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.