“They had a bloody cheek to come and demonstrate in a Jewish area, don’t you think so?” declares Hannah Grant. The 95-year-old great-grandmother is reminiscing about a moment in British Jewish history that took place exactly 80 years ago. But the outrage in her voice is undimmed by the decades.
“The chutzpah of it — to march through a Jewish area, targeting mainly immigrants working hard to earn a bloody crust,” she says. “They were not going to get through. And they didn’t.”
In an old age home in Edgware at the very north of London, two of Grant’s friends are watching in admiration as she recalls what life was like at her home at 183 Cable Street in the East End.
“It’s all very much alive,” she says.
The Battle of Cable Street may hold little resonance for the average Brit, but to those who were there, it was a rare and delicious moment of victory. As the jackboot of fascism marched across the rest of Europe, Britain’s Blackshirts were roundly defeated by a rag-tag mob of men armed with chair legs, housewives tipping chamber pots out of upstairs windows and children rolling marbles under the hooves of police horses.
On Sunday, October 4, 1936, Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, attempted to march down Cable Street — right through the heart of the Jewish East End. What he and his thousands of goose-stepping members (dressed in uniforms styled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts) hadn’t reckoned on was the strength and solidarity of ordinary Londoners, indignant at the blatant provocation.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 residents formed road blocks and cut off the fascists’ route, with the ‘battle’ itself then taking place between the East Enders and the police — determined to do everything they could to allow the fascists to pass.
Grant, one of the last of a tiny band of surviving veterans, had been told by her parents in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you dare go anywhere near it”. But there was no way that this politically engaged and rebellious 15-year-old was going to miss out on the action.
“I just went, sneaked off on my own,” she says. “I was politically involved since I was a child. It’s just in my nature. So while my friends were playing hopscotch, I’d be enjoying myself at a political meeting.” Grant publicized the protest door-to-door and helped raise funds, but admits that she didn’t play a great part in the street battle: “I was probably just a nuisance. But I did take marbles in my pocket. As the police horses came along, you waited, to get them under and the horses would then slip and lose control.”
She clearly remembers one of the speakers from that day, Max Levitas. The Dublin-born activist was a key organizer in the run-up and acted as a message runner, as well as rousing the crowds with impassioned oratory.
Levitas still lives in the East End, by himself on the fourth floor (no elevator) of a block of flats on Sidney Street — aged 101. Immaculately dressed in shirt and tie, the former tailor tells me how he had already been battling Mosley two years before Cable Street, daubing slogans including “Down with Fascism” on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Police spotted white paint on Levitas’s shoes and he was arrested and fined £5.
“It was a lot of money back then,” he says. “But it was paid and we said we’ll still continue the fight against the fascists to ensure that they do not hold back the battle for socialism.”
- Title picture, courtesy of Lewishamdreamer