The Cable Street Mural: Digging Into The Details

M@
By M@

Last Updated 17 May 2024

The Cable Street Mural: Digging Into The Details
The Cable Street mural
Image: Matt Brown

Looking in detail at one of London's most potent murals.

It's quite something, isn't it? You don't need to know the first thing about the 1936 Battle of Cable Street to admire this dynamic, whirling, masterpiece at the back of St George-in-the-East churchyard. But spend a bit of time in its company, and you'll spot any number of peculiar details. We've picked out some of these below, to put them into their historical context.

What was the Battle of Cable Street?

A smug looking moustachioed fascist
Oswald Mosley. Image: public doamin

It hardly needs saying that the 1930s was a time when fascism and authoritarianism were on the rise across Europe. Most notably in Germany and Italy, but also in other nations, including Britain. At the forefront here was Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), popularly known as blackshirts for their intimidating uniforms.

On 4 October 1936, Mosley and several thousand BUF members planned to march through the East End, an area which had a large Jewish population. The provocative move was countered by an even larger gathering — perhaps in the hundreds of thousands — of anti-fascist demonstrators. A third party in all this was the Metropolitan police, whose mounted division were there to keep peace, but mostly did the opposite.

The biggest confrontations came at Aldgate and nearby Cable Street. Ultimately, Mosley's blackshirts were repulsed and marched off towards the West End. It was a symbolic victory for the people against fascism, although the BUF continued to grow.

Others have written in great detail about the battle and its after-effects. Today, though, we're focussing on the commemorative mural, painted in the early 1980s by a group of artists (see below).

Details of the Battle of Cable Street painted into the mural

The Cable Street mural with location numbers
Click or tap for higher resolution.

1. Glass bottles: Numerous projectiles were hurled at police. Glass bottles are most commonly mentioned in news reports but, as we can see in the mural, other items were thrown from the rooftops.

2. Scattering leaflets: A man on the barricades appears to be scattering fascist literature in an act of rejection. The leaflets carry swastikas and the BUF's flash-and-circle logo.

3. Barricades: One of the most notable features of the Cable Street resistance was the erection of a large barricade from supplies from a builders' merchant and random household stuff. It takes centre stage on the mural.

4. Upturned vehicle: The barricade was made all the more impenetrable by an overturned truck, whose wheel can be seen here.

5. Labour symbol: In use from the 1920s, this was the original symbol of the Labour Party, often accompanied by the word 'Liberty'. Here, it's being used by the Independent Labour Party who were not, at this time, affiliated with mainstream Labour. Their main banner can be seen at the centre of the mix. The hammer and sickle logo on the adjacent flag is, of course, the old Soviet Union flag and, more generally, a symbol of communism.

6. 1970s residents: While many of the faces in the mural are said to represent people who were at the confrontation, the ones shown here represent local residents from the 1970s, when the mural was under preparation. Some depict people from the Bangladeshi community, who were recent arrivals to the area at the time.

7. Mosley shall not pass banner: Variations on "They shall not pass" became symbolic of the anti-fascist protests. The phrase had recent currency from the Republicans' cry of ‘¡No pasarán!’ in the ongoing Spanish Civil War — a cause that many Independent Labour Party members were concerned with.

8. Marbles: According to later testimony, the anti-fascists rolled marbles and ball bearings under the hooves of police horses, to unseat the riders. They can be seen tumbling from a hand to the bottom left.

9. Chamber pots: Eyewitness testimony tells us that hard objects like bottles and bricks were not the only aerial challenge for the police. Slops from chamber pots were also emptied onto their heads, as shown here.

10. Police autogyro: The distorted aircraft to the upper-right is a police autogyro, which was used on the day to keep an eye on the protests and anti-protests.

11. Hitler in his underwear: Most commentators agree that the tumbling figure in underwear and gartered green socks is meant to be Adolf Hitler. The Führer was, of course, not present at the confrontation, but his inclusion on the mural would be a fairly straightforward bit of symbolism. Some have suggested that it's meant to be Mosley, but the narrow moustache and discarded red Nazi armband (never used by Mosley and the BUF) suggest not.

12. Oswald Mosley: The fascist ringleader appears to be depicted centre-right, in his sinister obsidian garments.

Other details we can't trace: A few elements of the mural have us puzzled. Notably, what are the white diamonds at the bottom left, which carry the numbers 1, 3, 7, 5 and 13? A few shop names can also be seen, such as "J Wineberg" and "(B)erkowitz". Were these real businesses, or simply included as familiar Jewish names? Also, Panners Dairy?

Who painted the mural?

The Battle of Cable Street mural had a complicated genesis. Noted muralist David Binnington began work on it in 1978, with assistance from Paul Butler, but the task proved complicated and time-consuming. It was still only partially complete in 1982, when the painting was vandalised with right-wing graffiti. Binnington dropped out of the project, but Butler continued the work (after a redesign) with Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort. It was finally unveiled in 1983. It's been restored several times since, including in 2011 for the Battle's 75th anniversary.

The Cable Street Mural can be found, naturally enough, on Cable Street on the side of Tower Hamlets Register Office (Gmap).