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They shall not pass: Remembering the Battle of Stockton

Shabana Marshall and Sharon Bailey examine what the 1933 ‘Battle of Stockton’ can teach us about fighting the far right today

5 to 6 minute read

From left to right: A plaque commemorating the Battle of Stockton, A poster promoting the British Union of Fascists, Oswald and Diana Mosley in blackshirt uniform

Over 90 years have passed since the ‘Battle of Stockton’. Unlike the well-known Battle of Cable Street of 1936, the Battle of Stockton, which occurred three years earlier on 10 September 1933, had until recently all but disappeared from public memory. This was despite its historic significance as arguably the first organised mass anti-fascist demonstration in the UK. As such, commemorating has an important place in combating the far right today.

The early 1930s saw the rise of fascism across Europe as dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini capitalised on a climate of economic fragility, as countries struggled to recover in the aftermath of the first world war and the US Wall Street crash. Britain too faced the threat of fascism as the country grappled with rising unemployment. Here, the former Labour politician and openly anti-semitic Nazi sympathiser Oswald Mosley left mainstream politics to set up the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932.

A friend of Hitler and Mussolini, Mosley campaigned on an extremist nationalist agenda, promising solutions to Britain’s economic problems where other political parties had failed. Believing them to be ripe for the picking, he sought to recruit from areas where working-class people were particularly hard hit by job losses and subsequent poverty. One such area was the small town of Stockton-on-Tees in north-east England.

Mosley’s blackshirts come to Stockton

Working-class communities in Stockton faced abject poverty following the decline of the area’s once-thriving shipbuilding industry. As in other similarly affected towns and cities, the BUF had managed to garner some limited support but was struggling to take root in the area, facing determined resistance from the local left. So, on 10 September 1933, around 100-150 BUF members (known as blackshirts, after their paramilitary attire) were bussed in from Teesside, Tyneside and Manchester to bolster their local presence. Their intention was to hold a public meeting at Market Cross outside the town hall on Stockton High Street.

This was a common tactic for recruiting new members, as was the street violence and intimidation endorsed by Mosley, which targeted Jews and left-wing opponents. News of the intended meeting leaked to members of the local Communist Party, who quickly mobilised to organise resistance, calling upon fellow members, as well as the National Unemployed Workers Movement, trade unionists and members of the Independent Labour Party, to block the BUF’s attempts to recruit from the town.

The protesters were well aware of the threat fascism posed to working-class people. In Germany, on becoming chancellor in January 1933, Adolf Hitler had within the first four months of office occupied all trade union headquarters, confiscated their funds, and arrested and imprisoned their leaders in concentration camps. Around 150,000 communists had also been sent to the camps, where 30,000 were killed. So local activists felt it crucial that the BUF should not enter Stockton unchallenged, and when the blackshirts arrived, they faced strong opposition.

The crowd heckled the BUF speakers and fighting quickly ensued. Injuries were sustained on both sides, but with the blackshirts far outnumbered, they were driven out of the high street and back to their buses. The BUF never attempted to hold another rally in Stockton again.

Three years before the more famous Battle of Cable Street, the Battle of Stockton was a precursor for the more famous battle to come

The following day a public meeting was held by the Stockton Labour Party at which local Labour councillors and faith leaders, including rabbis from synagogues in Stockton and Middlesbrough, addressed attendees. The rabbis read out letters they had received from German Jews being persecuted and imprisoned in the newly created concentration camps to demonstrate why resistance to fascism was so important and why it must not be allowed to take root in Britain as it had in other parts of Europe.

The rabbis’ fears were well founded, with anti-semitism a central focus of BUF policy. London’s Jewish community was the target three years later at the biggest and most famous clash between the BUF and anti-fascists in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. The Battle of Stockton was a precursor of the bigger battle to come.

Why remember the Battle of Stockton?

Typically overlooked in the literature, the history of the Battle of Stockton is significant for the insights it provides to the fight against fascism. In this small northern town at a time of great economic hardship, this early stand against the blackshirts only a year after their formation demonstrates the power of working-class solidarity. And while the locals who came together that day sought primarily to protect working-class interests, these interests would soon extend to resisting anti-semitism, with many locals providing refuge to German Jews escaping persecution in Europe, and crossing borders when many Teessiders left to join the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) against Franco.

As in the 1930s, trade unions continue to play a huge part in the resistance to the far right. The Battle of Stockton Campaign was established in 2018 to commemorate not only a significant part of the north east’s working-class history but also to bring our communities together and to remind us that the fight against fascism is as pertinent in the current economic climate as it was in the past.

These histories are important to remember as we seek to challenge racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment today. For while fascism may seemingly have died a death in 1945, far-right extremism continues, seeking to stoke divisions in our communities. In Stockton-on-Tees, an area still marred by economic deprivation, far-right groups have continued to seek new recruits, bussing in their members to hold public meetings in the high street, echoing the actions of the BUF 90 years ago.

In 2018, the founder of the For Britain far-right party, Anne Marie Waters, staged a rally in Stockton to garner support for her anti-Islamic rhetoric. With echoes of resistance from Teessiders past, the fascists were met and outnumbered by trade unionists, members of the Labour and Communist parties, local faith groups and others. Just as they did in 1933, ordinary working people committed to fighting racism and bigotry continue to unite in Stockton and across the northeast to resist the threat posed by far-right extremists, showing them that hate will not be allowed to find a home here.

This article first appeared in Issue #242 Fighting Fascism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Shabana Marshall is a senior Lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and postgraduate researcher at Durham University

Sharon Bailey is a trade union official and chair of the Battle of Stockton Campaign

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