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)

CITI commissioning of student readers

This quarter-page news report and photograph is published in the current edition of the ‘Church of Ireland Gazette’ (18 November 2016), p 3:

CITI commissioning of student readers

Photographed with Archbishop Michael Jackson are six ordinands who were recently commissioned as student readers in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI), Dublin. They were presented by the Director of CITI, Canon Maurice Elliott, and the Lecturer in Missiology, the Revd Dr Patrick McGlinchey, who co-ordinates student placements. This picture shows (from left) Dr McGlinchey, Canon Patrick Comerford, Jonathan Brown (Down & Dromore), Jonathan Cockerill (Connor), Karen Salmon (Down & Dromore), Graham Jones (Dublin & Glendalough), Emma Carson (Down & Dromore), Paul Gibson (Connor), Archbishop Jackson and Dr Elliott. (Photo: Lynn Glanveille)

Richard Church (1784-1873):
an Irish Anglican in the Greek
Struggle for Independence

Image of Sir Richard Church from his grave in the First Cemetery, Athens. Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

The poet Lord Byron and the Philhellenes are often portrayed as English romantics who devoted their lives to the cause of Greek independence in the early 19th century. But there were Irish Philhellenes too, including Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes.’ This forgotten Irish hero is commemorated in windows and memorials in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens, where a plaque claims he won the affection of the people of Greece ‘for himself and for England.’ Yet Church was Irish-born and his commitment to Greece was fired by his faith as an Anglican.

Church was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. In his youth, he ran away to join the army. His Quaker parents were disowned or excommunicated for buying him a commission and so they became Anglicans. He arrived in Greece in 1800 as a 16-year-old ensign serving under Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway. Lowe, who is remembered as Napoleon’s jailer, was the second-in-command in the expedition to the Ionian Islands.

Church took part in the capture of Kephalonia, Ithaki, Lefkhada, Zakynthos and Kythera. He wrote home: ‘The Greeks, who are slaves to the Turks and are Christians, are ... a brave, honest, open generous people.’ He soon began providing military training for Greek revolutionaries, including Theodoros Kolokotronis, who became the pre-eminent general in the Greek War of Independence. Church recruited the Greeks troops who captured Paxos and the town of Parga on the mainland, and assisted in the negotiations for the surrender of Corfu. By then, he had become ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’

At the Congress of Vienna, he argued for an independent Greece. But he was ordered to disband his Greek regiments, the Ionian Islands became a British colony, and, in an act of treachery, Parga was sold to Ali Pasha (1740-1822). A disappointed Church left Greece for a military career in Austria and Italy. But when the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Kolokotronis and Edward Blaquière, a Dublin seaman of Huguenot descent, campaigned to bring Church back to lead the armed forces.

Two weeks after Church married Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot, who was sister-in-law of the Earl of Kenmare and related by marriage to Byron, the Greek government invited Church to take command of the army. After an absence of 12 years, he returned to Greece in 1827 to a hero’s welcome. He played a decisive role in uniting the Greek factions and in the election of Ioannis Kapodistrias as President, and Church was sworn into office on Easter Day, 15 April 1827.

One of his first actions was a disastrous attempt to drive off a Turkish force besieging the tiny Greek garrison in the Acropolis in Athens. But he soon rallied his forces and stirred a fresh rebellion across the northern Peloponnese. A major turning point in the War of Independence came at the Battle of Navarino, the last sea battle of the age of sail. Thanks largely to the actions of Church and Gawin Rowan Hamilton, an Irish officer in the British navy, a large Turkish naval force was defeated in a four-hour battle in October 1827. Turkey’s naval power was broken and Church rejoiced at what he called “this signal interposition of divine Providence.”

Church found it increasingly difficult to work with Kapodistrias, resigned and left Greece. But he soon relented, returned to Greece permanently, and became a Greek citizen. In 1834, he and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis in Athens.

King Otho (r. 1832-62) restored Church to the rank of general and appointed him Inspector-General of the army. But Otho was a despot, and in 1843 Church played a key role in a coup d’état, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication. Otho later took his revenge on Church, dismissing him as Inspector-General. But Church remained a life senator and during the Crimean War (1853-56) he was recalled as a general. A popular revolt in 1862 finally forced Otho to abdicate.

When Church died in his ninetieth year on 27 March 1873, he received a public funeral and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to Kolokotronis and the heroes of the War of Independence. In his oration, the Greek Ambassador to London, Ioannis Gennadios, described Church as ‘the truest Hellene, the most steadfast and most affectionate of the sons of Greece.’

In all, 31 people of Irish birth or with an Irish identity took part in Greek political life during the struggle for the independence and consolidation of the modern Greek state. But, unlike Byron, few of the Irish Philhellenes were romantics: their motivations were often political, and many saw the cause of Greece as the cause of an oppressed and persecuted Christian people. Church, who often travelled with nothing more than his Bible and his sword, believed the Greek struggle was a holy war.

This connection between his faith and action is seen in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land. Church is represented as Caleb who helps them capture the land from the Gentiles, and as David who, despite his stature, defeats the Philistines. The inference is that the Turks were Amalekites or the Philistines who deprived the Chosen People of the Promised Land.

The inscription on the brass tablet below the two-light north window was composed by the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who unveiled the plaque in 1873. The south windows were presented in 1875 by the Church family, including his nephew, Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a friend of Newman and the Tractarians.

Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’

Further Reading:

Douglas Dakin, British and American Philhellenes during the Greek War of Independence, 1821–1833 (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1955). William St Clair, That Greece Might Still be Free: the Philhellenes in the War of Independence (Oxford and London: OUP, 1972).
C.M. Woodhouse, The Philhellenes (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969).

Biographical Note from List of Contributors:

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy and Church History at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

‘Richard Church (1784–1873): An Irish Anglican in the Greek Struggle for Independence’, was first published in Salvador Ryan (ed), Treasures of Ireland, Vol III, To the Ends of the Earth (Dublin, Veritas, 2015), pp 117–120.