The Battle of Holbeck Moor (A Leeds Story, but a true one)

We had the word well ahead of time. It was in the newspapers, gossip all through the pubs. On the walk to work in the morning, men would be talking about it. The Blackshirts are coming. Bloody well let them come, I said, and we’ll show them what Leeds is about.
I knew why Mosley wanted his fascist scum here. Jews. We have plenty of them, and good people they are, too. A lot of them have moved out to Chapeltown now, them as has some money, any road. But you’ll still find plenty down in the Leylands, the ones who haven’t made a bob or two. Take a walk out along North Street and look at the names over the shops. Do nobody any harm and they work hard, the way a man should.
The Watch Committee spent the week hemming and hawing. Mosley and his gang wanted to have their march right by the Leylands. That’d be a recipe for disaster. Bad enough as it was, with swastikas and slogans painted on the windows of Jewish shops during the night. The fascists said it wasn’t them as done it, but we all knew the truth. Too scared to show their faces and try it in the day. Nowt like that had happened since the riots back in ’17.
Now me, I was a Communist then. I’m not today, not since the war when I heard about what Stalin did to his people. But I hated fascists with a bloody passion. I knew what was coming with Hitler; anyone with half a brain did. And I didn’t want it in my country. Definitely not my bloody city.
Finally them as are supposed to lead us told Mosley and his lot that they couldn’t go near the Leylands. Not that they couldn’t march, mind you. They could still do that, just not there. Once that order was out, we started making our plans. They were planning a big rally on Holbeck Moor, a thousand or more of them. Probably some supporters, too. We knew what we had to do. We were going to make the bastards wish they’d never heard of Leeds.
Didn’t take much to put the word about. A nod here, a little natter in the pub of an evening and we knew we’d have a crowd. At first we thought we’d line the route out from town, but that was only going to be a waste of time. Better to meet them up on Holbeck Moor where they were going to have their rally.
Now, maybe that was the right decision and maybe it weren’t. I heard later that there were plenty of Blackshirts down Meanwood Road. Too bloody close to the Leylands for my liking. Happen we should have had a few of our lads there.
Of course, the party officials talked to the people from the Labour Party. The way I heard it is that the Labour bods spent most of the meeting sucking on their pipes and making sympathetic noises before saying they wouldn’t take part in the protests. Soft as bloody butter, the lot of them. Not that it would stop plenty of folk as voted that way. They’d be out there. You give in to fascists once and next time they want a mile more.
The weather was good that morning. Sunny, warm, not much of a hint of a breeze. The 27th of September, 1936. We were all in a good mood as we traipsed up to the Moor. I was going to be a good laugh, and if w few heads got broken, well, it was no more than they deserved, as it?
Half a dozen of us went from our street. I was with Stan. He was a pipe fitter, a strong lad. We’d been mates since we were boys. Went to school together, primary and on. He bought it during the war, out in Burma. All his wife got were a medal. I daresay his body’s out there still, somewhere in the jungle.
The closer we got to the Moor, the more noise we could hear. I’d expected plenty of people, but now like that. Thousands upon thousands, and not enough coppers in view to keep order. Which was exactly what we’d hoped.
Stan gave me a big grin and opened his hand to show some knuckle dusters.
‘You’d better watch out,’ I warned him. ‘The rozzers catch you with those and you’ll be up for having an offensive weapon.’
‘Nay,’ he laughed. ‘Come on, Roy, I’m not bloody daft. Any chance of that and I’ll drop them.’ He was a big lad. Topped six foot, shoulders on him like a bloody barn. He didn’t need anything. Just his fists would do enough damage. But he had his ire up, same as the rest of us.
There were runners out, bringing messages on the march.
‘They’re on Calverley Street,’ went around, then ‘they’ve crossed over the river.’
It was going to be a battle, but we were all in a good mood. Laughing, joking, some singing and chanting. It was like being at the football in some ways. But not others. Plenty of the lads had organised well. They must have spent every evening scouring the moor, because they had a big arsenal of stones for us to throw.
‘Stuff ‘em in your jacket, lads,’ one man cried. He had a battered bowler hat on his head and a muffler wrapped round his throat, never mind that it was a beautiful day. ‘Once they arrive you know what to do.’
There was a mood of anticipation. A celebration. We were going to enjoy ourselves and chase the bastards out of here. The Blackshirts had some supporters already up on the more, a couple of thousand and more, but we easily outnumbered them ten to one. They didn’t look too happy but they didn’t dare back down. Not now, before their precious leader even showed his face. But you could see it, they were scared. They knew they were going to get a pasting.
Some of them were hard lads. That was all right. We had ammunition. When someone’s chucking rocks at you there’s not much you can do but duck and hope for the best. And I reckoned that among the stones the boys must have taken up half the cobbles in Holbeck. Oh yes, we were going to make the buggers hurt.
‘They’re coming!’ The words ran around the crowd. We were all craning our necks to see. Then I spotted them, like a thin river of black, moving slowly. The noise grew as they grew closer. A few cheering, many more of us yelling out insults.
They’d built a podium, a stage of sorts, for him and a few of his cohorts. We waited until Mosley took his place, his little army in front of him, gathered loyally. As soon as he moved forward to open his mouth, we struck up The Red Flag, a huge chorus of voices to drown him out. It wasn’t planned, it felt natural, but we sang as long and loud as Welshmen at one of their Eisteddfods.
As soon as it died down, the stones started. They arced over our heads and we watched them come down. One of them hit Mosley and made him move back. That brought cheers and a few more rocks.
Some came back at us. It was bound to happen. A few or our lads were bleeding, but it was never an equal fight. It was a Sunday, and this was our church. The coppers couldn’t do much. They tried to keep some order, but they wanted to have their heads down, too, and I can’t blame them.
I’d lost sight of Stan in the crowds. He’d waded forward as soon as he could, yelling and screaming, his blood up. God only knew what he’d end up doing.
There were missiles flying backwards and forwards, people crying out. Whenever Mosley tried to speak, The Red Flag began again to drown out his words. It was a good way to feel strong, Communists, Jews, good people from all over Leeds gathering to tell the Blackshirts what we thought of fascism here. We didn’t want owt to do with it.
A stone hit me on the shoulders, hard enough but no damage done. I picked it up and tossed it back. When I looked around I could see everyone had the fire in their eyes. We were here to do a job and we weren’t going to leave until it was finished.
Another stone hit Mosley in the face and he fell. Good luck or good aim, I don’t know. But we cheered. It gave us heart and we began to push forward.
‘Get ‘em on the run, lads,’ someone shouted and we all laughed. But we all moved forward anyway.
I’ve no idea how long it lasted. It just seemed like moments but it must have been a lot longer. I was too young to have fought in the war but it must have felt like that. Time seemed to speed up and slow down at the same time. It was like electricity was going through me, I could have shocked anyone I touched.
A couple of times I caught the toff’s voice, but as soon as anyone heard it we began singing. Sir Oswald, that was his title. Should have been hung for treason. We weren’t about to give him much of a chance. Rubbish like his doesn’t deserve an airing.
Finally he gave up. This was a battle he didn’t have any chance of winning and he knew it. He lined up them as supported him and they began to march away as if they’d won something. But they’d got nowt.
We jeered and shouted until we were hoarse and they couldn’t hear us any more. We’d bloody won. Men were laughing their heads off, full of victory. We’d send them off with their tails between their legs. Someone passed a hip flask around and we all had a nip. It burned on the way down but by God, it felt good.
It was in the newspapers the next day. Well, a few of them. The local ones, which said there’d been thirty thousand on the moor. I don’t know if that’s true; when you’re part of it you can never tell. Certainly the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen. Biggest I’ll ever be part of, I’m sure of that. Most of the big dailies didn’t bother to cover it. After all, we’re the north, we don’t matter. Funny, though, they were quick enough to write up what happened down in London a week later. The battle of Cable Street, they called it, when all those Cockneys and Jews down there told the fascists what they thought of them.
Up here, the magistrates bleated in the press about public order and how terrible it had all been. Stood up on their hind legs and said their piece. But there were only three people arrested. It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of candidates to be nicked. Three. It was just a token.
When the three of them appeared in court, all they got was a slap on the wrist. Someone must have had a word – send them down and there’ll be riots. There would have been, too. It was the wisest thing they could have done. The only thing. We’d made the whole bloody city tremble. They might not have shown it, but the council was scared. The law was terrified.
But by God, we showed them. And good on them Londoners for what they did, too. It was a lovely feeling last year when we made our way back off the moor, comrades together. The Battle of Holbeck Moor, someone named it. And that’s not bad. But it’s not quite the truth. It wasn’t a battle, it was a rout. A complete bloody rout.
Historical Note: The Battle of Holbeck Moor did happen in 1936. The Watch Committee did refuse Mosley permission to march by the Leylands, but a thousand Blackshirts did go out to Holbeck Moor to hear him speak, where they were met with plenty of protesters. There was plenty of violence, and Mosley was hit by a stone. But it’s true that in the end only three people were arrested, out of an estimated crowd of 30,000, and the sentences given were very light.

24 thoughts on “The Battle of Holbeck Moor (A Leeds Story, but a true one)

  1. Gordon Beckwell aged 100 in February

    Although there was over a thousand of us on Holbeck Moor we were expecting a rough reception. But we were fighting for jobs, decent housing and to stop an unnecessary war in which sixty million, not just six million, died. And where Mosley went we gladly followed. The actual meeting went well, we had the Blackshirt ‘I’ Squad present and the mere sight of them always made the communists back off. Anyway, Mosley always knew how to win over a crowd, many there were on Holbeck Moor that day who came to jeer but stayed to cheer. ‘Red Annie’ wasn’t one of them though, she shrieked her head off without rest but the loudspeakers made sure Mosley’s speech advocating ‘the war on want is the war we want’ was heard.
    We knew the trouble would come on the march back to our District Head Quarters. Frankly I was scared shitless I don’t mind telling you, the Reds were like a pack of animals baying for our blood. John Charnley turned to Mosley and said: “What shall we do?” Mosley replied:”Form up and march straight for them.” I wasn’t convinced but there was nothing else to do, although there was over 1,000 of us most were Division Three Blackshirts who weren’t used to fighting like the “I” Squad and Division One Blackshirts.
    And do you know, as we marched towards them the Reds just stood aside, it was like the parting of the Red Sea, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Even ‘Red Annie’ stopped her banchee wailing. So right through the enemy ranks we marched headed by the British Union Drum Corp. But we knew it wasn’t going to be over as easy as that.
    As we left the Moor and started to march through the town the Reds used a tactic they were fond of. They would stand at the top of each side road, pelt us with stones, half bricks and potatoes studded with razor blades and then run for their lives back down the side streets. But we never broke ranks, we just kept marching forward. Then one brave Red threw a missile at the Blackshirt Womens Section and it hit one of our girl marchers square in the face drawing blood.
    Mosley saw it happen and what’s more saw who threw the missile. Suddenly he dashed away from the head of the march, pushed himself through the crowd and began laying in to the Red. For a moment his comrades couldn’t believe their eyes and did nothing, they were stunned. But then they all turned on Mosley.
    The boys in the band could see Mosley was in trouble and Arthur Wilson and some of the buglers waded in after him. Gradually they managed to extracate Mosley from the Red mob. Arthur had used his brass bugle like a knuckle duster, he was from East London, and he kept smashing it into the faces of the Red Moscovites. Finally we all got back to the comparative safety of the marching column and made it back to the DHQ where we disbursed in groups of 20 for safety.
    Arthur was laughing his head off and I went to see why. He showed me his bugle still on his right hand but it had been flattened by him using it to punch the Reds and it had been beaten into a perfect curve round his fingers, you could see the impression of his knuckles. I tell you, a blacksmith couldn’t have beaten it any better. We all had a good laugh over that on the way home.
    Do you know, after the Battle of Holbeck Moor the Leeds branch of the British Union doubled its membership in 10 days, people didn’t like a bunch of Commies to tell them what speakers they could listen to and who they couldn’t.
    We all loved Mosley more than ever for his courage and leadership that day. He had brains, he had guts and an infinitevpower to charm. The world will not see his like again for many a long year.

  2. Robert Harrison

    A very interesting article over all. I think it is fair to say that Gordon’s account is by far the most factual and reliable account. I too would be very interested to hear more from him.

  3. John Watts

    I’m more inclined to believe the Blackshirt version, throwing bricks from a distance is cowardly but the communists think they are hero’s .

      1. We were fascists but the word fascist meant something different to us than it does to you. It meant an end to capitalism with ownership of each company transferred to the workers not the state. It meant no war in which 60 million would die unless the life of Britain was directly threatened. And it meant our first loyalty was to Britain not Germany or Nazism which was the German form of National Socialism. We were drawn into conflict with some Jewish people despite having many Jews in the party some in high office like former Labour MP John Beckett who was our Director of Publications (mother’s name Solomons). They attacked our meetings and sacked our members. We never started fights but we always finished them.
        Chris Nickson, you say stopping fascists is always the best thing to do. Of course it was, you wanted to gag our mouths because you had no answer to our criticism of what you stood for. Why else would you want to gag our mouths? But you never did, the ‘I’ Squad and later the Fascist Defence Force always saw off any attempt to smash our meetings. You may have stopped us at the Battle of Cable Street but 10 days later 100,000 Blackshirts marched from Bethnal Green to Salmon Lane, Limehouse. There outside the Seaman’s Mission Mosley addressed a crowd of 200,000 enthusiastic supporters according to former Communist M.P. Phil Piratin in his book ‘Our flag stays Red’. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
        Chris Nickson, you are a fascist only you don’t realise. Like us you don’t believe in democracy which is why you try to gag our mouths. Democracy is a wonderful system, it has only one fault: the majority are usually wrong. Just as they were wrong to vote for Brexit and leaving our European homeland,: the greatest misfortune our country, our children and children as yet unborn could experience. Look around you at the world today, this is no time to become a small country.
        Mosley was the first to advocate the union of Europe in 1948 in his book The Alternative. He invented the EU. He was first to warn that our wasteful ways were destroying the ecology of this planet in 1966.
        He was years ahead of his time. You made us out to be thugs and monsters and with the mass media behind you you succeeded. So this mess we’re living in now (including the expoitation of cheap Third World labour which is what migration is all about) is not our fault it is your responsibility.
        Hail Mosley – Patriot, Revolutionary and leader of men. And women!

      2. Don’t ask me to have any respect for Mosley, a man who flitted from party and party and formed his own, always seeking the limelight. The I Squad were thugs, nothing more or less. The Blackshitrs were kicked out of Hull, they were kicked out of Leeds. They got a beating in Cable Street, even with the police trying to thump the Eastenders and the Jews. You defend them if you want, it’s your right.

        I think you’ll find people were warning about the climate before 1966, and anything Mosley said after the war was rightfully ignored because all he’d done before. My father fought in WWII, the same for all I grew up with. I saulte them, not Mosley and those who thought he was right.

  4. Chris Nickson, we could go on for ever and never change one iota of each other’s minds. But a few things you say cannot go unanswered because they are false.
    You say the Blackshirts got a beating at Cable Street. But there was no fighting whatsoever between the Blackshirts and the Reds. The fighting was between the Police and the Reds. You cannot rewrite history which is on record and bares out what I say.
    You say the ‘I’ Squad were thugs. They certainly weren’t ballet dancers but the head of the ‘I’ Squad, Eric Piercy, piloted the very first of the ‘little ships’ over to Dunkirk to rescue British troops from the beaches, 500 in all ferried out to larger transports in deep water. We could have done with more thugs like that in 1940. Your Red friends were still following the Moscow party line that it was a ‘capitalist war’ and not to support it. What I say about Piercy being first to Dunkirk is recorded in Mr Montifiori’s definitive record of Dunkirk ‘Fight to the last man’.
    You refuse to believe that Mosley’s warnings on ecological catastrophe made in 1966 were the first only because you don’t like Mosley. I was of course around in the 1960s and can remember no others giving such warnings, if they did they kept very quiet about it.
    You say you chased the Blackshirts out of Hull but my old comrade John Charnley, District Leader Hull West, was still holding meetings there in 1940 with Frank Danby, District Leader Hull East. They told me that between them they had 1,400 members in Hull at the peak in 1940. You will of course choose to believe we are all liars.
    You say not to ask you to have any respect for Mosley but I would not ask for such a thing. If you showed any respect for Mosley I would have to think twice about my support for the Man. I am 103 now and in failing health so you will soon be rid of me. Mosley was decisive in word and deed. Unlike your Mr Corbyn who has failed to give leadership on either Brexit or a Second Referendum and won’t defend his party from the false charge of anti-Semitism designed to stop any criticism of Israeli war crimes as charged by the United Nations.

  5. Gordon Beckwell

    Mosley was not imprisoned for treason as you claim, he was interned under Regulation 18B along with 1,100 other party members without charge or trial. He was never accused of anything but it was because he was advocating peace with honour, Empire intact and British people safe.
    Don’t you think that if he had committed treason the people in Labiur/Tory wartime government who hated him aould have tried him for treason and hung him. But they couldn’t because there was no treason

    1. Robert Harrison

      That is true. I heard the medals of B.U.F members interned were pinned to the gate of Brixton jail as a protest against their internment.

      1. Gordon Beckwell

        Correct Robert and when Mosley first entered the mess at Brixton Prison and his Blackshirts saluted him all the Prison Officers saluted him too!

      2. Robert Harrison

        I think the imprisonment of him and his men may have had more to do with the possibility that of them gaining so much support that they were a threat to the establishment than anything else.

      3. Gordon Beckwell

        That’s true Robert, membership had shot up to 40,000 in 1940 and we commissioned an opinion poll which indicated there were 2-million supporters though not members. Unfortunately ranks began to close and in the by elections we fought during the phoney war period we were not successful. For Churchill’s wartime government it was also a cheap victory against fascism!

    1. Jeffrey Wallder

      Steve A – None of that film was of the Battle of Holbeck Moor. It was all shot on the October 1938 British Union march to Bermondsey in south London where the meeting was held. Holbeck Moor was a very ‘dramatic’ event, no doubt about that.

  6. Steve A

    I agree. The film seems to have been mislabelled elsewhere. A great pity; it would have been good to have some actual footage and see what really did happen that day.

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