Cable Street memories: The day that every horse went down

By Jessica Elgot, September 27, 2011
Follow Jessica on Twitter
Sir Oswald Mosley reviews his ‘troops’ before the Cable Street stand-off, at which the fascists were defeated

Sir Oswald Mosley reviews his ‘troops’ before the Cable Street stand-off, at which the fascists were defeated

For Cable Street veteran, Michael Sherbourne, the famous battle against the fascists in Whitechapel, 75 years ago next Tuesday, was a foregone conclusion.

"It was a deliberate provocation. We knew we were going to stop them."

The 94-year-old, who fought in Israel in 1948 and campaigned for Soviet Jews, doesn't consider his story of that October day to be unusual. "Every young Jew in London was there. I was 19 - to say that I was there is nothing special."

Few veterans of the Battle of Cable Street are still alive to recall the day when Jews, trade unionists, and Communists barricaded Whitechapel against the police-protected march of Sir Oswald Mosley's "blackshirts", forcing them out of the East End.

Michael Sherbourne

Michael Sherbourne

This Sunday, members of Jewish, Socialist and Bengali groups will march from Aldgate to a rally in Cable Street to mark the anniversary. Speakers include members of the TUC, anti-racism group Searchlight, Labour councillors and original Cable Street participants.

Writer David Rosenberg, of the Jewish Socialists' Group, is one of the organisers and author of a book on Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s. "I've been involved in anti-fascist activities for 25 years and demonstrated against the National Front as a teenager," he said. "I keep hearing new things all the time about what happened. But there are very few still able to remember it personally, which is why it is still important. The issues haven't gone away; there's still the BNP and the EDL."

One of the speakers at the rally will be Max Levitas, 96, a Jewish East Ender and former Communist councillor in Tower Hamlets. He was arrested in 1934 for daubing anti-fascist slogans on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, against a Mosley-organised rally in Hyde Park.

He said: "What was happening in Germany made us determined that fascism should not take control in this country. On the day in 1936 when we heard they intended to come up Cable Street, we started to build barricades with rubbish and furniture. I was a runner, passing messages to the leadership.

"It went on for hours, until we heard the march was banned by the Home Secretary. You should have been there to hear the cry, and see people jumping and shouting in joy. People who had never drunk beer in their lives, drank a glass of beer. We had won."

But he added: "We had asked the Board of Deputies to represent us to the government, asking them to ban the march. And they wouldn't. They said all the Jewish people should stay at home. We disagreed entirely. The more you stay at home, the stronger they get."

Mr Sherbourne and his brother were caught up in different parts of the protest. "We were given brown paper bags, with about 100 glass marbles in each. We waited, and saw the police get on horseback, preparing to charge. As they did, we threw the marbles along the ground. And every horse went down."

His brother Cyril, now 88, watched the struggle unfold. "We heard choruses of 'they shall not pass' all day. If they had got through, it would have been a massacre. It was a great turning point."

Mr Levitas felt that today's East End has learnt from the Battle of Cable Street about standing up to racism, most recently opposing the English Defence League march through Tower Hamlets.

"The majority of people in this country are against racism. But you have to educate them to speak out, and in a united fashion."

Last updated: 3:54pm, September 27 2011