Fighting Fascism in Medway and Spain 1935-6
The BUF re-organises
During 1935 the British Union of Fascists slipped from the headlines somewhat, as the organisation suffered financial troubles, a loss of political momentum, and the diversion of members' energies into an extensive internal re-organisation. A new system was devised of "Units", teams of six members who were to perform political tasks together. These were organised into Districts under local versions of the "Leader" Oswald Mosley (they were known as "District Leaders" or "District Officers"). Fascists in the Medway Towns were organised into the BUF "Rochester District", under District Officer William Alfred Robert Thomas, of 12 Darnley Road, Strood.
The shadow of war
With Hitler re-arming and pressing his territorial claims, and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935, the shadow of war was starting to fall across Europe. In Britain re-armament was beginning, eroding the unemployment in which the BUF had found such a fertile breeding ground for Fascism. In the Medway Towns the dole queue was at last shrinking as Chatham Dockyard's workforce began to expand: in June 1935 the number registered as unemployed at the Chatham Employment Exchange dropped below 4,000 for the first time since 1930.
For their part, the Fascists were anxious to urge on the National Government the sort of appeasement policy which it was soon to adopt. In the autumn of 1935 the BUF organised a nationwide petition "against war". Locally, District Officer Thomas wrote to the Chatham News, giving addresses in Rochester and Strood where people could sign "to help in keeping Britain out of war".
The 1935 election
In November 1935 Prime Minister Baldwin went to the county. Fearing an electoral humiliation, Mosley decided that the BUF would not stand any candidates. He denounced the election as a "farce" and pledged to field candidates at the next election. Accordingly, the BUF campaigned for abstention under the slogan "Fascism next time", which was daubed on walls wherever the Fascists were active. At the election the Medway Towns reflected the national pattern by returning two To MPs who supported Baldwin's National Government: Sir Robert Gower at Gillingham, and Capt. Plugge at Chatham.
At the beginning of 1936 the BUF was renamed "The British Union of Fascists and National Socialists". Increasingly, however, the name was abbreviated to "The British Union", thereby avoiding any hint of the words "Fascist" or 'Nazi" (which were increasingly a liability, in the light of events on the continent).
Mosley at Rochester - June 1936
On Monday 22nd June 1936 Oswald Mosley again visited the Medway Towns, addressing a "British Union" meeting at the Rochester Casino, on the corner of Corporation Street and Blue Boar Lane. (The Casino was then, as now, a popular local nightspot.) The hall was lined with Fascists sporting the infamous Blackshirt uniform. Several of them, with their aims raised in the Fascist salute, formed an archway down the centre gangway, through which Mosley approached the platform to the strains of the Fascist marching song.
In his speech, Mosley claimed that a Fascist government would carry out "the will of the people" and not set up a "tyranny". He tried to justify the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (calling it "the plague-spot of the world"), and claimed that Hitler (who three months previously had sent troops into the Rhineland) only wanted "development of Germany and peace with England". He also accused the National Government of allying Britain with the Soviet Union against Germany. (In fact the government was rebuffing Soviet offers of a "peace front" against Hitler and embracing a policy of appeasement.) He argued that the government should have allied Britain with the Fascist powers against the Soviet Union, instead of which they "had been the passive dupes of the Jew, Litvinoff [the Soviet Foreign Minister], who sought to get them at rest while the Communist jackals feasted on the ruins of Western civilisation".
The audience contained a good few people hostile to Mosley. A brave young Jew who asked Mosley "why Jews who were prepared to die for England should be penalised because of their race" was vigorously applauded. Considering events in Germany at the time and subsequently Mosley's reply (that Jews who "put the interests of England before the interests of Jewry" had "nothing to fear under a Fascist Government") sounds like a very sick joke.
Outside the Casino several thousand people demonstrated beneath red flags and banners, chanting "we must get rid of the rats" and singing the Internationale (the Communist anthem). As well as Rochester City Police, a contingent of Naval pickets was also in attendance (presumably in anticipation of the involvement of Naval ratings in any disorder). When Mosley left the hall by the side entrance the crowd broke through police lines and attempted to rush him, stopping the traffic in Corporation Street. They were prevented from reaching Mosley by a cordon of Blackshirts, who surrounded his car. The Chatham News described the ensuing fracas as "a species of all-in wrestling".
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War - July 1936
In July 1936 Fascism in Europe was on the march again, with the revolt of the Spanish army under General Franco against the country's elected government (a "Popular Front" of Liberals, Communists, and Socialists). In the ensuing civil war Franco was provided with considerable military assistance by Hitler and Mussolini.
The defence of the Spanish Republic quickly became a cause celebre of socialists throughout the world, who rallied to send assistance. Two thousand Britons joined the International Brigade, a multinational volunteer army set up to help defend the Republic. Among them were two Medway Communists: Fred Thomas from Gillingham (a 30 year-old unemployed former Chatham Dockyard labourer), and Fred Felton from Rochester. Both enrolled in the Brigade's British Battalion at its inception, and both were killed at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. Alan Gilchrist (a local teacher) also fought in the International Brigade for two years until 1938. A Labour Party member from Gillingham, Dick Turner (a 25 year-old merchant seaman), fought in the Spanish Republican Navy, returning home wounded at the end of 1937. And, towards the end of the war, a man identified as "John Danson of Chatham" was among International Brigade volunteers taken prisoner by Franco's army.
Throughout the war in Spain the Labour movement in the Medway Towns (particularly the Communist Party and the Labour League of Youth) made strenuous efforts on behalf of the Spanish Republic. Funds for humanitarian aid were tirelessly collected, and a number of refugees from Spain were housed locally.
A somewhat different view of the Spanish war was taken by the Medway Towns' two Tory MPs (Capt. Plugge at Chatham, and Sir Robert Gower at Gillingham), who both resolutely defended the government's strict "non-intervention" policy. (Under this policy no British government aid, even of a humanitarian kind, was sent to the Spanish Republic, and a ban was imposed on the sale to theRepublic of any kind of arms, even anti-aircraft guns.) In 1937 Sir Robert Gower was to cause a good deal of controversy by expressing openly pro-Franco sentiments (see Chapter Five).
By concentrating attention on the issue of Fascism the Spanish Civil War gave added impetus to the continuing campaign against the home-grown Fascists of the BUF.
The Battle of Cable Street - October 1936
On 4th October 1936 the Fascists suffered a major humiliation at the hands of Communists, the Labour movement and the Jewish community in east London, in what became known as the "Battle of Cable Street'. When the BUF tried to march through the East End 250,000 demonstrators thronged the streets, erecting barricades under the slogan of the Spanish Republic: "They shall not pass !" The 7,000 Blackshirts who turned out were hopelessly outnumbered, and were beaten off of the streets. The BUF's morale took a huge knock from which it never fully recovered.
At least one Medway member of the BUF was caught up in these events: the Chatham News reported that 23 year-old John William Bailey of St Peter's. Street, Rochester had suffered a head wound and needed hospital treatment.
In the correspondence columns of the Chatham News a BUF member from Gillingham, William Leslie Williams of 5 Cross Street, whined that the employment of "barbarous methods" by "Communists, Jews, and Socialists" had denied the Fascists' right to free speech. He recalled the rough reception that the Fascists had received when Mosley spoke at the Pavilion in Gillingham in 1934, when "remarks were passed about Sir Oswald Mosley that any decent-minded person would be ashamed to utter". Strangely, Williams neglected to inform readers of the News of his membership of the BUF.
John Beckett at Rochester - November 1936
A few weeks later Chatham Council voted, for the second time, to deny the BUF use of the Town Hall (on November 5th) fearing damage to the premises. Some venues, however, remained open to the Fascists. On Friday 27th November 1936 the BUF held a meeting at the Old Corn Exchange in Rochester, addressed by one of the Fascists' national stars, John Beckett. Beckett was a former Labour MP who had defected to the BUF, becoming editor of their journals The Blackshirt and Action. He explained the BUF's opposition to the Public Order Bill (then before Parliament), which had been drafted following the Battle of Cable Street, calling it "a Bill to promote disorder" and claiming that the BUF "practised good order". (The Bill banned political uniforms and gave the police powers to ban all demonstrations in a given area for a specified period of time. It was opposed by the Left as much as by the BUF, since it gave the police ample scope to ban left-wing demonstrations and failed to criminalise racist propaganda.) It was also announced at the meeting that the BUF would be fielding a candidate at Chatham in the next general election.
This meeting appears to have escaped the attention of local anti-Fascists. The Chatham News reported that "the proceedings were very orderly, and there was not a single interruption during the meeting". Not surprisingly, the local BUF crowed loudly about this fact. W L Williams, writing to the local press, commended the people of the Medway Towns for their "sense of fair play" and "determination to hear the other side". For the most part, however, when the Fascists showed their faces around the Medway Towns they continued to meet with opposition, both verbal and physical.