Today (July 16) in London History – Nuremberg Rally in SW5

On July 16, 1939 – just weeks before the start of World War II – Britain’s “Fifth Column” was stirring up no end of trouble at home. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

World War II was just 49 days away. That’s the takeaway here. 

I’ve now written and voiced over 200 of these Today in London History podcasts. It’s like being a cross-eyed boy at a three-ring circus. Every day – every episode – I find out things I didn’t know, see things I didn’t know were there. They’re unexpected, they’re surprises, they jump out at me from different quarters. It’s a very rich palette of London surprises. And I suppose seeing is the right word. How does Hamlet put it to Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Well, you can paraphrase that in my case to “there are more things in London, David, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

So it might be seeing – for the first time, for me – something like that Milk Fair in St. James’s Park. It had been there for 300 years. Old ladies milking cows down at the other end of the Mall from Buckingham Palace. That going on there, that being there until 1905. Who would’ve known, who would have guessed that?

But there are other instances where it’s a different kind of seeing. A matter of things suddenly snapping into focus – your perceptions being re-arranged in a startling way.

That’s what this one’s all about.

Our focus of attention is Sir Oswald Mosley, the Leader of the Black Shirts, the British Union of Fascists. He’s got a cameo role in my Old Westminster walk. We stand in front of his house. I say something like, “it’s well known that this country had its own home-grown fascist movement. The British Union of Fascists. Headed by a minor aristocrat named Sir Oswald Mosley, who on very little evidence believed he had one of the best minds in the 20th century. He was a great admirer of Mussolini and Hitler. Wanted to take this country down the path that Mussolini was taking fascist Italy and that Hitler was taking Nazi Germany. This was his house. Out of this house he masterminded that Black Shirt movement. And you get an idea of just what a political hothouse this neighbourhood was when you bear in mind that just round the corner – we’ll be there in a minute – was the house where the Anti-Appeasement Movement got started. The house where Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan and Duff Cooper and others of a like mind met, schemed, tried to figure out how they could muster the support in the House of Commons to get Chamberlain out and Churchill in so he could draw a line in the sand and say to that little Austrian misfit in the Reichschancellery in Berlin, you cross this line you’re at war with the British Empire, Herr Hitler. Men who were determined that Sir Oswald Mosley wasn’t going to have his way with this country. 

And that’s all well and good. But the snapping into focus – the altered perception – in this instance, July 16th, is a matter of timing. There I was vaguely thinking of Mosley beating his drum earlier in the 1930s. And thanks to this podcast I find out that he was a huge force to be reckoned with just weeks before the start of World War II. 

We’re going to zoom in now. It’s July 16th, 1939. Remember, World War II is just seven weeks down the road, 50 days in the future. 

The venue is the Earl’s Court Exhibition Hall. The event is billed as “the world’s largest indoor meeting.” It might well be. Mosley’s packed the place out. 30,000 of his rabid supporters are there. His speech is vile. It’s anti-Semitic in the extreme. And how extraordinary that he was hitting some of the same chords that were getting a lot of play on the other side of the Atlantic. What the comparable lot in America were saying was, “America first.” That was the slogan. It’s very simple. And very powerful. Well, Mosley’s version of the same thing was, “Britain first.”

And you can see him picking his way through a political minefield. He says his demonstration of Britain First is therefore a demonstration of World Peace. As if the one follows inexorably from the other.

But he’s having his cake and eating it too. Because he’s quick to add that “if any country in the world attacks Britain or threatens to attack Britain, then every single member of the British Union will fight for Britain.” You can see how he’s trying to occupy all the high ground and make sure he’s not outflanked. He’s saying we’re the iron fist in the velvet glove, we’re the party of peace but if it comes to it the party of war, we’re the party of nationalism but also the party of internationalism. Above all, we’re the party of patriotism. 

And of course he’s got that all-important ingredient: enemies. 

In the first instance, the press. Mosley roared out at his 30,000 followers that there is no such thing as a free press in Britain. He ranted, “when they said censorship existed in foreign countries and not in Britain, the British Union gave them the lie. By their treatment of the Union they admitted a censorship in Britain, the censorship of money.”

And I think you can probably guess – and yes, it’s sickening – where he was headed to – yes, that’s right, vile antisemitism. He said, “a million Britons shall not die in your Jews’ quarrel.” It’s unbelievably repugnant. Two final points. The Times account of the rally said Mosley stood on a high rostrum in the glare of spotlights. It’s Nuremberg rally stuff translated to London SW5.

The main thing, though, I’m going to come back to this – is the timing. Just a few weeks before the Nazis had signed the Pact of the Steel with Italy. And in just over five weeks the Nazis and the Soviets would sign their infamous pact. British leaders could hardly have been more beleaguered – and to think that at the same time they had to contend with what was effectively a very powerful fifth column at home – Mosley ripping things asunder, stirring up no end of trouble – how you not be lost in admiration for that group of beleaguered British politicians. Everything seemed to be against them. I don’t know how they did it. 

I’ll leave you with that. Hope that it’s sharpened your focus the way it did mine.

As for a Today in London recommendation: I think it’s time to Tour the Houses of Parliament. A Google search for the phrase “tour the houses of parliament” will get you to the needful. There’s a great fit with our Old Westminster Walk. For example, the 10.30 tour of Parliament on Thursdays. Have lunch at the parliamentarians’ pub, St Stephens Tavern, afterwards. And then catch our 2 pm Old Westminster walk (from exit 4 of Westminster Tube). The walk will take you to Mosley’s house and indeed to the house round the corner where the Anti-Appeasement movement got started. It’s the most important political salon in this country. And then at walk’s end you can catch the choral service at Westminster Abbey. That’s a triumph of a day. Visiting London days just don’t come any more efficient than that – best possible use of your time. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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