A cabbie writes

Aubrey Morris was born into a Jewish émigré family in London's East End in the early 20th century. Like many of his generation he gravitated towards radical politics. And he stayed there as he progressed from anti-fascist activist to cab driver to travel business mogul. His political engagement continues, including organising a well-known monthly political lunch club in London's Gay Hussar. Here we print some extracts from his recently published autobiography

December 22, 2008
11 min read

Pogroms and persecution

My political life is symptomatic of many of my generation and background – sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants who settled in London’s East End during the 19th and early 20th centuries. My contemporaries were people like Alfie Bass, Harry Gold, Lionel Bart, Solly Kaye, Phil Piratin, Stanley Forman and dozens of like-minded youngsters who came into left wing politics as a result of their family background, the demands of the times and a yearning for justice and an end to poverty.

Our families’ lives were steeped in east European and Jewish culture; our immediate ancestors had been victims of pogroms and persecution and suffered political exclusion … Most of our families, at least in the early years after arrival, led lives of dire poverty, still experienced anti-semitism, even if not of the vicious east European variety, and struggled to survive in a country that was hardly welcoming.

Those of my generation, growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, suffered the after-effects of the first world war, the poverty and unemployment, and then the seemingly inevitable rise of fascism. But we had begun to think and behave differently from our parents. We weren’t going to take the threat of new pogroms and persecution lying down.

Fighting fascism

In the 1930s the frightening news began filtering through from Germany and Austria about the seemingly inevitable rise of fascism and the persecution of socialists, communists, the Jews and other minorities. The rise of Nazism also found its echo and adherents here in Britain. The British Union of Fascists under Oswald Mosley introduced uniformed marches and political violence to the streets of the East End.

Increasing numbers of ordinary working people realised that political turmoil was affecting mainland Europe and that Britain wouldn’t be left unscathed. This was, of course, particularly so amongst the Jewish population in the East End, whose families’ memories of persecution and pogroms were still very recent. Politically active Jews turned to the Labour or Communist parties.

The Salmon & Ball pub was at the junction of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road. Next door a building had been taken over by trade unionists and several progressive organisations for political meetings and social gatherings. Outside there was a large open pavement space that became a de facto speakers’ corner. Open-air meetings were held there on an almost daily basis, as well as in nearby Victoria Park Square, which was a popular venue for larger gatherings.

Joe Morrison, a few others and I set up a local branch of the Labour Party’s League of Youth, and we were very soon embroiled in the political fray. Our activities took place on the streets and in protests at fascist rallies, like the big ones Mosley organised at Olympia.

Regularly, but particularly on Monday mornings after the activities of the weekend, there would be a steady stream of anti-fascists appearing at Old Street magistrates court, to be fined or in some cases imprisoned for ‘causing an affray’ or a ‘breach of the peace’. In those days the police and the legal profession tended to sympathise more with the fascists than with their opponents, and so it was mainly anti-fascists who were arrested.

Stopping Mosley

The now infamous attempt by Mosley to march his blackshirts through the East End on Sunday 4 October 1936 was intended to demonstrate their gathering strength, to show his followers that with the support of the establishment nowhere and nothing was sacrosanct, and to show the Jews and leftists that they were at his mercy. The march, through the mostly Jewish occupied streets around Stepney, was to be the culmination of a long period of sustained recruitment activity.

Initially, the consensus was to keep a low profile and just let the fascists march. Even the Communist Party supported this line to begin with. However, local communists like Phil Piratin and Jo Jacobs, the Labour League of Youth and other radicals insisted that Mosley must be stopped. They persuaded the Communist Party leadership to help organise the anti-fascist opposition. The police were determined to ensure Mosley a free passage.

Teams were dispatched to whitewash anti-fascist slogans on the walls, and meetings were held on practically every street corner. The rallying point was Gardeners’ Corner, the junction of Whitechapel, Commercial Road and Commercial Street. Among those who were able to infiltrate the police and fascists was a local communist medical student, Hugh Faulkner, a man with impeccable middle class credentials. He was able to overhear what they were planning, then came back to us and told us and we were able to counter it by setting up barricades and moving the crowds to the focal points. Hugh later became a renowned doctor and leader of the Socialist Medical Association.

My uncle Isaac, an enormous man, had a fish and chip shop, and he battled through the already gathering crowds to his stable where he kept his horse and cart to bring it out to form part of the barricades. We were afraid he might attempt a gladiatorial battle against Mosley all on his own!

The Battle of Cable Street

The anti-fascist organisers of the protest demonstration had managed to infiltrate the area of Tower Hill and became privy to police intentions. Nevertheless, it was inevitable that many unconfirmed rumours were flying about. One was that the march was to be diverted through Cable Street. I had already walked some six miles with a large group from Hackney Road to Gardeners Corner and been involved in the general shoving and pushing that took place. When Cable Street was mentioned as being the new preferred route, I decided to go there. After all, it was my old manor and I knew most of the people on that stretch of the road from Leman Street to Cannon Road, and my grandmother still ran the bakery at number 86.

There was some confusion among the inhabitants of the Jewish ‘colony’, which would bear the immediate effect of the fascist incursion. This small section of the street from Back Church Lane to Cannon Street had to be traversed by the fascists if they were to progress any further. Many of the residents were elderly and, as I already mentioned, most retained vivid memories of the pogroms they and their parents had endured.

Some were for shutting down to avoid trouble, but the majority were anxious to resist this fresh provocative incursion, and did come out onto the streets. The resistance took many forms: we ‘borrowed’ a flat bed truck, sufficiently long to close-off the street just before Fleming Street, and when news filtered through, we reinforced the barricade and more people came onto the streets.

When the first wave of mounted police arrived to clear the way, they were pelted from ground level with broken paving and cobblestones and from every window with missiles ranging from filled piss-pots to lumps of wood, rotten fruit and old bedding – all sorts of items rained down on them. There were hand-to-hand skirmishes and attempts to force the release of those arrested by the enemy.

Then the timely arrival of a large number of dockworkers from the surrounding area reinforced and helped sustain the resistance. Recognising the potential of heavy casualties on both sides, and the overwhelming strength and determination of the anti-fascist resistance, the police reluctantly retreated. Throughout all this mayhem Mosley and his supporters could only strut back and forth impotently within the confines of Tower Hill, guarded by a massive phalanx of police.

On the Sunday following that great victory, there was a celebratory march along the route the fascists were prevented from marching …

Defending the Spanish Republic

The civil war in Spain, which broke out in 1936, was one of those momentous events that marked the seemingly inevitable rise of fascism in Europe and left an indelible mark on my generation. Defending the Spanish Republic became the rallying call for left-wing intellectuals and working class socialists throughout the world. We recognised that if Spain were defeated, then the rest of Europe would soon follow – and how right we were.

It was precipitated by the invasion of Spain from Morocco by General Franco and his fascist supporters in an attempt to topple the democratically elected Republican government. The British government, along with that of France and other democratic western European nations adopted a policy of ‘non-intervention’, which in reality meant that they gave no help to the Republican government while turning a blind eye to the massive support, in terms of weaponry and manpower, given to the fascist insurgents by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

The most important contribution we made was to become involved in the Food for Spain movement. This was a countrywide exercise to collect and send vitally needed food to the besieged people of Spain. In our area, we hired a barrel organ and tramped the streets night after night knocking on doors to garner whatever we could. And we were proud of the contribution we made, however limited it was.

Moonlight rambling

In connection with our work for Spain, my first real organising experience was arranging a moonlight ramble starting at the Teapot Café on Biggin Hill. It was also, I suppose, unconsciously my initiation into the holiday trade long before I had any inkling that I would, in later life, find my true vocation there. I priced the cost of a coach and the hire of the cafe in order to ensure that we would make enough profit, and advertised it in Advance, the Labour League of Youth’s paper, and in the Daily Worker.

The meeting place was Aldgate East station. The evening was luckily warm and balmy and we soon had the first coach filled, and very shortly afterwards another one and still yet another one at the very last moment. Joe and Di Morrison, with two other friends, the Wormolds, went ahead and set up the sandwiches and tea, which were included in the price. We also took with us an amateur jazz quartet. We made a lot of money for Spain through this initiative and at the same time had a great time doing so.

I had to work hard on Lily’s mother to allow Lily to go. [Lily became Aubrey’s wife. They met during the preparations for Cable Street.] It was her conviction, not without some reason in those days, that it wasn’t right for a girl to be out all night with a boy, but at the very last moment she relented.

Aubrey left school with little formal education. After the battles with Mosley’s fascists and his work organising support for Spanish Republicans, he joined the British army and fought in Normandy.

Party politics

A year before I joined the army, the Labour League of Youth had been disbanded by the 1938 Labour Party conference. Herbert Morrison explained at great length that our organisation had been taken over by the extreme left and had become an embarrassment to the leadership because we opposed their policies on a number of important issues.

As I’d often worked alongside the Young Communist League in activities in support of the Spanish Republic and during the street resistance to fascism, it clearly became an option for me to join them, as a number of my fellow Labour Leaguers did, but I did neither. Why not? I think it was largely because I disliked bureaucracy and dishonesty. I encountered both in the Labour Party and I feared that the Communist Party would be little different, and what we now know has proved me right.

Although that was the political climate at the time, a number of us, for various reasons, didn’t join a party, preferring to remain free to do things our own way. Yes, we had friends who were in either the Labour or Communist Party and with these we had avid discussions and arguments.

Cabbing – at home and abroad

After the war Aubrey became a London cab driver. After taking his family in the black cab on a holiday to Italy in the early 1950s, he caught the travel bug and decided to plunge into the travel business as a tour operator. He pioneered the idea of package holidays for his fellow cabbies and later became the main transporter for Spurs and England fans travelling to the continent for away matches. His company, Riviera Holidays, was eventually taken over by Thomsons.

Aubrey’s success brought him wealth and a privileged life. But this never destroyed his belief in socialism and a fairer society for all.

Aubrey Morris’s autobiography, Unfinished Journey, can be obtained from bookshops or direct from Michael Maynard, 24 Kenilworth Road, London W5 3UH, price £12.99 including p&p

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