise the counter-demonstration.
When these first world war veterans marched along the Whitechapel Road, proudly displaying their medals, they found their route blocked by mounted police.
A senior police officer ordered them to disperse, but they refused.
The police then attacked them and beat them severely.
The British Legion Union Jack was torn down, ripped apart and thrown in the gutter and the banner poles smashed.
It set the tone for the rest of the day.
As news of this atrocity spread anti-fascists were assembling at Gardiner’s Corner at Aldgate, blocking the gateway to the East End.
The crowd, estimated to be at least 250,000, roared “They Shall Not Pass!” and “Down with fascism!”
Six thousand police including London’s entire mounted police division tried to clear the area.
Four anti-fascist trams drivers intentionally abandoned their vehicles to form barricades which were used by the crowd as they were attacked by police on horseback.
The police struck out with batons with extreme brutality causing many injuries.
Cafes were turned into first aid units by the Communist Party with members who had medical training treating the wounded.
While Mosley waited impatiently with a few thousand blackshirt troops the police decided that with Gardiner’s Corner in the hands of an immovable anti-fascist crowd they would clear an alternative route to the south – Cable Street.
The street had been ready since early morning.
The initial defence was three sets of barricades, one containing an overturned lorry, erected across the narrow road using material from a builders’ yard and from the mainly local Jewish people’s homes and shops that occupied the western end.
Dockers armed with pick axe handles came from the eastern end of the long street towards Wapping and helped by ripping up the paving stones.
The street was strewn with broken glass and marbles as a defence against mounted police charges.
Anti-fascists chanted slogans and gave clenched-fist salutes from behind the barricades in defiance.
There was fierce fighting as the police attempted to clear the barricades, only to face a further barricade and thousands of regrouped anti-fascists.
All manner of items rained down on the police from the small three-storey buildings that lined the street.
Piratin recalled: “They met with an opposition that was even a surprise to us.
“All we could attempt to do was organise people who were on the demonstration.
“Obviously, we made no attempt, and we didn’t expect to organise people from their homes. It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse that they didn’t any longer want in the house onto the police.
“The Battle of Cable Street is known for this reason. It was there that the police really had to fight for themselves, not for the fascists.”
For some police officers it was all too much.
Several threw down their batons and “surrendered.”
Their helmets and batons were taken off them as souvenirs.
With no route left for the fascists police commissioner Sir Philip Game told Mosley to march his troops west from Tower Hill and out of the area.
Meanwhile anti-fascists marched to Victoria Park heralding a victory for the Jewish community, the people of the East End, and anti-fascists everywhere.
The historian Bill Fishman, who was at Gardiner’s Corner that day, recalled: “There were parties, there was dancing in the streets. The cafes were full, the pubs were full. And there was a feeling of elation, a feeling of relief, particularly amongst the immigrant Jews.
“I think from that day onward Mosley never again ventured into the ghetto streets of east London.”
A march and rally is taking place this Sunday October 2 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle. Speakers include Cable St veteran Max Levitas. Assemble: 11.30am Aldgate East. (junction of Braham Street and Leman Street). Nearest Tube: Aldgate East. 1pm St Georges in the East Park (Cable Street).