The rise of the British Union of Fascists 1932-4
The founding of the BUF
On 1st October 1932 Sir Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF), merging the remnants of the New Party with other far-right groups. The BUF's founding programme consisted of the New Party's plan for a siege economy, combined with the abolition of "outdated" democracy. The BUF was organised along semi-paramilitary lines, adopting the "Blackshirt" uniform of Mussolini's movement. The Fascists saw themselves as preparing for violent confrontation with the Communist Party as the "old gang" (the Tory and Labour Parties) collapsed under the impact of a deep economic crisis. That crisis meant that by the end of 1932 unemployment nationally stood close on three million, a dire situation which was reflected locally: by November 1932 the number registered as unemployed at Chatham's Employment Exchange stood at 7,687 (which represented a doubling of local unemployment since 1929).
Mosley managed to secure powerful friends for his brainchild: Mussolini provided him with considerable funds and Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, gave his support (in 1934 he was to publish an editorial headlined "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!").
The anti-Fascist movement
In January 1933 Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, and the minds of the Left, and of the Labour movement in general, came to be more and more concentrated on the menace of Fascism.
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CP) underwent a change in its policy. Previously it had denounced the Labour. Party as no better than Fascists: now it was decided to make overtures to the ranks of the Labour Party and Independent Labour Party (MP) for the formation of a "United Front".
In the Medway Towns the CP had built itself a modest base, largely through work amongst the unemployed. The Party's local leading lights, such as Charlie Matthews of Chatham and Fred Thomas of Gillingham, had made a name for themselves as organisers for the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM), the national leadership of which was held by the CP.
In the spring of 1933 the Party's new approach began to bear fruit locally. Hugh Gaitskell (the Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for Chatham, and a future national leader of the Labour Party) declared at a Labour eve of May Day meeting that "only by the unity of the working-class ... could attempts at Fascism in this country be stamped out". In May a local Anti-Fascist Campaign Committee was set up with the support of prominent members of Chatham Labour Party, as well as the local branches of the MP, Communist Party, and NUWM. Gaitskell was happy to speak on the same platform as local Communists, and plans were made for a meeting at the Unitarian Church in Chatham to be addressed by Gaitskell and Tom Mann (a national leader of the Communist Party). On 21st May a large TIP meeting in Gillingham heard Jennie Lee, speaking on "the menace of Fascism", urge working-class unity against Fascism. (The meeting prompted a columnist in the Chatham Observer to remark that "up to the moment the only black shirts I have seen in Gillingham have been tinged either with honest sweat and toil or by ordinary common-or-garden dirt, and not by any political dye", although he agreed that complacency about the rise of Fascism would be folly.)
The development of a local anti-Fascist United Front was, however, soon cut across by a bitter faction fight in Chatham Labour Party. The right wing (led by Secretary Eric Cash) won the day and a decision was made to reject the United Front and ban any further appearances by Gaitskell on the same platform as Communists. Left-wingers George Dexter, Charlie Macey, and Cllr Walter Hollands showed their disapproval by resigning from the Party.
Nevertheless, the CP could still find support amongst some sections of the Labour Party. In 1934 Gordon Clother, a prominent member of Gillingham Labour Party and the town's Registrar of births and deaths, served as Secretary of the Kent County Committee of the United Front.
The BUF and anti-semitism
On 7th June 1934 the BUF held a rally at the 13,000-seat Olympia stadium in London. At every burst of heckling Mosley paused dramatically as spotlights were trained on the culprits and gangs of Blackshirt thugs removed them one by one, administering savage beatings. The country was swept by a wave of revulsion against the Blackshirts. Lord Rothermere also started to distance himself from Mosley, and the BUF's support began to wane.
Feeling his support slipping, Mosley played a new and repulsive card, that of anti-semitism. The BUF had always had more than its fair share of racists and anti-semites, but anti-semitism was not at first to the fore in its propaganda. The BUF had even on occasion denied any ill-will towards Jews. All that changed in October 1934, when Mosley launched into a demagogic onslaught on an imaginary "international Jewish conspiracy". He had finally dropped every last shred of pretension to orthodox political "respectability", and the Blackshirts were now clearly out for one thing: violent control of the streets.
The battle was now joined in earnest between the BUF and anti-Fascists, particularly in the East End of London. Areas outside of London, including the Medway Towns, were also treated to flying visits by Mosley, street demonstrations, and organised anti-Jewish campaigns.
Medway's Jewish community
There were Jews living in the Medway Towns as early as the 12th century, and there has been a Jewish community continually resident since at least the 18th century. The synagogue built at Rochester in the mid-18th century was reputedly one of the first to be built in this country. The community's ranks were bolstered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by newcomers from Russia and Poland, escaping anti-semitic pogroms (although the number of Jews living in the area still remained relatively small). The 1930s saw the arrival of further refugees, this time from Nazi Germany. During the 1930s the synagogue in Rochester High Street had a congregation of around forty families, led by Rabbi Samuel Wolfe. (The synagogue also served several Jewish communities in Kent outside the Medway Towns which lacked their own synagogues.) Despite the community's small size, several Jews played a significant part in local public life: a number were prominent in the professions, and Jews owned five or six of the bigger clothing shops in Chatham (such as Solomon Gergel's Ladies' Outfitters in the High Street, and Greenburgh Brothers' Outfitters in Military Road). This was the community which was to provide the target for Mosley's thugs in the Medway Towns.
Mosley at Gillingham - October 1934
On Tuesday 30th October 1934 Mosley paid his first visit to the Medway Towns as the leader of the BUF. He spoke at the Pavilion in Canterbury Street, Gillingham (commonly known as "the Pay" it was a popular local dance hall; today it performs a similar function as the "Ritzy" night club).
From a platform draped with the union jack Mosley addressed an audience of over 1,000 people. Twenty Blackshirts in full uniform stood around the hall, ready to deal with any opposition. Mosley justified the Blackshirts' paramilitary organisation by reference to "Red hooliganism", accused the Tories of wanting to pull out of India and dismantle the Empire, denounced the "humbug" of democracy, and outlined his plan for a "Corporate State". He said that the BUF fought the Jews "because they have opposed the interests of Fascism and the interests of Britain". He argued that they would "have to choose whether they put Britain first or Jewry first". Among the audience were Hugh Gaitskell (who accused Mosley of telling "abominable lies" about the Labour Party), and a Tory member of Gillingham Council (who tried lamely to defend the National Government's record on unemployment).
Outside the Pavilion a crowd estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 people assembled to oppose Mosley. Early in the evening a group of children occupied the steps of the Pavilion and were forcibly removed by the police. On Mosley's arrival over 30 police linked arms to hold the crowd back and allow him into the hall. While the crowd waited for Mosley to emerge from the meeting Blackshirts guarding the hall were pelted with eggs, the Red Flag was sung, and the chant went up "One, two, three, four, five; we want Mosley, dead or alive!" In nearby Skinner Street Communist and other speakers addressed impromptu meetings.
On Mosley's re-appearance he was spat upon and missiles were thrown, including bottles: one Blackshirt was hit in the head and a policeman was cut on the hand by flying glass. An attempt was also made to overturn Mosley's sports car. "There was in this crowd", said a Chatham Observer columnist, "an element of sheer blackguardism which had given itself over to the ugly influence of mob fury". By contrast he noted "not the slightest evidence of any act of violence on the part of any of the large contingent of Blackshirts present, despite the fact that several of them had been pelted with eggs by someone in the crowd whose aim was remarkably accurate".
In truth the Fascists did live up to their violent reputation, beating up a young female member of the Labour League of Youth outside the Pavilion. However, thanks to the anti-Fascists' organisation and sheer weight of numbers this was an isolated incident: there was no repeat of the bloodbath seen at Olympia a few months previously.
The anti-Fascist movement had begun to build in strength and, within two years of Mosley's visit to Gillingham, it was able to deliver the Fascists a crushing blow from which they never fully recovered, at the "Battle of Cable Street" in east London.