Since then I have managed to get hold of a nice booklet they published in 1969 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the organisation. This has now been scanned and uploaded to archive.org where it can be read, downloaded etc.
The Diamond Jubilee document includes a useful history of the Workers Circle and an overview of its activities. Some highlights for me were:
“Trade Unionism has always been part of the life of Circle members. All applicants for Circle membership were asked if they were Trade Union members. All through the existence of the Circle, leadership and assistance, both financial and in propaganda, were given when on strike or in other difficulties, to the tailors, bakers, cabinet-makers, cap-makers, furriers, shop assistants etc., many of them members of the Circle.”
“This was a year of special significance for the Circle’s members who had different ideas about the events surrounding the Revolution in Russia. One result was the formation of what is still Branch 9, founded by members with similar leanings.”
This branch should probably be contrasted with Branch 15 (Poale Zion) formed in East London in 1922 as an explicitly Zionist group. Unfortunately the booklet does not mention tensions between these two tendencies in the Workers Circle.
The document is also a fascinating overview of the Circle’s mutual aid efforts, including weekly legal advice sessions, a convalescent home and wideranging cultural activities including a drama group and music recitals. Of course, it wasn’t all socialising…
1926 to 1939: FASCISM AND NAZISM
“The rise of Fascism and Nazism for the last 6 years of this period involved the membership, now at its peak, in its greatest efforts.
Our members, in London and in the Provinces, were either initiators of activities, or in the forefront of united progressive action. From 1933 – 1939 they participated in every possible action against Nazi Germany, and against the Fascist movement in England.
In 1934, the Central Committee were instrumental in the formation of the Jewish Labour Council, after initiating a Conference attended by representatives of 21 organisations. This organisation led in 1936 to the formation of the Jewish Peoples’ Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism which carried on a massive propaganda campaign. Many will remember its influence among East London Jewry and their non Jewish allies on October 4th 1936, when the Fascists were prevented from marching through East London. [i.e The Battle of Cable Street]”
Also solidarity with anti-fascist work in Spain:
“From 1936 – 1939 the Circle helped in every way the Aid for Spain Campaign, with collections of money and food. Circle members fought in Spain and some lost their lives in the fight against Fascism. The Circle was linked too in its special support for the ‘Naftali-Botwin’ Battalion of the International Brigade composed of Jews from Poland and other countries.”
It is interesting that the advent of the NHS and its resourcing through taxation had a terrible impact on radical mutual aid societies:
“The 1948 New Insurance Act (the Beveridge Scheme)) dealt the final blow from which the Circle, (and all similar Socities) has never recovered.
With compulsory Insurance contributions deducted at work, and benefits catered for by the State, the only ties that bound members were the ideological ones, (still very strong), the Convalescent Home and sheer loyalty. The decline in membership over the years, bringing our total in 1969 to under 1000, is the result of inability in the face of outside cultural and economic changes to recruit replacements for the natural diminution through death. “
“Since 1961 the Memorial Committee supported by the Circle has campaigned in the Jewish Community for the establishment of a Memorial in London to the memory of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.”
The obituary above appeared in Direct Action vol 7 #3, in March 1966. Direct Action was the newspaper of the Syndicalist Workers Federation, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation which operated from 1950 until the late 1970s. The SWF then became the Direct Action Movement before changing into the Solidarity Federation in 1994 – an organisation which is still active today.
Who was he? Everything starts with an “E.”
It’s easy to understand that a Jewish immigrant revolutionary might want to keep their personal details secret. Googling “E. Michaels” produces some good results in the anarchist archives, but that is only half of the story…
Fortunately there is only one “E. Michaels” listed in the death records for Hackney for 1966:
Was born in Plock, central Poland on 25 Sep 1890 (near enough to 1891 listed above?)
Emigrated to England at the age of ten in 1900.
Married Rosie Kitman (3 Apr 1892 – 14 Jan 1963) at Mile End in 1914.
Had four children (including Harry, as in the Freedom clipping above, which is reassuring)
Worked as a Tailors Presser.
Died 12 Feb 1966.
This seems to fit quite well with what we know from the obituaries above and the sort of lives that radical Jewish anarchists would be leading at this time. But I’m not an expert, so if any historians or genealogists out there have spotted any errors, let me know!
Update: a comrade has kindly supplied a passport photo of the handsome Michaels.
Anarchy in the East End!
Most of comrade Michaels’ political activity seems to have been in the East End of London in the first half of the 20th Century. He was involved with setting up a “free school” at 62 Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, which also hosted The Worker’s Friend Club and the East London Anarchist Group. He was also the secretary of the prisoner support group the Anarchist Red Cross and is listed as a donor in a few issues of the London anarchist newspaper Freedom in the 1910s.
According to census data he lived at the following addresses too:
1911: 25 Hungerford Street, Commercial Road
1921: 73 Sutton Street
1939: 163 Jubilee Street E1
But what about Hackney, eh?
Michaels seems to have remained active up until his death. Sparrows Nest Archive has scans of some his letters from 1958 to 1964. Most of these are addressed to Ken Hawkes, the national secretary of the Syndicalist Workers Federation. Many of them mention meetings at Circle House, 13 Sylvester Path, E8. I’ve written about the Workers Circle and Jewish radicals in Hackneypreviously.
Michaels’ letters are largely administrative – donations, exchanges of publications, details of meetings etc. But the letterheads are invaluable:
Firstly, they tell us that Michaels was the Honorary Secretary of the Jewish radical organisations Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labour) and Rudolf Rocker Publishing Committee. (Rocker was a German Gentile who became heavily involved with the Jewish anarchist movement).
Secondly, the letters show us where Michaels lived in Hackney. (This is my assumption, based on the nature of the addresses listed and that meetings etc seemed to take place at Circle House and not those on the letterheads). So it looks like Michaels lived at 12 Cranwich Road in Stamford Hill during the 1950s and then moved to “Morley House” N16 in 1961. Which no longer exists…
But! According to this useful blog, Morley House was one of the council blocks at the east end of Cazenove Road, Stoke Newington and was renamed Nelson Mandela House in 1984. There is a quote from Mandela on the side of it which can be seen here.
A diversion down Cazenove Road
According to Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, Morley House was built in 1937-1938 “with a meanly detailed exterior, although the planning of the individual flats was generous at the time”.
Fourteen years after Emanuel Michaels’ death, the flats and exterior would see further anarchistic action.
Hackney Peoples Press reported that Morley House was due for renovation, which meant that:
“All the council tenants were moved out between 1978 and autumn 1979, and the estate was left almost completely empty.”
Perhaps inevitably some tenacious local people seized this opportunity:
“In November 1979 the first squatters started to move in, even though vandalism and thieving had reduced the building to a dilapidated eyesore.
By February 1980 approximately 80 flats were occupied and some residents approached Hackney Community Housing Resource Centre to ask about licensing the house. (A licence to occupy premises does not imply tenancy as such but makes the occupation authorised by the Council.)
They suggested a direct approach to the Council, and three Council Officers were invited to visit the estate and talk to same of the residents. These officers submitted a report to the Housing Management Committee on 31st March this year, and suggested the granting of a license through Hackney Community Housing (HCH). The Committee however, rejected the recommendations and decided to evict the residents – offering the property to HCH as short term housing instead.”
What followed was a bit of a standoff, with the Council refusing to back down and the squatters getting more organised:
“They held weekly meetings, formed themselves into an Association, cleared up rubbish, and met a number of councillors to discuss the matter. They also formally presented a deputation to the Housing Management Committee asking once again for a licence.”
That all probably seems pretty amazing to people who’ve tried squatting recently, but even in 1980, this was simply delaying the inevitable:
Six months later, the Council’s heavy squad made the 200 squatters homeless:
“Following two dramatic dawn raids by police the Morley House squat in Cazenove Road has had all its electricity and gas supplies cut off. At least 25 people were arrested, mainly on charges relating to the stealing of gas and electricity, but the police indiscriminately smashed through the doors of all the tenants on two of the blocks on the estate.
The first raid took place on 14 January and was made by a large number of police, accompanied by police dogs and gas board officials. The police carried no warrants and yet made extensive searches for drugs and stolen goods. Many doors were broken down in the raid, while others had 6-inch nails driven into their hinges to prevent tenants from re-entering their flats. Whilst searching the rooms the police took many photographs, presumably to be used later in evidence.
Using the excuse that many of the tenants were not paying for gas, the supplies to the estate were cut off, although electric cooking rings were brought in by the Gas Board for those who complained that they were in fact paying their gas bills. But in the early hours of the following morning, the police arrived again, this time with Electricity Board officials, and electricity supplies were cut off under the pretext that all the wiring on the estate was in a dangerous condition.
As a result of these raids about half of the 150 people who lived in the squat have been intimidated into leaving. Speaking to residents of Morley House HPP has discovered that these raids follow several months of police harassment. It is estimated that some 50% of the residents had been picked up by the police prior to the raids. Morley House has been a licensed squat for over one year. In that time Gas and Electricity officials have visited the estate several times, but have not ordered any repairs.”
I hope that Emanuel would have approved of the squatters, but you never know. It’s interesting that the block was subsequently renamed Mandela House – Hackney Council in the 1980s was eager to promote social struggles thousands of miles away, but renaming the block after Emanuel Michaels or celebrating the courageous battle of the squatters was off-limits…
If anyone reading this has more information about either Emanuel Michaels or the Morley House occupation, please do leave a comment or drop me an email.
A previous post highlighted that this show was in development and it finally airs this weekend with all episodes available on Iplayer.
That post also went into some detail about the real events that inspired the novel that the show is based on, including the role of the militant anti-fascist 62 Group in fighting fascists at Ridley Road in the 1960s.
I enjoyed Jo Bloom’s novel and am looking forward to the TV adaption. From the trailer it appears that the female lead plays more of a role in infiltrating the fascist group than in the novel, where she mainly worries about her square-jawed male lover doing that.
At an early 62 Group encounter outside Hackney town hall, Maurice charged at a huge fascist bruiser and smashed him to the ground. He then grabbed his jacket with such force that the lapels came away in his hands. “Next time you buy a suit,” he advised, “go to a proper Jewish tailor.”
“The British National Party has a meeting on John Campbell Road. We formed up a flying wedge and charged at them. There were only about twenty or thirty of them and we kicked the shit out of them. They took their walking wounded to the Metropolitan Hospital in Kingsland Road, where there was a black doctor in charge in casualty, so they all came limping out again. We were waiting outside and helped them on their way again.”
62 GROUP MEMBER TONY HALL IN “PHYSICAL RESISTANCE: A HUNDRED YEARS OF ANTI-FASCISM” BY DAVE HANN
This week the BBC announced a new TV drama had gone into production:
Introducing Aggi O’Casey and Tom Varey who lead in gripping new thriller “Ridley Road” for BBC One…
Ridley Road tells the story of a young Jewish woman, Vivien Epstein, played by Aggi O’Casey, in her first television role.
After falling in love with a member of the 62 Group, she rejects her comfortable middle-class life in Manchester and joins the fight against fascism in London, risking everything for her beliefs and for the man she loves.
Inspired by the struggle of the 62 Group, a coalition of Jewish men who stood up against rising neo-Nazism in post-war Britain, Vivien is working with them when she realises that Jack, her missing boyfriend (played by Varey) has been badly injured. Vivien infiltrates the NSM, a neo-Nazi movement which is becoming increasingly prominent in London. As Vivien descends further into the fascist organisation her courage and loyalties are challenged.
The series is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Jo Bloom, who explained the idea behind her book to the Hackney Gazette:
“I attended a funeral of one of my mum’s oldest friends,” Bloom says. “My father and I were about to leave when we were asked to give a lift to an elderly man who had a problem with his hip.”
The man in question turned out to be Monty Goldman, a notable communist activist, who stood for election for Mayor of Hackney in 2002 and 2010 and for Parliament for Hackney South and Shoreditch in 1997 and 2005.
“In the car on the way to the nearest station, he and my father started talking about post-war east London where they both grew up,” she says.
The two men discussed the 43 Group, the anti-fascist group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after World War II, as well as the 62 Group which was founded to fight the resurgence of fascism in Britain in the sixties. Whilst her father had not been a member of either group, he knew lots of people who had. And Monty had fought alongside both groups.
Mony Goldman is a Hackney fixture who has stood as the Communist candidate in more local elections than most people have voted in. He’s got his hands dirty with street poltiics too:
“I always tried to keep out of getting hurt. I was sensible. If I missed our crowd of people, I wasn’t going to be a hero and fight ten blackshirts on my own. I didn’t mind one to one, there was nothing barred. You kick ‘em where it hurts!”
The 62 Group were the successor organisation to the more well known 43 Group, who fought Oswald Mosley’s fascists after the 2nd World War. The 43 Group are reasonably well known with two excellent books and several documentaries available. The 62 Group are less well known but hopefully that can change now.
The 43 Group wound down in 1950, having smashed Mosley’s fascist Union Movement off the streets and given them a good hiding on several occasions at Ridley Road market in Dalston.
But as recent history shows, fascism rarely disappears for long:
“…within a few years, Mosley had already chosen London’s black community as a new prime target, while in 1962, the neo-Nazi activist Colin Jordan felt comfortable enough to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square beneath an eighty-five-foot-long, eight-foot-high banner reading ‘FREE BRITAIN FROM JEWISH CONTROL.’ This prompted the creation of the 62 Group, which intended to carry on the job of their predecessors.”
MARCUS BARNETT REVIEWING DANIEL SONABEND’S 43 GROUP BOOK FOR JACOBIN
As Past Tense point out, the rally was disrupted by anti-fascists, some of whom had been members of the 43 Group. This would lead to the formation of the 1962 Committee, more commonly known as the 62 Group. In another post Past Tense also note the differences between the 43 Group’s membership and the new organisation:
While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular. Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.
This is mildly disputed by at least one former 62 Group member:
“Don’t let anyone kid you that the 62 Group was an exclusively Jewish organisation, because it wasn’t. There were all sorts in it. The backbone of our part of it was the Stoke Newington branch of the Communist Party. They weren’t all members of the CP, but people associated with it, sympathisers, friends, villians, all sorts of people”
TONY HALL, QUOTED IN “PHYSICAL RESISTANCE: A HUNDRED YEARS OF ANTI-FASCISM” BY DAVE HANN
Having said that, the group’s composition certainly created some problems for Hackney anti-fascist Gerry Gable:
“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy.”
“I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multi-racial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney… Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks [electrician] in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out.”
“A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation […] Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in ‘special operations’.”
GERRY GABLE, QUOTED BY PAST TENSE
Gable would later be one of the founders, and longest serving editor, of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.
The 62 Group was even more clandestine than the 43 Group and did not publish a newspaper or make public statements unlike its predecessor. By 1963 the police estimated that the group had 200 members, with 70 in London (Nigel Copsey, Fascism in Britain).
Fascist rallies recommenced in Hackney in the early sixties along with racist graffitti, violent assaults on black and Jewish people and even an arson attack on a synagogue. Hackney police provided protection for fascist rallies and were unenthusiastic about investigting racist crimes.
I have so far discovered the following examples of 62 Group (and related militant anti-fascist) activity in Hackney from this era:
31st July 1962: Former fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley has been assaulted at a rally in London’s east end. He and members of his anti-Semitic Blackshirt group were punched to the ground as soon as his meeting opened at Ridley Road, Dalston. Police were forced to close the meeting within three minutes and made 54 arrests – including Sir Oswald’s son Max.
A crowd of several thousand had gathered in the area, where Sir Oswald, leader of the Union Movement formerly known as the British Union of Fascists, planned to speak from the back of a lorry. As soon as he appeared from between two police buses the crowd surged forward and knocked Sir Oswald to the ground. […] He was met by a hail of missiles including rotten fruit, pennies and stones and people tried to storm the platform.
His speech was drowned out by continuous boos and a chorus of “down with the fascists”. Scuffles continued as Sir Oswald was shepherded to his car and his vehicle was punched and kicked as it drove off though a gangway cleared by mounted police. (BBC “On This Day”)
3rd August 1962: Despite a TV appeal by the Mayor for Hackney residents to keep away from Ridley road, by 7.30 about 1500 people had gathered at the corner of Ridley Road. Immediately he appeared, the crowd pressed in on Sir Oswald. He was pulled to the ground, punched and kicked. Fierce fighting then broke out, combined with shouts of “Down with Mosley, Down with Germany.” Mosley disappeared under a group of struggling, punching men and women, only to reappear and start hitting, fighting his way to a loudspeaker lorry. His words were drowned by the shouts of the crowd and the sudden cry of “Sieg Heil”– the victory cry of Hitler. Coins and tomatoes were thrown at the lorry, and Sir Oswald fought his way to a green car, just as the police stopped the meeting. Abuse was hurled at Mosley, but he forced his way into the back seat with a bodyguard on each side. The lorry of his supporters, surrounded by mounted police, made its way into Kingsland High Street. People on board were shouting “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” The ensuing cry of “MOSLEY” incensed the crowd, which chased the lorry. Shop windows in the High Street were broken as men and youths, chasing the lorry, clashed with police. (Hackney Gazette 3/8/1962 – quoted in Heroes Or Villains? by Anti-Fascist Action).
2nd September 1962: Hundreds of angry East Enders gave a stormy reception to Fascist meetings at Hertford Road, Hackney and Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green. Both meetings were broken up the police, before they got out of hand. Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement meeting at Victoria Park Square collapsed under a hail of stones, eggs and fruit, and resulted in over 40 arrests. Mr Jeffrey Hamm started the meeting with a few supportes. When Sir Oswald arrived about an hour later, the crowd had increased and eggs were being thrown. He climbed onto the speaker’s ‘platform’ – a lorry – and spoke for two minutes, but his speech was drowned by shouts of “Six million Jews! Belsen, down with Mosleyl” Then the police ordered the meeting to close. As Mosley moved away the crowed advanced towards his car and hammered on the windows with their fists. He was followed by his suporters, mainly teenagers, in the speakers lorry. Later, Mosley was reported to have said that he intended to hold more meetings. At Hertford Rd, the British National Party meeting, led by Mr John Bean the party’s acting secretary, was met with strong opposition by a large crowd of mostly Jewish people, and the twelve supporters were told to stop the meeting. In an address, Mr Bean, who was guarded by mounted policemen, said his speaker system had been ‘smashed’ and a Land Rover had been wrecked. Most of what he said was inaudible because of the heckling. Two of his supporters stood in front of him with bandaged heads. They had earlier been in a scuffle with anti-fascists in Kingsland Rd. Yellow Star held a marathon fillibuster meeting at Ridley Rd., Dalson, which 26 lasted all day, forcing the British National Party to hold it’s meeting a quarter of a mile away at Hertford Rd. (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62 – quoted in Heroes Or Villains? by Anti-Fascist Action)
12th September 1962. 400 young people marched from Ridley Road to Whitehall to demand that incitement to racial hatred be made a crime. They walked in silence, some wearing the yellow Star of David, some carrying barriers urging “Black and White Unite”. (Layers of London)
16th September 1962: Followers of Sir Oswald Mosley fought a series of running battles with Hackney Young Socialist supporters and others in the Ridley Rd., Dalston, area on Sunday. The scuffles spread along Ridley Rd.l into Kingsland Rd. and nearby side streets as 50-60 police moved in and arrested 14 people, amomg them two juveniles. Sir Oswald’s plans to hold a rally were thwarted by Hackney Young Socialists who staged a day long meeting in the weekday market place. Instead, the Union Movement leader addressed followers in Hertford Rd., Dalston, a few hundred yards away. He spoke for some 25 minutes to an audience of his own supporters hemmed in by a tight cordon of police. This meeting passed off without incident. Then about 20 of his audience moved off to Ridley Rd. Shortly afterwards fighting broke out at the previously peaceful Ridley Rd. meeting. Police who were disbanding after the Mosley meeting were quickly called to Ridley Rd., as anti-fascists began actively protesting against the heckling Union Movement men, among them Mosley’s 22 year old son, Max. One young man wearing the Union Movement badge was chased along Kingsland High Street by other men, then trapped in a doorway 27 and pulled to the ground and pummelled before being rescued by police. Other clashes broke out in sidestreets as the Fascist supportes left the area. As the main party of hecklers tried to drive off in their car, other cars attempted to hem them in. More scuffles followed all over the road.” (Hackney Gazette, 18/9/62 quoted in Heroes Or Villains? by Anti-Fascist Action)
1963: Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement withdraws from street activity. The British National Party adopt a “flash mob” mentality for rallies and paper sales, avoiding publicity to minimise physical attention from anti-fascists.
January 1965: The Greater Britain Movement attempts to hold an evening rally at Ridley Road. Both the police and the 62 Group are attacked with pick axe handles and knives. Later that night GBM members are attacked at their Norwood Headquarters. (Searchlight’s History of the 62 Group by Steve Silver, available on Libcom.)
It’s worth mentioning that the 62 Group and other organsations were the militant tip of the iceberg of resistance to fascism in Hackney in the 1960s:
“I remember seeing Mosley at Ridley Road on the back of a tipper truck and everyone was throwing stuff at him. Not just your normal anti-fascist protestors but old mums, shoppers, everybody. I saw one woman take off her shoes and throw them at Mosley because that’s all she could find to throw. Other people were throwing eggs, pennies, organges off the stalls, anything they could lay their hands on.”
62 GROUP MEMBER TONY HALL IN “PHYSICAL RESISTANCE: A HUNDRED YEARS OF ANTI-FASCISM” BY DAVE HANN
Tony also mentions some rather more clandestine operations including home visits for people found doing racist graffitti, plumbing alterations to pubs that wouldn’t serve black people and covert mechanics on a Union Movement van on Balls Pond Road the night before a rally. He is also suitably sanguine about the results of the group’s hard work:
“There was a period when every Sunday morning they would turn up, get a punch on the side of the ear, have their papers thrown all over the pavement. They stopped trying after a while. Nobody could sustain that. This was done on the basis that violence worked. They were not going to come back to Hackney if they got a good kicking every time they showed their faces”
62 Group operations decreased in the late 60s, mirroring the downturn in far right activty. The group attempted to disrupt the inaugural meeting of the National Front in 1966 and the relaunch of the National Socialist Movement as the British Movement in 1968. These two fascist organisations, and Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, would lay the foundation for the British far right in the 1970s, which would be opposed by different militant anti-fascist organisations….
It’s hard to know how the Ridley Road TV series will treat the heroic legacy of the 62 Group – it is after all just one element in the plot alongside the more romantic or mundane aspects. Hard to know also how the portrayal of militant anti-fascism will play out in the tedious culture wars we are living through. People upset by “cancel culture” may raise an eyebrow at what the good people of Hackney were doing to drive fascists off our streets in the 1960s…
If you haven’t got a copy yet, the 43 Group was set up in 1946 by Jewish ex-servicemen and women who had returned to the UK after the war and been sickened to see fascist groups organising again on the streets of London. Ridley Road in Dalston was a favourite venue for open air fascist meetings.
The 43 Group mounted a courageous and robust physical response to the fascists (and also did intelligence work, publishing, lobbying etc.) and claimed many victories in the process.
Below is a collection of audio and video documentaries in which former members of the group tell their story far better than I would be able to.
A Rage In Dalston – a BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2008 that I just uploaded to the underused Radical History of Hackney Youtube channel. Alan Dein met ex-43’ers when he worked at the Jewish Museum London and compiled this compelling hour of interviews, commentary and a bit of dramatisation.
The programme features a stellar cast of former 43 Group members, including: Morris Beckman, Martin Bloch, Stanley Marks, Alec Carson, Vidal Sassoon (yes that one), Mildred Garland, Joe Endom. Phil Goldberg, Len Sherman and Harry Kaufman. Also former Dalston policeman Charles Hasler, Trevor Grundy (author of “Memoir of a Fascist Childhood”) and Professor Colin Holmes. Inspiring stuff:
The Unfinished War – a short (20 mins) black and white film from 2000 (Available in better quality on Vimeo ):
Jewish Ex-servicemen of Group 43 – 5 minute interview by the Guardian with former 43-ers Jules Konopinski and Harry Kaufman:
Battling British Fascists – an 18 minute soundclip of BBC World Service History Hour from 2017. Featuring Jules Konopinksy and Professor Nigel Copsey:
Whilst we’re on Youtube, let’s round things off with some banging acid techno from 1993 by Brandon Spivey and Richie Anderson:
I’ve been a bit negligent in documenting Jewish radicalism in Hackney so far. The reason for this that there is so much of it that it’s a slightly intimidating prospect.
One of the first books I ever read about the radical history of Hackney was Morris Beckman’s superb The 43 Group: The Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism (Centerprise, 1993). Doing a blog post about the 43 Group seems pretty redundant when Beckman’s book is such an amazing combination of social history, good humour – and Blackshirt Fascists getting righteously duffed up. It’s recently been republished, so you really should be reading that instead of this.
On a similar note, even listing radical Jewish people who have been active in Hackney is fraught with problems as I’m sure I’d leave someone out. And the nature of radical politics is that many of the people I have in mind have wildly divergent politics anyway – “Jewish radicalism” isn’t just one thing.
Let’s just start by saying that there is a continuous line of radical Jews in East London from at least the formation of the Hebrew Socialist Union in 1876 right up to Jewdas today. I say “East London” because Jews were generally concentrated around the industrial heartland of Tower Hamlets in the 1870s. Moving out to the leafy suburbs of Hackney became fashionable (and economically viable) between the wars.
Nevertheless, radicals like Rudolf Rocker lived in Shoreditch in 1896 whilst editing the Jewish Anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend). And we know that fellow Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman attended fundraisers for the paper in the East End too. (She properly disses Eastenders for all being drunkards in her autobiography Living My Life though).
The paper eventually gained a circulation of 5,000 copies. There is more on Arbeter Fraint at the excellent London Rebel History Calendar site by our comrades Past Tense.
Arbeter Fraint activists Arthur Hillman and Nathan Wiener were also involved with setting up the Workers’ Circle Friendly Society.
This superb article by David Rosenberg describes the energetic atmosphere of early Jewish radicalism in London. It includes the following about the establishment of the Workers’ Circle in 1909:
[Morris Mindel] chaired a group including anarchists and socialists that established the Circle. While unions fought for better conditions in individual workplaces, the Circle organised joint activities across occupations to strengthen secular Jewish working class life and culture in the East End.
Other friendly societies at the time were often boosted by an initial injection of philanthropic money, but the Circle stuck firmly to its principles of doing everything from its own resources and from the bottom up. It collected weekly subscriptions from members to fund its initiatives. Its most basic economic role was providing benefits for members facing great hardship. Those who were long-term unemployed through illness could draw benefits. Those suffering bereavements could arrange secular Jewish burials through the society.
It established a building fund and in 1924 purchased a large building in Whitechapel known as Circle House which had two halls, a library and several meeting rooms. On Thursday nights, two sympathetic law graduates provided a free legal advice surgery. The Circle’s “propaganda committee” set up a series of Friday night lectures. On Sunday nights it offered concerts and Yiddish theatre performances.
In the late 1920s young Polish Jewish immigrants colonised a top floor room to establish the Progressive Youth Circle, which used Yiddish as the medium for discussion on women’s rights, free love, communism and Zionism. They invited trade unionists and political activists to speak to them, studied left wing writers, and developed Proltet an agitprop Yiddish workers’ theatre group.
Jack Shapiro recalls that the Workers’ Circle was “full of a vast variety of militants fresh out of the revolutionary parties in their own countries [whose] militancy and keenness to keep the struggle alive was an important inspiration to young people such as myself.”
Joe Jacobs gives a flavour of the day to day activities of the Circle in his autobiography Out of the Ghetto: My Youth in the East End – Communism and Fascism 1913-1939 (another book everyone should read):
There was the Workers’ Circle, “Circle House”, in Alie Street, a hive of working class activity. This was a Jewish organisation organised on the basis of a friendly society with all sorts of mutual aid activities. Many of the leading lights had tried to bring a little of the ‘old country’ into their lives. They were former ‘Bundists’ from Poland, Anarchists and Libertarians from all parts, Socialists and Freethinkers. Every shade of Russian and European Labour thought and action were represented here. In addition there were Zionists and other purely Jewish organisations. There was a very good bar – no alcohol, but good food, continental style, Jewish of course. Chess and draughts as well as the inevitable dominoes were played for hours on end.
The National Archives notes that the Workers Circle began partly because its founders “did not find existing Jewish friendly societies suitable, because of their religious and class bias.” MorrisMindel’s son Mick later mentioned that the Circle’s rules and regulations “caused quite a stir among bourgeois friendly societies, especially the declaration that we welcomed women to free membership”.
Indeed, in this short lecture, a Mr Pearce recalls that many of the working class audience at Workers Circle concerts didn’t quite know how to behave properly:
The second half of Pearce’s lecture covers the discussions around how Jewish groups should respond to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. He mentions a delegation from the Workers’ Circle visiting the Board of Deputies to discuss setting up Jewish self-defence organisations. And being rebuffed. Undeterred, the delegates worked with other radical groups to set up the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism. All seven members of the first executive committee of the Council were Workers’ Circle members.
The Council organised opposition to a British Union of Fascists march through the East End on October 4th 1936 which became the infamous Battle of Cable Street. Joe Jacobs notes that people who required legal assistance after Cable Street were instructed to go to Room 5 of Circle House.
Pearce also states in his lecture that Workers’ Circle members volunteered to fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, some being killed as part of the conflict. In her dissertation on East End Jews in Politics, Elaine Rosa Smith mentions that the Workers’ Circle was involved with fundraising for anti-fascists in Spain and subsequently aid for Jewish child victims of Nazism in Poland.
Circle House in Alie Street was bombed during the 2nd World War.
David Renton’s Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s gives some clues about the continuing work of the Circle after the war in 1947:
In London, the Workers’ Circle concentrated on putting pressure on the London City Council not to let halls to fascists, and the Circle also called a large anti-fascist public meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Although the Circle was active it was not complacent. Members of the Workers’ Circle criticised the Circle itself and other Jewish organisations for not doing enough. As M.D. Rayner commented, “At the fascist meetings at Hackney, Bethnal Green etc., individual Jews were present, and they were vocal and otherwise active, but the communal organisations and leadership had fallen down.”
The National Archives notes a general decline in Circle mutual aid activity after the war:
In its heyday there were about 3,000 members paying 2s. 6d per week for which they got 30 shillings a week when sick, £5 towards cost of seeing specialist and grant to buy false teeth and glasses.  […]
The Second World War saw another decline in membership, destruction of the Alie Street hall and considerable damage to the rest of the premises. The formation of the NHS also reduced the incentive for membership.
After the war Circle House was sold and the organisation moved to 13 Sylvester Path, Hackney, in 1956. Membership continued to decline, with branch mergers, though post-war activity included an exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and support for the the state of Israel.
It’s clear from the “how to fight anti-semitism” flyer at the top of this post and the Renton quote above that the Circle had been active in Hackney and Stoke Newington prior to its HQ moving here, so I think we need to up our game in documenting its activities in the Borough. (If you have anything to add to this piece, leave a comment!).