Brief Encounters: A History of Anti-Fascism in Oxford

From Fighting Talk issue 16.

Submitted by Fozzie on March 15, 2019

Oxford cannot claim to have ever been a major venue in the war against fascism in Britain. It has, however, been the scene of a handful of crushing defeats for a Far Right who still dream of establishing a foothold in the city. Today they are forced to accept that for them, as a constituency, it is way beyond the pale. Here we look back at the various faces of fascism and anti-fascism in Oxford over the last 70 years and the struggle between the two.

Firstly the geography of Oxford should be clarified, as most people are under the impression that it is nothing more than a student town. To some extent they are not wrong. It is true that the University looms large over the city, but Oxford also has another side.

Lying mainly to the east, industrial Oxford is home to large working class communities, such as the estates of Barton, Littlemore, Rose Hill, Florence Park and the largest of them all, Blackbird Leys. For decades these estates have supplied the main chunk of the workforce for the once thriving car plants at Cowley. Since the 1950's, Blackbird Leys in particular has housed alongside thousands of indigenous people, large numbers from the Caribbean, Ireland, Scotland and Poland. The Florence Park estate, originally built in the 1930's, to accommodate families from depression hit South Wales and North East England, today borders well established Asian communities.

Many of the inhabitants of these estates played an active role in the industrial struggles at Cowley and its related industries throughout the decades. These areas have also been the bedrock of anti-fascist Oxford.

The first anti-fascists in Oxford however, predate the City's current multicultural identity. The tradition of militant working class anti-fascism in Oxford stretches back to the 1930's. In complete contrast the Far Right has repeatedly found support amongst the university and its rich friends.

The first fascist organisation in Oxford was to set the agenda back in 1926 when it opposed the General Strike. This organisation called itself The Oxford and University District of British Fascists. They were followed five years later by Oswald Mosley's New Party. Mosley stated himself that "…the young men who are gathering around us are Oxford students and graduates".

The New Party also had the support of William Morris, Chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association and founder of Oxford's largest employer, Morris Motors. Morris' fierce anti-semitism was matched only by his hatred of trade unions: Mosley's party was funded by William Morris to the tune of £85,000 in its first two years.

Later, when Mosley's British Union of Fascists turned its attention to Oxford it also concentrated on the university. Its first public meeting in 1933, was in fact described in the local press as 'a meeting of the University Fascist Association'. The BUF seemed determined to sign up as many Hooray Henrys and Henriettas as possible; recruiting members of the University Italian clubs, the rowing club at Oriel College and amongst women undergraduates at Lady Margaret Hall. In this decade the University also played host to the Imperial League of British Fascists and even had its own National Socialist club.

What follows is a brief outline of the first wave of fascism in Oxford.

The first anti-fascists appeared in the town in 1933 calling themselves the Red Shirts, (in opposition to the BUF's Blackshirts). They were based at the independent, trade union-sponsored, workers' college, Ruskin.

The Red Shirts were the driving force behind the ‘Oxford Council of Action Against War and Fascism', set up on the eve of Mosley's first visit on November 3rd 1933 at the Carfax Assembly Rooms. This organisation was supported by the Engineers Union, the Bus Workers T & G branch and the National Union of Railwaymen. Other organisations to give support were the Communist and Labour Parties and the National Unemployed Workers Movement (which was later also targetted by the BUF).

Despite the intimidation of the 150 imported Blackshirt stewards on the night, the working class movement managed to kick off a fierce punch up, which brought the meeting to a close. The next time Mosley came to Oxford in 1936 the anti-fascist movement was much stronger. The simple reason being that Oxford's working class had itself become stronger, through a series of successful strikes. The most important of these was a strike for union recognition at Pressed Steel and Morris Motors. The support given in this dispute by the local Communist Party branch helped them become the largest party group in the country. From this period Oxford could seriously claim to be a union town.

The second Mosley meeting at Carfax, was 25th May 1936, (five months before Cable Street). Mosley later complained of "the worst scenes of hooliganism he had experienced during the hundreds of meetings he had addressed up and down the country”. The meeting was a thousand strong (although it has been estimated that only a quarter of those present supported the BUF). Most of the anti-fascists in attendance were Morris workers, busmen and other trade unionists.

On the night, the assembly rooms were decked with Union Jacks in preparation for Mosley, who, flanked by his black-shirted bodyguards stepped onto the platform to the strains of the Nazi Anthem ‘The Horst Wessel Song'. The fascist leader addressed the packed meeting, the first five rows of which contained the local gentry, including factory owners, Tory councillors and at least one magistrate.

At one point in the meeting a frustrated Mosley replied pompously to the heckling crowd "I know you Ruskin fellows with your stage guardsmen accents". Shortly afterwards BUF stewards turned on a member of the audience. With this, all hell broke loose and the local anti-fascists steamed into the somewhat startled blackshirts, the favoured weapons being fists and metal chairs.

When it was all over the fascists knew what it felt like to be on the end of a good kicking. Four were hospitalised with broken heads while many more went home battered and bruised. Mosley, true to form, took the opportunity afforded by the mayhem and sneaked out the back door, only to find that the cars and coaches that had transported the BUF to Oxford had also been well and truly trashed.

Afterwards hundreds of anti-fascists spilled out onto the streets, - many singing the Internationale, to celebrate their victory. The BUF in Oxford were never to recover from this battering. However Oxford's radical working class was kept busy, regardless of the fact that they had destroyed the local BUF branch. Their attention turned to Spain and the war against Franco.

Anti-fascists in Spain were given support from the Spanish Aid Committee in Oxford, who organised accommodation locally for refugee children, held factory meetings and collections and were involved in an illegal initiative which had factory workers converting Harley Davidson motorbikes, donated by supporters in the USA, into sten gun carriers which were then smuggled over to the Spanish comrades.

The second wave of fascism came in the mid 1970's - early 80's. In 1974 the fascists tried to hold two public meetings in Oxford in an attempt to rally support for the National Front's only ever candidate in the city. This candidate was 21 year old Pembroke College undergraduate, Ian Anderson. Headington Middle School was where the first of these meetings was held, on October 2nd.

Within minutes of its opening, thirty members of the Oxford Anti-Fascist Committee, another group with strong trade union support, burst in. They tore down the Front's Union Jack emblem, overturned the speakers table and threw Anderson out on his arse. Comically only five people were in attendance, two of whom, a local vicar and his daughter, had come to argue against the NF!

A couple of days later the Front held a larger meeting in the Town Hall. A hundred anti-fascists turned up and stopped the meeting, forcing the hapless Anderson from the stage and occupying it themselves. A speech was then made, declaring that Oxford believes no platform should be given to fascists.

The police presence in the town on the night was heavy, with a number of arrests being made. Special attention was paid to the Oxford Union, where the Monday Club held a meeting on South Africa behind heavy fortifications. A few months earlier a meeting at the Union on immigration by the Monday Club was smashed up and its Vice Chairman Harold Soref was forced to flee over a six foot wall out the back, leaving in his wake crashing glass, flying chairs and a pursuing mob. To its own surprise, the Far Right this time were not even safe in the university.

The October elections round up in the Oxford Mail paints a pathetic figure of Ian Anderson...

"The campaign suffered another major setback this week: Mr Anderson's car failed the MoT test, which has made getting about the constituency difficult. There are other problems too. The windows of the rented committee rooms in St Clements are shuttered and boarded against breakages and inside there is no lighting or heating. But the faithful few work on by paraffin lamp and oil stove. By day he keeps a lonely vigil, licking envelopes and replacing posters. At night he calculates that a poster an hour is removed or defaced from outside the committee rooms and he and one or two supporters have even taken to sleeping on camp beds at the rooms to guard their supply of posters and leaflets, the one commodity the NF have in plentiful supply".

The General Election saw Anderson receive only 1% of the vote, causing the NF to weigh up the chance of a miracle change in their political fortune against the obvious health risks involved in carrying on their recruitment drive. They wisely chose to pack their bags.

The National Front returned to the Town Hall in May 1975 to hold a meeting on the Common Market. It had to be protected from a 600-strong demonstration organised by the Oxford Anti-Fascist Committee by 250 police. The demonstrators failed to break through the six deep police cordon, but did manage to take out a number of fascists as they made their way to the hall. The NF deputy chairman John Tyndall (now British National Party fuhrer) had to run the gauntlet of kicks and punches as he was jostled into the hall.

Four arrests were made and two policemen were hospitalised. When the meeting eventually got under way Martin Webster, NF organiser, told the audience of around 100 that it was the second time he had travelled to Oxford and had to contend with a riot outside . When Tyndall addressed the meeting he explained the party's attitude towards the organised working class: "I believe that most of the problems of this country could be put right in a week if you put about 10,000 people in jail starting with those that are disrupting industry”.

He also spoke on race; "If we are not racist and proud of it then our country will be destroyed”. Over 100 marched to a counter-meeting in St Giles, to hear the Chairman of the Anti-Fascist Committee declare that "On the strength of tonight it's clear that nowhere in Oxford will fascism be allowed to go unhampered”.

The next time the Far Right came to town it was in the guise of the British Movement. Originally they had threatened an 'anti-IRA march', (this being the year of the hunger strikes), as they obviously felt that the usual anti-Black/Asian rhetoric would not strike a chord in Oxford. When they realised that this attempt to win recruits by trying to appeal to perceived popular sentiment wouldn't wash, they publicly cancelled their plans.

Around 40 BM activists turned up anyway, apparently hoping the opposition had been thrown off the scent. A counter-demonstration was hastily organised by the ad hoc 'Oxford Committee Against the Nazi March' which included the Anti Nazi League, (Mark 1). Around 400 people marched down the High Street to oppose the BM. At the same time a smaller group of around 100, dominated by a strong contingent from the Blackbird Leys estate, including many black youth and another similar size group containing some of the founding members of AFA, set off to find the fascists. About 30 members of the BM had been spotted in the Old Gatehouse pub near the rail station. Anti-fascists arrived, smashed through the locked door of the pub and set about their business. BM bootboys who failed to find refuge in either the upstairs rooms, or the cellar of the Gatehouse soon learned that once again the boots were on the other feet.

After a successfully completed operation the anti-fascists made their getaway, leaving behind a bloodied and thoroughly devastated British Movement, (and a well turned over public house!). 'The Oxford Times' interviewed a BM activist from Peterborough who had witnessed the scenes at the Gatehouse. He bleated that Oxford was chosen "because it is a Red stronghold and we wanted to circulate leaflets to put our side". The leaflets did not even leave the box, and were abandoned at the rail station in the BM's haste to leave town.

It was to be another decade before the fascists showed their faces in Oxford again. In 1993 Ian Anderson returned with a little gang, to test the water with a National Front paper sale in the town centre. Unfortunately they didn't hang around long enough for anti-fascists to catch up with them, though one or two members of the public did challenge them, resulting in scuffles, which encouraged a swift departure. The following week anti-fascists were out in force, but the Front played safe and stayed at home.

Since 1981 the Far Right have only been able to carry out operations of the hit and run variety, using activists from outside of the city to attack soft targets on the middle class Left. These attacks (which can be counted on one hand), are made possible because the groups that have been victimised, continually ignore their own propaganda about the need to "Smash the Nazi's" etc. and hold meetings and events without the adequate security arrangements. AFA on the other hand is not in the business of handing victories over to the class enemy. Anything organised by AFA, they leave well alone.

Oxford AFA is aware that it inherits the proud tradition of working class opposition to fascism in the city. We also accept, as did our predecessors, the necessity of both physical and ideological struggle against the Far Right, and act accordingly. The fact that many in Oxford see fascism (however incorrectly) as a problem of the past, is a testimony to the success of the city's anti-fascists in removing it from the streets.