The Jewish East End
The Jewish East End was concentrated around Whitechapel and Stepney. It reached as far south as Cable Street, just north of the London Docks.
|The Jewish East End and the docks, c.1900. © NMM|
Although the London and St Katharine Docks were less than a mile from the heart of the Jewish East End, the communities were very distant in every other respect. Jewish immigrants did not work in the port or on the ships.
Most of the dockers were themselves recent immigrants from Ireland, but few felt much sympathy for the Jewish arrivals. 'No Jews allowed down Wapping' was a common slogan in the docks.
Many saw the newcomers as an 'alien' element, and groups like the British Brothers League campaigned to restrict immigration.
|Drinking fountain on Whitechapel High Road. © NMM|
They were successful: the Aliens Act of 1905 made it possible to refuse entry to would-be immigrants. Faced with such attitudes, the Jewish community stressed its loyalty to its adopted country.
The strikes of 1889
The gulf between the port districts and the Jewish East End was sometimes bridged during moments of crisis. During the wave of strikes in 1889 a group of Jewish tailors organized their own stoppage. The dockers’ Strike Committee, although short of funds, donated £100 to support the tailors. This was by far the largest single donation the tailors received and it helped them win their strike.
After their victory, the tailors’ union declared its hope that the 'grand lesson of solidarity from the Dock Labourers' Strike' and the other strikes would 'mark a new and splendid epoch in the history of Labour'. This was to prove overoptimistic and naive, but the benefits of mutual support were clear.
|Striking dockers in 1889. © NMM|
The strikes of 1912
|Police mobilizing during the dockers' strike of July 1912. © NMM|
If 1889 had shown that a common purpose was possible between the different worlds of the dockers and the Jewish East End, the events of 1912 went even further.
1912 was a year of bitter labour disputes, with the miners, railwaymen and dockers all going out on strike.
The Jewish tailors went on strike in late April 1912. With their members dispersed in small workshops, enforcing a total strike was a mammoth task. The architect of their victory was Rudolf Rocker, the German Anarchist who led the Jewish labour movement in the East End. His organization and fundraising skills proved crucial, and the tailors settled the strike on their own terms.
|The site of the Mile End Waste. © NMM|
With the strike won, Rocker mobilized the Jewish tailors in support of the dockers, who had just launched their own strike.
He spoke in support of the dockers on several occasions, and huge joint meetings of dockers and tailors were held on the Mile End Waste.
Even more important was the great generosity that the Jewish community showed to the dockers and their families. The Jewish trades unions and the local Anarchists organized a support committee, concentrating on helping the dockers’ children. During the strike, more than 300 children were cared for by Jewish families.
The Battle of Cable Street
In 1936, the sense of common purpose was tested as never before, when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists attempted to march through the Jewish East End. Modelling himself on the Fascist dictator Mussolini, Mosley preached a mixture of anti-communism and crude anti-semitism. His slogans won some support among the poor, including many dockers.
On 4 October 1936, the Fascists attempted to gather in several places, including Aldgate, on the boundary of the City and the East End, Cable Street and Leman Street.
|The Battle of Cable Street. © NMM|
Cable Street was near the southern limit of the Jewish East End, and was also close to the London and St Katharine Docks.
|A detail from the Cable Street Mural. © NMM|
The march was a deliberate provocation. For Jews, socialists, trades unionists and all those opposed to Mosley’s primitive slogans and thuggish methods, the march the march had to be stopped.
The Jewish East End turned out in huge numbers, as did the dockers from the nearby districts.
|A detail from the Cable Street Mural. © NMM|
The police attempted to clear the way for the marchers, and clashed with the demonstrators on Cable Street. When the crowds held firm, the police advised Mosley to abandon the march.
The 'Battle of Cable Street' certainly did not mean an end to anti-semitism in East London. However, it was a superb victory for the Jewish East End and for ordinary Londoners, and dealt a massive blow to Mosley’s credibility.