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Discovering the Battle of Stockton was a catalyst for me

BETHAN BLAKE recounts the day her town said ‘They shall not pass’ to Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts and why it should be better commemorated as a central part of the region's history and political identity

I TRULY felt at one with my hometown’s politics when I found out about a landmark day in its history — which unfortunately is not widely known.

I was shopping in Stockton-on-Tees when I stumbled across a plaque on the ground next to the Market Cross, bearing the image of fists aloft and the words: “The Battle of Stockton. On September 19 1933, the people of Stockton stopped a rally of Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts in the town. ‘They shall not pass’.”

I was born in Stockton in 1990 and managed to somehow get to the age of 30 without ever hearing about this historic, pivotal event.  

As a longstanding fighter against bigotry, this discovery lit a fire under me, and I had to find out more. After some online research, I was thrilled to discover a commemoration event was being held that September.  

I went to the fantastic commemoration, saw great singers perform protest songs, heard talks from local trade unionists and I met fellow like-minded socialists. Up until that point I had felt quite alone in my socialist beliefs — here I made friends and comrades for life.  

To understand how the Battle of Stockton came about, you must go back to the late 1920s and early 1930s. Britain still hadn’t recovered from the effects of World War I and was in the midst of the Great Depression. Unemployment peaked at nearly three million in 1933.  

The year prior, in north-east England unemployment was at 28.5 per cent. Due to the massive financial crisis, Labour’s first prime minister Ramsay MacDonald agreed to raise taxes, cut spending and cut unemployment benefits by 20 per cent. The effect on the northern industrial areas was devastating as demand for industrial products collapsed.  

With millions struggling, Oswald Mosley — Hitler’s man in Britain — was busy building his new party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Fascism arose in Italy, Germany and Spain thanks to shared disillusionment — and Mosley knew he could use the dire situation in Britain to his advantage.  

Mosley declared “Britain for the British” and styled himself, an aristocrat born into great privilege, as a champion of the poor and working class. The BUF relied on strong-arm tactics, marches and violence.

Mosley planned to expand the BUF beyond its headquarters in London and its Manchester base. To galvanise support, the BUF’s north-east organiser, Michael Jordan, was to speak at Stockton’s Market Cross on September 10 1933 alongside the BUF’s national propaganda officer, Vincent Collier. The BUF also sent 20 of its members from Tyneside and 60 from Manchester’s “defence force” — all dressed in their black shirts and ready for a fight.

Unfortunately for the BUF its Stockton plans had been leaked to the local National Unemployed Workers Movement branch and members of the Communist Party, who arranged a “welcome committee.”

When the BUF marched down the high street to Market Cross, it was met by the great George Short, a celebrated local Communist Party member, and 3,000 more anti-fascists ready to resist.

When Collier tried to spew his fascist bile he was heckled and spat at and couldn’t be heard over the roar of the anti-fascists. The BUF was outnumbered by thousands of local communists, Labour Party supporters and trade unionists. It wasn’t long until fighting broke out and the Blackshirts fled into the narrow Silver Street.  

Sticks and stones were thrown at the fascists, as well as potatoes laden with razor blades. The police quickly got involved and managed to escort the fascists to their buses so they could go back under the rocks they crawled out from.

The official police report states: “The fascists appeared to be keen on fighting and we had to give them a sharp reminder to get moving and get away out of the town before any further damage was done.”

Thanks to the mobilisation efforts of the local activists, the BUF never gained ground on Teesside.

To this day, it baffles me as to why isn’t this taught in local schools. My parents are from south Wales so I understand why they’d not heard about it, but even local friends and neighbours were clueless.

This is just one reason why I am so glad that the Battle of Stockton Campaign is now actively trying to get involved in schools to teach the region’s children about this.  

I left school in 2006 — not once was I taught about trade unions or working-class history. The only reason joined a union was because my Welsh socialist parents told me it was something that you had to do.

I speak to so many people my age and younger who have no idea what unions are or what they do, which is why it’s vital they are put on the school curriculum. How do we go about that? I guess that’s question and topic for another article.

The commemoration, or maybe seeing that plaque on the ground, was a catalyst for me. I became more politically active, a union rep in my workplace and I am now on a few committees in Unite.

I am glad to say that I am now also involved with the Battle of Stockton Campaign, doing everything I can to help spread the word on what happened on that day in 1933.  

We believe that local people actively organising to reject far-right hatred is worth remembering and celebrating as part of our identity as a town.  

To this end we are holding another event with bands, speakers, performances and arts and crafts for kids on Saturday September 10 2022 at Stockton’s Georgian Theatre at 6pm. It’s free and you’re all invited.

I’d like to end by simply saying that today we still do need to mobilise and revolt against the system, not out of fear and hatred, but out of love for the common man. See you on September 10 — no pasaran!

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