The battle of Stockton, 1933

Central Stockton around this time

A short account, by David Walsh, of the smashing off the streets of Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts in Stockton.

These days, Sunday afternoons in Stockton are relatively quiet. In the High Street few shops are open, and with the loss of the Cinema, the only signs of life are to be found in those pubs that are still open.

But this was not the case some 58 years ago when Stockton, for a few hours, suddenly found itself playing its own bit part in the titanic political upheavals that characterised the 'hungry thirties'. At the time it was called the 'Battle of Stockton' but today it is totally forgotten

Sunday September 10th 1933 started as yet another quiet weekend day. That day the High Street was, as normal, deathly quiet. The town, along with the rest of the North East, had been hit by the great slump and unemployment that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The new jobs being created at ICI's Billingham works were effectively cancelled out by the loss of thousands of jobs in the shipyards and marine engineering works that lined both banks of the Tees downriver from the Victoria Bridge. Joblessness stalked the town, and the impact of this was plainly visible in empty streets.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the unemployed men and women of Stockton were being left to rot. The so-called 'National' Government of the day - a coalition of Tories, Liberals and a handful of former Labour MP's who had followed Ramsay McDonald when he split from official Labour - took the attitude that they were unable to alter market forces, and that only time and faint hopes for improved trade could alter for the better the circumstances of those millions of Britons on the stones - which echoes what we hear today, some 78 years on.
The writer, J B Priestley, visited Stockton very close to this period when he was researching his classic travelogue of the depression days - the book "English Journey" He was horrified by what he saw in Stockton, a town that he described as being "finished. It is like a theatre kept open merely for the sale of drinks in the bars and chocolates in the corridors"

It was that town that on that day provided the stage for one of the first British outings for a new and menacing political force - Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists - the 'Blackshirts'. Mosley was a decidedly odd character. A Public Schoolboy, his career was one moulded, in his eyes at least, by the concept of 'action'. Like his political friend, Hermann Goering, he had been a world war one air ace, but unlike Goering, he found a political home, for a short time, on the Left as a Labour MP.

However his messianic tendencies and his sense of being marked out for a mission soon led him on a journey to the far right and the formation of a British Fascist Party in his own image.

Believing that liberal democracy was finished and that the west was headed for destruction, his party, he decreed, was not be overly exercised with the mundane work of organisation, canvassing and electioneering that marked out more conventional, democratic, parties. Not for them the slow, patient job of trying to elect councillors or MP's. The job of the BUF, said Mosley, was to seize power - and, like their counterparts in Italy and Germany, to seize that power from the streets.

On that Sunday, less than a year after the BUF was formed, that objective was not then apparent to many. But what happened that day in Stockton arguably served as the first big wake up call for British democracy.

By early 1933 the BUF had established a small nucleus of an organisation on Teesside, centred on Stockton. This followed a seemingly set pattern. Small towns and semi-rural areas hit hard by unemployment were seen as prime areas for recruitment for Mosley's fascism. Minus the strong opposing political culture of the big industrial cities which partnered a local well-organised trade union and labour movement, they were seen as easy pickings for the BUF's populism. A similar approach was seen elsewhere in England, where areas like the East Lancashire cotton spinning towns, the Northampton shoe-making villages and East Anglian farming communities, all areas hit by things like the decline of textiles or an agricultural slump and hikes in farm rates and tithes, became key targets for Blackshirted activism.

In Stockton, the first attempts by the local BUF Branch to begin organised street propaganda and open air soapbox meetings had hit determined opposition from local leftwingers. The footsoldiers of this opposition was supplied by members of the local Branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, with the active support of both local supporters and members of the Labour Party and the relatively small Teesside Communist Party.

It appears from the published recollections of one Blackshirt activist, the Manchester based Edmund Warburton, that this opposition had provoked the BUF across the North of England to take opposing action against the organised Teesside left, and 'hush hush' plans to parade in strength were drawn up under the guidance of a BUF 'national propaganda officer', a Captain Vincent Collier.

'Hush hush' these plans may have supposed to be, but news of the march somehow got out, quickly coming to the notice of the BUF's Teesside opponents. Crucially, however, this intelligence did not seem to reach the ears of the local police, something that played a key factor in what was to follow.

On the morning of that day, fully loaded motor coaches carrying, according to Warburton, over 100 BUF members from Tyneside and the Manchester area, set off for Teesside, and in mid-afternoon, their coaches met up at Victoria Bridge, allowing the disembarked black shirted and jack-booted phalanx of Mosley's army to begin their march along Stockton High Street

They were not alone however. An opposing crowd, according to contemporary press accounts some 2,000 strong, was ready and waiting in ambush.

The BUF managed to get as far as the Town Hall building in the middle of the High Street market place but any further progress was halted by the sheer weight of numbers of their opponents.

The BUF then attempted to size control of a section of the market place immediately North of the Town Hall and, finally gaining that piece of ground, started their meeting, with Collier attempting to speak through a loud hailer. The Northern Echo reports that he was barely audible above the shouts and taunts of the BUF's opponents, and an attempt to rush the BUF platform began.

The whole of the High Street then began to resemble nothing more than a medieval battleground. The Northern Echo and other local press reported the use of weapons on both sides. Wooden staves and pickaxe handles were wielded, and stones - and more lethally - potatoes into which razor blades had been studded were thrown into the Blackshirted ranks.

The initial police response was weak. Quite simply they had been caught napping by what was beginning to happen. It was reported that only seven constables were on duty across the whole town centre and the High Street, and they were soon overwhelmed when they tried to separate the opposing forces. In this days before radio links were available to the police, it was a hard job for the bobbies on the spot to both try and control the crowds and summon reinforcements - if there were any reinforcements to hand on a normally quiet Sunday afternoon. Their only option was for the Inspector in charge to order the BUF leaders to halt the attempts to hold their meeting and to quit the town.

Following this, it was reported, the BUF broke ranks and were pursued across the High Street by the opposing crowds nearly, according the Echo, overturning a passing bus in their wake. The BUF then attempted to re-assemble in Silver Street, a narrow lane linking the High Street to what was then Stockton's working quayside.

Press reports say that it was there, when the BUF were effectively - in today's parlance - 'kettled' in Silver Street, that the height of the fighting began and where the first BUF members became casualties. The Echo and other newspapers reported that about 20 casualties were recorded at local and regional hospitals that evening, including Warburton who, hit in the face by a large stone, later lost the sight of one of his eyes.

Despite this tumult, no arrests were made - a clear sign of how the police were, at the outset, utterly outnumbered.

The Stockton police, by then, it seems, at last beginning to be reinforced, ordered the BUF back to their waiting coaches. These were still parked at the Thornaby side of the Victoria Bridge, and this meant that dispersed groups of Blackshirts had to run the gauntlet back down the High Street and the Quayside hotly pursued by their opponents who by now were sensing victory.

The BUF, minus their injured footsoldiers, made it back to their hired charabancs, and, to a chorus of ribald insults, jeering and cheering drove off into the gathering twilight. 'Non Paseran' - they did not pass.

So ended the Battle of Stockton. This was one of the few occasions in the 1930's when it was clear that opponents could claim a clear-cut victory over the Blackshirts. After Stockton, police forces began to recognise the potential for violence that their street activities could spark off, and made sure that they held some kind of line between the opposing forces. Despite this, violence was almost guaranteed at BUF rallies, most notably in their later showpiece indoor rallies, venues like London's Olympia, where hecklers were mercilessly beaten to a pulp by Blackshirt heavies.

Local people were not slow to see the analogies between what had happened on the streets of Stockton and what was occurring in the towns and cities of Germany. The Stockton events after all had occurred a mere eight months after Hitler had seized the German Chancellorship, and at the same time as the trial and execution of the hapless Van Lubbe, the man accused of starting the Reichstag fire, an event which conveniently allowed Hitler to put into law draconian emergency decrees which effectively turned Germany into a armed dictatorship.

The following day saw the holding of a rally organised by the Stockton Labour Party and addressed by leading local Labour Councillors and representatives of local faiths - including Rabbis and teachers from Synagogues in Stockton and Middlesbrough. At that meeting, letters sent to those Synagogues from German jews, undergoing persecution and imprisonment in newly established concentration camps were read out as a warning from those in the heart of the beast of what could befall British society if the forces of darkness led by Mosley were, in some way, allowed to prevail.

Excepted from a slightly longer article posted in 2011 here: http://republic-of-teesside.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/battle-of-stockton.html