Today (October 4) in London History – No Pasaran

The Battle of Cable Street – the moment when British fascism was decisively defeated – took place on October 4, 1936. 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.

It was a famous victory for the East End of London. Deserves to be remembered. Should be celebrated.

Mental note to self. October 4, 1936. July 4, 1776. Hmmm. Two of them. That’s a start. Check the other ten – you never know – wouldn’t it be cool if the 4th day of every month was on the side of the angels. A win for the good guys.

Anyway, yes, our 4th is October 4th, 1936. The Battle of Cable Street. The day the fascists were seen off. 

The fascists were of course the homegrown variety, the British fascists. Officially known as the  British Union of Fascists. Popularly known as the Black Shirts. They were headed up by a minor aristocrat named Sir Oswald Mosley, who on very little evidence believed he had one of the best minds of the 20th century. He was a great admirer of Mussolini and subsequently Hitler. Wanted to take this country down the same path that Mussolini was taking Fascist Italy and Hitler Nazi Germany.

And he and his black shirts – Black Shorts as P.G. Wodehouse guyed them in four of his Jeeves novels – anyway, Mosley and his black shirts had had a pretty good run in the 1930s. 

Founded on October 1st 1932, the BUF quickly attracted a following. There were sections of the British press that cheered it on. A Daily Mail headline proclaimed Hurrah for the Blackshirts. 

At the height of its popularity it was said to have 50,000 members. It was macho politics. Those uniforms. Mosley inspecting the ranks, ranks that are giving him that one-armed Nazi salute, street clashes, testosterone-fuelled marches into their opponents’ neighbourhoods. Stunts that are not a million miles from the marching season in Northern Ireland. And of course the 1930s equivalent of red-baiting and scapegoating. Blaming all the ills of the country on communists and Jews and immigrants. 

Anyway, come the appointed hour, the morning of October 4th, 1936, Mosley attempted to lead 7,000 of his followers into the heart of the East End of London. The Black Shirts gathered at Tower Hill. The plan was for the Black Shirts to divide into four columns, each heading for one of four open-air meetings where Mosley and his lieutenants would address them. It was deliberately provocative. And it was London’s No Pasaran – “they shall not pass – moment. The phrase had gained common currency just weeks before when Dolores Gomez, a Republican and communist leader in Spain fighting Franco’s fascists used it in a stirring speech she gave at the siege of Madrid. Indeed, the phrase was a rallying cry for the British anti-fascists at Cable Street.

Mosley and his people were badly outnumbered. The Jewish People’s Council had organised a petition, calling for the march to be banned.  It had gathered the signatures of 100,000 East Londoners (including the Mayors of five East London Boroughs in two days.

The Home Secretary denied the request to outlaw the march.

So the East End took matters into its own hands. Estimates vary as to the number of the anti-fascist counter-demonstrators who turned out to see Mosley off on October 4th, but it was a huge crowd. Some estimates were as high as 300,000. None were lower than 100,000.

Some six to seven thousand policemen were there to try to clear a route through for BUF. The East Enders weren’t having it. They fought the police with sticks, rocks, chair legs, bricks, whatever they could lay their hands on. Women in the houses on the streets on the front line pelted the police with rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots.

Needless to say, arrests were made. But the police did not pass. Which in turn meant No Pasaran for Mosley and his Black Shirts. After a melee lasting several hours the police told Mosley “it’s off – you’re not going any further – in fact, you’re turning around and leaving the East End. You want to march you march in the other direction, march along the Embankment to the West End.”

Which is what happened.

The Battle of Cable Street – the Victory of Cable Street  – led to the Public Order Act of 1936, which outlawed the wearing of political uniforms and forced organisers of large meetings and demonstrations to obtain police permission. It’s held up as the moment at which British fascism was decisively defeated. Truth be told, though, there’s no resting on those laurels. The outcome of the Battle of Cable Street is well known. What’s now largely forgotten – I don’t think it should be – is that a week later Fascist supporters retaliated with the Mile End pogrom. They smashed Jewish shop windows. They assaulted Jews in the street. A reminder that fascism is a Hydra. You know, the most fearsome monster in Greek mythology – the deadly, multi-headed snake with the power of regeneration. You don’t let your guard down against it – not if you want to give your polity, your democracy, a decent chance.

And a Today in London recommendation – how about a visit to the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Lively place, lot going on. And it’s right there, hard by where the main confrontation of the Battle of Cable Street took place. 

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. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *