Published: 29 September, 2011
THE vile, racist lies pouring from the mouth of William Joyce was just too much for the young Ubby Cowan to bear. “I just did not understand why I should be insulted when I was a respectable, law abiding, tax-paying Jew,” recalls the Cable Street veteran, now in his 90s.
“Why is should I have to listen to some one humiliate me so badly?”
It was 1933, and Ubby – aged 16 – had turned up at a meeting of the British Union of Fascists in the heart of the East End, partly out of curiosity, to hear whether the rumours were true.
And he was so incensed by the moronic speech made by Joyce – who would later flee to Nazi Germany and gain infamy for his anti-British radio broadcasts, and would also be executed after the war for treason – that he simply couldn’t contain his anger. He marched up to the stage.
“I spoke to my friends and a gang of us went to a meeting to protest about their rudeness,” he says.
“I heard Joyce speaking and it was too much to bear. So I charged the stage and threw him off the platform.”
It was an early bout in the build-up to the Second World War – and just one example of Ubby’s commitment to equality, justice and freedom that was writ large throughout the 1930s.
He would become a key organiser for the Communist Party in Stepney, and was one of those who organised a protest that has gone down as a vital moment in British political history – the Battle of Cable Street.
“When I realised that this was going on week after week in Stepney, and I remember grabbing Joyce and just saying to him, get out of it, you lying bastard. I sent him flying,” he says.
“Partly because of the disinterest shown by other political parties in what was happening to Jewish people in the East end, I joined the Communists.”
As the decade wore on and things the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy went from strength to strength, Ubby was worried about watching the same thing happen in Britain.
Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had mainstream support: the Daily Mail backed them, as did large sections of the Conservative Party.
Then Ubby heard of plans to hold a march through the East End – a deliberately provocative attempt to incite hatred and violence.
He was determined to stop it.
“As early as January 1936, there was a notice put in the national press saying Mosley had been told by the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Philip Games, that they could hold a rally,” he recalls.
This would start by the Tower of London and then head provocatively through the East End – where 300,000 Jewish people lived.
“I was fuming,” Ubby recalls.
He went with friends straight to Parliament and they demanded to see their MPs, Barnett Janner and Danny Frankel.
“They of course knew about it and were incensed,” he says. “But when they asked prime minister Stanley Baldwin to do something about it, he said banning the march would be a negation of democracy.”
It soon became apparent to Ubby that if he did not want to see Fascists spreading their hate-filled lies on the streets of his neighbourhood, he and his friends would have to do something about it themselves. They set about organising.
Ubby was working in a clothing factory in Buxton Street, and had helped organise social events for his tailors union had .
“The union secretary asked me if I could go for a meeting up at the Marx House in Clerkenwell Green,” he says.
“At the meeting, Johnny Mairne, the chairman of the London Communist Party, said: “It is obvious the Baldwin government are just not prepared to protect the Jewish people in Stepney,” he said.
“So we will do it.
“We met the next evening and decided the first thing to do was raise some funds,” he says.
“We went up the Whitechapel Road and spoke to shop keepers. We asked them to chip in with donations, as we told them we would then be able to protect their windows from being smashed.”
As well as businesses donating towards the organisation, there were bucket collections at the main markets.
“At the time, Madrid was under siege and so we adopted their slogan ‘No Pasaran’ as ours,” he recalls.
They also had to prepare for the worst: sympathetic doctors and nurses form the nearby London Hospital in Whitechapel were asked to be on hand to help treat any casualties.
“We knew if the police came, they could easily split heads with their long truncheons, swung at us from horseback,” he says. “We did not want to fight the police, but we did have to be prepared.”
They also gathered stones and bricks to pelt the Fascists with: buckets of water were placed on the roof tops of homes across the route, and half-full glass bottles of carbonated drinks were also prepared: when they hit the ground, they would shatter with explosive effect.
But the Jewish community and the Communist Party could not stop the hordes of marching, uniformed bully boys alone, and Ubby recalls the crucial help given by other working-class men.
“I spoke to Jack Dash, the chairman of the Dockers Union, and told him our plans,” he says.
The dockers, many militant Irish working-class men, were as appalled at the prospect of the upper-class Oswald Mosley leading his violent followers through the community.
It was the dockers who helped build a massive barricade across Cable Street. “They decided where the narrowest spot in Cable Street was, and it happened to be close to a builder’s yard,” says Ubby.
“They found a trailer that was about the right size to span the width of the street, so they dragged it across, and then they found tons of heavy items, such as poles, boards, iron railings, to pile on top. It made a formidable barricade.”
Then Sunday October 4 dawned. “I was in charge of six runners,” says Ubby. “I stationed them at key points with instructions to go back and forth with updates and messages to the headquarters, every 15 minutes, so we knew what was happening.” He recalled being at Gardener’s Corner in Whitechapel when the police came charging towards him.
“I was standing in front of a giant glass window of a haberdashers, and the atmosphere was terrible. The police stormed forward – there was no question of asking us to move. They were going to get stuck in. I was pushed back and went flying through the window.
I was covered in glass and shop dummies. I had blood streaming down my face.”
He was taken to get patched up and from the first-aid post he could hear fearsome fighting, screaming and the sound of smashing glass all around.
The Fascists headed towards Cable Street and Ubby, by now recovered, headed there to help. He found dockers bravely fighting back both violent charges by mounted police – and behind them Fascists.
“It was chaos – so much noise, fighting, and things being thrown about,” he recalls. “The dockers were not going to let them come any further and the barricades were too heavy for the police to move. This went on for about another hour and then suddenly a voice called from the roofs: ‘They are leaving! They are going!’”
Ubby saw a scene of devastation – broken glass and stones. They had won – but the day was not over. “I thought – the police have said there could be a march, so we’ll give them one ourselves,” he says.
They commandeered a van with loudspeakers attached to its roof. With a pair of red flags either side, they walked the route of the planned Mosley march to Victoria Park Square – and held a celebratory rally.
Ubby remembers another fact about the day: “I had always admired the heavyweight boxer Max Baer, and he had this jacket I liked,” he says. Ubby had saved up for months to pay a tailor to make him a similar one, and he had put it on that morning.
“It cost me £3 and I had three fittings to get it right. For some unknown reason I had put it on that Sunday. It got absolutely ripped to shreds and I was so upset.”
The Battle of Cable Street led to the passing of the Public Order Act of 1936, which banned extreme political groups like the British Union of Fascists from wearing uniforms in public places.
“Believe it or not, that simple law robbed Mosley of 90 per cent of his power,” says Ubby. “It was the uniforms that made all these cocky blokes who fancied themselves show up: but in civilian clothes they just looked like everyone else and there was no charm in it any for them any more.”
It was 75 years ago this week that far-right group the British Union of Fascists tried to hold a provocative march through the streets of the East End.
At the time, the BUF represented a chilling home-grown version of what was happening in mainland Europe.
In 1936, Franco’s Fascists were fighting the democratically elected government of Spain, Hitler’s Germany was re-arming, riding roughshod over people’s rights, and instigating racist policies, while Mussolini’s Italy had been massacring Ethiopians in a bloody campaign to carve themselves a new African empire.
The BUF’s leader Sir Oswald Mosley had won permission to march from the Tower of London through the streets to Victoria Park, where he had hoped to hold a mass rally on Sunday October 4, 1936.
There were 300,000 Jewish people living in the East End, and with the help of others including a massive contingent of dockworkers and the Committee of Ex-Servicemen Against Fascism, they formed barricades across the route in Cable Street and adopted the Spanish Civil War slogan: “They Shall Not Pass.”
The ensuing battle between those who did not want the far right to bring their hate to the streets, the police who were determined to let the BUF complete the march, and the Fascists themselves has gone down in folklore as the first major blow the Fascists suffered in Britain.
It also led to the home secretary Sir John Simon banning political parties wearing military uniforms on the street.
With many Fascist groups relying on young men wanting to wear uniforms and strut around the streets, it was a body blow to the BUF.
Playwright Bernard Kops was 10 in 1936 and even at a young age the events had a profound effect on him. “All the kids knew all about the different political groups,” he recalls. “The East End was a sea of different-coloured shirts. We were used to the thought of these groups coming into our streets.”
Bernard lived near Stepney Green, a favoured meeting place for both Fascists and Communists. “The law was that the person who got there first was allowed to stay and no one could interfere with their meetings,” he remembers.
“Stepney Green was the perfect place for meetings – people would get there at 1am on the Saturday night and start setting up for the meetings the next day.
We’d stand on our stairwells and bang pots and pans to warn the adults that the Fascists were coming.
We would work up a real cacophony of sound.” He and his friends were told they had a part to play when Moseley was due to march. “The Communist Party organisers gave all the kids ball-bearings and marbles: marbles were a big thing in those days and we were very adept at shooting them,” he says. “They said if the police charged to aim to get them under the hooves of the horses.”
• Bernard Kops is giving a talk at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, NW1, on October 16, 3pm £10
Ubby Cowan’s grandson, Yoav Segal has made a film of Ubby’s memories of the day. will be screened as part of the Jewish Museum’s commemoration of the events.
“The issues around what happened in Cable Street are still so relevant,” he says.
“You could almost just cut and paste the headlines from the Daily Mail back then and re-use them today. It was once the Huguenots who sought asylum in the East End and faced racism, then it was Jewish people, then Bangladeshis.
What people like the English Defence League and British National Party say would be almost comical if it wasn’t so horrible.
This is why we should remember Cable Street and stand firm together again today.”
Yoav Segal will have two films screened on Thursday October 6 as part of the Images of Resistance – 1936 in Film evening of films documenting and responding to the anti-fascist events of 1936, at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, NW1, on Thursday October 6, 7pm, £10 including free entry to the galleries. Box office: 020 7248 7384.
Further anniversary events:
• They Shall Not Pass – march and rally, October 2. Starts at the junction of Braham Street and Leman Street at 11.30am, followed by a rally at 1pm at St George in the East Gardens, off Cable Street. More information at www.cablestreet75.org.uk
• Wilton’s Music Hall, Graces Alley, October 2nd, Midday till late. A series of different
events including a book launch at 3pm of five Cable Street-related books including Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s, by David Rosenberg (Five Leaves Publications, £9.99). Full details at: www. cablestreettobricklane.co.uk
• 1936 Radical Roots: A Programme Commemorating the Battle of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War is currently at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, Camden Town, www.jewishmuseum.org.uk
• Book events will also be held at Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, King’s Cross, on Wednesday October 5, 7pm. Also at England’s Lane Bookshop, 41 England’s Lane, Belsize Park, on Wednesday October 12, at 7.30pm.