Fighting it out on the streets 1937-8
Fascism in Chatham Dockyard
On 1st January 1937 the Public Order Act came into force. Its provisions were supposedly evidence of a new tough policy against the BUF by Baldwin's National Government. Left-wing anti-Fascists were, however, under no illusions as to whom the government really saw as the enemy.
During the mid-1930s there was a series of scares involving alleged acts of minor sabotage at Naval Dockyards (including Chatham Dockyard). Communists were blamed, and purges of left-wing Dockyard workers followed in 1936 and early 1937 (although none of those dismissed could be linked to any act of sabotage).
In a House of Commons debate on the dismissals in January 1937 Labour MP Sir Stafford Cripps alleged that, while innocent left-wingers were being victimised, "Fascist propaganda was being allowed to proceed freely in Chatham Dockyard, especially by the open sale within the dockyard of copies of the Fascist papers". He reported that he had passed on to the First Lord of the Admiralty the name of a man in the Yard responsible for distributing Fascist literature. Cripps claimed that, although the man was well-known for his political activities, he had gone unmolested. He said that, even though the man had displayed "a large Fascist sign" on his locker, it had not been searched, while those suspected of left-wing sympathies had had their lockers searched "two or three times a week". The First Lord, Sir Samuel Hoare, told the House that he had looked into the allegation and could find "no evidence". Cripps hinted at a cover-up, stating that "it was clear that there was somebody a good deal higher up than the man who distributed the Fascist papers who was in sympathy with his action". Replying to a further question on the subject a few weeks later, the First Lord claimed that two investigations had been made into Cripps' allegations and that neither had uncovered any evidence.
Whether there were Fascists in the Dockyard or not, the BUF certainly remained very active in the Medway Towns at this time. They maintained a local headquarters at 22b Chatham Hill and were much in evidence around the area.
In the summer of 1937 the Fascists announced that at the next election they would be standing Noel Kennedy (from East Grinstead in Sussex) as their candidate for Chatham. On Sunday 29th August 1937 Kennedy addressed an open air meeting of a thousand people at Batchelor Street in Chatham. He made much play of the BUF's pro-appeasement slogan "Mind Britain's Business"; and he contrasted the supposedly extravagant sums spent on the maintenance of what he called "alien" refugee Basque children (fleeing the Spanish Civil War) with the dole paid to the unemployed. The meeting concluded with the singing of God Save the King, accompanied by the Fascist salute, but not before a noisy group of anti-Fascists had done their best to discredit Kennedy.
Sir Robert Gower MP and the Spanish Civil War
The sort of views on the Spanish Civil War expressed by Kennedy were not unique to the BUF. In the summer of 1937 Gillingham's Conservative MP Sir Robert Gower generated a huge controversy by expressing effectively pro-Fascist sentiments about the war. He accused the Republican government of introducing Communism, and repeated Fascist horror stories about the Republic failing to prevent the burning of churches, persecution of religion, and wholesale rape and murder by government supporters. He even tried to blame the Republic for the massacre of civilians by German dive-bombers at Guernica, as the government "knowing what was impending had failed to remove the civilian population". As far as Gower was concerned, "General Franco and the Spanish revolutionaries are more than justified in the course they have taken". He excused German and Italian involvement in the Civil War as a justified response to the presence of foreign Communist volunteers in the International Brigade. Gower nevertheless maintained that he was resolutely opposed to Fascism, trying to reconcile this with his support for Franco by arguing (absurdly) that "the Spanish Revolution is in no way an attempt by General Franco to establish Fascism in Spain".
In the ensuing outcry Gower was called (among other things) "an agent of the Nazis", a label lent some credence by his keen support of appeasement and his membership of the AngloGerman Fellowship. In 1936 Gower had written to the Times as follows: "Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini are the direct outcome of Bolshevism, and there can be no doubt that had it not been for them, Bolshevism would be devastating the greater part of Europe today".
Gower's view of events in Spain is contradicted somewhat by the findings of an interdenominational fact-finding mission which the Dean of Rochester, Dr Francis Underhill, had led in February 1937. The mission had found that there was no evidence of any systematic persecution of religion, despite understandable anger at the Catholic Church for its pro-Fascist sympathies in Spain.
Ironically, though, the Spanish Republican government, and the Spanish Communists, were carrying out massacres (but not of the sort alleged by Gower). As George Orwell revealed in his book Homage to Catalonia, the massacres were of Anarchists and non-Communist Socialists, who criticised the Popular Front government from the left. Such details were, however, lost on both Gower and his pro-Popular Front opponents. In the summer of 1938 Gower was again courting controversy over the issue of Spain. At that time British-crewed ships were attempting to break the Fascist naval blockade of the Spanish Republic. Gower defended the National Government's policy that such vessels were to be denied the protection of the Royal Navy once they had left the high seas and entered Spanish territorial waters. (Several Chatham-based Naval vessels were among those in the Mediterranean at this time.) Gower argued that to protect British vessels in Spanish waters would be tantamount to a breach of the government's "non-intervention" policy.
Gower found a supporter for his attitude in the person of Noel Kennedy of the BUF. Writing to the local press he commended Gower's "shrewd" judgement and argued that the ships concerned were mostly owned by "alien capitalists" (Fascist code-words for Jews), who were putting the lives of British sailors at risk to make "fortunes" from "Spain's agony". (In truth, most of the ships were taking humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine, to the beleaguered Republic.)
The battle for Batchelor Street
The disruption by anti-Fascists of Kennedy's street meeting in August 1937 (mentioned above) was by no means an isolated incident. Throughout the mid- and late 1930s there was a running battle between the Fascists and their opponents for possession of the traditional street-meeting location in Batchelor Street (which was something like the Medway Towns' equivalent of Speakers' Corner). At one time there was an agreement between the Labour League of Youth and the Salvation Army whereby on Saturday evenings the Salvationists' band would continue to play after their meeting until the League of Youth had arrived for theirs, thereby preventing the Fascists from occupying the pitch. On at least one other occasion the more direct method of knocking the Fascists' heads together was employed. Another time anti-Fascists succeeded in silencing the BUF at Batchelor Street by cutting the wires to their loudspeaker. (In August 1939 the Fascists themselves used the same method in an attempt to silence a speech at Batchelor Street by Communist Party General Secretary Hany Pollitt.)
On Saturday 11th June 1938 Batchelor Street played host to a meeting addressed by "Mick" Clarke, the BUF's prospective parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green, in east London. Clarke (an East End furniture worker in his late 20s) was billed as a "Famous East London Blackshirt Pioneer", having been a key figure in the campaign which had built the BUF's organisation in east London several years earlier. He was something of a hero to the Fascist rank and file, being known as "the Idol of Bethnal Green". He was also known as the "Julius Streicher of the BUF" (Streicher was the Nazis' chief anti-sernitic propagandist): this was apparently because Clarke shared both Streicher's rabid antisemitism and his fondness for wearing full-length black leather great-coats. In the summer of 1937 Clarke had been bound over for twelve months under the Public Order Act for using insulting language, after a speech in Bethnal Green during which he had referred to Jews as "greasy scum", "lice of the earth", "untouchables", and "filthy and licentious".
Following the Chatham meeting at which Clarke spoke an anonymous correspondent wrote to the Chatham News that "the so-called champions of Free Speech and Democracy - the Socialists and Communists - turned up in full force, and created enough disturbance to break up a dozen meetings". The complainant took particular exception to the "overgrown children of the [Labour] League of Youth" who had been "distributing Communist literature and creating as much noise as possible". The anonymous writer's conclusion was that "our Socialists are not only making it possible for Britain to go Fascist, but even desirable". In December 1938 W L Williams of the BUF complained in a letter to the local press that anti-Fascists had used the following tactics to disrupt an open-air meeting at Batchelor Street: "Continuous interruptions, numerous invitations to the speaker to 'come down and fight it out', indulging in spells of singing 'The Lambeth Walk', and 'The Internationale' [the Communist anthem], and a series of enquiries about Germany, Spain, Czechoslovakia, China etc.; in fact, every country but their own. The Union Jack was classed as 'A Boss-class rag', and when the National Anthem was sung at the conclusion of the meeting these 'intellectuals' either sang 'The Internationale' in competition or walked away."
Mosley at Gillingham - April 1938
1938 also saw a further visit to the Medway Towns by Oswald Mosley when, on Sunday 24th April, he spoke on behalf of Noel Kennedy (said to be 32 years old, and now the BUF prospective parliamentary candidate for Gillingham). For an hour and a half Mosley addressed a crowded meeting at the Paget Hall in Paget Street, Gillingham, stewarded by Fascists sporting red, white, and blue armbands (the Blackshirt uniform having been banned under the Public Order Act). Many of those attending the meeting had been brought in on ten or so buses, equipped with wire grilles on the windows to protect them from missiles.
Mosley spoke at length on the threat of war, arguing that Britain was drifting into an alliance with the Soviet Union and would be "dragged into alien wars", when the country's true interests lay in an accommodation with Germany. (At this time, in reality, the policy of appeasement was in full swing, and Soviet offers of an alliance against Hitler were being firmly rebuffed. In March the Nazis had annexed Austria with impunity, and in a few months Prime Minister Chamberlain was to sign the Munich agreement, granting Hitler's territorial claims in Czechoslovakia.)
Mosley also advocated a siege economy, with protective tariffs for British industry and agriculture. He concluded that the BUF had built up a powerful organisation whose members were "prepared to fight and die if necessary in order that our country may have National Socialism". On being heckled Mosley commented "I will address my remarks to the overwhelmingly intelligent among the audience". During question-time George Gilbert (a Gillingham Labour League of Youth member) reminded Mosley of the comment he had made as a Labour MP in 1927 that, in their Blackshirt uniforms, Fascists looked like cheap imitations of ice-cream salesmen. Mosley's only reply was that the questioner was too young to remember the comment having been made. When George Gilbert persisted Mosley retorted that "your questions are as stupid as your personal demeanour". The meeting ended as usual with the Fascist salute and the singing of the National Anthem.
Outside a vociferous display of opposition took place, of the type that habitually accompanied Mosley wherever he went. The Chatham Communist Party had distributed leaflets calling on local people to "make Mosley's visit the occasion of a monster demonstration against Fascism, against the rape of Austria, and against the bombing of civilians in Barcelona". Thousands attended the counter-demonstration, during which a Communist open-air meeting was held. True to form, when they encountered their opponents the Fascists were not fussy who they thumped: Mrs M B (then a 16 year-old Labour League of Youth member) recalls going home that night with a "thick ear" courtesy of Mosley's thugs.