Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Radical Socialists and Anarchists of Cable Street

Often, do I ride through Tower Hamlets and down Cable Street on my bicycle; and as it takes me as if by magic, you see my bicycle is very special to me, and for an old secondhand but not as yet quite a clapped-out old vehicle that has propelled me around this wonderful city for the last year and a bit, it’s done very well indeed, so I can only hope that it continues to do so for a while longer.

Cable Street in the heart of London’s East End is a mile-long road, with several historic landmarks nearby, made famous by of course “the Battle of Cable Street” of 1936, and more about that in a moment, but first, some history if you don't mind to bring a wee bit of knowledge, hopeful that it may bring and find some interest amongst readers of this post and wanting to be in the know.

Cable Street started as a straight path along which hemp ropes were twisted into ships cables (i.e. ropes). These supplied the many ships that would anchor in the nearby Pool of London, between London Bridge and Wapping and Rotherhithe. From Victorian times through to the 1950s, Cable Street had a reputation for cheap lodgings, brothels, drinking inns and opium dens.

The last occasion in England when a stake was hammered through a sinner’s heart at an official burial, took place at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road: John Williams was found hanged in his cell, after being arrested as a suspect in the Ratcliff Highway murders. Local people went along with the claim that he had committed suicide, from guilt of the crimes. At the time, 1812, suicide was considered to be sinful, and justified him being buried upside down with a stake through his heart. His skull was found when new gas mains were being laid in the 1960s, and was on display for many years in The Crown and Dolphin pub opposite, and a tavern that I had the pleasure of sinking down many a good pint of ale when it was open, sadly it stopped trading as a public house and some years ago now, having been converted into residential accommodation for the new money that’s taking over the area.

So as you can see, the whole area is trenched in history, but it is the Battle of Cable Street that most activists with an understanding and command of their own history think about when Cable Street is mentioned, and I always think of that battle long ago every time my bike takes me down that road, it also helps that a large mural is painted on St. George's Town Hall, next to Library Place, that depicts scenes from the day. A red plaque at Cable Street's junction with Dock Street commemorates the incident.

On 4 October 1936 a violent confrontation between the Metropolitan Police and local communities took place on that very street and was later named the 'Battle of Cable Street'. Communist, anarchist, labour and Jewish groups joined together with locals to resist a planned march through the East End by Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. A bus was overturned and used as a barricade, Mosley's car was attacked with bricks, and there was some of the most violent hand-to-hand fighting ever seen in London. The march was eventually abandoned.

As a local activist and a member of Tower Hamlets Trades Council I was invited to help organise a 50th commemoration march through the Borough, in fact I was made chief steward which was indeed a great pleasure and honor, there is quite a story behind the march and its preparations that ran alongside the then ongoing Wapping Dispute which I was also involved in, remembering that on one occasion I was unable to attend a planning meeting of the Cable Street planning committee because I had been arrested on the Wapping picket line, and was being held in the local police station awaiting my appearance in the local court - oh such happy days.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to find some lovely photographs of that very march, taken all of 27 years ago, and in black and white meaning to me that the old memories we hold are the key not to the past but to the future, as indeed if nothing else that is the very lesson that the Battle of Cable Street still teaches us all today and on into the future to come, with the determination to defend a position against the enemy - “they shall not pass”.

The photograph at the head of this post has in it yours-truly, and I am on the far left holding a walkie-talkie radio talking or rather being spoken to by the great Jil Cove who was active in the Labour Party (CLP Chair), and who worked as a probation officer, putting East End villains on the straight and narrow for a quarter of a century, before becoming leader of the campaign to save the Spitalfields Market, but that’s another story.  

In the last photograph is Dan Jones the then secretary of the Trades Council and renowned artist, he is the guy with the beard holding one end or carrying the Cable Street banner. Dan has lived down in Cable St since 1967. Dan has been creating many panoramic works over many years – often of political scenes, such as you see here, his work is so good that I had to include some of his works in this post, hope you all enjoy them as I do. 

Parade down Cable Street on the Sixtieth Anniversary 1996

The Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921 by Dan Jones 


Chris H said...

Some great history there! Dan Jones looks pretty handy with a brush, excellent stuff!

Bill Morris said...

Thank you comrade ‘CH’ did have you in mind when I put up Dan’s last painting.

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