Art Travelling: Cable Street

for those of you who like a bit of history with your art

The Battle of Cable Street Mural, Dave Binnington, Ray Walker, Paul Butler and Desmond Rochfort, completed 1983

The 1930s were a time of seismic political transformation in Europe. Fascist dictators seized power in Germany, Italy, and Romania, while left-wing and communist forces revolted against fascism’s spread in nations such as Spain. This tension culminated in a violent episode on Cable Street in the East London neighbourhood of Stepney. On one side, there were fascists, and on the other, there were anti-fascists, communists, and anarchists.

Because of the terrible pogroms in Russia and elsewhere in Europe, many Jewish immigrants began coming in London’s East End in the early 1900s. Stepney was one of London’s poorest and most densely populated areas at the time, and many new immigrants relocated there. The East End developed a distinct Jewish population and culture by the 1930s. Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), admired Mussolini whom he had met. Mosley formed his own force, the Blackshirts, a quasi-military group of about 15,000 thugs fashioned after Mussolini’s Squadrismo.

However, anti-fascist sentiment was growing. Trade unions, socialists, and the Jewish community began to organise. On Sunday 4th October 1936, Mosley announced a march into the heart of the East End’s Jewish community; it was an obvious provocation. A petition with 100,000 signatures was circulated urging the Home Secretary to prohibit the march. Mosley, on the other hand, had the support of the press and the police. The fascists were frequently praised in the Daily Mail, with titles such as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts.” The East End had to defend itself.

The level of resistance was astounding. Thousands of protesters gathered in Aldgate’s Gardeners Corner. As Mosley collected his forces at the Royal Mint near the Tower of London, 6,000 police officers were instructed to clear the protestors out of Whitechapel. The police used mounted officers to disperse the throng at Aldgate, but many more protestors poured in. Four supportive tram drivers purposefully abandoned their vehicles to help the anti-fascists block the road.

“Down with the fascists!” chants could be heard across East London as police fought with residents, Communists, Jews, Irish dockers, and trade unionists all chanting “They Shall Not Pass!”.

It all came to a head in Cable Street, where barriers had been set up early that morning. The police were astonished by the fierce resistance. From all sides, everything from rotten fruit to boiling water showered down upon them. The police reached arrived at the first barrier, but brawls erupted, prompting the police to withdraw and demand that Mosley turn around and level Whitechapel. The people had driven the fascists out.

A massive mural commemorating the conflict can be seen on the side of St George’s Town Hall on Cable Street, approximately 350 metres east of the main roadblock that stood near the intersection.. Painted by Dave Binnington, Ray Walker, Paul Butler and Desmond Rochfort between 1979 and 1983. It is a short walk from Shadwell Overground Statoin.