Fascism and anti-fascism in 1930s Manchester

The following article on Fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s humiliation by anti-fascists at Belle Vue is reproduced by kind permission of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, and is by Michael Wolf of the anti-fascist periodical Searchlight. The introduction to the article is based on an article by Yaakov Wise, also on the CJS website.

One of Manchester’s most unpleasant claims to fame is its connections to Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists and supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. Mosley Street in Manchester city centre is named after his family – although not after Oswald Mosley himself. Early meetings of BUF were held in Hyndman Hall on Liverpool Street in Salford and rallies held at Queen’s Park in Harpurhey.

In 1933 a BUF meeting at the Free Trade Hall descended into rioting between fascists and anti-fascist communists and was broken up by police. The BUF also had its northern headquarters – inaugurated in a ceremony performed by Mosley flanked by two columns of blackshirts – at 17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton, Salford, in a house called Thornleigh.

Despite strong opposition from Manchester’s left-wing and Jewish communities, the BUF grew in 1933 and 1934, opening eighteen branches in Manchester and surrounding areas, including in Stretford, Altrincham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hulme, Rusholme, Withington, Blackley, Oldham, Bolton, Bury and Rochdale. At one time the BUF even considered moving its HQ to Greater Manchester, after the Daily Mail and Lord Rothermere withdrew their support for the organisation in 1934. Jock Houston, one of Mosley’s violent and racist officers in London, was slated for a move to Manchester but was instead sent to Wales after objections from Greater Manchester Police.

Their presence was recalled by a Jewish member of the Young Communist League, Maurice Levine, who later fought in Spain and wrote in his autobiography “From Cheetham to Cordova: A Manchester man of the Thirties:”

“A favourite café of theirs was Walter’s on Great Ducie Street near Victoria Station, and they would walk through Strangeways along Bury New Road to Northumberland Street to provoke the Jewish population – they would often be scuffles with the inhabitants of Strangeways, who were very sensitive to the menace of fascism in their midst.”

The Jewish Chronicle of 27th October 1939 reported the activities of fascists around Manchester, including chalking slogans such as ‘Christians awake! Don’t be slaughtered for Jewish finance’ in Fallowfield. A BUF member was also fined 20 shillings by city magistrates for chalking fascist slogans on a wall at Boggart Hole Clough in Blackley. “A representative of the Manchester Parks Department said that chalking had caused them a great deal of trouble, as they had to be ‘ever-lastingly cleaning walls,” the paper recorded.

The BUF also prepared for the general election of 1940 – never held due to WW2 – by preparing a man called Dick Bellamy as a parliamentary candidate for Blackley. The BUF had also been declared illegal in 1937, but one of the staff from Mosley’s Higher Broughton office still stood as a candidate in the Middleton & Prestwich by-election (breaking the convention that in wartime a deceased’s party successor stands unopposed) in 1940, winning 418 votes against the Conservatives’ 32,036. MI5 files on Mosley record him being tracked in Manchester, including during a secret meeting in 1940 in a curtained-off booth in a restaurant called the Victoria Grill. But the day after the by-election Mosley and other BUF leaders were arrested in London and the party collapsed.

‘Bye Bye Blackshirt: Oswald Mosley defeated at Belle Vue
By Michael Wolf

After the notorious brutality of the fascist meeting earlier in 1934 Mosley thought he would have a repeat performance in Manchester. To combat this threat an anti-fascist co-ordinating committee was created to counter the fascist thugs. A dynamic campaign of leafleting, fly-posting and public meetings were organised to mobilise the opposition. Deputations were organised representing the broadest possible democratic coalition to demand the banning of the fascist meeting. In the face of all the protests the meeting was allowed, and to add insult to injury the Chief Constable banned all marches, a decision clearly taken to make anti-fascist mobilisation more difficult.

However, the anti-fascists were determined that there would be no repeat of fascist violence and intimidation. Saturday 29th September the opposition mobilised. Three marches from Openshaw, Miles Platting, and Cheetham marched to meet the hundreds already waiting to meet them at Ardwick Green to form a united demonstration of over 3,000 who would march along Hyde road to join the protest meeting outside Belle Vue. The contingent from Cheetham comprised in the main young working class Jewish activists from the Challenge Club, the Youth Front Against War & Fascism and the Young Communist League formed the backbone of the group that was to rout the fascists later in the day. When the marchers arrived at Belle Vue they were greeted by the hundreds already assembled for the protest meeting. The marchers however had not come to listen to speeches. They had come to stop Mosley.

At the agreed time they left the meeting, crossed the road and in orderly fashion queued up to pay their entrance fee for Belle Vue. Once inside the amusement park scouting parties tried to find the fascists. They had no success, as these examples of the “master race” were hiding in the halls hired for them.

Mosley was to speak from The Gallery which was protected by the lake, his supporters were to assemble on the open air dance floor which was in front of the lake. Even so the fascist leader did not feel safe and in addition to the gang of thugs he called his bodyguard, there were wooden barriers and the police. In case this was not enough searchlights were available to be directed against the anti-fascists and fire engines with water cannon at the ready. The scene was set.

500 blackshirts marched from a hall under The Gallery and formed up military style. Mosley, aping Mussolini stepped forward to the microphone to speak. He was greeted by a wall of sound that completely drowned his speech. “Down with fascism”, “Down with the blackshirt thugs!”, “The rats the rats clear out the rats!”, “One two three four five we want Mosley, dead or alive!”. Anti fascist songs, the Red Flag, and the Internationale. The sound never stopped for over an hour. In spite of the powerful amplifiers turned up to maximum Mosley could not be heard.

To quote The Manchester Guardian, “Sitting in the midst of Sir Oswald’s personal bodyguard within three yards of where he was speaking one barely able to catch two consecutive sentences.”

Mosley tried all the theatrical tricks he knew to try and make an impression but without any effective sound he appeared like a demented marionette. Defeat stared him in the face and he knew it, as did his audience which slunk away as soon as the police bodyguard was removed. The humiliation of the fascists was complete. The only sound they could now here was the singing of ‘bye bye blackshirt’ to the tune ‘bye ’bye blackbird’, a popular song of the time.

With the fascists defeated and demoralised, the protesters raised their banners and posters high and proudly rejoined the meeting outside Belle Vue.

Mosley’s humiliation was complete, what was supposed to have been his most important meeting since Olympia was in fact the first of a series of defeats he was to suffer in Manchester.

18 thoughts on “Fascism and anti-fascism in 1930s Manchester

  1. I’m sure there are many people in Manchester (and the Country) who owe a debt of gratitude to the anti-fascists for their brave stand against Oswald Mosley and his despicable organisation. There are also a large number of Mancunians, myself amongst them, who are pleased to have been born in a former Mosley residence – Collar House in Prestbury, Cheshire. I believe Collar House was “requisitioned” during the war by the Government on behalf of St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. I haven’t really been able to find out much about this part of the hospital’s history (any help or hints gratefully received). I was born in 1949, so the house was still in use at that time as a “babies hospital”. I believe that Macclesfield NHS still operate Collar House as an old people’s home… maybe I’ll end my days there as well. Great article, thank you.

    • I was also born at Collar House and have just begun to research the house as my grandcgildren have asked me to write down some family history. I knew there had been a connection with the Mosley family but would love to know more – can you help ?

    • Hi
      I hesitate to write to total strangers to ‘correct them’ but you may be pleased to know that your Collar House birthplace has no fascist connections at all. The house belonged to Reginald (Rex) Moseley who was one of 10 children of Joseph Moseley. All four boys went into the firm (India rubber manufacturers) which was founded by their g/father. The third of the brothers was indeed Oswald G.Moseley but he has no connection with the fascist who was Oswald E Mosley Bt.
      I have been researching a short book on Collar House as my mother was the midwife who commissioned theb operating theatre there in 1939.
      You may have done more research by now as the post is a year old but if not I hope to have the book in local libraries by this summer. I have some lovely photos from the war on and have traced the occupants back to 1780.
      best wishes

      • Mary Roberts, have you written the book re Collar House? I would be interested in it as my sister was born there in 1952.

  2. Pingback: Manchester’s radical history version 2.0 « Rupa Huq's Blog

  3. “Radical”!


    Nothing “radical” about all this nonsense – its as predictable as students and adolescents having posters of Che Geuevera, as powerless as tree huggers saying “no! no!” to tractors, and as juvenile as the Tooting Popular Front. Power to the Peoplllllle, eh boys? Come the Revolution, eh boys? lol

  4. It’s great that Mosley’s black shirts got nowhere, but why be pleased that he was shouted down by the communists? We’re supposed to retrospectively cheer on a group of intolerant fascists against another group of intolerant fascists?

    • Hmm. British communists may have been naive or wilfully ignorant about Stalinism. I think the BUF knew exactly what Hitler and Mussolini stood for.

  5. fantasy stuff….Mosley’s party had thousands of members in Manchester, see the Steven Spielberg film archive and watch the film of the BUF marching through the city in the late 30’s.

    • I believe my father took part in protest against Moseley’s black shirts in Manchester in the late 1930’s, and I would appreciate any further details you have of these conflicts. Do you have any further information or a source I could look at? I couldn’t find the films you refer to in the archive; do you have the catalogue reference?

  6. An indisputable truth about the BUF in Manchester is the fact that after 1938 they were denied the right to wear their uniforms on their demonstrations by the clever use of an old and unrepealed city law against the wearing and bearing of military uniforms and standards, which was rediscovered and enacted by the socialist Mayoralty, deliberately to neuter the Fascist’s powerful imagery.

  7. I too was a Collar House baby,born in February 1950, so it was still in use as an annex to St Mary’s at that time. I was born in what was,according to my late mother, the library. The information my mother provided mentioned the Mosley connection and she was convinced that there was a fascist connection, it’s refreshing to find out that it was not connected to the fascists. I will most certainly be interested to read the book about the history of my birthplace.

  8. I am also a Collar House baby born in December 1947. My Mother told me I was born in the billiard room and she too always told me that the house had belonged to Oswald Mosley before it had been taken away from him by the Government. I am looking forward to
    reading the book about Collar House.

    Julie Bloomer (nee Griffin)

    • I was also born in collar house Feb 1947 . My mother told me it was once owned by Oswald Mosley. I was shopping in Macclesfield today and went to visit the house. I have lived in the area most of my life but it’s first time I have seen the house I was born 66 years ago it was amazing

      • Yet another Collar House baby here (January 1949). Isn’t it great to have “Born in Prestbury” on your Birth Certificate? As far as I know Collar House was requisitioned from Oswald Mosley to house Manchester’s St. Mary’s Hospital during the war. I believe Collar House is now a Retirement Care Home, so maybe I’ll end my days there too!

  9. Reblogged this on Anti-Fascist Archive and commented:
    Reblogged from the excellent Manchester’s Radical History.

    The following article on Fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s humiliation by anti-fascists at Belle Vue is reproduced by kind permission of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, and is by Michael Wolf of the anti-fascist periodical Searchlight. The introduction to the article is based on an article by Yaakov Wise, also on the CJS website.

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