PortCities London

The Jewish community and the port

The community and the port
 

The Jewish East End

The Jewish East End and The Docks
View full size imageThe Jewish East End and the docks, c.1900. © NMM
The Jewish East End was concentrated around Whitechapel and Stepney. It reached as far south as Cable Street, just north of the London Docks.

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.

Drinking fountain on Whitechapel High Road.
View full size imageDrinking fountain on Whitechapel High Road. © NMM
Many saw the newcomers as an 'alien' element, and groups like the British Brothers League campaigned to restrict immigration. 

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.

A meeting outside the West India Dock gates.
View full size imageStriking dockers in 1889. © NMM.
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.

 
The strikes of 1912

Police mobilising during the docks strike of July 1912.
View full size imagePolice 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.
View full size imageThe 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. 

The Battle of Cable Street
View full size imageThe Battle of Cable Street. © NMM
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.

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.
View full size imageA 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.
View full size imageA 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.

 





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