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.

Irish Republican Operations in Manchester 1920-1922

During the Irish War of Independence, Irish Republicans mounted a number of armed operations in British cities, including Manchester, which were intended to cause economic damage and put pressure on the British government to cede independence to Ireland

The Campaign in Manchester 1920-22

In the autumn of 1920 the IRA launched a series of attacks on British cities, including Manchester, London, Liverpool and Glasgow, which were carried out by local Republican units. Peter Hart has estimated the strength of the IRA in Britain as about 1,000 volunteers, of which several hundred took part directly in operations. Almost all IRA volunteers were permanent residents, whether born in Britain or Ireland.

On 24th November 1920 the government announced in the House of Commons that they had captured secret Sinn Fein documents, amongst which were detailed plans to destroy the Stuart Street power station in Bradford, Manchester that proved electricity to many parts of the city including mines and factories. The government alleged that the plans contained maps of the station and details of the shifts worked there and that three raiding parties were to have been used in the attack, comprising 65 men in total. In a newspaper interview Mr SL Pearce, Manchester Corporation’s chief electrical engineer, stated that the information on the workings of the station appeared to have been gathered in October when four men and two women had visited it on a Sunday morning by prior arrangement.

On 2nd January 1921 Police Constable Henry Bowden was patrolling some warehouses on Ordsall Lane when he came across ten men in the vicinity of a large grain warehouse, owned by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company. They supplied him with their names and addresses but he still insisted that they accompany him to the police station. When they reached Oldfield Road one of the men suddenly produced a revolver and fired at the policeman. Fortunately for him the bullet passed through his wrist and entered his shoulder. The men ran off.

A fire was later discovered at Baxendale in Miller Street, Shudehill. Police later arrested four men were in connection with the shooting: Patrick Flynn (22), Jeremiah Roddy (20), Daniel O’Connell (25) and Charles Forsythe (32). Forsythe was the landlord of a boarding house at 3 Poole Street , Salford, where the other men were lodgers. They and another man Patrick Waldron were later charged under the Defence of the Realm Act. On 22nd February Flynn was sentenced to ten years penal servitude for attempted murder.

On 13th February the IRA carried out a series of co-ordinated incendiary attacks on factories and warehouses in Manchester, Rochdale, Oldham and Stockport. In Manchester the targets included the wholesale druggists Potter & Clarke, Luna Street, Openshaw; the resin distillers Smith and Forrest, Holt Town; the Union Acid Company, Mitchell Street, Newton Heath and the Premier Waterproof & Rubber Company, Dantzic Street. During the attack on Smith & Forrest the watchman John Duffy was held up by three men armed with revolvers whilst they made preparations to fire the premises. When he made a sudden movement one of them fired at him but missed. One of the other men commented “That was a lucky escape, mate”. Finally Duffy made a run for it and again his luck held for the bullets the men fired after him missed their target.

Six days later the IRA mounted further incendiary attacks against ten farms in the Manchester area. The first outbreak took place shortly before 8pm and the rest followed shortly afterwards. The fires were set by soaking straw and hay with paraffin and setting it alight. The targets were Dairy House Farm, Dunham Massey; Dawson’s Farm, Dunham Massey; Baguley Hall Farm, Baguley; Barlow Hall Farm, Chorlton-cum-Hardy; Hardy Farm, Chorlton-cum-Hardy; Park Road Farm, Stretford; Lostock Farm, Urmston; Grange Farm, Bramhall; Cutter’s Hill Farm, Outwood, Radcliffe; and Hale Mill Farm, Culcheth near Leigh.

There was an eleventh target, namely Ivy Bank Farm, Sale. When the owner Mr. Jackson came out to investigate a disturbance shots were fired at him by a man in the yard. Fortunately for the farmer they went wide. Police later found a Webley revolver and can of paraffin in Dane Road. The cost of damage for the night’s work was estimated at £30,000. The geographical spread and the number of targets in the campaign of arson points to the existence of a well-organised and well-armed network of IRA members in the Manchester area. There was more attacks on 21st February at Poach Bank Farm, Bury and on 22nd February at Mill Hill Farm, Woodley, where a dutch barn was destroyed by fire

On 22nd March a PC Carr disturbed three men in a doorway whilst patrolling outside Manchester United’s football ground. He challenged them and in reply they fired at him but did not hit him. The officer was armed but had no time to fire back. A wallet was later found with a certificate from the Manchester Royal Infirmary in the name of Patrick Fennell and a picture of Terence MacSwiney. Fennell, who lived at 21 Bedford Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, was arrested the following day and appeared in court in early April, charged with the attempted murder of the police officer. His landlady was later fined for failing to register her lodger under the Aliens Restriction Act.

On 18th July Fennell was tried before Justice Rigby Swift. At first he was found guilty of being at the football ground but acquitted by the jury of the actual shooting. Then the judge made an extraordinary intervention. “That is not a verdict”, he told the jury,” If the jury find that Fennell was present with other people taking part in something where shooting might take place he is guilty.” The admonished jury then duly returned a verdict of guilty on the second charge. Sentencing Fennell to seven years penal servitude the judge said that in doing so he was assuming that Fennell’s was not the hand that fired the shot.

The most spectacular series of IRA operations in Manchester took place on 2nd April. The day began with a co-ordinated attacks by the IRA in the heart of the city and ended with the shooting dead of a young Irishman by the police in controversial circumstances. The morning’s attacks all took place between 6.00am and 7.00am. It seems likely that the IRA deliberately chose to strike early on a Saturday morning, knowing that there would be fewer passers-by or policemen and that the chosen targets would have only cleaners in them. At Bridgewater House on Whitworth Street four men armed with revolvers held up the cleaner and nightwatchman. Somehow the cleaner managed to slip out of the building and summoned assistance from a police constable named Boucher. When he challenged the men one of them fired at him, wounding the officer. The men then ran off and the policeman tried to give chase before collapsing in the street and being taken to the Infirmary by tram. Police later recovered a revolver and a can of petrol. At 38 George Street the raiding party held up the cleaner at gunpoint and started a fire while at 33 Portland Street three men held up the cleaner and set fire to the building, using some of the cotton goods lying about. The cleaner, who was trapped inside, raised the alarm and firemen arrived, who quickly put out the blaze.

Two men held up the cleaners at gunpoint in the Lyons State Cafe, Piccadilly, whilst a third member of the party tried to start a fire with paraffin. “We are doing now what you are doing in Ireland” said one of men and as they left they fired a shot above the heads of the staff. There were also attacks on three city centre hotels. At Victoria Hotel on Deansgate two men had spent the night there as visitors. After they left staff discovered a fire in their room which had been started using paraffin. There was a similar attempt at the Albion Hotel on Piccadilly, where a man giving his name as H Wilson from Bristol had spent a night. In the morning a chambermaid discovered him spreading petrol on a second floor staircase and setting fire to it. He managed to escape in the confusion, leaving a bag behind. At Blackfriars Hotel two men who had spent the night there under the names of Kay and Matthews left early in the morning, saying that they would be back for breakfast. Later staff found that their room was on fire. One witness described the attackers as “well-dressed young men, between 20 and 30 years of age, of gentlemanly appearance”. A number spoke with Irish accents.

Later that same evening a large number of armed police raised the Irish Club on Erskine Street, Hulme. As they entered the club there was shooting between police and two Irishmen. Constable Bailey and Detective Bolas later claimed that as they entered the building Sean Morgan had confronted them with a revolver in each hand and that therefore Bolas had shot him dead and also wounded Sean Wickham, after the latter had allegedly wounded Bailey. The police arrested a large number of men at the Irish Club and also picked up others over the weekend, including Paddy O’Donoghue. The death of Sean Morgan was registered on 14th April after an inquest, the cause of death being officially given as “Bullet wound to the head. Due to being shot by a police officer whilst the said John Morgan (sic) was resisting the said police officer in the legal exercise of his duty. Justifiable homicide”. A memorial to Sean Morgan was unveiled in Moston cemetery on the ninth anniversary of his death in 1930.
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Despite the arrests of a number of senior figures, including Paddy O’Donoghue, the IRA campaign in Manchester continued. There were three attacks on 19th June on railway signalboxes in Manchester, similar to attacks that had been occurring in London. A signal box near Woodlands road station and a box near Fallowfield station were set alight. The attack on a signalbox near Marple station was more serious. Just after midnight Signalman Edward Axon was working alone when shots were fired at the box which wounded him in the groin and shoulder. Fortunately he was able to summon help and was taken to hospital.

A Treaty between the Republican Government and Britain was signed on 6 December 1921 and IRA operations halted. After a lengthy and sometimes bitter debate Dail Eireann approved the Treaty on 7th January 1922 with 64 votes in favour and 57 against. Sinn Fein had already effectively split into two camps with De Valera opposing the Treaty and Collins and Griffith supporting it. Most of the leadership of the IRA supported the Treaty, but many rank and file members and field commanders opposed, viewing it as a betrayal of everything they had fought for. De Valera resigned as President of Dail Eireann and was replaced by Arthur Griffith. Civil war broke out in June and lasted 12 months, leading to the defeat of the anti-Treaty forces.

The Civil War had some effect in Britain. On 4th June 1922 there were raids on a number of collieries in the St Helens area – including Bold, Sutton Manor, Clockface, Collins Green and Billinge – during which young men dressed in dark suits, armed with revolvers and seemingly well acquainted with the layout of the collieries stole explosives and detonators. There were similar raids in other parts of the country. In October there was an explosion in the Central Detective Office in a Stockport police station when a detonator that was being examined after a raid went off accidentally, slightly injuring a number of civilians and police, including the Chief Constable. John Mulryan of Wilton Street, Reddish was subsequently charged with being in possession of a quantity of arms and ammunition.

By the end of 1922 Irish Republican operations in Britain had come to an end.

Article by Michael Herbert