The Battle of Cable Street has gone down in legend as the protest that halted Oswald Mosely and the British fascists. Labour Party members, Communists and Jews blocked his entry to London’s East End in a critical battle on 4th of October 1936.
But who has heard of Hull’s Battle of Corporation Field? It took place three months before the Battle of Cable Street, when 10,000 dockers, railwaymen, Jews, Irish and anti fascists ran Mosley and his blackshirts out of Hull.
Here is the story.
The Hull race riot involving flying bricks, razor blades in potatoes and a very controversial leader
It was one of the most violent chapters in Hull’s history.
Source: Hull Daily Mail
Today it’s best known as the main entrance to the Tesco car park at St Stephen’s shopping centre.
But it was once the scene of one of the most violent chapters in Hull’s political history.
Before the Second World War, Corporation Field off Park Street was home to markets, fairs and outdoor events.
It featured an open patch of land and a couple of covered stands.
Public meetings were also regularly held there and a decision by the British Union of Fascists to stage a rally there in July 1936 led to what became known as the Battle of Corporation Field.
At the centre of the controversy was Sir Oswald Mosley, the BUF’s high-profile leader.
His inflammatory speeches together with his party’s embrace of Nazi-style fascism and imagery created a toxic atmosphere across the country whenever public meetings were held by the BUF.
As a result, Hull Corporation – the forerunner to the city council – refused BUF officials permission to use the City Hall and a swimming baths for a rally featuring Mosley.
Similarly, the management of the Astoria cinema in Holderness Road also pulled the plug on a proposed rally fearing possible damage to the venue.
Subsequent events at Corporation Field probably justified their decision.
Held on a Sunday night, the rally attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000 people and it’s clear from contemporary accounts that the majority were there to voice their opposition to Mosley and his political beliefs.
The size of the crowd was probably no surprise despite the non-stop heavy rain that night.
Trade union membership in Hull was soaring at the time and politics was a hot topic of conversation both at work and in the city’s pubs.
Anti-fascist sentiment was rife, not least among the thousands of dockers and railway workers in the city. A small branch of the Communist Party was also active in Hull at the time.
Eyewitness reports of what actually happened that night are few and far between.
One published in 1990 by John Charnley, one of Mosley’s Hull-based Blackshirts, is obviously sympathetic to the BUF cause but also captures some of the drama.
“The trouble which developed and the size of the opposition that had assembled there before our arrival was absolutely beyond our comprehension. It was obvious before the meeting started that there was going to be serious trouble,” he wrote.
The Hull Daily Mail’s coverage of the rally records BUF members marching down Park Street into Corporation Field in “military fashion” to the sound of beating drums.
“They were at once surrounded by the throng. The Fascists grouped round the leader’s rostrum – a convenient cart – to present a barrier,” it reported.
“A few minutes before eight, Sir Oswald arrived, complete with bodyguard. He was bareheaded and wore only black-shirt uniform. Fascists saluted and a babel of jeers greeted him.”
Although a system of loudspeakers had been installed during the afternoon, when Mosley started to speak his microphone failed to work.
By now, bricks and stones were starting to fly through the air along with the sound of whistles and cat-calls.
After a brick went flying past his head and crashed into a wall behind him, Mosley berated the crowd, claiming “Red hooligans” were responsible for causing the trouble.
With his microphone still not working and the barrage of missiles getting heavier, he eventually gave up.
By now, hand-to-hand fighting was taking place between some of the crowd and BUF supporters, some of the latter using their belts to strike out.
The Blackshirts then reformed and marched back towards Park Street bridge again with banners flying and drums beating followed by Mosley and his bodyguard in their car.
As the car approach the bridge one of its side windows was smashed. Speculation that a shot was fired has never been corroborated.
According to the Mail, the violence continued on the bridge.
“The Fascists marched complete with leader, band and banners from the Corporation Field. Shouting and jeering, the crowd followed and surged over Park Street bridge, completely blocking the toad and sidewalks.
“Police struggled to keep a semblance of order: stones were thrown indiscriminately and the drama still rolled.
“Down across Anlaby Road and into Great Thornton Street and Cambridge Street to the protective garage. Shutters were drawn and the police set about clearing the streets.”
John Charnley’s account suggests Mosley had survived an assassination attempt.
“At this meeting every type of weapon was used and the fight went on for over an hour,” he wrote.
“It was alleged that an attempt had been made on OM’s life and a bullet hole was certainly found in the windscreen of his car.
“At the height of the battle, Yorkshire National inspector Peter Whittam yelled out at the top of his voice, ‘This can’t go on. Get your bloody belts off!’ We did and, using them in self-defence, kept our frenzied assailants at bay.”
According to Charnley, 20 BUF supporters ended up in hospital along with more than 100 “Reds”.
The fallout from the battle rumbled on for days.
The Mail’s letters page featured people’s opinions on it for more than a week while a subsequent inquiry by the Hull Watch committee, which oversaw policing in the city, heard that officers had recovered a small arsenal of weapons, including iron bars, bicycle chains and even potatoes containing razor blades.
Three months later another clash between anti-fascists, the BUF and 6,000 police officers in London’s East End known as the Battle of Cable Street made national headlines.
By 1940, the BUF was banned outright by the Government and Mosley, along with 740 other fascists, were interned for much of the Second World War.
After the war, memories of the the Battle of Corporation Field slowly faded but in 1967 the Mail received an anonymous letter about the events in Hull some 31 years earlier from a reader who signed himself as “Unrepentant”.
The writer claimed he had bribed two schoolboys to cut the loudspeaker cable before Mosley’s address after watching the microphone system being installed on the afternoon beforehand.
“Appreciating that this was to the Mosley’s platform – and the strong opposition to his activities – it occurred to me that it was bad tactics to have left his ‘big guns’ entirely unguarded so I stopped to investigate,” he wrote.
“I found the main switch to the electricity supply for the microphones was in the off position, also unguarded, and being in a puckish mood, this set me thinking.
“As a huge crowd was expected to gather in this large field to hear and perhaps heckle Mosley, what would happen should the loudspeakers fail to function?”
His answer to that question was to bribe two 13-year-olds playing nearby to use their penknife and a piece of string to cut the cable and then attach the two sliced-off ends with the string to its original position on a nearby shed roof.
“On returning I gave them the largest ice cream cornets available, thus completing their adventures, and I looked forward to seeing the events at the meeting which I am sure the boys themselves would enjoy.”