The Battle of Cable Street; from Searchlight, October 1996.
Alf Salisbury was 27 when the Battle of Cable Street took place. Unemployed and living in Stepney at the time, he told Searchlight how anti-fascists organised the callout on the day to stop the fascists. He also recounted how Cable Street inspired him to go and fight with the International Brigades in Spain.
"I was involved in the Stepney Branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. We had a lot of unemployed, in fact the highest unemployment figures in the country. Part of our policy was to secure benefits and call for full employment at trade union rates, but we were also an anti-fascist organisation because of the area in which we lived.
We became involved in fighting against fascism because we saw Hitler come to power in 1933 and we saw what was happening in Germany. We decided we had to do something because of the nature of our area, which had so many Jewish people. There were many attacks on Jewish people by the fascists. They came in from outside, held their meetings in Bethnal Green and used to plan their next attack against the Jewish people.
I was the acting secretary at the time of the Stepney branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. We met as a committee when we heard that Mosley was going to try to come through Cable Street. We decided we'd got to do something. It was about 50-50 on our committee of Jewish and non-Jewish people. We decided to follow the call of the local Communist Party and other organisations who were appealing to everybody to stop Mosley in his tracks from coming through Stepney. By that time people had got to know something about the atrocities in Germany so it wasn't that difficult in my opinion to get people to come to Gardiners Corner and Leman Street, the area through which he was going to come into Cable Street.
So we went around with a platform on the Sunday morning, 4 October, and went into street after street for at least three hours calling on the people to come out. We started at eight in the morning, when very few people are around. We woke people up, on the whole most people were supportive. We urged them to come out to Gardiners Corner and Leman Street. In the meantime other organisations were appealing to the Catholics as well to come out. That was a very important thing because of the docks. There were thousands working down the docks, many who were Catholics. Because of their strong tradition of trade unionism they didn't like fascism. Our job was to appeal to all and sundry. We succeeded in getting a lot of people out that perhaps were hesitating.
It ended up where we figured that over 300,000 people had gathered at Leman Street, Gardiners Corner and Aldgate generally. When Mosley got to Royal Mint Street they stopped. There were hundreds of fascists, mainly youngsters who were quite ignorant and who were unemployed. It was easy for them when they offered them sandwiches and places to sleep and that kind of thing.
Nonetheless, we stood our ground and the police at the finish had to tell them "you can't go through". In the meantime some of our people got arrested, more than a hundred to my memory were arrested and taken to Leman Street Police Station. People were mainly fined.
Cable Street meant that there was a better awareness of what fascism meant in terms of a future war. Quite a number of people became politicised. The Jewish Board of Deputies took the line that we shouldn't do anything, "stay off the streets", but we didn't accept that. Hence you had 300,000 people on the day.¨The anti-fascist movement became the focus after Cable Street. We linked the question of unemployment with anti-fascism. The link was that if you are not careful and become complacent, then fascism takes advantage. We had to tell the unemployed that they were the target of fascism.
Before Cable Street the fascists were very busy in Bethnal Green. Members of the Communist Party in the main started taking up cases of rents. Everybody was grumbling, especially in the tenements. They said "our rents keep going up" "we can't get any repairs" and so on and they were threatened with being thrown out. So we took up their cases. There was a Stepney Tenants Defence League but different tenements had different organisations. A lot of the cases were with non-Jewish people and as a result of the work we kept them away from fascism. Many of the people whose cases we took up became active afterwards.
One of the heroes of that period was the Chairman of Stepney Communist Party, Phil Piratin. I think he was a marvellous person. He became a councillor and he was able to exert a lot of influence amongst the non-Jewish councillors as well. There was one or two that were moving in the direction of fascism at that time. After the war, of course, Piratin became an MP.
I was just one of a number of people who, as a result of what happened at Cable Street, felt that we had to do something to defeat fascism, to take up arms against it. Otherwise there would not only be many dead, but they would also throw us back a thousand years. I went to Spain, the Communist Party were the prime organisers of this. I went to Spain in February 1937. I was an unemployed seaman. I was with the British Battalion, the Major Attlee Company.
The lesson of Cable Street is that young people have got to be aware of not only what happened in the past, but also of what may happen again if we are not vigilant. That is the most important message that I could give to anybody."