Watch a video of her talk below, filmed by lovely volunteer Bea Moyes.
Today is the 80th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, one of the East End’s proudest moments.
The Battle of Cable Street
On 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts attempted to march from Tower Hill, through Aldgate and Shadwell, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood at that time.
When they arrived at Gardiner’s Corner, a huge crowd (estimates vary from 20,000 to 200,000) gathered to block their path, roaring “They Shall Not Pass!” After 6,000 police failed to clear the area, the march was diverted via Cable Street.
However, three sets of barricades, including an overturned lorry, had already been set up there. Broken glass and marbles had been strewn across the street, and thousands of local people massed behind each barricade, chanting anti-fascist slogans and fighting back fiercely against the police.
Eventually the Police Commissioner instructed Mosley to march his troops west and out of the area, in a humiliating defeat. Thousands of the anti-fascist protestors gathered in Victoria Park to celebrate their victory.
Milk bottles and other weapons
Local communist activist Phil Piratin recalled:
“It was along Cable Street that from the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse that they didn’t any longer want in the house onto the police.”
Although the image of housewives throwing rubbish down at the police and the fascists has become an important part of Cable Street mythology, women were also in the street, fighting alongside the men.
Joyce Goodman (née Rosenthal) said: “the police… were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses hooves.”
Out of the 79 anti-fascist protestors arrested on the day, 8 were women.
Mick Mindel was a union leader who was there on the day, and in an interview years later he commented:
“women leaders like Sarah Wesker set an example and at the time of the Cable Street battle she was a real inspiration to all of us.”
Sarah Wesker has been all but forgotten now, but in the 1920s she gained a high profile in London as a formidable union organiser, leading famous strikes at the Goodman’s, Poliakoff’s, Simpson and Rego textile factories. In 1932 she was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the 12th Congress.
Fluent in Yiddish and English, she had a reputation as a fiery speaker, “as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers” (she was less than five feet tall).
‘I am not afraid of you’
Jack Shaw, another Cable Street battler interviewed in later life makes a compelling reference to a young woman he saw in the police charge room after they had both been arrested.
“While he was there, he saw a huge policeman drag in a young woman, rip off her blouse and hold his truncheon as if to strike her in the face.
She stared straight at him and, with defiance in her voice, said: “I am not afraid of you”. As the room went quiet, the policeman called her a Jewish bitch and put her in a cell.
Jack says she typified the courage and spirit of the women in the anti-fascist struggle.”
Love on a lamp post
Charlie Goodman was just 16 when he was arrested and savagely beaten by the police after climbing a lamp post and shouting to the crowd: “Don’t be yellow bellies, forward, we are winning!”
Later he married a woman who was also there on the day. Joyce Rosenthal was only 12 in 1936 but was nonetheless in the front line – they met four years later and she asked him if “he was the nutcase up the lamp post. When he said he was, she knew he was just her type.”
The spirit of Cable Street today
The best way to keep the spirit of Cable Street alive is to keep fighting fascism, racism, and intolerance wherever we find it. Next time the EDL come to East London, join the counter protest and show them that our community is prepared to stand against them, then as now.
This weekend there are a whole host of events taking place to celebrate the 80th anniversary. Here are two we’re really excited about:
Saturday 8 October – Women’s voices
Author Kate Thompson interviews women veterans of the Battle of Cable Street
Come along and listen to Mari Butwell, Marie Joseph, Millie Finger, Beattie Orwell, and Sally Flood.
Idea Store Watney Market, 2.30pm-4.30pm
Sunday 9 October – March and rally
The march will assemble at Altab Ali Park at 12 noon and proceed to the Cable Street Mural for a rally in St George Gardens on Cable Street.
There will be speeches from national and local organisations including Cable Street veteran Max Levitas, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Frances O’Grady General Secretary TUC, music from marching bands along the route, and stalls at the rally. Here’s the main Facebook event.
Join the women’s history bloc and march with our museum banner! Meet us beside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1DY at 11.45 am and we’ll walk down to the park together.
My grandmother Amelia (Millie) Harris was born on January 23, 1906 at City of London Lying-In Hospital at 228 Old Street, the daughter of Russian immigrants.
From Vilna and Riga to London
Her father, my great-grandfather Meir Shapiro, left Vilna in Lithuania and arrived in England in about 1903, and was followed two years later by his wife, Rivka (nee Jankelson, from Riga, Latvia) who came with their two daughters, Rose and Rachel (Ray.) Another sister, Gittel or Gertie, died en route to England.
My grandmother Amelia was born after her parents reunited; another London-born child, her younger brother David, died of the measles at the age of six months. A week after his death, my grandmother fell into an open fire, almost losing her sight, and her mother, saying “this house is evil,” demanded that they move from their home at 28 Hare Street, Bethnal Green.
The Hoxton seaside
Their new home was at 89 Bridport Place, Hoxton. Though Hoxton today is a gentrified mélange of art galleries, bars and chic boutiques, it was far from that in my grandmother’s day.
Homes were overcrowded—one house could accommodate five families—while prostitution and crime were common. Its one saving grace, my grandmother said, was a canal at the end of their road that her mother’s friends called “the seaside.”
A queenly storyteller
I know these stories because my grandmother told them to me many, many times over the course of her long life. She was the most marvellous storyteller I have ever known. She never wrote her stories down—she simply declaimed them, with the drama and flourish of a queen (her Hebrew name, Malka, or queen, fit her perfectly.)
Fortunately I had recorded many of her tales in the summer of 1993, a decade before she died on January 17, 2004 – her 98th birthday, according to the Hebrew lunar calendar.
Anti ‘alien’ sentiment
My Shapiro great-grandparents were fortunate enough to arrive in England before the passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment, then as now, was rife: in 1904, the Daily News decried “these unwashed, cringing, lying and wage-cutting aliens, who have elbowed thousands of Englishmen out of their homes and out of their employment.”
Even so, my great-grandparents proved resourceful. In Hoxton, the family opened a shop that sold old boots, rubber soles and heels, leather, gaiters, knives, nails, tin tacks and screws, and they lived behind it in a room called a shop parlour.
Scholarships and boot polish
But they were so poor that my grandmother had to leave school in 1920, at the age of 14, as she told me:
“I had already won two scholarships but my mother couldn’t afford the uniform. She said, ‘You don’t need it. You’ll get married, what do you want all that for?’ But it would have been lovely to have had a good education. I left at 14 and there was no work to be found at all.
In the end, my mother put a big box of Cherry Blossom boot polish—little tins—and she said, ‘Go in the market and sell the polish. You’re good, you can talk, you can sell anything.’ So I went to the market. I stood in the street, and I held out my hands, with two tins of polish, like a peddler, shouting out, “Two for tuppence ha’penny!” In the end, I sold 144 tins of boot polish.
I went home with my pockets laden, and my mother and father were so thrilled. And the next day, my mother said, “Go again. You’ll sell another.”
My grandmother peddled boot polish for three months, at which point my great-grandmother consulted “The Ladies”, most likely the Ladies’ Conjoint Visiting Committee established in 1884 by the Jewish Board of Guardians, which provided advice and financial assistance to poor Jews.
With their assistance, my grandmother began an apprenticeship at a court dressmakers in Sloane Square for a salary of six shillings a week. But the job didn’t last long.
“So I had this job,” my grandmother said, laughing, “that I hated. The shop was beautiful, court dress making, royalty used to come there, beautifully crafted, lovely sofas and easy chairs. But the back was like Dickens.
The floor was wooden boards, wooden stools to sit on, lit by gas jets, and [the forewoman] constantly sent me for errands, ‘get me a pint of milk, get me a loaf of bread, pick up the pins.’ I had to scrabble about on the bare boards, all in the creases of the boards, the pins, [and she would say] ‘there’s plenty of pins there that you haven’t picked up.’
I said ‘I’ve come to learn the trade, but I’m not learning anything.’ Anyway, after a week, she said, ‘I’m not keeping you. You’re too insolent.’”
Sixteen shillings a week
After my outspoken grandmother lost her first job, her mother told her to look for another, saying that she was now an ‘improver’ with experience to her name. So, my grandmother said,
“I had to do as I was told. We never disobeyed our parents. I went to the West End, and I saw a ticket in a big window, “Improvers For Dress-Making Wanted.”
So I went in, and the forelady said to me, ‘Where have you been working before?’ I said, ‘Oh, in Sloane Square, court dress-making.’ ‘You have?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ She said, ‘When would you like to start?’ So I said, ‘You mean I’ve got the job?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You can start on Monday at sixteen shillings a week.’ A fortune! Sixteen shillings a week.”
My grandmother spent many years as a seamstress, working her way up to ‘first-hand’ (making the garment from start to finish) and then as a cutter and designer.
In 1929, the year in which both she and her older sister Ray got married (within eleven weeks of each other) she sewed her sister’s wedding gown; her sister Ray, who was also a dressmaker, sewed my grandmother’s wedding dress.
The woman from the Pru
During the Second World War, my grandmother found a coveted job as an insurance agent with the Prudential—a job that before the war would have been reserved for men, my mother Irene Glausiusz notes. “Previously they did not employ women agents, but with the call-up of the men, they had to change the rules,” she says.
For a weekly fee, paid in cash, the company paid out sickness and unemployment benefits, and my grandmother collected the subscriptions and paid out benefits.
“I used to trail about in all weathers, paying sick money,” my grandmother said. “The National Health [Service] hadn’t started yet. It started in 1948. And if somebody was sick, all they got was nine shillings a week.”
She added, “I liked it very much. Very much indeed. I liked meeting people. They were full of humour. Nobody had a bell or a knocker; there was always a hole in the door with a piece of string, and you pulled the string and you went in and they used to say, “Come in, cock.” Anyway, I sold more policies than an experienced agent.”
My mother Irene confirms this: “Grandma was good at the job and I do remember the huge ledgers in which all the details were written. She was always good with figures.” But, she added, “When the war finished, they said, ‘well, tough, we have to give the jobs back to the men.’”
Indeed, the Prudential’s own timeline of history proudly notes that in 1949, “The ‘Man from the Pru’ a household phrase since the turn of the century, was launched as an advertising image to re-establish the identity of the agent in the post-war world.”
The Sussex seaside
My grandmother weathered this setback and many others. Following World War II, she started her own dressmaking business with my grandfather in Virginia Road, Bethnal Green, which they ran until 1965. In that year they left London to buy a home in Hove on the Sussex coast, which for many years my grandparents ran as a boarding house.
Resilience and resourcefulness
My grandmother was a living testimony to the resilience and resourcefulness of immigrants and the children of immigrants.
In her nearly century long life she lived through two world wars, the Depression, the introduction of indoor plumbing, the creation of the National Health Service, the invention of television and nuclear bombs and much else besides. She survived breast cancer and many illnesses of old age for which she received excellent care from the NHS.
Throughout her life she was strong, almost indomitable; outspoken, independent, stubborn, warm, loving, and a lover of life, invariably friendly and gregarious, and with an impressive command of the English language. When she spoke, people listened. So did I.
A huge thank you to Josie Glausiusz for contributing this story and wonderful photograph to the East End Women’s Museum.
Olive Christian Malvery was an Anglo-Indian writer and investigative journalist who exposed poverty and terrible working conditions in London at the start of the 20th century.
Early life in Lahore and London
Malvery was born in Lahore, in the Punjab, in either 1877 or 1882. Her parents separated, so she and her brother were raised in India by her maternal grandparents. In 1890, Malvery came to London to study at the Royal College of Music.
She supported herself by writing fiction for journals and magazines, giving lectures, teaching elocution, and ‘drawing room’ storytelling inspired by Indian legends. In the introduction to one of her articles, ‘Gilding the Gutter’, she is described as “the well-known lecturer, reciter, and social worker”.
Undercover for Pearson’s Magazine
In 1904, she was hired to do a photojournalism series on London’s poor for Pearson’s Magazine. Malvery went undercover in south and east London, disguising herself and working as a flower seller, a barmaid, a factory girl, and a homeless woman so that she could speak more easily to working class girls and women, and to learn how they were treated.
The Soul Market and Hoxton Hall
Malvery wrote about many of her experiences again in more detail in her book The Soul Market, published in 1907 and available to read in full in the Internet Archive.
While she was writing the book she had become friends with Sarah Rae, who ran a social club for working class girls at Hoxton Hall. Through Rae, Malvery met and made friends with many of the local Hoxton girls, some of whom were bridesmaids at her wedding to Scottish-born US diplomat Archibald Mackirdy in 1905. They had three children before his death in 1911.
In later life Malvery continued writing, and produced books about child labour, unemployment, and ‘white slavery’ (there was widespread fear in this period that young English girls were being kidnapped and forced into sex work).
Malvery also paid for two shelters for homeless women to be built in London, likely inspired by her own experience of sleeping rough. She died aged 37 while ill with cancer, following an accidental overdose of sedatives.
My grandmother, Jessie Lavinia Burrows, was born into a very poor family in the parish of St George’s-in-the-East in 1889. She had two sisters and a brother who survived, and two brothers who didn’t. Her father walked out on the family when she was about eight and from then on their lives became even more impoverished, if that was possible.
Surviving on the streets of Shadwell
They slept for a while in shop doorways and underneath the costers barrows at the market, they went down to the shore of the Thames and scavenged food and fuel that had been thrown away – it wasn’t a ‘lark’ for them in the mud. They ended up in the workhouse, she and her little sister scrubbing the stone corridors with cold water in the middle of winter. Her mother was at the Shadwell workhouse, they were sent to Surrey.
Hardship in service and marriage
Jessie was trained for domestic service and was frequently cold and starving hungry – she couldn’t look at beetroot because she ate an entire stone jar of it when she was hungry and it was the only thing she could get into in the pantry. Aged 19 in 1909 she married a Fred Venning. Family lore says he was violent. In 1911 she went on her own to New Zealand with a baby that was less than a year old, sponsored by the Duke of Norfolk’s Catholic resettlement scheme, which I have been able to find no information for.
Work, love, and loss in New Zealand
This baby girl, Isabella Mary, died of pneumonia aged 16 months, in New Zealand. My grandmother had spent two years living in a tent and working as a cook at a sawmill, where there was little medical care available. She had met my grandfather by now, who was also British, and the baby’s death is registered in Taumaranui under the surname ‘Good’, though her name is recorded as Venning.
They were given land in the north island and my grandmother farmed it while my grandfather travelled the country bridge building. My grandmother’s mother and siblings joined her in New Zealand in a short time. They lost a four year old daughter to peritonitis caused by appendicitis as they lived 30 miles from the nearest other settlement and though they put her on a horse and cart to get her medical care it took too long and she was buried in Hamilton, New Zealand.
Returning to London, and the war
In 1932, my grandmother brought her children home, though the oldest child and only boy stayed in New Zealand. She, and my mother, lived through the Blitz in Brixton, bombs falling all round them. She managed to buy a house and set up a theatrical boarding house in Brixton, counting Johnny Weissmuller and Benny Hill among her guests.
Jessie’s own brother died at 18 in the Dardanelles when his ship went down, he got out but went back to save the ship’s cat and they drowned together. This story of William Burrows, Chief Stoker on the HMS Irresistible trying to save the ship’s cat is repeated by more than one source.
Always a Cockney
My grandfather died in a flu epidemic in the 1960s and my grandmother left London – she never stopped grieving for him. Jessie died aged 83, always proud of being a Cockney. Everything I know about our family comes from her, the bravest, kindest woman I know.
A huge thank you to Ann Croucher for contributing this story and these great photographs to the East End Women’s Museum.