Solidarity forever

By East End Walks
March 9, 2009

One of the outstanding features of the success at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when East Enders, Jew and non-Jew, united to block the streets to Mosley's fascists, was the solidarity between Jewish and Irish workers.

When Jewish immigrants settled in Whitechapel from the 1880s they lived cheek by jowl with the Irish who had been emigrating to London from Ireland throughout the 19th century but especially in the 1840s, when they were struck by the potato famine. Many of the impoverished Irish who came to London settled in the East End and over time the East End became a patchwork of Jewish and Irish areas. As the Jewish settlement concentrated around Spitalfields and Aldgate, the Irish settlement concentrated further East and further south around Bow, Mile End and Limehouse, closer to the docks where many of them worked.

for both communities, life was a struggle and a certain mutual suspicion and hostility developed, but one of the places that there was great solidarity between them was through the trade union movement. In 1889 and 1912 when Irish doickers and jewish tailors were on long and bitter strikes against their employers, they joined forces for trade union rallies, and raised support funds for each other's struggles.

And when, in 1936 the police tied to force a way through Cables Street for Mosley's fascists, Irish dockers marched down from the far end of Cable street armed with pick-axe handles to lift paving stones to help build the barricades with the Jews at the near end of Cable Street.

Much of the anti-fascist mobilising among the Jews had been carried out in the workplace through their unions too. Which is probably why I found it particularly rewarding to take around 20 people from the office of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) trade union, including their General Secretary Bob Crow, on my East End walk "Anti-fascist Footprints" , a few days ago.

It was great to take around a group of people who were well read in labour history, very committed to the anti-fascist fight today and the fight against antisemitism, and with a thirst for knowledge of the details of the struggles of the 1930s.

They were very interested in the information I gave them about Jewish tailors from the East End who had gone to fight in Spain against Franco's fascists. They were themselves proud of the railway workers who had joined the International Brigade in this fight, several of whom, like some of the Jewish tailors, did not come back to tell the tale.

Bob Crow himself grew up in Shadwell very near to Cable Street. These days he lives in Woodford. I asked him if he gets down to the East end at all these days. He replied, "Me and the Missus come down the East End about 6 times a year and we always go back with a bagful of bagels and a chollah - it's a really sweet bread!"


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