Jewish history

Nadia Valman on Jewish women's activism at Cable Street and beyond

Women at the Battle of Cable Street

Cable Street Mural 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.

Sarah Wesker

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.

East End Women's Museum Banner (work in progress)

For more information about the Battle of Cable Street and the women who fought there take a look at the In Her Footsteps projectEast End Walks, and this great article by Nadia Valman.

 

Amelia Harris

Amelia Harris (centre) in the 1920s with her sisters Ray (left) and Rose (Right) 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.”

Too insolent

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.

Milly Witkop: Anarchist, feminist, and union activist

Picture of Milly WitkopMilly Witkop (1877-1955), was a Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant and the life partner of Rudolf Rocker, lived in Dunstan Houses, Stepney Green, London E1. In 1897, Milly and Rudolf were refused entry into the United States because they weren't married. Milly told the officials who accused them off advocating free love: "Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution."

Milly worked side-by-side with Rudolf building the anarchist and trade union movements amongst Jewish immigrants in the east end. They co-editing Arbeyter Fraynd and Germinal. After Rudolf was interned in 1914 as an enemy alien, Milly continued anti-war activism until she was arrested in 1916.

When released in 1918, she joined Rudolf in the Netherlands (where he'd been deported). They moved to Germany after the war and tried to build the FAUD anarcho-syndicalist union.

Milly was one of the founders of the Berlin Women's Union in 1920 and was involved in building the national Syndicalist Women's Union (SFB). They fled in 1933 and moved to the US where they continued their activism.

Thank you to Donnacha DeLong for contributing this story.

Minnie Lansbury: Teacher, union activist, suffragette, rebel councillor

Photograph of Minnie Lansbury cheered by grounds, on her way to prison in 1921

I wish the Government joy in its efforts to get this money from the people of Poplar. Poplar will pay its share of London's rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same.

Minnie Lansbury was born in Stepney in 1889, one of seven children in a Jewish family who came to London to escape poverty and persecution in Russia. Her father, Isaac Glassman, was originally a boot finisher but later became a coal merchant. In 1913, Isaac paid the £5 fee to become a British citizen, entitled to vote. In 1914 Minnie married Edgar Lansbury, son of local MP George Lansbury.

Minnie became a teacher in a local London County Council school, earning £7 a month. She joined the National Union of Teachers and became involved in union activism, calling for equal pay for women among other things. She also joined the central committee of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes and played a key role in their campaigns and community actions. During the First World War Minnie became chair of the War Pensions Committee and used her role to protect the welfare of war widows, orphans, and the wounded.

After the War Minnie was elected alderman on Poplar Council. In 1921, she was one of five women who, along with their male colleagues, were sent to prison for refusing to charge full rates from their poor constituents. Although the Poplar Rates Rebellion was a success, while in prison Minnie caught pneumonia and never fully recovered her health.

On 1 January 1922 she died, aged just 32. Her death was announced at a thousand-strong meeting at Bow Baths Hall: "The audience for a moment was stricken silent... Then out of the silence came a woman's cry of grief, followed by the weeping of many women." The meeting was abandoned.

A few days later a crowd of thousands of mourners, mostly women, stood in the streets as her coffin passed by. George Lansbury wrote a moving tribute to his daughter-in-law in the Daily Herald:

Minnie, in her 32 years, crammed double that number of years' work compared with what many of us are able to accomplish. Her glory lies in the fact that with all her gifts and talents one thought dominated her whole being night and day: How shall we help the poor, the weak, the fallen, weary and heavy-laden, to help themselves? When, a soldier like Minnie passes on, it only means their presence is withdrawn, their life and work remaining an inspiration and a call to us each to close the ranks and continue our march breast forward.

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