Anti-fascism in Sunderland Between the Wars and Reflections for Today
After Oswald Mosely established the British Union of Fascists in early 1931 (1) , he saw Northeast England, with its widesperad economic problems and high unemployment as one ot the areas, most susceptible to his messages of Anti-Semitism and hatred. However, he was to find that the region firmly rejected his overtures and in this respect Sunderland was to be no exception.
It has been noted that grinding poverty and widespread unemployment affected colliery villages and towns such as Jarrow, North Shields. And Sunderland in the years after the wall street crash in 1929 (2) It has been said that, “people did what they could to fil in their days and during good weather spent hours talking on the streets, a pastime that promoted not only gambling, but also political meetings. Adversity encouraged a strong sense of community as another way of getting through the hard years”. (3) This sense of community woud be a vital way of combating the fascist threat in the coming years, including in the coastal town of Sunderland.
Early on in the period when fascists were trying to gain ground in Sunderland they found oppostion from other political parties. Indeed it has been noted that, “Communists….had actually prevented a woman from physically assaulting the Blackshirts at Sunderland….” (4) By 1933, anti-fascists had held a large meeting in the town, just as there had been an enornmous meeting in Newcastle at the City Hall in May 1933, which had been called by 130 political, industrial and religious leaders. (5)
Having been rejected by many in Sunderland already, the facists soon turned to violence, especially against property of those organisations they saw as the enemy. Consequently, they attacked property of Labour-controlled municipal councils and also Labour Partiy buildings at Blaydon and Sunderland were damaged by Fascists ,”under the pretext of raising Union Jacks on ‘Red’ buildings”” (6)
While the Fascists were busy with this kind of behaviour, opposition to Blackshirts meetings on the streets was taking place. Indeed it has been noted that, “several hundreds of people’, singing the ‘Red Flag’, chased the Fascist speaker Captain Vincent Collier and his ‘Defence Corps’ out of Sunderland town centre on 19th September 1933, eventually besieging Collier inside the railway station, where he was protected by the police and an exceptionally large Blackshirt (nicknamed King Kong by the antifascists).“ Anti-fascists in Sunderland were not about to allow the Blackshirts to control the steets of the town. (7) It has actually been argued that part of the problem the BUF had in Sunderland was their relative inexperience, with John Dalgleish, the BUF organiser at 28 West Sunniside, Sunderland in 1933-4, being described in the Sunderland Echo as a ‘youth’. (8)
This inexperience would prove the undoing of the BUF on numerous occasions and it has been noted that displays of Blackshirt vioience and aggression were not always very effective. The BUF did not seem to know how to get the working people of the region on board with their ideas and indeed it has been noted that “Sunderland found the Fascists provocative and Blackshirt meetings were stopped in their tracks in February 1934 and again in May.” (9)
Rather than put their faith in Mosleys’s fascism, many working-class people in the region instead supported the National Unemployed Workers Movement and Sunderland was to be no exception in this. This had been set up in 1921 by some members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, to campaign for better support for the unemployed and against the Means Test. (10) This organisation was to develop a strong anti-fascist ethos and consequently, it has been said that , “the Movement and those CP and ILP members among its activists, found unemployed workers and their families more than willing to harass the BUF. This was noticeably true at Sunderland, North Shields and Felling where the NUWM had a strong presence.” (11)
So far we have seen how anti-fascists physically stopped Mosley’s movement on the streets of Sunderland. Much of this work was done at the time by anti-fascist men. However, women also played a very important part in the campaigning against Mosley and the BUF. Indeed it has been noted that, “on Wearside, women antifascists were certainly part of the opposition at Blackshirts meetings.” (12)
One women played a very important role in helping to defeat fascism in Sunderland. This was Labour parliamentary candidate, Leah Manning, who was prominent in challenging Fascism in Sunderland. Leah was adopted as a Labour candidate for one of Sunderland’s two parliamentary seats in 1933, having been a Labour MP briefly, for East Islington until the 1931 election disaster. It has been noted that, “those who knew Manning recalled her as ‘a tall, solidly-built, rather majestic person, with a ready smile and lively personality’ and ‘a great crusader on a variety of platforms… a rebel, a feminist and a forceful and outspoken voice of the Left.’ She served as President of the National Union of Teachers from 1929, following several years campaigning for wider educational opportunities for working class children through the National Association of Labour Teachers. During the 1930’s Manning was deeply involved with anti-fascism and, in 1934, became a joint secretary of the left-wing Co-ordinating Committee Against War and Fascism. She worked ceaselessly to assist refugees from Nazi Germany and later dedicated herself to aiding Spanish resistance to Fascist threats.” (13 )
Leah Manning was to go down in the history of the region as a great anti-fascist who worked closely with another anti-fascist with a Labour Party background, the Jarrow MP Ellen Wilkinson, as well as to make common cause with other antifascists. (14)
By 1934, the BUF were most defintely losing their way, particularly after the infamous rally at Olympia in London in June 1934. a contemporary report of the evnt noted that when Mosley began his set-piece speech, “almost at once a chorus of interrupters began chanting in one of the galleries. Blackshirts began stumbling and leaping over chairs to get at the source of the noise. There was a wild scrummage, women screamed, black-shirted arms rose and fell, blows were dealt, and then above the noise came the chorus chanted by rough voices, `We want Mosley.' ” (15) The savagery of Blackshirts against hecklers was to lose the BUF a lot of influential backing, from which the movement never really recovered.
Meanwhile at the same time, fascism on the Tyne and the Wear was rapidly slipping into oblivion as it was confronted by the twin crises of the bad publcity after the Olympia rally and subsequenst loss of support from the Daily Mail, but also strength of the anti-fascist campaign of May-June 1934 Despited this, it has been noted that, “sufficient resilience and money remained, however, enabling the BUF to try to resume momentum,. Vincent Collier was sent back to the Northeast in February 1935 to mastermind a revival. Under Collier’s direction, meetings were staged in the mining villages around Trimdon, Co. Durham and at Sunderland, South Shields, Durham, Washington, Benwell and Felling, as well as in Northumberland. “ (16)
However, Collier was not to find Sunderland an easy place to find support for fascism. At Sunniside, Sunderland, 400 antifascist miners knocked him off his speaker’s box in July, when he was trying to speak at a BUF rally. The situation was so hostile to the BUF that it has been noted that. ”Sunderland consistently offered Fascist speakers a suicidal experience and on 8 October the BUF claimed that Collier was embattled by ‘500 people who had abandoned a Friends of the Soviet Union meeting and who were determined to smash the Blackshirt meeting’. (17) In the end, it can be accurately said that fascism in Sunderland between the wars never once gained a meaningful foothold and was overhwelmingly rejected by the people of the town.
Of course many other places saw struggles against fascism in the 1930’s, no place more than Spain which was the site of a brutal civil war between 1936 and 1939 between the forces of the elected government of Spain and insurgent Fascist forces under the leadership of Franco. One of the areas most badly affected by the violence of Franco’s forces was the Basque country, site of arguably the world’s first major bombing raid on the town of Geurnica in April 1937. (18) As a consequence, many refugees came to the Northeast from the Basque country and one person heavily connected with supporting them was closely linked to Sunderland. This person was Isabel Brown, who was originally from Tyneside. Isabel was born into poverty and was active in first the Labour Party and then the Communist Party in Sunderland, South Shields and Boldon in the early 1920’s. Isabel was another local woman who worked tirelessly with Ellen Wilkinson and Leah Manning and also visited Spain and in the process provided material help and brought back first-hand information of what the situation was like under the hot Spanish sun. (19)
Other people from the Northeast wre determined to take the fight to the Fascists in Spain even more directly and it has been noted that “apparently the first to leave for Spain, in the Christmas of 1936 were four young men’ from Sunderland. These included nineteen years old Edgar Wilkinson, who had taken part in the 1936 Hunger March to London and Thomas Dolan, a 6ft tall, stoical antifascist, who like Frank Graham had been active in the fight against the Blackshirts. Both Wilkinson and Dolan were killed defending Madrid from the Fascists. (20) Frank Graham was said to have left Sunderland on 15th December 1936 along with friends, Tommy Dolan and Bill Lower. (21) The four original volunteers were not to be the last Sunderland men to go to Spain to fight fascism.
They were soon followed by others from Sunderland. It has been said that, “Bobby Mackie and Ernest Lower, travelling secretly by sea to evade border controls, were torpedoed by an Italian submarine. Lower was drowned but Mackie swam ashore, crossed the Pyrenees at night and was fatally wounded serving with the International Brigade at Brunete in July 1937. The Sunderland group soon increased in size. Mick Morgan, E. Gibson, Harry Madden, B, McQuade, Wiliam Parlett and Bobbie Quaile joined in July 1937. Quaile came from Hylton and had been an athlete and a weight-lifting champion. He was twice wounded in Spain. ” (22)
There were also a number of ships that sailed from the Tyne and the Wear to the Basque Country involved in trading. It has been noted that during the civil war, , the crews of ships from Tyne and Wear found themselves caught up in the conflict, dodging shells, mines and bombs. This was because , “the North East of England had a strong trading relationship with the Basque region of northern Spain, exporting coal and importing iron ore. North-East sailors also worked on many other ships trading coal to Spain. Some of the captains and crew were keen to help the Basque people, others were just doing a job, and some would rather have avoided the dangers of the warzone.” (23)
Some of those who went to fight in Spain, were never to make it back to the Northeast alive. It has been reported that, “altogether, twenty-four of the Northeast volunteers were killed in Spain, including …….. Thomas Bromley (Southwick)…… A Leonard (Blackhall)…. and Edward and William Tattam (Whitburn).” (24)
This has just been a short summary of some of the ways that people from Sunderland opposed fascism between the wars. What is clear is that fascism was not remotely attractive to the vast majority of people on Wearside when it reared its ugly head in the 1930’s. Although Sunderland, like most of the Northeast at the time, was an area of both high unemployment and grinding poverty, very few working people in the town saw any answers to their problems in the racism and hatred of the British Union of Fascists. Rather, they had their own organisations, based on solidarity between people which they turned to for help and which were used as platforms for organising opposition to the BUF. Meanwhile people either from Sunderland, or with strong links to the town, did what they could to help refugees from Franco’s violence in Spain or to physically oppose Franco’s fascist forces themselves.
The lessons are clear. Firstly, Sunderland is a city with a strong anti-fascist tradition, which it should be proud of. Furthermore it is also clear that to oppose fascism, we need to have strong alternative organisiations and ideas, which can provide people with far better alternatives, than the hatred and division which fascists offer. Pewrhaps most of all the main lesson is to oppose fascism strongly and determinedly where and whenever it raises its head. History suggests that, if this is done, then it can be comprehensively defeated.
Peter Sagar, A Living Tradition CIC, Novenber 2021
2. N. Todd; In Excited Times, Bewick Press/Tyne and Wear Antifascist Association, Whitley Bay, 1995, p.1
4. ibid. p. 12
6. ibid. p. 13
7. ibid. p. 14
8. ibid. p. 37
9. ibid. p., 38
11. N. Todd; In Excited Times, Bewick Press/Tyne and Wear Antifascist Association, Whitley Bay, 1995, p.39
12. ibid. p. 46
15. The Guardian 8th June 1934
16. N. Todd; In Excited Times, Bewick Press/Tyne and Wear Antifascist Association, Whitley Bay, 1995, p.78
17. ibid. p. 84
19. N. Todd; In Excited Times, Bewick Press/Tyne and Wear Antifascist Association, Whitley Bay, 1995, p.98
20. ibid, p. 101
22. N. Todd; In Excited Times, Bewick Press/Tyne and Wear Antifascist Association, Whitley Bay, 1995. p.101
24. N. Todd; In Excited Times, Bewick Press/Tyne and Wear Antifascist Association, Whitley Bay, 1995 p. 103