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A guest post by John Bennett.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, this piece examines two different eras of the East End’s turbulent history which have sealed its reputation for challenging extremist right-wing ideologies: the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the 1930s and clashes with the National Front in the 1970s.

The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936 showed the political loyalties of the East End tested considerably. Despite Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists extolling a protectionist view of multiculturalism, the privations of the recession of the 1930s had made the ideology popular in the area, even counting some Jews as supporters. Nonetheless, racially motivated violence against Jews had become common, particularly in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Mosley’s decision to march through the East End was understood to be a provocative flashpoint and East Enders of all creeds set up barriers around Cable Street to stop the procession. The result was messy: the BUF were redirected away from the east, but the disorder created by the creation of barriers led to pitched battles between protestors and police. It appears no fascists were actually involved in the disturbances but the protestors had won the day and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ has since been seen as a successful of example of the people rising up against what they saw as a threat to the cohesiveness of their community.

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Battle of Cable Street memorial mural. 

The East End was at a low ebb in the 1970s. A major housing crisis in Tower Hamlets had been exacerbated in many people’s eyes by the large influx of Bengalis to the area following the civil war in Bangladesh. Accusations of housing queue-jumping and squatting only inflamed resentment of the newcomers. Far right groups such as the National Front found a willing audience in the area, bolstered by skinhead youth groups looking for an identity. Throughout the mid 1970s, violence against Asians and their property became commonplace, resulting in the racist murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel in May 1978. This more than any other incident galvanised the Bengali community to take action, forming their own ‘vigilante groups’ to nip violence in the bud and campaign for police intervention which, on the face of it, had been severely lacking up to that point. Vandalism and physical attacks by NF supporters in Brick Lane in June 1978 (‘the battle of Brick Lane’, as the local press dubbed it) created a backlash by the Asian community to stymie the attacks as they happened, resulting in a stronger police presence and the street’s own police station.

Although fascist groups would once again raise their heads briefly in the early 1990s, the events of the late 1970s would see the subsequent rapid decline of right-wing activity in the East End, thanks to a more successful cohesion of community and law-enforcement and a more established Asian population.


John Bennett’s book Mob Town, A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End was published last month by Yale.

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