Today in London anti-fascist history, 1937: mass opposition prevents British Union of Fascists marching into Bermondsey

On October 3rd 1937, the British Union of Fascists (BUF) gathered at Millbank, Pimlico, to hold a march to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the BUF. It was a year almost to the day after the famous events of Cable Street, when a BUF march to the East End had been blocked in Whitechapel by thousands of local Jews, dockers, communists and many more…

And just as at Cable Street, the fascist march to Bermondsey was to be prevented from reaching its end point by barricades built by thousands of anti-fascists.

The BUF had in fact wanted to march through the East End, but was prohibited from doing so under the Public Order Act, 1936 (ostensibly passed to restrict the growth of the fascists, though also increasingly used against their opponents). After Cable Street, the BUF’s numbers had briefly risen, but then dropped. Now their stated aim was to invade ‘areas unconquered’.

Mass opposition had dogged Mosley’s men wherever they had gathered, from Hyde Park to the East End. Despite the BUF’s support among the upper classes, national newspapers, and a sizable working class population influenced by racist ideas which did sympathise with the BUF, working class resistance to both the ideas and presence on the streets was constant.

In July 1937 the BUF had made an application to hold a procession on 4 July from Limehouse to Trafalgar Square, which would pass through the same area fought over at Cable Street… The new Home Secretary, Sir Samuel

Hoare, banned political processions would be in effect for six weeks in this particular area in the East End of London, and the BUF subsequently organised a procession from Kentish Town to Trafalgar Square; well outside of the prohibited area. This BUF procession on 4 July 1937 passed without any serious disturbances: some 6,000 fascists had assembled but had to protected by 2,383 police, as they were ‘dwarfed by the crowd which collected in the locality.’

When the ban expired in August 1937, it was renewed for a further six weeks. In September, it was subsequently renewed for three months, the maximum duration under the Act. The three month ban on political marches in the specified area was continually renewed every three months until the proscription of the BUF in 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B.

The BUF proposed march route for 3 October was thus not going to be authorised, so a new route was then decided on, which would take the fash through Bermondsey and South London.

Bermondsey had a strong left wing tradition, based on active local trade unionism among dockers and factory workers, linked to an active branch of the Independent Labour party; Bermondsey Borough’s local council was run by a leftwing Labour administration. This was doubtless partly why the fash had targeted the area. It was also to be reflected in the huge local turnout to oppose the blackshirts.

‘No Jew red mob has the power to daunt us’, proclaimed the Fascist newspaper, which also carried an advertisement for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a violently anti-semitic hoax tract used to incite racial hatred by both Hitler and Franco.

A deputation to the Home Secretary, led by Rotherhithe Labour MP Ben Smith, supported by Bermondsey Trades Council and religious leaders, asking him to prohibit the procession failed; justified on the grounds that while it was reasonable to ban anti-semitic marches through areas with a large Jewish population because of the fear and ‘sensitivities’ that would arise, to extend of the prohibition to every area that had a ‘strong feeling of opposition to a procession demonstrating some unpopular political creed would be contrary to the spirit of the Public Order Act…’

Bermondsey had a large catholic Irish population but few Jews, which by this criteria meant a fascist demo was not provocative. Mosley might have expected some support from Irish Catholics (a proportion of who did have some sympathy to fascism in areas like Stepney) but as at Cable Street, in fact, many from this community rallied to the opposition.

When the attempt to get the march banned failed, the Executive Committee of London Labour Party then tried to dampen down local hostility, and urged local Labour branches to avoid organising a counter-demo, sending round a circular stating the fascism thrived on disorder and not to give them the publicity. However, Bermondsey Trades Council rejected this advice, calling for a massive counter-demo; they supported by the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party – although the CP in fact were not keen on militant opposition at this point, but were forced by the actions of the Trades Council and local feeling to back the call.

There was much preparation for the day, along similar lines to the local work done in the build-up to the battle of Cable Street – chalking up anti-fascist slogans, mass leaflettings, meetings held in advance of the day… The CP also managed to advertise where anti-fascists should meet without openly stating it, to get round the strict terms of the Public Order Act.

When October 3rd came, a column of 3400 fascists a mile long set off from Millbank, surrounded by 2500 police.

As at Cable Street, anti-fascists erected barricades: the BUF marchers were greeted in Long Lane by barriers formed from coster barrows, fencing and barbed wire, erected by the Jewish community, the Communists and many other groups whose anti fascist views poured out onto the streets. It is possible that numbers assembled he fascists surpassed those at Cable Street – some estimates run as high as 50,000 massed at Borough tube, though with true police numbering skills, Special Branch estimated around 12,000.

The barricades were repeatedly attacked and demolished by the police: but they and Mosley’s men were treated to a barrage of missiles – stones, eggs, bricks and bottles. Red flags waved, while a water tank was borrowed from a nearby factory and used as a barricade. Arrests and custodial sentences were even higher than they had been at Cable Street the year before. 111 people were nicked in total.

But Long Lane remained blocked, and BUF were forced to an alternative meeting point. Mosley addressed a rally briefly but was drowned out by the surrounding crowd beyond police cordon, chanting ‘They did not pass!” Mosley’s meeting place had already been occupied by Sally Schwartz and Tim Walsh of the ‘Federation of Democrats’, who staged a local talent show to entertain the crowd!

The event was reported in newspapers across the world from Montreal to Melbourne. ‘Wild scenes’ marked the day, and police on foot and horseback made repeated baton charges. The Times dramatically claimed ‘the scenes of disorder yesterday seem to have been quite as bad as those in the East End which induced Parliament to pass the Public Order Act.’ Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game attempted to use the fighting to bolster his position that the ban should be extended to the whole Metropolitan Police District, and to go further, advocating that new legislation should be considered that would make ‘processions of all kinds in the streets illegal once and for all’, stating that the Public Order Act “has had a positive effect on the conduct of political meetings and demonstrations but had not reduced their number. He recorded that out of the 11,804 meetings and processions that were policed in 1937, over 7,000 of these were either fascist or anti-fascist.”

Police remove barricades in Long Lane

There’s some silent film of the Bermondsey BUF demo here

Although less well known than Cable Street, the fighting at Bermondsey was just as bloody. But like Cable Street, attempts to paint this as the end of BUF marches, as has sometimes been suggested, is not accurate – seven months later, on May 1 1938, the BUF were able to march largely unopposed through Bermondsey and hold a rally, with Mosley speaking from the top of a van. There was on opposition because crowds had been directed to Hyde Park for an anti-fascist Spanish Civil War Mayday rally… Was this possibly arranged deliberately by the Communist Party etc to prevent another confrontation with the fash? The CP were now talking of defeating fascism ideologically not physically; in the East End they were concentrating on grassroots struggles to win the support of working class away from the BUF (notably housing struggles, which would lead to rent strikes); anti-fascist crowds were advised to hold meetings near to fash meetings and rallies, not disrupt and drown them out as had been previous policy. Dissident Stepney Communist Joe Jacobs would be suspended from the Party in 1938, and then expelled, for being one of the CP minority advocating taking a more confrontational line.

This backing down from physical resistance to fascism by the CP leadership – joining the Labour Party in advocating avoidance of confrontation – goes some way against the long-propagated myth of how the BUF were resisted in the 1930s in London. Even in the run up to Cable Street the Party had tried initially to prevent mass physical resistance, but were forced by pressure from below and the mass desire to block the path of Mosley. In the decades since, the carefully constructed image of the CP leading the fight has masked a more complex reality. Of course many Party members were central to resistance to Mosley, as in fact has been Labour Party members, locals of many political feelings and communities, forefront of course the Jews and the dockers, many of whom were catholic Irish.

Physical disruption and attacks on fascists trying to spread racist and anti-working class ideas would continue to be central to keeping the far right from growing, as the history of the 43 Group after the second world war, and later opposition to nazi groupsucules in the 1950s and ‘60s would illustrate. Raids, disruption of rallies were useful and effective.

The importance of physical opposition would be highlighted even morewith  rise of the National Front in the ‘70s, and events like Lewisham, Wood Green and Southall. And would continue, with the struggle against the British National Party and its influence in the 1990s.

That the CP hierarchy spent a lot of time in 1935-39 trying to prevent direct confrontation, though they have attempted to present a slightly different story later, is of course, not unique in UK anti-fascist/left history: compare this to the actions of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in luring people AWAY from direct occupation of Brick Lane in September 1978 to prevent a National Front paper sale.

The ANL spent a lot of energy over the next couple of years trying to divert anti-fascist efforts away from street-fighting, and shutting down branches and members who pushed for militant confrontation. Sound familiar? As with the dissident anti-fascists within the Communist Party like Joe Jacobs, stalwarts within the ANL who saw physical resistance to the National Front and other far-right groups as a continuing priority were marginalised and expelled from parties like the Socialist Workers Party. Some of these would go on to contribute to the founding of Anti-Fascist Action in 1985, which maintained the policy of combining physical and political opposition to fascism wherever it reared its head.

Although it’s always worth our celebrating and commemorating historical victories, we should also base our memories on what really happened and learn the lessons, and questioning the repetition of established myths. The battles of Cable Street and later of Bermondsey were important defeats for Mosley’s homegrown fascism, and physical opposition to far-right presence on the streets remains as vital now as then; from the BUF to the ‘Football Lads Alliance’ and Tommy Robinson, bopping them on the head is as crucial as arguing against their racist shite.

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There’s a detailed account of the political machinations around the 1936 Public Order Act, the BUF marches and opposition to them in the late 1930s here

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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For a slightly contrasting more recent experience of fascism and anti-fascism relating to Bermondsey, check out an account of antI-fascist organising in South London in 1991.

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