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.

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Hugh Delargy

Hugh Delargy was born in 1908 and, after going to an elementary school, won a scholarship to study in Paris and Rome. During the Depression he worked as a labourer and insurance agent. He was elected as a Labour Councillor in Manchester in 1937 and remained on the Council until 1946. He was an active supporter of the Connolly Club (later the Connolly association) in its early years, speaking in May 1939 at the James Connolly commemoration organised by the Club in London and writing in the August issue of Irish Freedom on National Unity. He was also active in Manchester in both the Irish Prisoners National Aid Society for whom he raised £50 and the Anti-Partition League in Manchester who published his pamphlet, The Last Quarrel.
During the Second World War he served in the Royal Artillery, reaching the rank of Captain.

The Friends of Ireland

Hugh Delargy was elected as a Labour MP for Miles Platting in July 1945, inheriting the seat from JR Clynes For the first time the Labour party had an outright majority in the House of Commons and there were hopes that the new government would act on the Irish question. In December 1945 Delargy established the Friends of Ireland, a group of about 50 Labour MPs, and became its first secretary. Henry McGhee, son of the dock workers leader, took over as secretary in April 1946

The new group said that its primary contacts would be with the Irish TUC and Irish Labour parties, both north and south. In January 1946 Delargy spoke at a rally in Belfast while other MPs from the Friends of Ireland group visited the north and south of Ireland. On his return Delargy was welcomed by a social at Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall , organised by Eddie Lenehan and others, at which the entertainment was provided by Tommy Collins and his Ceilidhe band, MacSwiney pipers, Billy Kelly’s troupe of dancers, Kathleen O’Reilly and Margaret Cox.

Following their visit the Friends of Ireland called for an end to partition and said that the Six County government of Basil Brook was completely out of step with the Labour government in Britain and that the unity of North and South could only be achieved by Labour governments in both parts of Ireland. In March Delargy spoke in Dublin at the Mansion House and attacked partition. The group also lobbied the Home Secretary Chuter Ede over the 60 or so Irish prisoners still in jail but he initially refused to reconsider their sentences . Eventually the Home Office made some concessions and the last two prisoners were released from Parkhurst in December 1948.

In 1948 the Irish Free State (established by the treaty of 1921) repealed the 1937 External Relations Act, taking Ireland out of the Commonwealth and declaring it to be a Republic on Easter Monday 1949 (though of course a 26-county Republic). The Labour government responded by passing the Government of Ireland Act , which declared that no change in the status of Northern Ireland could be made without the consent of the government of Northern Ireland. It also decreed that Irish citizens living in Britain would not be treated as foreigners.

In April 1949 the King George VI sent the following message to the President Of Ireland, Sean O’Kelly.

“I send you my sincere good wishes on this day, being well aware of the neighbourly links which hold the people of the Republic of Ireland in close association with my subjects of the United Kingdom. I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.” (Signed) GEORGE R.

The Friends naturally opposed the Act but attempts to raise it at the Labour party conference in 1949 were blocked. Labour’s majority was reduced to a handful in the 1950 general election and the Friends group seems to have dissolved with little to show for five years of activity. Partition was still firmly in place, indeed it had strengthened by the Labour government.

The Anti-Partition League

Delargy was initially close to, if not a member of, the Connolly Association but after several years in parliament he moved his support to the Anti-Partition League. This was established by two Irish nationalist MPs in Northern Ireland – Eddie McAteer and Malachy O’Conlon – in November 1945 to bring together Irish nationalists to campaign for a United Ireland. As well as in Ireland, branches were also established in Britain.

The League held a big rally in Manchester in February 1947, a dance in September and a campaign in the autumn during which the nationalist MP Eddie McAteer spoke in Manchester. The Manchester area committee included J E Lyons (chair), Alderman B MacManus (vice-chair) and Mrs S Ogden (treasurer). There was also a branch of the League in Rusholme, where the committee included T Watters, J Garvin, E Lenehan and T Wicksteed. The Central Executive of the League met in Manchester on 11th October. Other branches were formed in Moss Side where the chairman was George Spain, and St Patrick’s, where the dean of St Patrick’s church was elected chair and Hugh Delargy addressed the new branch.

Delargy was elected National Chair at the APL conference in Manchester in June 1948. The conference dinner was provided by the Irish Press, the newspaper founded by Eamon De Valera. That same year De Valera embarked on a campaign of speeches on the partition issue in Britain. In October 1947 he was the guest of Celtic at the annual clash with Rangers and spoke in St Andrew’s Hall.

In November he came to Manchester to attend the annual Manchester Martyrs commemoration, during which he unveiled a tablet in Moston cemetery to the memory of Seamus Barrett, a veteran Manchester Fenian of the1930s, and then went on to addressed a rally at Belle Vue attended by six thousand people who, according to the press, gave him a rapturous welcome. He told his audience that “if you want to be on good terms with your neighbour don’t start by encamping in his garden.” Hugh Delargy also spoke and provoked a great cheer when he described Ireland as “a nation which has suffered more in the cause of justice and freedom than any other nation and heaven.”

In 1949 the Manchester branch of the League called on the Irish to withdraw support from municipal candidates in protest at the Government of Ireland Act introduced by the Labour party. Hugh Delargy resigned from the League at the end of the year when the organisation decided to oppose Labour parliamentary candidates. The League stood four candidates in the 1950 general election in Bootle, Coatbridge, Greenock and Gorbals, (attracting between 2% and 5% of the vote) and a single candidate in the 1951 general election in Bootle, who attracted 1,370 votes, some 2.7% of the vote. The results spelt out that whatever their private political views, the question of partition alone was never going to be of sufficient urgency to attract a mass vote by Irish people in Britain. By the end of the 1950s the League was in terminal decline and in 1962 changed its name to the United Ireland Association. Its organiser Tadgh Feehan took a job in the Irish Embassy.

Hugh Delargy’s seat of Miles Platting was abolished under boundary changes in 1950. He was then elected for Thurrock which he represented until his death in 1976. There is a tablet in his memory in St Mary Roman Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green, London.

O n 5 December 1974 he made the following speech in the House of Commons, a few days after the Birmingham bombings

You will be relieved to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not propose to speak for more than a few minutes. The Secretary of State will be equally relieved to hear that I have no solution whatever to offer of the Ulster problem. In fact, I had no intention of speaking in the debate or even of listening to it until about lunchtime today. I consider that at this moment speeches made about Northern Ireland—my speeches, certainly —are a complete waste of time. Then why, if I think so, am I speaking now?
I am speaking now because this morning, through the post, I received a pamphlet which no other hon. Member has received. It is a pamphlet about Ulster’s problems called, “The Ulster Quarrel”, price one old penny—from which it may be deduced that it is not a modern pamphlet. In fact, it was written 36 years ago very hurriedly, to coincide with a meeting called in the Manchester Free Trade Hall at which the principal speaker was a young man called Erskine Childers, who died recently as President of the Republic of Ireland.
On reading the pamphlet, I was surprised to see how much of it was up to date. It touched on social problems, which I regret to say have not been mentioned today, which have been the cause of all the horrors and unrest of the last five years. The pamphlet was written with English people in mind. The author was of the opinion that there was some conspiracy of silence about what was going on in the North of Ireland.
When I heard the mistaken speech today of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr Dalyell), in which he said that a TV and news black-out would assist in solving the Irish problem, I could only reflect that 50 years of silence has helped to create it. We were never allowed to debate Northern Ireland in this House. When we asked questions about injustice, evictions, discrimination and the rest, we were always told that they had nothing to do with us, that they were internal matters which came under the jurisdiction of Stormont.
…… We were told that it was the affair of Stormont and not of this House, in spite of the fact that the Government of Ireland Act said quite specifically that ultimately the responsibility for Northern Ireland rested here. Therefore, the two main parties in this House have a great deal to answer for. They have great guilt on their shoulders for what is happening.
I said that the pamphlet was, in a sense, up to date. We read again from the pamphlet about entry without warrant, detention for any unlimited period, and internment without trial. It was all going on then under the Special Powers Act with the help of the B Specials and the armed police. There was not much difference from what is taking place now.
I can give some of the reasons for the unrest in Northern Ireland. I have quotations here. I said that this was an old pamphlet from men who are now long dead. However, I shall give only three short quotations from three Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland. I start with Lord Craigavon and with his famous slogan Ours is a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. I cannot remember one Unionist saying anything to the contrary. Then his successor, Mr Andrews—I believe he was his immediate successor—said when he was Minister of Labour that he had heard a rumour that of the 31 porters at Stormont—porters; God help us—28 were Catholics. He also said: I have investigated this matter and have found that there are 30 Protestants and only one Catholic, and he is there only temporarily. We all remember the third Prime Minister I shall quote, Sir Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough. He said: Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I would not have one about my place. A year later, when he had had opportunity to reflect upon it and when he had read what the newspaper editorials had said about that statement, he said: When I made that declaration I did so after careful consideration. What I said was justified. I recommend people not to employ Roman Catholics. I do not wish to resurrect old bones. The whole point of my speech is that what we are debating now we should have been debating years and years ago, because the same conditions applied then as apply now.
I should like to tell hon. Members, in another way, how these same conditions apply. The pamphlet from which I have quoted was written 36 years ago and was a great success. There were only 5,000 copies of the first printing because it had to be printed in a hurry for the meeting about which I spoke. The first printing sold out in two days. But there was never a second printing, because several hours after the meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, in the early hours of the morning a mysterious explosion occurred, which killed a man on his way to work at the market. After a little while it was established that this explosion had been caused by a bomb set by an organisation of which most people in England then had never heard—the IRA.
Other explosions occurred, and other people were killed by bombs set by the IRA. The IRA did not simply kill all those innocent people. The IRA killed hope and the good will of men who were trying to seek a peaceful solution to the problems. The IRA killed the efforts that men of good will were making to enlist the sympathy of the people of England, from whom the truth was being withheld by Parliament and the Press.
The immense harm which the IRA did then it has multiplied since. No one condemns the IRA more strongly than I do. I have been talking about a pamphlet. I may as well tell the House now, of course, that I wrote it. I was a brash young man in those days. I imagined that I could change people’s opinions. I know better now. No one takes the slightest notice of anything I say. I have no need to be reminded of that. When one has been a Member of the House for 30 years, always in the obscurity of the back benches, one has no need to be reminded that one is of no significance. Nevertheless, it is still one’s duty to say what one thinks, and I am saying that now.
I have no solutions to offer. I felt that Sunningdale was a solution. I am still grateful to any pay homage to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr Whitelaw) and all those associated with him who negotiated that agreement.
…..The Sunningdale Agreement was accepted by the Labour Party when it came to power, and we all rejoiced. Although I have always been in favour of a united Ireland, I think that there is something in what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr Mis-Campbell). If by dropping this talk of an Irish dimension we can get peace in Northern Ireland, I might even go that far. Anything for peace, to save lives.
But Sunningdale was scrapped, largely because of a strike which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr Fitt) said in the best speech of the debate so far, had nothing whatever to do with industrial conditions but was a political strike. The Government did not know how to handle that strike. They should have known how to handle it, and they could have handled it.
….I am sorry that I have spoken for longer than I had intended. I am not very optimistic about the Convention—not after Sunningdale—and I have never been optimistic about Northern Ireland. When my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr Dalyell) said that he originally thought that British troops were going to Northern Ireland as part of a fire brigade operation lasting three or four months I could not help recalling that I told the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr Callaghan) that the troops would probably be there for several years. I also said then that there should be a separate Minister for Northern Ireland and I was sneered at. Now we have four.
Suppose there is a strike after the Convention. What will the Government do then? Will they be blackmailed once again? We have a right to be told. We have a right—and this has been asked from both sides of the House—to know what is the minimum the Government expect to achieve before the Convention meets. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr Gilmour) mentioned the possibility of violent organisations which are not proscribed being called in for consultation. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr Dunlop) tackled me over the action of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr Whitelaw) in consulting the IRA. Are the Government planning to consult these non-proscribed organisations? I am frightened about this, because the last words which were spoken in our 17-hour debate which ended last Friday morning concerned the refusal of the Home Secretary to proscribe in his terrorist Bill the UDA, the UFF and the Red Hand Commandos. Those organisations should have been included and I was in favour of pressing the point in a Division. If there had been one I would have voted for the third time that night against my Government, and I would have done it with a glad heart, because I knew that I was right.
I have always considered my speeches on this subject to be a waste of time. I have no solution to offer, but I should like an answer to my questions. I apologise to the House for having wasted its time.

Article by Michael Herbert