Socialist Worker

London's radical East End

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 2206

The great dock strike, 1889

The great dock strike, 1889


Thousands of people will march through the East End of London this weekend against racism and fascism. The racist English Defence League have been trying to terrorise the Muslim community across Britain, but united marches against them have shown that they are in the minority.

The Bengali community is one of many groups who have made their home in the area now called Tower Hamlets.

Huguenots fleeing persecution in France settled there in the 1680s. Many Irish starved from their native lands moved to the area in the early part of the 19th century. Jewish refugees from eastern Europe who were escaping the pogroms of 1882 found a home there.

Today migrants from Somalia, eastern Europe and many other parts of the world have settled in the borough.

East London has also been a place of class struggle, notably since the Match Girls’ strike in 1888 and the Dockers’ Strike of 1889.

Historically east London has also been one of the key target areas for racist and fascist organisations. They have attempted to pit white workers against migrant workers.

But this has always been matched by a rich history of resistance. East London is a place were local people have fought for black, white and Asian unity­ – and where people of different backgrounds have came together to fight the bosses.

The Unite Against Fascism/United East End march in Tower Hamlets on Sunday passes through the places where many of those struggles occurred.


The great dock strike

Great strike revolts swept across east London in 1888-9.

Women and girls had gone on strike at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888. This had lit a spark to the discontent of workers in the area. Trade unions recruited thousands of members within weeks, and 150,000 dockers along the Thames began to organise.

In the summer of 1889 dockers at South Quay on the Isle of Dogs walked out. The strike spread and tens of thousands flocked to join the new radical union. Soon a set of demands was put forward – one of these was for a pay rise.

The dockers’ strike inspired others in the area. Strikes seemed to spring up everywhere. Thousands of mainly Jewish tailors struck in nearby Stepney. The dockers, despite their own hardship, donated funds to help them win an important victory.

The dockers’ strike ended in victory in September. Other workers took up the drive to build unions and win better conditions.

In November, for example, Eleanor Marx was involved in the fight of women workers in east London’s rubber industry, with thousands striking and demonstrating.

This class struggle, which brought together workers from different backgrounds in the East End, would lay strong foundations for fighting racism, and for better rights, in the future.


The British Brothers League

The British Brothers League (BBL) was the forerunner of the British National Party and the English Defence League.

It was a racist and antisemitic organisation founded by Captain William Stanley Shaw in 1901. The BBL was set up to oppose Russian, Austrian and Polish Jews, arriving in Britain. One of their slogans was “England for the English”.

The BBL formed a close alliance with local Conservative MP for Stepney, Major William Evans-Gordon – a fervent imperialist and former Indian Army Officer.

The League’s first mass meeting took place at the People’s Palace, Mile End, in January 1902. Over 4,000 people attended.

One local councillor and BBL supporter asked the audience, “Who is corrupting our morals? The Jews”. The audience took up the reply – “Who is destroying our Sundays?” “The Jews.” “Shame on them, wipe them out”.

The crowd poured out of the theatre chanting, “Wipe them out”.

Over the next two years BBL supporters organised parades and attacked migrants and Jews. It claimed to have thousands of members.

The BBL was not left unopposed, small groups of socialists based in east London campaigned against them. In 1903 they gave out a leaflet that argued:

“If you are a millionaire you are welcome in Park Lane, but if you are a Jewish tailor flying from injustice and persecution, you are not welcome in London at all”.

The movement dissipated, its support squeezed by the Tories, who passed the anti-Jewish Aliens Act in 1905, and a rise in class struggle from below that united workers.


The Battle of Cable Street

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Europe saw a rise in fascism. Sir Oswald Mosley set up the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932.

BUF members modelled themselves on Hitler’s stormtroopers. They called themselves the Blackshirts – their uniform was a black polo neck shirt, black trousers and jackboots.

Mosley and the BUF held a number of huge fascist rallies in the Albert Hall and Olympia. But more and more they concentrated on east London.

They graffitied “Kill the Jews” and carried out attacks on the Jewish shops and homes.

The East End united in defiance on Sunday 4 October 1936. Jews, communists, trade unionists, Labour Party members and Irish Catholic dockers refused to let the BUF march through their streets.

The day is better known as the Battle of Cable Street.

On the day, 3,000 Blackshirts assembled at Royal Mint Street – the BUF wanted to march through Limehouse and then onto Victoria Park. But 100,000 protesters blocked their way.

One marcher, Bill Fishman, recalled, “There were masses of marching people. Young people, old people, all shouting ‘One, two, three, four, five – we want Mosley, dead or alive’.”

For nearly three hours the anti-fascists held their ground.

Finally the police told Mosley to turn his protest around and march through the empty streets of the City of London. They were humiliated.

Although the BUF continued to organise, the battle of Cable Street was a key turning point in the struggle against fascism in Britain.


The murder of Altab Ali

Sunday’s anti-racist demonstration will end at Altab Ali Park.

The park is named after the young Bengali clothing machinist who lived in Wapping.

On the evening of 4 May 1978 he set off home from his workplace just off Brick Lane. As he crossed Whitechapel High Street a group of racists attacked him and stabbed him to death. They left a message scrawled on a nearby wall, which said, “We’re back”.

The racists were on the prowl. Their confidence was bolstered by the Nazi National Front (NF) who were organising in the area and Tory leader Margaret Thatcher who said in January that year that, “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”.

Altab Ali’s killers were all teenage boys, the youngest was 16 years old. Historian Peter Fryer calculated that racists murdered 31 black and Asian people between 1975 and 1981.

Outraged by Altab’s murder, the Bengali community and anti‑racists organised against racist violence. Over 7,000 people marched behind Altab Ali’s coffin to Downing Street.

But the attacks continued. A few weeks later 150 racist thugs, many wearing NF badges, rampaged down Brick Lane.

The response from workers was magnificent. The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee called a solidarity strike against racism on 17 July 1978.

Over 8,000 struck – including body-plant workers at Ford Dagenham car plant and shop, restaurant and textile workers. School students and local government workers joined them.

Thousands marched and blocked the main road to hold a rally and street party.


Brick Lane: Nazis not welcome

In the early 1990s three young black men, including Stephen Lawrence, were killed in separate attacks within miles of the British National Party’s headquarters at a “bookshop” in south east London.

In Tower Hamlets a gang of racists beat Quddus Ali within an inch of his life. It was one of several brutal racist attacks.

In September 1993, BNP thugs went on the rampage down Brick Lane. They smashed the windows of shops and restaurants – injuring several people.

One week later, Derek Beackon won the BNP’s first ever council seat – on the Isle of Dogs.

It seemed that from nowhere, the Nazis were on the streets and in the council chamber.

The day after the BNP won, council workers on the Isle of Dogs held an anti-racist strike in protest.

The BNP sold its newspaper at the top of Brick Lane in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was their way of sticking two fingers up to the Bengali community that lived there.

That Sunday the Anti Nazi League called a protest to clear the BNP sale from its pitch.

Hundreds of local Bengali youth joined anti-fascist protesters. The BNP were chased from their sales pitch – they have never returned.

The final blow to the BNP was the TUC’s Unite Against Racism demonstration in March 1994. Over 40,000 people marched through Tower Hamlets sending a clear message to the BNP – you are not welcome here. A huge “Don’t Vote Nazi” campaign organised on the Isle of Dogs ensured that Beacon and the BNP were defeated in the May 1994 council elections.

The Battle of Cable Street, 1936

The Battle of Cable Street, 1936


Protesting after the murder of Altab Ali, 1978

Protesting after the murder of Altab Ali, 1978



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