18 November 2016

The Battle of Cable Street lives on
in East End memories 80 years later

The Battle of Cable Street … fought 80 years ago and commemorated in a mural on the side of on the side of Saint George’s Town Hall in Cable Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford
I have spent the past few days in the East End of London at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine, taking part in a residential meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG.

Saint Katharine’s stands is built around the old Georgian vicarage of Saint James in Ratcliffe. Facing the old vicarage, Cable Street runs through the heart of Tower Hamlets, from Limehouse to the edge of London’s financial district the City of London Cable Street runs parallel to, and south of, the Docklands Light Railway and Commercial Road, and north of The Highway.

This area is close to Wapping and Shadwell Basin to the south, Tower Hill to the west, and Whitechapel and Stepney to the north. Because many Londoners define where they live by the nearest station, the Cable Street area is often known as Shadwell.

In the past, Stepney was divided into four hamlets – Ratcliffe, Limehouse, Poplar and Mile End – and the northern part of the hamlet of Ratcliffe, where the 17th century Kilkenny-born mapmaker Nicholas Comberford (1600-1673) lived, is between Shadwell and Limehouse. This is the area was staying in this week. Ratcliffe was known as ‘sailor town,’ and from the 14th century had been a centre for shipbuilding and for fitting and provisioning ships. In the 16th century, various voyages of discovery were supplied from and departed from Ratcliffe, including those of Sir Hugh Willoughby (1553) and Martin Frobisher (1570s).

By the early 17th century, when Nicholas was living here, Ratcliffe had the largest population of any village in Stepney, with 3,500 residents. It was a site of shipbuilding in the 17th century, when a number of naval sailing warships were built here for the Royal Navy, including one of the earliest frigates, the Constant Warwick (1645). Located on the edge of Narrow Street on the Wapping waterfront, it was made up of lodging houses, bars, brothels, music halls and opium dens. This over-crowded and squalid district acquired an unsavoury reputation with a large transient population.

A view of Cable Street looking east towards Butcher Row and Saint Katharine’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

During my stay here this week, I walked the length of Cable Street from Saint Katharine’s, through the East End, towards the City of London.

When Saint Katharine’s moved back to the East End in the 1940s, the first Master appointed after the move was Father St John Groser, who had been Rector of Saint George-in-the-East, on Canon Street Road off Cable Street. In the 1930s, he was involved in galvanising local opposition to Oswald Mosley and his fascists. He took part in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, and had his nose broken by a police baton.

The Battle of Cable Street made this street famous 80 years ago, but the history of the area goes back much further.

Cable Street started as a rope walk or straight path where hemp ropes were twisted along its length into ships’ ropes or cables. These cables supplied ships anchored nearby in the Pool of London, between London Bridge and Wapping and Rotherhithe.

Until Victorian times, the present-day Cable Street had different names for each of its sections, including Cable Street, Knock Fergus, New Road, Back Lane, Blue Gate Fields, Sun Tavern Fields, and Brook Street.

The name of Blue Gate Fields survives in the name of a local school. Some local historians suggest the name of Knock Fergus may refer to the large numbers of Irish people who lived there. But the name is old, and it is found in the parish register of Saint Dunstan Stepney in the early 1600s.

A 19th century marker recalls the boundaries of the parish of Saint George-in-the-East (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The whole of the central area of present-day Cable Street was named after Saint George-in-the-East Church and Saint George-in-the-East parish.

From Victorian times until the 1950s, Cable Street had a reputation for cheap lodgings, brothels, drinking inns and opium dens. In 1868, the Dublin-born Dr Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905) opened his first home for destitute children nearby in Stepney Causeway.

The Battle of Cable Street took place just over 80 years ago, on Sunday 4 October 1936, when local communities clashed with police who were protecting a planned fascist march in Cable Street in the heart of the Jewish East End.

Local Jewish groups and residents, along with trade unionists, Labour groups, socialists, Communists, anarchists and local Irish organisations, decided to take a stand against a planned march through the East End by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

Mosley planned to goose-step thousands of his marchers dressed in uniforms like those of Mussolini’s Blackshirts through the East End, which then had a large Jewish population. Despite the strong likelihood of violence, the government hesitated about banning the march. A large police escort was provided in a bid to block anti-fascist protesters from disrupting the march.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews denounced the march as anti-semitic and urged Jewish people to stay away. The Communist Party, under the leadership of Phil Piratin, was one of the leaders of the opposition forces.

The anti-fascist groups set up roadblocks in an attempt to prevent the march from taking place. The barricades were set up near the junction with Christian Street, towards the west end of Cable Street. About 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators turned out, only to be met by 6,000 police, who attempted to clear the road to allow 2,000-3,000 fascists to march.

A colourful doorway on a house in Cable Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The demonstrators fought back with sticks, rocks, chair legs and other improvised weapons. Rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots were thrown at the police by women from the doors and windows of houses along Cable Street. A bus was overturned and used as a barricade, Mosley’s car was attacked with bricks, and hand-to-hand fighting broke out on the surrounding streets.

After a series of running battles that day, Mosley appeared to climb down and agreed to abandon his march, claiming he now wanted to prevent bloodshed. The fascist marchers were dispersed towards Hyde Park and the police then attacked the counter-demonstrators. About 150 of them were arrested, although some escaped, and several members of the police were also arrested by demonstrators. Around 175 people were injured, including police, women and children.

Many of the arrested demonstrators reported they had been treated harshly by the police. Most were charged with the minor offence of obstructing police and fined £5, but several of the leaders were found guilty of affray and sentenced to three months hard labour.

Two days after the Battle, Mosley was married in Joseph Goebbels’s drawing room, with Hitler as his special guest. The Battle of Cable Street was a major factor leading to the passage of the Public Order Act 1936, which required police consent for political marches and forbade the wearing of political uniforms in public. It provided a short-term boost for Mosley’s fascists but eventually proved to be a significant moment in their decline in the years immediately before World War II.

Saint George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, originally the vestry hall for the parish, and later the town hall of Stepney Borough Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Piratin was one of the heroes of the day. In 1937, he became the first Communist elected to Stepney Borough Council, and in 1945 he was elected as the Communist MP for Mile End.

Beatty Orwell, who took part in the counter-fascist protests was then a 19-year-old. She went on to be the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and served as councillor for 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s. She is now a great-grandmother 18 times over.

In the 1980s, a large mural depicting scenes from the battle was painted on the side of Saint George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, immediately west of Shadwell station and next to Library Place. This building was originally the vestry hall for the parish and later the town hall of Stepney Borough Council.

Little is recognisable from that period on today’s Cable Street, apart from the faded street signs. Cable Street is now home to a large South Asian community, a cycle route to the City, and some parts of it look as though they are becoming up-and-coming residential areas for young hipsters.

The speakers at last month’s anniversary rally in Saint George’s Gardens, Cable Street, included included 100-year-old Dublin-born Max Levitas, a veteran of the battle, a Communist councillor in Stepney for 15 years, and still active in political causes. His brother, Maurice (‘Morry’) Lavitas, who died in 2001, was a veteran of the Connolly Column in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Their father Harry fled from Lithuania and their mother Leah from Latvia in 1913, both escaping the anti-semitic pogroms of Tsarist Russia. They met in Dublin and were married in the Camden Street Synagogue. However, on the other side of Europe, Harry’s sister Sara was burnt to death along with fellow-villagers in the synagogue of Akmeyan, and Leah’s sister Rachel was killed with her family by the Nazis in Riga.

In the week immediately after my visit to Auschwitz, Birkenau and the Old Jewish Quarter of Kraków, and in a time when we are seeing the rise of political extremism and racism in the US, it was good to be reminded of the courage and resilience of people who stood against the rise of fascism in years immediately before World War II.

Part of the mural at Saint George’s Town Hall commemorating the Battle of Cable Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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